Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Small scale steelheading

There are incredible fly-fishing opportunities in Montana, but mostly for trout/grayling. Some bass, pike, carp, even walleye for the extra intrepid. But many anglers yearn for and travel great distances to try their hands at catching the magical West Coast ghosts. Montana does not have, nor has it ever had, steelhead, but there are places and methods in Montana were anglers can come close to replicating steelhead fishing. Think the Jefferson, the Lower Lower Yellowstone, headwaters-to-Toston on the Missouri River, and the Fort Peck tailwater (a few other places come to mind, but they shall remain off this blog). These (mostly) marginal trout fisheries don't have stacked pods of 12- to 18-inchers like so many of our steadfast fisheries, but they do have monster rainbows and browns, that keep the limited biomass all to themselves. If catching few but big appeals to you, read on...

Many of these places offer lake-run rainbows, similar in spirit to steelhead. They're not Olympic Peninsula winter fish or Idaho B-runs, but they are fantastic salmonids considering they don't get to plump up on ocean protein. For most intents and purposes, they are junior steelhead.

Historically, the closest steelhead ever came to Montana was up the headwater forks of Idaho's Kelly Creek (which go basically to the state border on the Continental Divide), but that ended when the North Fork of the Clearwater River was dammed in 1973. Today, the closest that steelhead come to the Big Sky is in the Salmon River, which is about 8 miles (as the crow flies) from the border, in the Beaverhead Mountains. (Correct me if I'm wrong about any of this - it's all from memory and I'm finding the information hard to track down).

Swinging flies can remain the preferred technique for hooking these trout, but if you love the rarity of catching a winter steelhead on a swung fly, you might consider other tactics that offer the challenge and exclusivity, like committing to the mouse (on any given Montana fishery). It's similar in that you're likely fishing for big fish, and you really need to spend time searching for "players". If the tug is the drug, the slam can be your jam (*please withhold feedback on that one). And if you're really bored with trout fishing, you can fish a mouse in any of the few-but-big fisheries mentioned above.

While you're not going to catch the mystical, giant, sea-running oncorhynchus, you're also not putting pressure on this vulnerable and important species, joining the masses sprinting to this latest greatest trend in fly fishing (this jab is not aimed at all who pursue them). And you can save a little money, lighten your carbon footprint, and anger your significant other a little less.

I too yearn to catch steelhead, but in the mean time, I can challenge myself in Montana.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Barely literate: writing advice from a non-reader

Sometimes I feel old and haggard, without much left to learn. Then the universe rolls its eyes and checks me, and I'm reminded that none of us know much.

In my long, drawn-out dream to write well, I've recently taken some advice to heart: read.

The problem with that is that I don't read... Here's me reading: Reading, reading, reading, about three paragraphs in, I pull the book down to pontificate, gazing into the distance, embarking on an endless thought train. Then, at about the fourth paragraph, my eyes will continue working over the words on the page, but my mind will cease focusing.

Problematic for a guy who both writes and works at a book-publishing company.

Until I was about 30, I'd literally only ever read one book: Space Station Seventh Grade by Jerry Spinelli. Then at about 30 I completed my second book: The Alaska Chronicles by Miles Nolte. Other good books I've picked up are Haunted by Waters (which is a great introduction to fly fishing's best writers), and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

So, in my quest to be better, I've picked up a book again. I am continuing with Haunted by Waters - a great idea for this early, harsh winter.

Other writing advice I've encountered recently:
  • Write something everyday. 
  • Join or start a writer's group (maybe not even the type that shares stuff to improve writing, maybe even just a group to share a pint, and recent successes, frustrations, travails, etc., to support and offer advice)
  • Read above your level, but write below it (h/t Grant and Martha).
  • Specifically on the daily struggles of full-time freelance writing (courtesy Semi-rad/Brendan Leonard). 
There's so much room for improvement; this is my little effort.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The rivers will kindly wait

"We went to give our thanks along the river banks." - Neil Young

The forecast diverted our path from closing day (for fishing) in Yellowstone National Park to the greenish water below Ennis Dam, one of the fishier places within a smaller radius. It took a bit to acclimate to fishing little pink stuff winter style, but it was good (even landing half as many as my partner). As such, these traditions are often more about assessing vitals than fishing.

With the World Series over, daylight savings upon us, snow on the mountain tops and other recent woes, there is a temptation to let it affect you. I say let the gloom wash over you like a back-country thunderstorm. Share a pint with friends, distribute the weight evenly, and endure this glacier. As many have noted: This too shall pass.

The rivers will patiently wait. Until then, don't let the frost bite.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Time machine

You ain't cool if you ain't catching these: 


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fishing on the prairie

Another sensational weekend in Phillips County, Montana, on and around the American Prairie Reserve. Best believe we caught some dandy trout in the brown-water BLM reservoirs, and that we weren't the only ones doing so.

The whooshes of songbird swooshes can startle a person, far from the relatively metropolitan vibe of southwest Montana. Boges, who started with two good eyes and four good legs, plundered about without worry of endangering the neighborhood. Sunrises like the one below decorated each morning.

If only we can convince the powers that be to stock the reservoir on the private property at which we stay - it has a large forage base of scuds and probably fathead minnows. I'd happily fish for anything - even the weird fish native to this area like sauger, channel cats, paddlefish (yes, please), or sturgeon.

But the Madison River's nice, too.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Redington Butter Stick, or Molasses in January

I've always liked fiberglass fly rods, but have never cast one with regularity. My dad's old 7-weight St. Croix and the 7-weight Wright and McGill Sweetheart I pulled out of a neighbor's garbage were fiberglass and I was curious if this new generation of fiberglass fly rods would tickle my fancy as much as those unwieldy old rods did. So I borrowed a Butter Stick.

Redington's new fiberglass offering promises "high modulus fiberglass, added premium components, and ... retro styling, all at a phenomenal price" and "enough flex to deliver delicate presentations, but all the strength to reach fish on the far bank." Mine was an 8-foot, three-piece 5 weight.

My first several impressions weren't great. It felt heavy in hand (until casting it) and it was bad at casting heavy flies, especially on the roll cast. Light flies were much easier, and casting distance was not an issue. And it scored some bonus points for making 13-inch trout feel 17 (noodly disposition and all); and a friend who likes to spey cast (and isn't easily impressed) liked how it roll cast.

But I wasn't in love with it.

Dinks feel decent with the Butter Stick. 

The rod I compare it against, which admittedly isn't fair, is the Sage Circa. I so love the modern, slow action on that rod that my expectations got a little elevated for actual fiberglass. The Butter Stick ($249.99) comes in at a much lower price point than the Circa ($775), however, and doesn't try to compete.

Finally, on about my seventh trip, I figured out that if you slow your cast, then hesitate a second, then wait a little more, then go slower, it casts great. It is slower than I was expecting. I was finally able to cast big streamers (though it took its toll on my arm after a while and I still can't recommend fishing a big or dual streamer/s).

Once in the zone, it was a heckuva lot of fun. It provided every bit of that velvety feel that fiberglass fans love and that I was hoping to find in the contemporary models. It's obviously not the Circa, but for it's price point, it's a charming rod.

The most important measure: I did, in fact, buy one of my own.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Job opening!

The Bozeman angling and floating community has a job opening! We are seeking a reliable, affordable shuttle service to make runs on the Madison River from Black's Ford to Headwaters State Park.
Job requirements: Must be punctual, have access to a vehicle, and be available on evenings and weekends (ideally weekday days, too). Must not change CDs in or steal from vehicles being shuttled. Must run the shuttles you promise to run. Must want to be your own boss, and make some bank during peak seasons.

Please reply with your name and phone number on this posting. Anglers will get back to you.

It seems that all the shuttles services on the Lower Madison are currently either out of business or unreliable. It could be an opportunity to make some money, for the right person/crew.

Some quick hypothetical math: It's about 30 miles for me to get to the river, and 30 to get home. If I did six shuttles for $25 each, totaling, let's say, 92 miles (making six random stabs at where and in what order I'd shuttle cars), I'd drive 152 miles for $150. My car gets about 30 mpg, so I'd use a little over five gallons of gas costing me $17.18 (at the current $3.39/gal). Six shuttles would gross $150, and net $132.82 (pre-tax, and sans additional insurance). That's almost double the current standard mileage reimbursement ($0.56). Doesn't seem like six shuttles would be a difficult number to reach, at least in the summer and on weekends, March through November.

You'd need a partner, however, so splitting that money even would yield $66.41 (though the car's owner should get more). Accounting for 25-percent payroll taxes, it's equivalent to earning about $11.07/hour for a standard 8-hour-day job.

Feel free to do your own math, but would it be worth it for that pay?

Do... you ... want .... to run a shuttle service on the lower Madison? Good boy!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crickets, in Wyoming

I found 'em. The best secret keepers of the fishing world are in Wyoming.

Working on a short article regarding a mountain range in Wyoming we recently visited known to be arcane, I gave it my best. I read up, spoke with locals, and tried to track down fish-stocking records. All I found were wild geese, which I gleefully chased.

The upper Green River below Warren Bridge. We landed *CLASSIFIED* trout over *CLASSIFIED* inches.

Stocking records are not on the website, as Wyoming Game and Fish receptionists will try to tell you, so I called for a PDF or a biologist. Five times:
  1. Transferred to voice-mail that cut me off mid-message.
  2. No answer (business hours).
  3. Answered by a strange beeping sound. 
  4. (shortly after call number 3) Busy signal.
  5. I got a person, who directed me to the website. I asked if she could be more specific so she looked it up. Couldn't find anything. But she did have a print-out of the June stocking, that she could make copy of and mail to me (no PDFs in Pinedale). Can't wait to see what actually arrives. Even if it is the June stocking report, I'm sure it's only one season's worth. 
The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists stocking records on their website - the fishery, the hatchery, and the lat/long. That's all. No species, sizes or dates, and only for the Wind River Indian Reservation. I left a message for the Forest Service. I left messages with fisheries biologists ...

The close-mouthed champions.

Eventually, a brave soul from Lander e-mailed me a pdf with the most recent records. The fish species, however, were in a three-letter code. When asked for help, she responded, "This might help" (no attachment, no link). 

You win, Wyoming.

But in a time of online fish surveys, loose-lipped message boards, and steelhead tickers, it's kind of nice to think there's a place where you really gotta go to know. 

So fish the fishy stuff, and let me know what you find.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The bugle of the brown trout

There are not many places where trout are as long as the flow, so I figured it was worth a shot. I didn't expect to catch any 30-inchers, nor do I know what I'd have done if I hooked one (probably thrown my rod in and gone home) but it was not the only two-foot brown sampled here.

Problem was, there are also plenty of dinks here. I figured my biggest challenge (besides getting a monster to eat, fighting off moose, avoiding the harassment of ranchers and the eyes of anglers) would be to getting a fly past the eager adolescents.

It was moosey land - I took a minute to analyze every black or brown head sticking out of the willows to see if it had an ear tag. All I saw were brawny bulls of the bovine variety, but most of them stared me down then encroached a bit - not reassuring when you're already on edge. I had one hand on the bear spray most of the first couple hours.

At fisheries like this, you almost feel like you're breaking the law, stepping through river-spanning fences and getting the hairy eyeball from locals (though everything is officially on the up and up as long as the water is open to fishing, you gained access at a public road/land and stayed within the high-water marks). You at least feel like you must be out of the loop since few others ever fish these certain places. Or the only one in the loop.

But the ranch workers couldn't have cared less, no moose were seen (until the drive home when I saw a group of six) and my six-inch Double Bunnies quickly sank past the dinks.

I landed a half dozen fish over about eight hours, but zero browns. And one chamber-of-commerce rainbow - I should've packed it in then.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The high motivation of creamy Jif

My shoulders spelled my soul, and we started uphill for four days and three nights in Wyoming's Wind River Range.

It was my first back-country camp-trip since a 2002 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness trip, and it was different. This was no Duluth Pack, float-and-paddle vacation. I bought a Go-Lite backpack, had my packing list quartered then halved, and researched food that offered high energy in small packages. 'Twas then that I discovered my true motivation: Peanut butter.

A couple years ago, I abandoned certain foods like bratwurst, macaroni and cheese, and my beloved creamy Jif. I grieved like a mother dolphin, but it was worth it and I lost weight.

I found alternatives like PB2 - a low-calorie powdered peanut butter. It's fine. Perfectly edible, and great for low-calorie Asian sauces, but not a suitable substitute for p.b. connoisseurs. Incidentally, PB2 is usually ideal for this kind of lightweight trip, except that I might actually need more calories. Why waste the opportunity?

I turned into a dopey mule behind a dangling carrot, bounding uptrail, counting down until snack time, and spreading on a little too much. If the bears could've smelled my thoughts, I'd have been scalped.

The manifestation was truly exquisite... Mmm... Let us take a moment for silent reflection...

Beyond the back-country delicacies, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in the Bridger Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We fished, thanks to Finis Mitchell's pre-fisheries-enlightenment bucket biology. No golden trout were hooked, but a low-pressure front and thunderstorms were certainly to blame (#sarcasm?). We did find eager rainbows and a stunning brook trout.

Hooked up at Seneca Lake.
brook trout, Miller Lake
It's not a golden, but it's not so bad. 
 Home again, the blisters are healing and the peanut butter has returned to the shelf. Until we start uphill again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The jewel of the western prairie

My old friend wanderlust recently brought me to the Chinooks and shrubs of northeastern Montana, and the American Prairie Reserve. What it lacked in sippin' trout, it made up for in wondrous openness for this old fisherman.

Dawn on a prairie reservoir.
It's a largely undisturbed landscape of scrub, grasslands, and unadulterated prairie (save for a few generations-old ranches) rich with beautiful emptiness, nicknamed America's Serengeti. The reserve was created and is operated by its namesake forward-thinking conservation non-profit organization, and is working to preserve a large-scale prairie complex. The actual property is a patch-work of public (BLM and state) and private (APR) lands bordering the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge south of Malta, Mont., and is open to the public.

In a way, it's a wilderness all its own. Not in the government-designation sense - more of Merriam Webster's version. A wilderness you can drive through, with power lines and occasional ranch houses, and where you have every square inch and similar biodiversity to what you have when you're miles deep into Yellowstone.

I went all the way to the prairie and all I got was this grousy photo. 
We had our own spot in the world about 45 miles down the notorious "gumbo" roads from the nearest amenities, accompanied by the nighthawks, swallows, doves, partridge, grouse, burrowing owls and prairie dogs. And a few miles away, buffalo. One of the APR's primary goals is to bring bison back to the prairie, which they've been doing for years. It's one of the few places in the world you can see pure-strain bison (APR's are from the Elk Island National Park in Alberta) - that is, not at least part bovine.

The dog had the time of his life. He pounced through the marshy shoreline of the nearby reservoir until he limped, fulfilled his dream of riding in the back of a pickup, and lived a life of freedom he's proven he can't handle in a settled area. I feel like a monster for bringing him home.

That night as I watched the dirty water run down the shower drain, I got to believing in what APR is doing. That drab, desolate prairie is something to save.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tying the (fisherman's) knot

Fly anglers, myself included, tend to let the sport infiltrate their thoughts, conversations, travel, employment, relationships, and ultimately, the majority of their lives. Therefore as silly as it was, I really wanted a fishy social-media engagement announcement/photo.

So Liz and I headed to the Lower Madison, but got distracted with potential riverside wedding venues and didn't land anything noteworthy. Giving it one more week, we headed to Wyoming's upper Upper Green River which was full and fast. Fishing was initially frustrating.

But soon, Liz's rod bent and bobbed.

I hollered, seeing the robust rainbow flail. "This is our fish!"

Fighting the pressure and the fish, she brought the feisty, freezing-water rainbow to hand, where a toast was in order. Silly as it is, this photo is kind of a big deal to me.

No prizes for guessing the wedding theme.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Catching upstate

We traveled to where it all began for Liz. And we made a point to try to find the exact hole where she landed her first-ever fish - likely a trout - from Fall Creek in Ithaca, New York.

Whether this was it or not, she wasn't positive. But it was close enough, and in the couple hours we ended up with to fish, she caught that fish again. A special moment on a wonderful trip across the northern U.S.

The rest of the trip involved floods, mudslides, a broke-down car that's still in Pennsylvania, little league baseball, a wedding, friends new and old, family, and lots of driving. Great trip, but good to be home. We're ready for summer in Montana, and all that it entails.

Hero midge - a descendant of the ones from Lake Erie that helped the Indians beat the Yankees in the 2007 ALDS. 
A stonely out of the catfish water in Mankato. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Montana Sporting Journal changing hands

It should shock no one that the sporting publishing realm is not a gold mine. Especially in a tough economy when advertising is often a luxury, magazines that depend upon it suffer.

With that in mind, it is with remorse that I learned that the Montana Sporting Journal has printed its final issue as we know it. Jay Hanson, editor, publisher and owner, made the announcement a few months ago.

It initially appeared it would fade into publishing abyss, but as happens often with magazines, it was acquired by a party who had a new vision for it. Schnee's Boots, Shoes and Hunting Gear out of Bozeman has taken the reins. It will reportedly will lean more toward hunting, and scale back on fishing content (or so I am told - Schnee's retail business offers more for the hunter than angler, so it would follow).

It is my understanding that subscribers will retain their subscriptions plus one issue to compensate for the downtime. E-mail with inquiries.

The next issue (Schnee's first) is scheduled to drop in early September, and is slated to be focused solely on big-game hunting.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Don't let the cocoa make you locoa

Spin fishers don't fear the runoff. Nor do the winds, the sun or the rain. We can be like they are.

Most times and places where the water's brown, I'll concede that fly fishing suffers. But not always, and not everywhere. Particularly in canyons when the water's not completely opaque, fishing the soft edges can be fruitful. We did just that over the weekend over about 10 round-trip miles, with some success. Pink Worms shine in this climate, as do Clousers and crayfish. Spin fishers seem to be ahead of the curve on this one...

Angling the Kitchen Sink Rapid, as captured by Liz.
In gin or in cinnamon, fish the fishy stuff. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

April, on the Smith

Watching the USGS streamflow graph gain and lose for a couple weeks raised our eyebrows. When the 10-day forecast revealed borderline weather, Liz and I looked at each other for reassurance. But with the local press bombarding us with news of a mine potentially infiltrating Montana's Smith River drainage, we figured we better go while we had the permit, even if spring's unpredictability was in perfect form.

The highest high was forecast to be 51 degrees, the strongest gusts were predicted at 40 mph, and rain was projected three of our five days. And for the win, the prior week's warmth had set runoff in motion.

Just she and me for five cold, wet, wind-blown, isolated, glorious days on the Smith River.

The Smith River corridor is a 59-mile stretch of river bounded by towering cliffs and a boat ramp on each end. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks manages the float section with cooperation from the US Forest Service and private land owners (80 percent of the float is on private land). Permits are required and given out via a lottery each March. Nine parties are allowed to launch per day, and boat campsites are assigned for each night when you check-in at Camp Baker (the put-in). It is typically done in four or five days. Prime dates are much harder to draw a permit for, which is why some parties (including ours) apply for April when you're almost guaranteed a permit. Almost guaranteed questionable weather and flows, too.

So we embarked... After the flow spiked to about 560 cfs early Wednesday morning (our launch day, April 23), we were pleased to see fishy green water at Camp Baker. But about 25 feet downstream enters Sheep Creek, which was vomiting mud. Our first two days were pretty blown out, and our fish had to come at tributary mouths.

Day three graced us with a lighter hue. Quickly, a 20-plus-incher was brought boatside before popping off, and later another dandy came to net. We'd had a day of fishing that seemed unlikely. Baetis backed-up in the foam eddies (fish eating them in places), midges were about, and we saw a few skwalas.

"Panic Attack" got lucky. 
Mid-canyon, the Heaven on Earth Ranch offered an entertaining interlude. While Gary Anderson's grandson cut our firewood, the man himself carted us up to his beautiful saloon, showed us his massive bull elk mount, and poured us Deep Creek Specials while boasting of Chubby the black bear, who, prior to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' crackdown, would take an apple right from his mouth. The Ranch refilled our water, ice and spirit. Floaters can book a cabin which includes steak dinner, cocktails, golf at the par-3 course on the river, showers, and more, and it won't count against your river nights. When we're rich...

We found three public-land pictograph locations. The first are handprints downstream of the mouth of Tenderfoot Creek at about river mile 16.2 on river left. You have to catch them while floating - they are above the water. The next are animals, handprints, and finger swipes on the cliff directly upstream of Crowsfoot boat camp on river left (you'll need to pull over and hike). The final is Pictograph Cave, which requires a short, steep, rocky hike to an opening that can be seen from the river. The trail is river left just downstream of lower Parker Flat - be on the lookout for the cave on the cliff side. This location has the most diversity and offers views of the river from above.

It's a mystical experience to feel connected to these ancient people, and the pictographs are considered sacred. If you locate them, make a point to tread lightly as the walls can be fragile.

Pictograph Cave.

Crowsfoot pictographs.
Handprints downstream of Tenderfoot. 
The wildlife was surprisingly humdrum. A few beavers and muskats, mule deer, a mink, one white-tailed deer, a mouse, one bald eagle, a few turkey vultures, many mergansers and mallards, and tons of Canada geese. There were also more houses and cabins than I anticipated.

The Seamstress (so called for the "needles threaded" through scattered river rocks) rowed about 75 percent of the trip, while I (nicknamed Panic Attack for overly aggressive oar strokes) was forced to fish...

Despite cold, wet nights, windy days, muddy campsites and barely translucent water, we agreed we'd do it again. Even in April.

As the sensation of bobbing downstream fades, sweet sadness enters. We survived and we're warm and dry, but the jagged walls, honking geese, and intimacy of a remote float have long-since faded. Our parting gifts are memories of Montana backcountry, the chance to grow together, and indulge in some of the best of the outdoors.

Related links:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Steelhead bugs and monkeys

On good days, I feel honored and lucky to have hooked it. On bad ones, I'm haunted by the fact that it popped off about a switch rod's length from my feet. It was the only steelhead with whom I've interacted. For as much as I claim to have avoided the steelhead bug, that sticks with me.

Given a second chance, I was on board. It meant dusting off Dec Hogan's classic A Passion for Steelhead, and trading hours of trout fishing for time spent trying not to blow my anchor with my switch rod. But I owe my dues if I want the steelhead monkey off my back.

I was reminded by my local steelheader (who just spent a week and a half in Forks, Wash. - for one fish) that I can't expect to catch anything.

But I'll do my best to fish confidently.

I have two days.

We head to Portland next week.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Because April

"I want to go
fishing", so we
will. Tie flies to
wait out the chill (though
we are fishing, still). April,
come she will. Steelhead   
over the hill. Secret creek  
for ol' orange gill.
Then fifty-nine miles  
of floating thrill.
In June:
Go fishing, we will.    

I was busy snagging logs and snapping rods...
As evidenced above, an angler might go a little nutty when spring fever strikes (close encounters of the fish kind? [I shaped my words into a trout, and have an inexplicable desire to go to trout]). April is descending, but before it arrives and I plan to try to learn to downhill ski, try to learn the spey cast (again) and how to swing, tie trout flies, buy a raft's worth of camping gear, and more, along with the normal business. And that's before things get busy. I'm cursed with great opportunities.
Because April.
Who's coming with me?