Thursday, December 31, 2015

High-energy trout: Off-season at the spring creeks

(originally published in the Montana Sporting Journal)

If you can handle the steady gnawing of 40-mph Paradise Valley wind in January, you'll be fine. Just bundle up and know that there are warming huts. The fishing should be good.
   Paradise Valley's famed spring creeks (Depuy, Armstrong aka O'Hair's and Nelson) are on most angler's to-fish list, but so much dogma is associated with them that it can be hard to convince yourself to challenge them. Protocol, etiquette, snobby fish, the rod fee... But still, it sounds like fun, right?
 One way to get around most of that is to visit them in the winter. Few anglers and $40-per-rod fee alleviate some of the issues. As for the snobby fish? Crash that tea party with streamers.
   You won't get dirty looks like you might at some high-society fisheries like Harriman State Park in Idaho. While the Paradise Valley spring creeks are classy, they're also have a working-class feel.
   Anglers usually need nothing more than a well-proportioned black Woolly Bugger. JJ Special, Home Invader, or Clouser – any streamer in moderate size and good presentation should move fish throughout winter.
   And you can play the dry-fly game. My friends have a tradition of “fishing off the hangover” on January 1st at Depuy Spring Creek, and someone is usually able to net a fish hooked on the surface.
   Of course eggs usually work, but if you'd pay $40 to fish eggs, you should probably just put that money towards an auger and an ice house.
   It almost certainly will be wind-chilly. Constant 50-mile-per-hour winds happen, and a steady 20-mph breeze is standard. Sometimes the creeks are protected from that, but usually not.
   The rates are low from October 15 until April 15. Crowds are strongest on the shoulders – there's not much pressure in January. Depuy offers a winter pass for $400 that allows (more or-less) unlimited visits if you're genuinely interested, but you'd have to live nearby.
   The three Paradise Valley creeks are similar but distinct. All are open year round, all have high numbers of browns, rainbows and cutthroat, and all have had some degree of riparian enhancement. All are working cattle ranches and all are owned or run by typical Montana-warm ranch families. To sign in and settle up, they welcome strangers into their homes - the O'Hairs are often in the midst of a family breakfast, and are always gracious hosts.
   According to Fish Wildlife and Parks, Depuy is about 1.5 miles, Armstrong is about 3, and the fishable part of Nelson's is about 0.75 mile. All get fish over 20 inches, but Nelson's typically has the biggest in my experience. Armstrong and Depuy is literally the same river – Armstrong is the upper section, Depuy the lower. Obviously, the fishing is similar on both with Depuy getting slightly more of nature's influence being further from the spring.
   Spawning fish will run all the way up Armstrong, and nothing impedes them at Nelson's. The runs occur on a slightly different schedule than most Montana rivers since water temps are constant.
   Depuy has a little fly shop that runs odd winter hours, and Nelson's recently opened a fly shop and has ponds for an additional fee (seasonally).
   As we go about our tradition of fishing New Year's Day, I am reminded of past outings.
   One March day, a friend and I signed in to Armstrong's when a grass fire erupted near the barns. We went to help load buckets with water, but they wouldn't have it. We'd paid our money, they could handle the flames. God bless 'em.
   Another time, I inadvertently fished some out-of-bounds water at Nelson's (if you're reading this Mr. Nelson, lots of literary license here). It was our first time there, early in the morning, and I was plumb dumb. In my defense, the hatchery ponds kind of look like a creek, are unmarked and are the first things you see upon wadering up. Hundreds of trout, literally writhing amongst each other. I thought we'd cracked the code – just have to get there early. I threw in my CDC bubble-back baetis emerger and several trout immediately charged at it, almost as if they expected a pellet. I hooked a fat, 18-inch, blackish rainbow, and was proud to find the challenging spring creeks second-nature to this apparent old pro. I even have a grip-n-grin to prove it. As we gained lucidity that morning, we shifted our efforts slightly south to the actual creek with a brief look and slight nod. I will take that story with me to my grave...wait...
   No matter which creek you fish or what day you choose, bring nymphs, dries, and definitely streamers. Knee-deep in winter, there might be no better warm-up than a day full of energetic trout.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Cherry Creek Effect: Cutthroat comeback in the Lower Madison

Photo by Liz Juers
Have you noticed a change in your Lower Madison River catch?

For as long as I've fished the Lower Madison - about 10 years - it's been a rainbow and brown trout fishery. Nary a whitefish, much less a brookie or cutthroat. It's never been a place to catch native fish, save for the extremely rare arctic grayling or Utah chub.

But now you can actually expect to catch Westslope cutthroat in the Lower Madison (below Ennis Dam), thanks to the reintroduction project on Cherry Creek, a major tributary. While the Cherry Creek project has had its issues, it now appears to be thriving, so much so that the reintroduced trout are apparently overflowing into the Madison River about eight miles downstream of the stocking site. Reports of pure (in appearance anyhow) cutthroat trout began last spring, and in the past month, have become commonplace from Bear Trap Creek to Greycliff. Anglers have reported as much as 20 percent of their catch being cutthroats or cutt-bows.

"Typically resident populations of westslope cutthroat trout above fish barriers have a very slow rate of emigration, maybe 2 percent a year," said Dave Moser, Fisheries Biologist from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. But empirically at least, they seem to be pouring in a little faster than that. Three of three queried anglers agreed that the cutthroat tallies have been way up.

"I’ve noticed that when westslopes are introduced to historically fishless habitats they initially exceed carrying capacity of the stream – over time these populations will self regulate and less fish may out-migrate," Moser added. "Cherry Creek holds enough fish (>25,000 fish) that, if out-migration is greater than 2 percent it would be quite noticable. Cutthroat in general are more catchable than browns, rainbow trout, and brooks. Also, since these fish are entering new habitat this may enhance their catchability."

Anglers are psyched about the new possibility.

The "Lower" has traditionally been, and still is, a rainbow-dominant fishery.
"It is an awesome development and good to see a project on private lands benefiting the general public," said angler and friend Ben Pierce. 

Beyond the opportunity to again catch a native trout in the Madison River, the influx of cutts should be relatively innocuous to the fishery. 

"These excess or migratory fish would likely have little impact on the current fishery," Moser said. "There is some overlap with spawning of rainbows but they hybridize – so no net loss of biomass there. Smaller westslope would likely be prey items for browns. Competitively, browns and rainbows would have the advantage. Also given the populations sizes compared to outmigration from Cherry Creek – it is really a drop in the bucket."

Related story: Do native fish pay? (page 30)
Related: Reintroduction goes awry
Related: Climate change and native trout

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Open year round?

The upper Madison River's new 2016 regulations have seen some press, but there are other major under-the-radar changes coming to Montana's fishing regulations in 2016. The biggest of which is that, as of March 1, small streams in the Central District will remain open year round! According to Montana FWP Fisheries Management Bureau Chief Joel Tohtz: "It is likely a favorite small stream may now be open year round. Some seasonal closures (the new exceptions) will remain, but many more small streams will be open than closed in the past."

Granted many small streams will be frozen over and others will remain closed, but this is pretty fantastic news, in theory. Hopefully it won't be detrimental to spawning rainbows and cutthroat as they often get busy at this time, but most anglers are already cognizant of walking on redds and pulling fish off of them. 

"One point we do want to emphasize is that, although we are excited to offer anglers every opportunity we can, the responsibility for ethical conservation of these resources remains," Tohtz said via e-mail. "Everyone (not just FWP) has an important role in all of that. Care and common sense still go a long way in Montana."

The upper Madison will be open year round from Yellowstone National Park to Ennis Lake, starting March 1, 2016. Currently, it closes from March 1 to the third Saturday in May. Some other harvest and allowed-bait rule changes will also occur with this update that won't apply to catch-and-release fly anglers.

Go fish (on March 1)!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The trout will rise again: Where to find risers in December

(#tbt; originally published in the November/December 2008 issue of the Montana Sporting Journal)
Damn fish. 
While hiking in the Bear Trap Canyon of the Madison River a few years ago, a buddy and I saw one sip a midge from the surface. Then it happened again. And again.

The damn part: It was in December. And, being neophytes, we didn’t bring our fly rods.
He vowed never to hike along a river sans fly rod ever again, and I make sure to always have a few Griffith’s Gnats and H&L Variants in my box.
But trout eat dry flies many places in December on Montana’s rivers. Try these places.

Poindexter Slough

Poindexter fishes well in December due to the fact that it is part spring creek, which keeps waters steady year round, and part tailwater (much of the flow in Poindexter is water from the Beaverhead River).
It’s midges here, as it is with most places you’ll find rising fish in December.
Keep in mind that while Poindexter remains open year round, it’s catch-and-release only from December 1 to the third Saturday in May.

Upper Clark Fork

It gets windy at the UCF. 
Based on my empirical research, I’d guess that Montana’s official midge convention takes place here every December. Even though the midges can be thick, the rising fish can be difficult to track down some days. But keep looking – you should be able to find some.
The Upper Clark Fork is an outstanding winter fishery in general. It’s a lot like a tailwater, as it comes from the water released from the Anaconda Settling Ponds.
Big fish can be caught here in the winter, but the biggest probably won’t take a dry. You’ll have to run streamers through the deeper holes for the piggies.

Depuy Spring Creek

This one is pure spring creek, so its temperature stays at about 54 degrees 365 days a year. This will probably be the only place you’ll find anything other than midges – you can find some baetis activity and trout looking up for them. And of course, you will find midges.
Paradise Valley’s other pay fisheries, Armstrong’s Spring Creek and Nelson’s Spring Creek, will probably have the same sort of bug activity (especially Armstrong’s, because it is actually a different section of the same creek). I just cannot specifically speak to their bug activity, as I’ve not fished either in December.

Lower Madison River

This is the place where I first learned that fish will rise in December. The best bet is probably directly below the dam and the first mile or so after that. But anywhere on the Lower, particularly in Bear Trap Canyon, holds the possibility for rising fish.
Some of these midges here can be thicker in the body and a shade of gray.

Bighorn River

This is a great place to fish in December, rising fish or not. It’s one of Montana’s best winter fisheries and the crowds of the summer are absent.
Most times in December, the Bighorn will be at its normal winter flows which means wading is very much a possibility.
This is one place where thicker tippet might be needed – there are lots of 18- to 22-inch fish in the Bighorn.

Yellowstone River at La Duke Spring

While the Yellowstone River is a freestone river and does freeze from bank to bank most winters, there is a section near Corwin Springs where La Duke Spring (a geothermal spring), among others, dumps in, which causes the river to remain warm enough to hatch midges. There are a lot of native cutthroats in this section, which adds to the notability of this spot. But as with anywhere on the Yellowstone, there are lots of whitefish.

You might also take a peek at the Yellowstone where Nelson’s and Depuy’s dump in. These spots are known to be decent for fishing at other times of the year, and are likely to have warmer water than the rest of the big river.

Other likely places:

Big Spring Creek around Lewistown, the Kootenai River, the Beaverhead River, the Missouri River below Holter Dam…Pretty much any tailwater or spring creek will be warm enough to hatch midges.
Don’t forget that many times when trout are rising, they are taking pupae in favor of adults. Be sure to have plenty of Griffiths Gnats, but also be sure to have a good selection of midge emergers in different colors.
Maybe the best part of finding rising fish in December is that there is a solid chance you’ll have a more-than-adequate section of water to yourself. Don your GoreTex and make sure your feet get plenty of blood flow, then double check your knots and be ready to set the hook.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Rainbow Whitefish

(Originally published in the Drake in 2014)

It was Idaho legend, like the Everglades' skunk ape or Loch Ness' monster. Since the 1980s, reports of an apparent rainbow trout fly fishing for trout had filtered through staffers and patrons at places like the Nature Conservancy Preserve on Silver Creek and Harriman State Park. Witnesses reported a seeing a “...biped oncorhynchus mykiss with a pungent odor and rambling vocalizations...”
To the chagrin of my cryptozoological side, this Rocky Mountain boogeyman turned out to be a male human from Boise who merely likes his elbow room, and will go to lengths to get it. Sometimes he wears sequins, face paint and a hot-pink construction helmet. Other times, it's metallic-silver fringed smock with matching headwear. Sometimes, it's as simple as his Whitefish Unlimited baseball hat, a tie-dyed t-shirt and painted waders.
It, is Ed Dunn, better known as Whitefish Ed.

Photo via
 “The first experiment was on the Henry’s Fork,” Dunn said, comfortably nestled in his lair. “I scored a hot-pink soccer shirt for 50 cents from a thrift store... Thus the neon monster was born.”
He’s the antithesis to the ubiquitous “bro”, and stirs up a wide range of reactions. Some see a breath of fresh air, and others see a distraction worthy of an eye-roll, at best.
“By far the most predominant reaction I would hear from those who couldn’t get there jaw back in place was 'WTF is that?!'” Dunn said. “In the beginning and for about 15 years thereafter, 100 percent negative except for those that knew me all this time, but I think they still questioned my mind.”
Anne Marie Emery, Education Conservation Biologist for the Henry's Fork Foundation (HFF), has witnessed the spectacle for the past 8 years.
“Ed is a “!” in every sense and form,” Emery said via e-mail. “I remember the first conversation I had with Ed left me in an analogy-laced, bewildered, whirlwind... Ed sticks out like a flashy, overdone indicator on the Fork. You can see him from miles away dressed in bright neon colors, tie-dye patterns and tin foil. In a place of tradition such as the Fork, Ed sticks out...blindingly so.”
His initial modus operandi was to test the idea that bright colors scare fish. Once he noticed that not only does it not scare fish, but it does scare anglers, his rationale changed. No more getting low-holed, crowded, or even seeing other anglers.
“Even before dipping a tootsie in the water let alone making a cast, I instantly noticed that the hot-pink shirt scared the living snot out of fishermen. I was avoided like I had the plague...The more people who think I'm a dork on a ditch and that I scare off every fish in the river, the better. Ever since I started wearing this stuff, I have not had one tinkling match on any river or stream I've fished.”

Photo via
So does this self-proclaimed “pragmatic recessive hippie” actually fish, or is he just looking to stir up the river?
Says Emery: “I have yet to meet another angler who takes not just fishing, but the biology of it, as seriously as Ed.”
Added Dunn: “I take my fly fishing seriously. I take my fun seriously. I have serious fun when doing serious fishing.”
Sprinkle in his generous nature, and you've basically got fly fishing's answer to Wavy Gravy. Take the time he stepped in to help a group of HFF interns survey fish. In harsh summer sunlight with little shade, fish started perishing in plain view of anglers.
“Then Ed comes along and in all seriousness starts showing the crew the proper way to flush a fish through water to maximize oxygen delivery to their gills,” Emery said. “We spent the next while performing this technique on all the little fish, with Ed right there. It was at that point that I became aware of Ed’s genuine care of the resource.”
Or the time he combined the jobs of funking up his fishing fatigues while raising money for the HFF.
“He grabbed a pair of waders and puff paint and charged people 20 bucks to sign his waders that he then wore out on the river. Funds were raised, a dissolved-oxygen meter purchased, and HFF field capacity increased.”
For better or worse, Dunn's influence is spreading. He's put Greg Thomas in yellow sequins on Henry's Fork, and I've placed a red sequin inconspicuously on my waders.
In atypical fly-fishing fashion, Whitefish Ed's unique disposition can remind us that it's only fishing.
Said Emery: “He is boisterous, crass, loud, but painstakingly human.”