As the calendar turns to Fall, and leaves begin to change, it is amazing to think about how fast the summer has flown by. 2020 has been unpredictable and crazy for everyone, but thankfully the fishing has been one predictable thing to help it feel like a normal summer. It has been an extremely rewarding year to help people escape to the rivers, to teach the sport of fly-fishing and to explore the beauty of Montana. Thanks to everyone who has helped to make it a great season & I look forward to welcoming more anglers to Montana as life returns to normal soon!
It is the most amazing experience watching the passage of time through the growth of my little girl. Every summer seems to fly by but this summer has gone faster than any other before.
It started in May, full of anticipation and uncertainty. During my first couple of guide days through the end of the month, half of Southwest Montana was on high alert just incase Gwyneth had to be rushed to the Hospital. I was expecting to be flagged down on the river and to be rowing like crazy to get to the boat ramp and driving like a mad man to Missoula, but thankfully our little girl cooperated and I didn’t have to cut any guide days short.
Then in June, Jessie Blythe made her grand entrance. An uneventful Friday night at home was interrupted by Jessie starting to make her big move into the world. After Gwyneth’s water breaking, we quickly found a dog sitter and made the hour and a half drive to Missoula. After a stressful 13 hours we finally met our beautiful little girl. The rest of the month was really kind of a blur. Gwyneth and I trading off night shifts to watch Jessie, each of us filled with a combination of sleeplessness, amazement and joy. Both sets of Grandparents visiting; bringing car loads of gifts and foods, giving a helping hand and admiring their new grand baby. Meanwhile, I was headed back to the river, catching the end of the Stone Fly hatch on Rock Creek and spending a few days on the Missouri.
By July guide season was in full swing. I was busy bouncing back and forth between the Big Hole, Bitterroot and Madison Rivers while Gwyneth and Jessie were figuring out a routine. These were also my first nights away from home and realizing how quickly Jessie would grow and change in just a few days. One of my favorite songs over the last couple of years took on a new meaning and truth, Sturgill Simpson: Welcome To Earth (Pollywog). While I was away Jessie went on her first big adventure with Mom, flying to California to visit her grandparents and to be introduced to more family and friends.
August brought the dog daze of summer along with Jessie continuing to experience her firsts. My grind continued by having memorable days on the Big Hole, Blackfoot, Rock Creek and Bitterroot Rivers. The highlight being a rainy day on the Big Hole while netting the first “grand slam” in my boat; a happy client catching a Grayling, Brook Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Brown Trout and Rainbow Trout all in one day. But the biggest highlight was introducing Jessie to the river for the first time. Although the outing to Rock Creek didn’t last long, she had a quick nap with the soothing sounds of the water and cool river breeze and saw her Dad casting and frustratingly missing fish on a hopper.
Through September summer quickly turned into fall and Jessie’s personality started to emerge. While having some clients based in Philipsburg I was always looking forward to coming home at night to see Jessie’s happy, smiling face; her eyes lighting up as I sing a silly song and her beginning to make up her own language and starting to babble back to Mom and Dad. In my days on the water the signs of Fall started to appear with some big, and colorful, Brown and Brooke Trout finding the net. Near the end of the month we took advantage of our last warm Sunday afternoon and took Jessie out on the boat for the first time, enjoying Georgetown Lake for a few hours.
Now, in what seems like the blink of an eye, it’s October. I have wrapped up the last couple guide days of the season and am starting to spend more time at home hanging out with Jessie. We have started to go on walks with the dog, sample solid foods, sing songs and dress up in Broncos gear while learning all about Football; enjoying every minute while hoping that time can start to slow down just a little bit.
Recently I have been reflecting on how the sport of fly-fishing changes as we evolve as anglers. In the beginning all I wanted to do was catch one fish on a fly rod. After getting a few trout to the net I was concerned with numbers; catching as many fish as possible using any technique and fly pattern. Next I started hunting for big fish. Joining crowds of anglers fishing areas known for migratory large trout. Since becoming a guide I have realized that scenery, setting and company are more important than size of trout or numbers. Which still holds true for any day on the water.
Over the last year I have concentrated on perfecting techniques and have dedicated more time to fishing streamers. After getting over the hardest step of committing to streamer fishing, I have started to learn the nuances of streamer presentation and the thrill of an aggressive take on a large fly.
Following this last winter, after dedicating more time to fly tying, I have taken pride in catching fish on my own patterns. Inventing, or fine tuning, a fly pattern helps pass time through a cold winter, but once you start catching fish on that fly it is extremely rewarding.
This evolution process is one of the big reasons that I am passionate about fly-fishing. It is an ongoing cycle and there is no final destination to the journey. This evolution can happen on any given day of fishing, just hoping for one fish to make the day; or it can happen when targeting new species, or discovering new locations.
As my wife and I are expecting our first child in the coming weeks I have been reflecting on this idea of evolution and change. In a way fly-fishing brought our family together. Pursuing the sport prompted my move to Montana where I eventually met my beautiful bride. On one of our first dates we went fishing on the Gallatin River in the dead of winter. Now, with fly-fishing as my career, we have started our little family. I can’t wait to watch my daughter grow and eventually introduce her to the sport that I love.
Why wait till spring to get back on the water? There are plenty of trout to be caught throughout the winter when conditions are right.
First, you need open water. You can fish tailwater rivers with flows, and ultimately temperatures, controlled by a dam; or fish streams that are fed by natural springs where temperatures are consistent through the year.
Plus, winter fishing is much more enjoyable when temperatures warm up above 20 or 25 degrees. You can still get out on colder days, but you then start dealing with chipping ice off of the guides on your fly rod and struggling with trying to keep your feet and hands warm.
Here are some reasons to give winter fly-fishing a try.
Winter is the best times of the year to have the river to yourself. This gives you the ability to explore more water and cast to fish that are not spooked. Last week I visited $3 Bridge, one of the most well used access sites on the Madison River, and I did not see another soul. I was able to move freely and fish every prime hole or run in solitude.
The best times for winter fly-fishing are usually between 11AM-4PM; once water temperatures have increased. This can be a nice change from the summer when the best fishing is typically either at the beginning or end of the day. You can take advantage of the extra time in the morning by sleeping in, making a hearty breakfast, or tying flies for the day.
Since there are few bugs hatching in winter it is much easier on the angler to answer the eternal fly-fishing question, “am I matching the hatch?”. The most commonly hatching insect through the winter months are midges. Outside of that, most trout are filling their diet by feeding on items that pack the most bang for the buck (i.e. Stone Fly nymphs, worms, eggs). Most of your standard nymph patterns will do the trick; Pat’s Rubber Legs, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns, San Juan Worms, or Zebra Midges. Typically, I end up rigging a large Pat’s Rubber Leg followed by a small San Juan Worm or Zebra Midge.
Reading water can be one of the most difficult things to learn in fly-fishing. Trout will hold, and feed, in different types of water throughout a river depending on hatches, water temperatures, oxygen levels or time of day. During winter months trout will tend to hold in very specific types of water. They are looking for spots where they can feed without expending much energy and where the water is warmest. This will force trout into congregating, and schooling, in the deepest and slowest holes and runs, that in most rivers are easily identifiable.
Dry Flies in January
Nothing shakes a case of cabin fever like landing a fish on a dry fly in the dead of winter. As mentioned earlier, the main insect hatching at this time of year is a midge. Even though they are a small meal, size 18-24 flies, trout will still actively feed on them through a solid midge hatch. Get a nice dead drift with a midge emerger pattern, or midge cluster imitation, towards a group of rising fish and you will definitely find some action.
That dry fly eat could be just enough to hold you over until the prolific spring and summer hatches.
As the seasons change from Fall to Winter, I have recently had some days off and have spent these chilly afternoons watching new documentaries about a few famous 70’s rock bands: “The History of The Eagles” & “Lynyrd Skynyrd: If I Leave here Tomorrow.” Since then I have been driving my wife crazy by constantly playing, and singing along to, both of these bands greatest hits. As I sit here now singing along to my current favorite song, “Gimme Me Back My Bullets,” I have started to reflect on what has been a great fishing season.
The lyrics of Ronnie Van Zant ring in my head; “I keep on working, like a working man do.” Thinking about my hours sitting in the rowers seat and my hands sore with calluses, but it also reminds me of the hard work put in by my clients through the summer. Similarly to the stories of these great bands, some days of fly fishing are marked by struggle, frustration and hard times. Fishing can be slow, conditions may be hard to deal with, and there are times where nothing seems to go right. Just like Skynyrd and The Eagles got their big breaks and hit records, the same can happen on the river. I have seen clients throughout the summer work through tough times, continue to practice casting techniques and presentation and finally get rewarded by the fishing gods.
Here are some of the “greatest hits” from this season. I hope to see you on the water in 2019!
Labor Day is just around the corner and the “dog days” of summer are in the rear view. Hard to believe that the season has gone by so quickly, but there is still plenty of great fishing ahead through September and October. This summer has been filled with long beautiful days, great clients and some cooperative big fish.
June included big water and big browns on the prowl. Most rivers were swollen with run-off from our above average snowpack, but Rock Creek and the Big Hole River still produced through the big water. There was solid action dead drifting streamers and worms; plus some fish looking up for Salmon Flies and Golden Stones.
July brought dropping flows on our rivers and some epic days of dry fly fishing. The Big Hole saw fish looking up for hatches of Green Drakes, Yellow Sallies and PMD’s. The Yellowstone River finally dropped to fishable levels as terrestrials began to crawl around the banks. Meanwhile, the Madison River produced some quality fish on nymph rigs.
Throughout August the skies have been filled with smoke from forest fires from around the state. Despite the warm temperatures, and lack of rain, fishing has remained consistent. Terrestrial fishing with Moths, Ants and hoppers and some thick Trico hatches have kept our trout interested. With a few extra days off through the month I have had the chance to enjoy the Montana summer for myself. I played a tourist by visiting Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks with with my wife and friends; and did some fishing on my own, hiking into the North Fork of the Blackfoot River with my dog Gabe.
Fall fishing should be great as our water temperatures drop, nights get a little longer and the big trout begin to stock up on calories preparing for winter. I still have some availability in October; check out this special offer to come chase some big fish this fall.
This spring has been all about exploring. Discovering new stretches of river, new side channels, new honey holes, new dirt roads and hiking new trails.
I have spent most of my free time in the Big Hole Valley. Floating and exploring new sections of the river and discovering new areas in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness area. The Big Hole is a classic western river. Flowing through a big scenic valley, fed by cold and clean snow melt, lots of bug life, full of beautiful wild trout and epic views.
Scouting missions are always rewarding! Some days you figure out the super secret fly pattern, others you find the right line to navigate the rapids or other days you spend quality time with the dog.
For a few months I have been day dreaming about a week long float on the Smith River this spring. We successfully drew a permit for the float, my wife and I both got time off work and the I had planted the seed about the adventure with my best friends in Colorado months ago. Everything was falling into place…
As our launch date approached the weather forecast turned south, friends had a change of plans and just like that my dreams of a week on the river crumbled.
Fortunately, I live in Montana and there is an abundance of vacation options just outside my backdoor. To salvage our days off we took a “staycation” by spending a couple of days on Rock Creek about a half hour from our house.
Rock Creek can sometimes be overlooked with all the other fishing and camping options around the state, but this recent trip reminded me of why I fell in love with this gem on my first trip to Montana years ago. Rock Creek is a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream with a healthy population of willing Cutthroat, Rainbow and Brown Trout. Being a small steam, it is only float and fishing option during the spring and early summer. Float trips during this time of year can be unforgettable experience; great scenery, awesome fishing and all while having the river to yourself.
Rock Creek is not only a great fishery, but it offers dozens of great camp sites and a handful of Forest Service Cabins available for rent. On this springtime trip we chose to stay at one of our favorite cabins. The four or five cabins along Rock Creek vary in size and accommodations and can be perfect for any getaway. The Stony Creek Cabin has a convenient location, great outdoor fire pit and is the perfect size for us and our dog.
As we were headed home we both remarked about how we both take the beauty of Rock Creek for granted since it is so close to Philipsburg. Sometimes the best vacation is close to home.
“It’s NOT just like riding a bike, John!” My buddy Josh yelled from across the river as I lost another fish. This type of banter is very common when on the water with good friends, but it also made me realize that practice is an important part of fly-fishing.
A brutally cold winter, working with a new puppy (not exactly a fishing dog yet) and my winter job forced me into a two month break from the river. During the time away I was able to restock and organize my fly boxes, but my hook set was a little rusty. Actually, everything felt a little clumsy; sloppy casts, poor line control, delayed reactions, etc. In that first day back I hooked about 10 fish, but was only able to land two of them. At the end of the day I realized that all the time spent on the river is valuable. Each time out you are learning, improving and practicing.
Spring is the time to practice and start getting ready for the summer season. Get your fishing gear out of the closet, or shed, and get organized. Practice your cast in the back yard or the park. Head to you local river or stream to knock off the rust. Anytime spent practicing now pays off once you are in the midst of your favorite summer hatch.
There is nothing better than waking up to the sounds of a flowing river, brewing fresh coffee next to a camp fire, planning out the float for the day and rigging up the flies to start the morning. Hard to beat life on the river!
Since becoming an outfitter a few years ago I have had the goal of sharing this experience with my friends, and clients, by offering overnight trips on the river. You can truly get on the “Montana pace” by immersing yourself in one of these adventures. This summer I will be running two 4-day packages that will be unique Montana experiences. Dry Flies & Camp Fires is scheduled for July 17-20 and the Fall Big Fish package will be offered from October 1-4, checkout all the details here.
The Dry Flies & Camp Fires package will include camping on the banks of Yellowstone River, fishing big dry flies, a visit to a local hot springs and much more. The Fall Big Fish package can give you the chance at catching “the big one” and gives you the chance to explore the mighty Missouri River.