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.
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!
I am often asked; “How hard is fly-fishing to learn?” Trying to display empathy I typically explain; “It’s not that hard. Once you learn the basics, it just takes practice.” I will also add: “It’s kind of like golf. You’ll never master the sport, but you will learn more every time you are on the water.” This explanation sounds pretty good, and holds fairly true to what I have seen in teaching beginners – but I haven’t truly experienced it myself until traveling to New Zealand.
From Montana, New Zealand is on the opposite end of the world. They enjoy summer during our winter, they drive on the left side of the road and Kiwis more often play on a Rugby paddock instead of a field or a diamond. Despite these huge differences they still use a fly rod to catch Rainbow and Brown Trout. I was thinking: “No way it can be that different than fishing in Montana.” I quickly realized that was not the case. Fly fishing in New Zealand requires a different approach and new skills. It’s completely different than fishing the blue ribbon streams of Montana.
“Bloody savage hook set, Mate!”
During the first week of the vacation we were fortunate to stay and fish with River Haven Lodge near Murchison on the South Island. On the night we arrived we were greeted by the news that another guest had landed an 11 pound brown that day. As we all toasted his trophy over glasses of champagne I started to have butterflies. Even though double-digit browns are not the norm, I was still flooded with excitement to go chasing a big brown of my own the next day. As much as I tried to manage my expectations I still had a hard time getting to sleep that night and sprung awake at the first sound of my alarm the next morning.
At breakfast that morning the owner of the lodge, Scott “the Trout” Murray, was on the phone touching base with other lodges in the area to see where guides had been fishing and what they planned for the day. I appreciated this extra effort in communication that Murray spearheaded years ago in his region. This quick phone call helps to protect the resource, prevents over-fishing of certain rivers, and overall, helps to create a better guest experience for everyone. Scott enjoyed a good laugh when I told him about the typical day at the Lyon’s Bridge boat ramp on the Madison River where 30-40 boats are launching each morning.
As I was heading to the river with Doug Corbett, my guide for the day, we began to chat about gear and what our game plan was. Through our conversation I was beginning to realize that this was going to be a new experience, and I began to share the feeling that a beginner must have when they first pick up a fly rod. Doug recommended I used his rods, a 5WT and a 6WT, both already rigged for the day. They were about the same as my rods until I began to look closer. The fly line on both rods was hand-dyed to achieve a drab, trout-camo, effect. Doug exclaimed that he has seen too many trout spooked by bright green floating fly lines. Tied to the fly line he ran a 14-15′ delicately tapered leader and a single hand-tied fly rigged on the end. I could appreciate Doug’s diligence in the set-up of his rods and in the organization of his fly boxes. I could see how he had been educated by chasing picky New Zealand browns over the last 20 years.
Sight fishing for big trout is why you go to New Zealand. The ability to spot fish is a skill that can take a lifetime to develop and for guides like Scott and Doug – it is almost like a sixth sense. The ideal conditions for spotting trout are clear blue skies, lots of sun, and little to no wind. That day with Doug on the Matakitaki River we had partly cloudy skies and a building headwind as the day progressed. Despite the conditions we still had opportunities to cast to a few big browns that morning. The first fish that Doug spotted, I was not able to put eyes on because of the glare of the water. I took his word for it and got into position as instructed. As Doug coached me on distance and placement of the cast I was truly fishing blind, not seeing the targeted fish and having a hard time tracking my small indicator with the low light and glare. I eventually got a drift through the desired location and Doug started yelling: “Go, go, go, set!” I excitedly yanked the rod, vaguely imitating a hook set, and I felt nothing. Doug hollered; “Bloody savage hook set, Mate!”
Just like that, I had missed the strike and the fish quickly spooked.
Before spotting the next fish, Doug had me take a few casts in a likely looking riffle, hoping we would fool a holding trout with our nymph. I began working upstream with the “little brown nymph” hanging about 8 inches below my tiny yarn indicator. Doug explained that Brown Trout will move up in the water column to feed and that the nymph ticking a rock could be enough to spook the fish. He assured me that if the indicator went down it had to be a strike. Sure enough, near the top of the run, the indicator dove underwater and I was hooked into a strong New Zealand brown. After a quick battle, the “chunky monkey,” as Doug described it, was in the net. It was a small fish by New Zealand standards, but my education was underway and the skunk was off.
As we moved upstream we eventually found a couple of pools that held the browns I had been dreaming about. Unfortunately, each of the situations played out the same, with both of the 6-8 pound browns getting the best of us. Even though I didn’t hook the fish it was amazing to watch them in their habitat and each situation provided huge learning experiences. One of the first lessons was the importance of a drag free drift. Both of these behemoth browns were sitting in spots with conflicting currents all around them. Land the fly in the wrong spot and instantly my nymph was dragging across the current and looking un-natural to the fish. When I would finally get the correct placement, and drift, the fish was more than likely wise to our presence. I also learned the lesson of changing presentation by switching flies, changing size and adjusting depths. We did not go more than two drifts without changing something in our rig. I would get a good drift down the feeding lane, but no response from the fish. Doug did not hesitate: “Change the fly.” When targeting each of these browns we made about a dozen changes before either spooking the fish or deciding to move onto the next hole. The excitement of getting the fish to look at the fly, or turn towards our bug, was more than enough to keep me engaged and determined.
Although I did not connect with either of these monsters I was able to walk away from the Matakitaki with a crash course education in hunting New Zealand Brown Trout.
“Stunner” of a Morning
Fast forward to one of my last days that I would be able to fish in New Zealand. We were now near the bottom of the South Island staying with a friend in Te Anau on the edge of Fiordland National Park. After leaving Murchison I endured a handful of frustrating fish-less days. I was definitely putting in my time and practicing the skills I learned with Doug on the Matakitaki. I had spooked more fish than I could count, did manage to trigger a few strikes but could not connect with the elusive NZ brown.
On this “stunner” of a morning I was heading out with Mark Wallace from Fiordland Outdoors Company who specializes in Jet Boat Fishing Trips on the Waiau River. Butterflies started to comeback as we got onto the water. Mark was talking about the healthy fish population in the river and he explained; “It’s a great river for beginners.” Fortunately it did not take long to loose the dark cloud that had been hovering over me on my last couple of days on the water. In the first hole we stopped in, Mark spotted a chunky rainbow cruising around feeding just below the surface. It only took a couple of drifts to fool this fish with our dry fly-dropper rig. After getting on the board, Mark decided we would head to a spot that was known to hold Brown Trout feeding in the shallows. We beached the boat at the bottom of a big run and started to stalk up the bank looking for fish. As predicted, there were about a dozen browns holding near the bank feeding, spaced about 20 feet apart. I quickly hooked the first one that we spotted. Without hesitation this healthy fish was ripping line off the reel, heading towards the other side of the river, and before I knew it, my line went slack and the fish snapped off my fly.
Mark headed up stream and spotted a bigger brown but it wanted nothing to do with either of our rigs. We both made a few good drifts and each presented a handful of different fly patterns to the fish. Before giving up, I sorted through my flies and spotted a hand-tied Hare’s Ear that Doug had given me after our day in Murchison. On the second drift my indicator dry fly disappeared and Mark hollered; “You got him!” After a quick fight I had finally landed the New Zealand Brown Trout that I had been thinking about for months.
Through this humbling experience in New Zealand I developed a new appreciation for some of the frustrations that all beginners go through. With the help of River Haven Lodge and Fiordland Outdoors I return to Montana as a better angler. To go back to the golf analogy, I now have a more refined chip shot and a few more clubs that I carry in my bag of tricks.
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.
I try not to go overboard with gratuitous grip n’ grin pictures, but I couldn’t help myself….
Over the last couple of weeks fishing all around Montana has been excellent. Being centrally based in Philipsburg, Montana I get the rare opportunity to explore & fish on a diverse selection of waters. In the last month I have been lucky to guide on Rock Creek, Georgetown Lake, the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. Here are some of the highlights!
Set, set! There it is! Fish on! Bam! Oh yeah! Fish off! Son of a #&*$@!
These are the echoes that fill the air through the canyons of Rock Creek as the annual emergence of the famous Salmonflies cause both trout and anglers alike to go into a frenzy.
The trout have endured the long winter and the spring run-off, and they are now feeding on the buffet of stoneflies that have just started to hatch. Just imagine someone tempting you with a t-bone steak or large pizza after you have gone hungry for weeks. It is really hard for trout to resist the well placed dry fly during this hatch.
For anglers, this mythical hatch is really the first time all season when you can fish big dry flies. We have survived months of watching the bobber, or twitching the streamer, and the thought of drifting a fluffy foam bug raises the blood pressure and the adrenaline gets pumping.
This combination of ferocious takes and excited anglers can make for some of the most memorable and thrilling fishing of the summer. You can have the opportunity to land dozens of fish, but in my experience, you typically miss more than you get to the net. I have the bad habit of seeing the fish coming for the fly, getting anxious, setting the hook early, and pulling the fly out of their mouth before they eat. Sometimes the fish aren’t really eating your bug. Either they are slapping at it, rolling over it, or just trying to stun the bug as it floats by. Other fish you set the hook and connect with, but because of the timing of the hook set, it comes un-buttoned. Regardless of getting the fish to the net or not, it is hard to beat being able to see hungry Brown and Cutthroat Trout chasing down a big dry fly.
Even though this hatch can be epic, you still need to be aware of some other factors that can effect your success in a stonefly hatch.
Receding river flows and water temperatures increasing trigger these big bugs into hatching. The water levels may be dropping, but the flows are still very high and fast. The high water makes wade fishing very difficult and non-advisable in some areas. Fish are typically held really close to the banks hanging out under bushes and trees and these spots can sometimes be impossible to fish by foot. Even if you are floating, you still need to be cautious of the swift flows and downed trees that have accumulated through the run-off. Either way, being safe on the river is more important than catching fish.
Rumors of salmonflies travel very quickly. Especially, in this day of social media the word of stoneflies crawling around can attract anglers from hundreds of miles away. For some, this can detract from the serenity and peace of the outdoors, but there is plenty of river for everyone to enjoy. We are all out there to have fun and it can be enjoyable as long as we are all courteous. Share the river, share the road, and share the boat ramps.
Finally, the window for this hatch can be very limited. Depending on the season, the salmonfly hatch can last anywhere from a couple of days up to a week or two. This is when the phrase “should have been here yesterday,” can definitely ring true.
This is the time, get to the creek now before the salmonfly frenzy is over!
As an avid outdoorsman, and Outfitter, I believe it is important to take care of the resources that we enjoy everyday. Last week I was lucky to be a volunteer in the 2nd annual Clark Fork River Clean Up sponsored by The Ranch at Rock Creek, the Clark Fork Coalition and Trout Unlimited.
The participation and turnout was great to see. There were over 10 boats and 25 volunteers that helped with the event.
We floated, and cleaned, an 11 mile stretch of the upper Clark Fork downstream from Drummond. The health of this section of water has steadily been on the rebound since the removal of the Milltown dam in 2008. Even though the upper Clark Fork does not see as much recreation as the lower river through Missoula, it is still important habitat for fish and wildlife.
Between stops to pick up trash and debris, I managed to find a little time to fish. This beautiful brown trout served as a reminder of why we need to work to protect and clean our rivers.
Some days the fishing guides smile on you & some days they don’t cooperate.
About a week ago I spent 5 days floating the Smith River and due to water conditions I only landed 1 fish.
Being slightly frustrated, my next outing brought me to the Roaring Fork River on a recent road trip to Colorado. As I walked down the banks towards the river I noticed the water levels and visibility looked good, some clouds gathered and created some overcast, and I saw dozens of Mother’s Day caddis bouncing around the trees and bushes. It turned into one of those memorable afternoons when everything seems to come together. Bugs were dancing around the surface of the water and lots of healthy fish were feeding off the top.
I headed back to the truck very satisfied that afternoon after getting redemption from the Smith and a renewed faith in the fishing gods!