Sun Setting on a Great Season

 

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!

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Learning How to Fish in New Zealand

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.

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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.

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Doug leads the way on the Matakitaki

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.

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New Zealand “Chunky Monkey”

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.

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Beautiful Day on the Waiau

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.

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5 1/4 Pound NZ Brown

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.

 

 

Summer Highlights

 

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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.

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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.

Fish On!

I try not to go overboard with gratuitous grip n’ grin pictures, but I couldn’t help myself….

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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!

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Upper Madison Rainbow
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Big Browns Love Big Dry Flies
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Nothing Wrong with a Whitefish
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7 Year Old Fooling a Cuttie with a Dry Fly
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Brown Town on a Size #18 Dry Fly

Salmonfly Frenzy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

High Water

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.

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Crowds

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!

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Cleaning Up the Clark Fork

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.

 

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Shoreline lunch to help refuel from the hard work

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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.

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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.

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Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch

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.

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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.

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I headed back to the truck very satisfied that afternoon after getting redemption from the Smith and a renewed faith in the fishing gods!

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First Time Experiences with the Fly Rod

I was 12 years old and had been fly-fishing with my Dad for about a year.  Until that point I had hooked plenty of trees, bushes and rocks but had yet to hook my first fish on a fly.  I was beginning to get really frustrated with this new fishing technique and was on the verge of switching back to the reliables of worms, powerbait or the Panther Martin.  One afternoon my Dad and I  walked down to one of his favorite spots along the banks of the Colorado River.  Given my frustration, I was pretty much going through the motions thinking I was going to have another fish-less outing.  I will always remember the moment that day when my Dad hollered  “set the hook” and I actually felt a fish on the end of my line.  Being in complete shock, I am pretty sure I lost that first one, but just a few casts later I landed my first fish on a fly rod.  Over 20 years later I am still “hooked” on the sport that I almost abandoned.  To this day I am passionate about the sport because, regardless of your age or level of experience, fly-fishing is filled with those memorable “first time” experiences.  Whether it is your first time, first fish, first time on a new river, or first fish landed on a dry fly of the season, fly-fishing is full of new experiences.

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Banks of the Colorado River

Experiencing these first times also fulfills the urge to explore and discover new places.  We are very fortunate to have hundreds of miles of river, hundreds of lakes, and miles of backcountry to explore nearby.  It is nice to have the “honey hole” that can always be relied on for a fish or two, but I really enjoy pushing myself to try new spots, new waters, or simply float a different stretch of river.  These new experiences can be challenging but are typically extremely rewarding.  Exploring these new locations will sharpen your ability to read water and identify holding water for fish, can broaden your knowledge of entomology and bug life, challenge your rowing skills, and can provide the opportunity to catch new species of fish.

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Exploring the canyon of the Smith River

As I have had the chance to introduce others to the sport, I have enjoyed getting to experience those fly-fishing first times, second-hand.  Recently I have enjoyed teaching my fiancée how to fly-fish.  I have been there for her first catch, for the landing of her first BIG fish and watched her fool her first fish with a dry fly just a few weeks ago.  I think she has enjoyed these experiences since she keep going on outings with me, but my excitement on these days has been through the roof!  Two weeks ago on the Bitterroot I could not help but to holler and yell when a nice cutt-bow inhaled her skwala dry fly.  I am not sure if she was more surprised by the fish taking the fly from the surface, or by my childish reaction.  Either way, she is definitely prepared for my response to her next fly-fishing first; hopefully landing a Brown Trout that eclipses the 20 inch mark or catching her first colorful Brook Trout.

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First trout fooled by a dry fly

Now I find myself making lists of what my next new experience with a fly rod might be.  It could be landing my first Steelhead, could be casting to exotic species of fish on a saltwater flat, or traveling to far away countries with my fly rod.  Thanks to my Dad’s introduction to fly-fishing I will continue to pursue all of those first time memories.

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Dad’s bucket list fish

That Time of Year Already…

As I was leaving the bar a few nights ago I stopped to talk to a buddy about some upcoming fishing trips.  Someone overhearing our conversation remarked to us, “Is it that time of year already?”  Both us being hardcore fly fisherman we responded emphatically, “It’s always that time!”  Meaning that, regardless of the weather, there are always fly fishing opportunities somewhere around Montana.  The following day, while exploring water in the Blackfoot River valley, I had the realization that regardless of your passion there is always a way to enjoy it throughout the year in this great state.

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Prime fishing season in Montana typically runs from mid-April until late October.  During winter months there are still plenty of options for anglers.  Lakes, such as the locals favorite Georgetown Lake, will freeze over and fishing can be very productive through the ice.  Plenty of local rivers and streams will flow free, not ice over, and fishing can be productive all year.  During cooler months the trout will tend to school up in the slowest, deepest holding water in the river; making them fairly easy to find.  Next, we are lucky to have a few world-famous tail waters, such as the Missouri and Beaverhead Rivers, within a couple of hours.  The dam regulated water temperatures in these rivers will help produce trophy size trout all year.  Finally, one can easily pass the winter months by tying flies, shopping for new gear, or by watching hours of fishing videos online.

Now let’s say that you are passionate about skiing, snowboarding or winter sports; how do you survive the summer months with no snow?  Plenty of people that I know switch to going downhill on the Mountain Bike.  We are fortunate that the lifts at many ski resorts around Montana, including Discovery, will run all year long.  When the snow melts; simply grab the bike, helmet and protective gear and you can still get the thill of screaming down the slopes.  If cross-country is more your speed though the winter, then you can strap up your hiking boots and have endless miles of backcountry to explore through the summer.  Next, if you live here for the epic snowmobiling then you can definitely make it though the warmer months by hopping on the ATV, Motor Bike, or in the truck and four-wheeling through our beautiful mountains.

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What about the hunters, don’t they only get a couple of months in the fall to pursue their passion?  The most accomplished and successful hunters I know are preparing for the fall throughout the year.  Shed hunting season is just around the corner.  Scouting the backcountry, discovering new areas, and tracking the movements of the herds is an ongoing process.  Finally, to be successful, most hunters spend lots of time through the summer with target practice.  Fine tuning their shot and learning their weapon.

It seems that most people live in Montana, or Philipsburg, because of a passion for the outdoors.  Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall there is always something available for you to enjoy.  And if the weather takes a turn for the worst, and the outdoors are unbearable, we are lucky to have lots of great breweries, distilleries and local bars around the state to help weather the storm.

Family Traditions Continue & Grow

For me, fishing has always been associated with family.

My dad tells me that I was two months old on my first fishing trip and we continue that tradition to this day.  Some of my fondest memories include my dad, sister, and occasionally my mom, enjoying the great outdoors on a beautiful river or lake.

Dad and sister on the banks of the Gallatin River
My Dad, sister and Lady Bird on the banks of the Gallatin River

Since becoming a fishing guide I have preached the joys of spending time with family and friends while on the water.  Regardless of how good the fishing is, quality time on the water with loved ones is hard to beat.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to spend quality time on the river with my dad and have had the chance to introduce my girlfriend’s family to the sport of fly-fishing.  Each experience was extremely rewarding in their own respects.

The Hyndman Family on the banks of Rock Creek
The Hyndman Family on the banks of Rock Creek

I have been lucky to show the Hyndmans – Ken, Judy, Gwyneth and Sean –  the beautiful rivers that I call home.  Ken and Gwyneth are now fly-fishing veterans after hitting the river a year ago, but Judy and Sean took their first casts just a few weeks ago.  It is always rewarding seeing the face of a beginner when they hook into a trout, but seeing the joy and excitement on Judy’s face was something special.  Judy lives with a disability and uses the support of crutches to walk most of the time.  When she expressed interest in trying to fly-fish I was determined to give her the full experience.  Instead of sitting on the bank, I made the decision to set up a chair in the river and to give her the chance to wade and cast from the water.  With the help of the rest of the family we got Judy to the water and I began the casting lesson.  Fortunately, the fishing gods where looking down on us and within a few casts we had a beautiful brown trout on the end of the line.  The thrill and emotion shared between all of us was overwhelming as we put the trout into the net!

Judy on the way to the river
Judy making her way to the river
Streamside entomology lesson
Streamside entomology lesson
Casting Introduction
Casting Introduction
First Brown Trout to the net
First Brown Trout to the net
Judy lands another!
Judy lands another!
Sean gets in on the action with a nice brown
Sean gets in on the action with a nice brown

A week after helping Judy check off the bucket list fish that she didn’t even know about, my Dad made his annual fishing trip to Montana in search of his bucket list fish.

Over the last few years he has been extremely jealous of the big fish pictures that I send him.  On this trip he had the goal to land the “big one” himself and he termed it his bucket list fish.  Since the summer season had wrapped up I was able to spend plenty of time with him on this quest.  Through his couple of weeks in Montana we had some great days on the Madison and Missouri Rivers.  Introducing him to the feisty trout of the Missouri River was an amazing experience.  The strength and size of these fish are enough to make any experienced angler chuckle and grin like a little kid on christmas morning.  My Dad was no exception when his reel began to scream after hooking into a his first 20 inch Missouri River rainbow.  After being schooled by a few hot fish he was finally able to get one into the net.  This beauty taped around 22″, weighed 5-6 pounds and my Dad exclaimed that it was the biggest trout he has ever landed!

Dad's bucket list fish!
Dad’s bucket list fish!

These experiences have reminded me of one of the biggest reasons that I love fishing; all of the lasting memories that are created with friends and family.