The month of May is traditionally the 'high water' period in Montana and over the past day and a half of fishing my rod has been bent over double not from fish but from casting out heavy nymphs and streamers in slow, wide arcs. All to no avail though, and when I'm not catching fish the last thing I want to be doing is wading in menacingly fast water wearing out my arm by flinging lead and tungsten bombs. It just isn't that fun. I've been told that things should start to settle down in two weeks time and that's when the cutthroat trout will start rising with some intent. I'm looking forward to that time when I can bury the heavy nymphs somewhere in the deepest and darkest recesses of my fly box.
I returned to a lovely looking creek today. It's some way west of Missoula and even though I blanked on it two days ago (the two hours I fished before an epic storm erupted over my head) I could tell it's a trout river with potential. It was flowing fast then but unlike Rock Creek it was clear and inviting, and I promised to return. In fact 'creek' is a bit of a misnomer in these parts - what they call a creek here I would consider a large trout river back in Europe.
I arrived at 11.40 a.m. and for the first hour fruitlessly lobbed a heavy stonefly nymph into the water. The guys in the fly shops here swear by them so I persisted. I began to despair and longingly fantasized of the trout in Wales that were probably that very second gorging themselves on Ephemera danica if it wasn't already too late in the evening over there.
I had to snap out of my reverie and focus on the next piece of water that came into view and I recall thinking something along the lines of "there's no way there cannot be a trout in that pool". The river was momentarily split in half by an island and this pool channeled half the river. With only half the water the flow was more gentle and a change of water colour gave away a drop-off which always seems to harbour fish. I decided a change of tactics was in order and changed the stonefly nymph for a team of smaller nymphs - a #14 Prince Nymph on the point and a #16 Tungsten 'Reckoner' Nymph on the dropper. I took another look at the drop-off before casting and decided there just had to be a trout in there somewhere. And so it was, within a few casts my white plastic air bubble of a thingimabobber (all the fly shops here swear by them even if I was a little reluctant to use one at first) checked under the water's surface and I lifted the rod into the welcome throb of an agitated fish. The fish leaped out of the water at least three times while leading me some way down the river's bank before it succumbed to the pressure and came within clutching distance. It had taken the Reckoner fly. One thing is for certain, it wasn't a rainbow. It was quite possibly a cutthroat but even then it had the beginnings of a pink lateral line and only just the faintest etchings of orange war paint on its jaw lines. I'm thinking this was a hybrid, otherwise known as a 'cutbow'. Whatever it was, I didn't particularly mind. I was happy to finally catch my first trout in Montana after some pretty tough fishing!
The next trout came from the same pool the very next cast and this one was unmistakably a cutthroat. Westslope Cutthroat are the state fish of Montana. It too had taken the Reckoner and I knew I was on to a winning fly pattern. Compared to the first fish, which I suspect had the blood of the rainbow running strongly through it, this cutthroat came to hand rather meekly.
In the very next pool I saw something incredible - a rise! The first rise of this North American trip with a few hours under my belt already. I crept in to position and the video below shows the result. I was a little too eager on the strike and I hope you will pardon the whispered expletive...
There were at least four fish in that small run rising to olive mayflies. At least some of the mayflies seemed to be what they call the Green Drake here, fat and juicy looking, whilst the majority seemed to be a much sleeker and smaller species of mayfly. I missed two more takes before I finally caught a cutthroat from the top of the pool. This cutthroat was full of colour - orange, yellow, pink and a caramel brown - but it had scarred face, probably the result of a previous tussle with a spinner or lure. The effect was the appearance of a permanent lopsided grin and it had me thinking of Harvey Two-Face from the Batman series.
I think the secret of my success on this occasion was finding a quieter side channel where, free from the main current, the trout found it easier to hold and feed. In a quiet moment it occurred to me that catching a Westslope Cutthroat on this trip was the sixth new species of salmonid I have caught in the same number of weeks. I have been incredibly lucky! The fishing I feel is only going to get better from here.