Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Gallatin River - USA 2015

I spent a couple of hours fishing the Gallatin River today. It's definitely one of the most scenic rivers in Montana, so pleasing on the eye that some of the scenes from 'A River Runs Through It' were filmed on it instead of the book's Blackfoot River. But with its natural beauty and a main road running along side it for almost its entire length comes a price - it's probably Montana's most pounded river.

White water rafters receiving last minute instructions before they hit the rapids

The view from my campsite

I found a quiet spot in the river's canyon section, meant to be its most productive, and with my first cast tempted a little trout of about 7 inches to take a black rubber leg stonefly nymph.

The Gallatin's trout don't grow especially large. My guidebook says mature fish hit the 12 to 14 inch mark with only a handful over 20 inches caught every year.  I caught five more rainbows in fairly swift succession and the largest was 11 inches.

The very next fish felt a little different as soon as the indicator checked. The fish immediately started stripping line and once it hit the fast current it kept going and I watched my backing start to fly through the rod guides. The Gallatin's rocks are slippery and I precariously followed as fast as I could. Somehow I managed to keep myself dry and the fish on the line, and when it tired I was able to catch up to it several hundred yards downriver from where it was hooked. The tortoise always beat the hare.

I netted the fish and left it in the water while I took a few minutes to recover my breath! I think this is a pretty decent fish for the Gallatin and with the biggest, stupidest grin on my face I packed up thinking it was unlikely to be beaten today.

A typical Montana scene

In case you ever wondered where your waders come from - Bozeman, MT

I hit the road, Yellowstone National Park my destination and a life long dream about to come true...

Sunday, 21 June 2015

A River Runs Through It - USA 2015

You could say I closed a chapter when I fished the Blackfoot River this past weekend. Two ends of rope being joined together to form a circle, whatever use a circle of rope may be. I'm perhaps one of many in a generation of fly fishermen and women who owe their very passion to the 1992 film 'A River Runs Through It'. I turned thirteen that year and after watching the film I read a library copy of the book. I was too young to understand its full meaning back then but I remember it still took me a while - it isn't light reading - although I suspect it also had something to do with reading the fly fishing references over and over again. I should purchase a copy and read it again to do it proper justice. The book's fly fishing is of course set on the Blackfoot River.

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

It's quite conceivable that the quote above may have played a part in influencing my preference today for fishing a dry fly.  

I drove to the end of a gravel road and set up my camp. I'm still bear shy so I didn't venture too far with my tent. This was, to my mind, the quintessential American fly fishing trip, and again perhaps it has a great deal to do with my early literary influences. Mountains, pine trees, blue skies, clear, turbulent water, cutthroat trout, the threat of bears and long evenings spent around a crackling camp fire with bug spray never far away.

I chose to mostly fish with a dry fly and when I did they were large and bushy because when fish are in the mood to take large dry flies there is nothing more exciting. Golden stoneflies seemed to do the trick on most occasions although I did have trouble setting the large hook and missed many takes. I was going to say that cutthroat proved not to be the dry fly suckers they are made out to be because I saw a number come up to the fly and turn away in sudden rejection. But then one smashed my white plastic bobber indicator and destroyed the illusion. When a large stonefly pattern would spook a fish a smaller elk hair caddis or Stimulator would usually succeed.

I resorted to a nymph on two occasions. The first time resulted in two whitefish and my first bull trout. The latter was only a little specimen and was quickly released because it's illegal to target them. Bull trout are fish eaters and can grow to a prodigious size. I've heard several tales of bull trout attacking a cutthroat at the end of a fly fisher's line and being landed because they refused to let go! When I hooked my largest cutthroat - perhaps a good 16 inches - it was dwarfed by an excited bull trout which followed it around in perfect synchronisation like a Red Arrows wingman. The second time a nymph made it out of my fly box saw three cutthroat come to my net in less than five minutes. I got the idea I could have caught many more fish had I consistently used a nymph but dare I say it that would have been too easy.

Bull trout

Speaking of my landing net, regular readers will know that a few weeks ago I purchased a Brodin net to serve as a memento of this leg of my trip. Brodin is the Aston Martin of nets - fancy but traditional and if you can afford one it will probably be the only one you own for life. Well, I kissed mine goodbye when it floated away with the fast current. I searched in vain and its loss hit me like a missing puppy. I searched for it again the following day and eventually gave up. Then, a couple of miles upriver, something glinting in the sun half way up the canyon caught my eye. It was somebody else's net! I looked around for the owner but the net appeared to have been there for a while. If you recognise it, let me know and I will post it to you. If there are no takers, it's no Brodin but will make an adequate replacement.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Lake Grayling - USA 2015

I don't find lake fishing particularly interesting but when I was told about an isolated little lake teeming with grayling my interest was aroused. When I was told all I'd need was a bunch of dry flies I was sold. What I wasn't told was that to get to the lake a mountain needs to be climbed first! The walk in is only about a mile and half from the nearest road but all of it is up a steep mountain and I sweated and felt as though my lungs were going to burst. I kept to a similar, slow pace as a young couple a little way behind me and it was funny to hear them bickering. He'd probably sold a wonderful, perhaps even romantic, day out at a lake to her but also forgot to mention the mountain standing in the way. I sat down to take a rest - one of many - and as the couple passed me the girl looked at me and said 'I think I'm going to die'. Sympathetically I said 'yep, this hill's a bitch' and meant every word of it.

As I finally reached the crest and emerged through the pine trees into sunlight I realised it would be worth it. Even the couple seemed to have patched things up, their argument long forgotten. In a shallow depression atop the mountain, completely surrounded by pine trees and sandy beaches was a clear lake. I could see grayling chasing each other about in the shallows and there was even a rise or two. No pain, no gain. It also helped being smug in the knowledge that the hike back out was all downhill.

I walked to the opposite end of the lake, to the inlet of its largest feeder stream where several grayling were rising in the shallows.

I cast out a small black CDC pattern and within seconds the fly was attacked. I missed the take and flicked out the fly once again, giving the line a few rapid false casts to dry the fly, and as it settled on the water for a second time it was taken again. This time I managed to set the hook and after a brisk and energetic fight had my first lake grayling in my hands. Apparently the lake dwelling form of Montana's grayling are genetically distinct from the fluvial variety. They look the same though. They really are a good looking fish when they flare out their colourful dorsal fins. The European grayling I have caught in the rivers and streams of Wales and England have red and purple spotted dorsal fins. These grayling had dorsal fins the colour of lapis lazuli with iridescent turquoise spots.  Pink and turquoise stripes adorned their beautiful pelvic fins.

Grayling attacked my dry fly eagerly. If nothing happened immediately upon the fly landing on the water I'd let it drift with the wind and soon enough - virtually every time - a grayling would find it and take it. Only about one in every four strikes was successful though. It's the kind of place that if you wanted to (and could set aside the boredom that must surely set in) you could easily catch a hundred fish in a day. Even though I only used two CDC patterns I also got the sense that almost any dry fly would work on these grayling too. These fish were pretty naive. I fished for a couple of hours, took lots of photos, explored the lake shore and inlet streams and caught about 12 grayling. The best was about 13 inches long and some were as small as 5 inches.

It was fun (only after I climbed the mountain and had a chance to catch my breath) and offered a nice change from fishing rivers.  

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Big Hole Smorgasbord - USA 2015

One of the best things about fishing the Big Hole River is the variety of fish to be caught. The instant your indicator dips under the water you have no idea whether it's a rainbow, brown, cutthroat, brook trout, grayling or whitefish. It's really exciting in fact.

I had a little hierarchy worked out by the novelty of each species. Rainbows and browns are a dime a dozen in Montana, so they were near the bottom of the list but still very welcome. Whitefish are hard, dogged fighters but at times they can be a bit of a plague - almost too easy to catch - so they were consigned to an unwanted last place. Brook trout are still a beautiful novelty to me so they were placed just ahead of the browns and rainbows. Because they're native and found nowhere else in the world cutthroats still hold my rapt attention and I want to feast on them before I leave. They came in second place. The undoubted star attraction however was the chance of catching a pretty rare fish - the fluvial Arctic grayling, Thymallus arcticus.

A distinct species from their European cousins, Arctic grayling are widespread in Alaska and Canada and were once widespread in Montana and Michigan, the only two states in the 'lower 48' where they were found. The Michigan fish are now extinct and the only remnant Montana population is found in the upper Big Hole River. They have been reintroduced and stocked elsewhere but have managed against the odds to maintain a permanent presence in the Big Hole. It would make catching one from the Big Hole a pretty special thing.

I fished the Big Hole on a blustery day of strong downstream winds. At times I wished I was in one of the boats drifting by as they didn't have to deal with the downstream wind, but I did OK. In fact I came pretty close to achieving the 'slam' only to miss out on a brown trout!

Mission accomplished: fluvial Arctic grayling!
Cutthroat (or cutthroat/rainbow mix)

I even caught my largest brook trout to date!

As the evening wore on I tried desperately to land a brown trout to complete the slam but the mosquitoes became too much and viciously chased me back to the safety of my car and tent. I went back to the river the next day and fished it for about three hours, again with a strong and persistent downstream wind and again trying to hook a brown, but managed only a couple of rainbows. Eventually I caught several browns a little way up two of the Big Hole's tributaries and this was good enough for me.

I really enjoyed fishing the Big Hole. To go with the interesting variety of fish it's a scenic river and one of the most recognised by fly fishers in the world. One of its big draw cards is the annual salmonfly hatch in June when large salmonfly nymphs crawl out of the water on to rocks or the stems of grass in droves and shed their skins to become flying trout food. It draws anglers from far and wide and while I saw a quite a few salmonflies the fish seemed to mostly leave them alone. I think the best of the hatch had already passed just a few short days before my arrival and the fish had already gorged themselves to the point of not wanting to eat any more of them.

My guide book describes the Big Hole valley as one of the coldest places in Montana and I can vouch for it. I left my wet hiking boots out overnight and when I woke up the next morning after a cold night in the tent they were plastered by 3mm of ice!

The Big Hole is a river every fly fisher should strive to visit in their lifetime. It's that good.

Monday, 15 June 2015

A Tale of Two Rivers - USA 2015

I've never sugar coated my experiences through the medium of this blog and I'm going to be pretty upfront about my experience of fishing the famous Beaverhead River. I fished it for two days and left with mixed feelings.

Let's start with what was good. It's the Beaverhead. That in itself offered a great deal of pleasure. This was after all Al Troth's stomping ground and home water for much of his life and I did my best to honour him by catching a trout from its waters on his peerless Elk Hair Caddis. Sadly it wasn't to be. The trout of the Beaverhead are largely known to be reluctant to rise to dry flies.

I caught five brown trout and two large whitefish. That's always a good thing, but four of the trout were caught in a twenty minute blitz meaning a long time passed between the sole remaining catch.

It's also much smaller than the Missouri and Madison, the two other 'big name' rivers I fished immediately prior to arriving at Dillon. That's a good thing because I felt more at home the minute I first saw the river. There's also one of the friendliest fly shops I've been to, in Dillon, in Tim Tollet's Frontier Anglers. It's nice to have a friendly place to call in when you need to pick up some flies and advice. Tim walked around barefoot the first time I visited, a lack of pretension which makes one feel completely at ease.

OK, so the not so good things: there isn't much room for both boats and wading fishermen. At least on the Missouri (my first experience of a flotilla of boats drifting by when fishing) the river was big enough for the boats to give me a wide steer, which they are supposed to do - the wading angler has right of way. You can cast across the Beaverhead in most places which means the boats pass right under your nose. You're forced to stop casting and strip in line each time to let a boat pass as it's mostly impossible to continue fishing as a boat approaches. This is distracting. Also, it's courteous to greet and sometimes have a conversation. Not that I'm unfriendly or a complete recluse but it can be distracting when the boats pass by in a steady procession. One boat also fished right through the pool I was already fishing. I could have reached out and plucked the offending angler's bobber indicator right off the water, that's how close it passed by me. I thought this was rude.

Secondly, the river flows parallel to a major interstate highway, a secondary road and a freight train line. I never felt completely 'away from reality' when fishing but this is only a minor gripe. After all, another great river I know of and have fished, the Smalblaar in South Africa, has a highway next to it. But what such convenient road access does mean is that fishing numbers are high and a great deal were spin fishermen who seemed to have no qualm in jumping in the water just in front of me. I'd hear their pick up trucks skidding to a halt on gravel, and they'd jump out clutching their stubby little rods already made up, charge down to the river's edge, and try hit the opposite bank with their shiny spinners. They all seemed to be in a hurry. I'd shake my head at the rudeness and lack of finesse but at the end of the day what can you do when you've steadily been approaching the pool or spot they're now fishing, having watched fish move about virtually where they're now standing? Perhaps with more time I may have discovered quieter sections of the river but I didn't feel motivated to do so.

Many people speak highly of this river, indeed some have called it the greatest river in the West, so clearly one man's meat is another man's poison. Don't let me put you off trying it - you may love it.

I camped right beneath the dam wall - the start of the Beaverhead's best water
Instead I looked at my map book and noticed two blue lines separated by a mountain ridge which seemed to run longer on the page than the average two feet to a metre-wide willow-choked creek does. My guidebook failed to mention them which I thought was pretty alluring. I realised it could be a pretty hit or miss affair but I took a chance on them. The first creek was just big enough to fish but access was a problem and right near where I could have gained access from a bridge a moose sat in the shade of the willows. I don't know the first thing about moose except that they are large animals. They could be timid and harmless for all I know but I wasn't about to find out if they are mean sons of bitches. So I pushed on, taking the gravel road over the mountains through stunningly remote scenery where I didn't see another car for three hours right until the time I decided I needed to pee and that it wasn't necessary to park the car off the single track road. Result? Not one but two cars suddenly appeared out of nowhere, hooting, me trying to hurry and finish while they backed up and waited and just a little embarrassment on my part.

There's a moose hidden under the willows if you look close enough

After three hours of enjoyable driving I came into the next valley at the river's headwaters and even where it is tiniest I knew I was onto a winner. The river had some size to it and looked thoroughly inviting, increasingly so as I drove down the valley. I parked where the river first met the road and within minutes, just as heavy grey clouds started to show and a distant thunder heard, I caught a little rainbow.

I entered into private land where the river meandered through pastures and, always ensuring that I stayed within the high water line, caught a mix of rainbows and cutthroats at regular intervals. I had caught eight before the rain set in and thunder claps sounded above my head. I followed the river channel back to my car and drove down river through a gorge which looked equally inviting but for the storm. I was happy to call it a day and find a campsite when the rain lightened and the river emerged from the gorge into a spring creek section of clear water flowing over lush weeds and fine gravel. I spied a rise from the car so I pulled up and watched the water for a while. Another rise, then another and another. I donned my rain coat and went fishing!

The start of the gorge section

This section of the river was a magical place. It was hemmed in by mountains and fields of wild yellow flowers and better yet there was no sign of another fisherman. I had the entire river to myself. A car would drive along the gravel road once an hour at most. As I began to catch a pleasing mix of rainbows, browns and cutthroats - all on dry fly and the match for size of the trout I caught from the Beaverhead - I began to wonder why this place was left alone when the Beaverhead was pounded. The three hour drive to get there was me taking the long way round into the valley - the quick route is a short drive from the interstate, so access is not the problem. I eventually decided I didn't care why, that in this day and age of overfishing and the majority settling for what's served up to them on a plate there needs to be places like this - rewards for the few willing to take a gamble on the unknown and perhaps miss out on a guaranteed but crowded bet. The effect was intoxicating. I put this down as one of my best days of fishing ever. That's no small feat. My only regret is that my camera battery died and I didn't get to take as many photos as I wanted.

Montana is full of little creeks such as this, mostly left alone while the crowds float and flog the banks of the famous names. I decided to make a concerted effort to find more of these hidden little gems.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

This is Montana - USA 2015

Taking the back roads. Stunning mountain scenery. Casting a dry fly into little creeks to see what they hold. Catching fish. Ticking off the state's blue ribbon rivers along the way. Big skies. Sampling local brews. Pondering the choice of cheese for your burger. Watching the sun set and listening to the splashy sounds of trout eating caddis from your campsite. Being held up by cattle on the roads. Wildlife. A fly fishing store in every town. A pleasingly slow pace of life.

I could live in such a place.