Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Looking back

Spring isn't technically over for a while yet, but I start thinking I'm fishing during spring long before it arrives. And now summer patterns are beginning to set in.  Spring 2014 has been a good one. Like last year about this time, I've hit 20 inches or better in four trout streams so far. Was awfully close in a fifth with a 19 incher, but can't claim it - yet. Also, folks who have joined me on excursions to rip
jigs or twitch plugs have collectively hit the 20 inch mark in that many streams as well - although I stand by myself in one river and have been bested in another, making the spread of streams that have produced big fish just a little wider than four.  Trout have made up the majority of my pursuit, but I've also connected with some nice northern pike in one river and some walleye on a couple streams. All that's really lacking in my river pursuits so far this spring by my usual standards is a good smallmouth trip.

Travel for work resulted in seeing new water, directly resulted in one of my 20-inchers, and indirectly resulted in one of my best browns of the year when making a subsequent return trip. A hefty 22 incher caught in a sudden thunderstorm. One of the keys this spring, like most any other spring in the West, has been finding fishable water. I played the weather right and hit a fabulous stretch of time in April when the weather was warming but stream flows were still at winter lows for just a couple days before discharge skyrocketed. I also leaned on tailwaters once the melt began to blow the freestone streams out, many of which remain unfishable. I've hit three primary tailwater streams so far (four if you count multiple dams on the same river), none of which have yet been the Bighorn.
Two rivers involved weekend or longer camping trips. One involved building a pickup rack to carry my jon boat and be able to tow the camper at the same time, which resulted in a couple days of floating productive water, holding and drifting under electric power rather than oars. Another river was fished just for the day, but involved 200 miles of one-way driving before and after. Left before dawn and got back after midnight. Such was the search for clear water. But each paid off big time in the scenery taken in, the family fun of camping, hanging out with friends, and the big fish that were encountered.
So far this spring I have fly fished very little. The focus of each of these trips has been probing the high water with jigs and using plugs as appropriate. I have fond memories of my dad sitting in his bass boat when I was a kid holding up some gargantuan lure on the end of his line that he had just tied on and predictably saying "only big fish need apply!" before tossing the offering out to whatever structure had prompted the switch. Jig and plug fishing is much the same - skip the fluff and go right to the big boys. And higher flows of spring beg for it. As I write this, flows are still mostly peaked, but the corner is turning, and already the hatches are thickening and trout are looking skyward. The surface feeding is picking up, wolf packs are forming on the Missouri, and my fingers are starting to itch for some fly line. Growing up a bass fisherman, there's nothing finer than the "toilet bowl flush" of a fish taking a surface bait. Trout tend to be a bit more dainty, but there's a piggishness in a hefty slurp that you can't deny.  Bring on hopper season!
I didn't always hit the weather right this spring - one wintertime trip found me in northern Montana on the water's edge in 6 degrees casting into a stiff wind. At least I can say I tried.... Another water on my list from that same trip was completely unfishable due to being frozen solid, except for where it plunged through the air and then disappeared under the shelf of ice covering the next pool. But another trip that started in the low teens turned out to be a day of bruiser trout. And other days went from sunburns to snow squalls. Spring is great - your wading boots might freeze to the rocks if you stand still too long, but you might also find yourself in a tee shirt soaking in the first warmth of the year.
There have also been a few heartbreakers among the hook-ups as well. The most prominent in my mind was a brown that ranks among the best I have ever personally seen on the end of a line. I was working a bank known to me to hold good browns. I'd already coaxed a number of solid fish from the stretch over a period of three or four trips spanning the first month of very high releases from Canyon Ferry on the Missouri. While others were focusing on the rainbow spawn, I was keying in on the little gold mine of browns I'd located. I'd
landed at least one above 20 inches from this shoreline each time I'd fished it. The last time I passed over it I was purposely standing high on the bank above it, flipping an eighth-ounce soft jerkbait-style jig along the immediately deep shoreline. The fish have been holding a rod's length or less from the bank, and my high position on the bank, easily 15 feet above the water on a near-vertical slope, gave both stealth and visibility. A long rod is key. I rolled the jig up from the depths and was darting it along the transition from visible bottom to deep green when a huge brown moved to intercept it. My mind didn't react, I took it as a matter of course. My heart
didn't race yet, and I watched the fish take the lure, thrash it like a lion with a gazelle, and then turn to mosey back where it had come from. Mechanically I went to set the hook at just the right position in his turn, but my fingers had failed to take in the slack I'd given the fish to "make his kill". The mistake meant that the hookset was made on a slack line and when the line came tight on the fish the break was instant. The brown started doing somersaults trying to toss the lure. Even before I accepted that I had broken the line, I was watching the fish fight as if he were still attached and briefly tried to convince myself there might just be more slack to gain.
But I knew what I'd done and could only watch the show beneath me as the fish rolled around in the
shallow water against the bank. It even paused for a while and held in the current in plain sight, as if taking up a new feeding lane, before it slipped back to deeper water.  I even had plenty of time to call out to my partner and say "I wish you were over here to see this." What might be trout of the year was just dancing around, and I had the time to describe out loud what I was watching before the fish went out of sight. Wish I'd thought to pull out the camera and snap a picture....

Sunday, June 1, 2014

the tackle shop

I was recently in a well-known tackle shop in another town, which shall remain nameless, where I overheard a conversation between customer and salesman. The customer was new to town, about to start a new job. He wanted to spend the weekend fishing and was picking the man's brain for local information. A common enough scene. The customer was purchasing supplies for spinning gear. I'm not sure of the baits, but he had some light monofilament and a few other terminal things in his basket. The salesman was incredulous that someone should be buying such things while asking about trout streams. He pushed the shopper hard about using spinning tackle and unabashedly denounced the customer. To provide some form of an answer to the customer he described one particular stream and acknowledged that perhaps spinning techniques would work, but that fly gear would be superior. He described another famous Montana water with eloquence akin to Mark Twain's, but then shriveled his nose and said something about how spinning gear would not be effective. He rubbed harder and said that it was truly a fly fisherman's paradise. He was relentless and asked if the customer has ever fly fished. The customer said that he had three times in his life, and had been in the trees and the back of his head more than in the water. Eventually he cut the salesman off and said "Look man, I'm in town for the weekend before I start my new job and would just like to wet a line." The salesman truncated whatever he was about to say and settled on a stream, pronouncing it to be the one that would likely suit him best. The customer thanked him politely and started to walk away. The salesman called after him and said "You really need to see the light and come over here, away from the dark side. First time you catch a fish on a fly you'll be hooked! You'd rather catch one on a fly rod than fifty on your spinning gear...!" His voiced trailed off as the customer slipped away into another section of the store.

What a prick.

I had my hands full trying to herd my kids toward the door to meet a time frame to be somewhere else, but I would have liked nothing more than to have sought that customer out and given him the pointers he was looking for. I would have also put in a few good words about fly fishing as something he might like to try someday and made an effort to save the sport some face, for I'm sure that customer walked out of that store with no desire whatsoever to pick up a fly rod anytime soon - unless he felt like he was going to "have to" in order to be accepted into his new town. And the last thing he needs is to be shamed into it.

The arrogance of that salesman chaps my hide. But the mentality he displayed is far too common. It was like a radical left-wing liberal robotically spouting off about his cause with no understanding of the topic as a whole.  Any style of fishing can be done mindlessly and without skill. Fly fishing too. It doesn't take much effort to perform a basic cast - the skill is in the awareness of the surroundings, the presentation, and management of the cast once it's on the water. Same is true of any number of properly presented baits with spinning gear. Mindless casts with any gear catch fish now and then, but the guy who picks the water and all its subtle structures apart with whatever gear happens to be in his hand - using whatever the proper mix of rod length, action, line weight, lure weight, pattern, etc happens to be - now that's skill. Regardless of the gear.

I've read descriptions of services on guides' websites that recommend against spinning gear, saying that it only occasionally works on the streams they fish. It's true that when two members of the same party are fishing by different methods that a buddy system approach to the stream will be frustrating, and that is not conducive to a smoothly guided trip. But then the descriptions will go on to say something like "none of our staff use those methods anyway."  I can just hear the slight snarl as whoever typed the words lingered on the word "those."

I have a friend who likes to say that fly fishing is the best thing that ever happened to fishing - it pumps a bunch of money into the industry but virtually leaves the water untouched. As much as I love to fly fish, I tend to agree. Whoever dreamed up fly fishing was no doubt trying to figure out a way to get a weightless bait to cast. That's still where fly fishing excels in my mind. To me, that's it's purpose. Casting an otherwise uncastable bait. Presenting an otherwise unpresentable lure.  I love to float a dry fly. I like to employ nymphs. I really get into swinging a streamer. And then, I love to swing a plug. And I get an absolute kick out of bouncing jigs. On rare occasions I might toss a bait rig, but in recent years I mostly find myself doing that on steelhead water - why? Because I get a kick out of it. I love the drift. I have been known to tip a beadhead nymph with a wax worm now and again in my past. Thing is, I LOVE to fish. Love it. I'm not going to steer a guy one way or the other. I'm not going to denounce someone for choosing a method and sticking exclusively with it - unless they do so with such arrogance as to belittle the other, such as was demonstrated by the salesman I witnessed earlier. A man I would have fired on the spot had I owned the store.