Sunday, July 6, 2014

Little Pike on the Prairie

I just finished up a week of travel. Work took me up north of Helena towards the Canadian line, across the hi-line to the North Dakota border, then swung me south through the Terry badlands, Billings, and back to Helena. Thunder storms and flash floods ruled out fishing any southeastern Montana waters. For a normal person mosquitoes would have ruled out fishing any of the northern waters. But being me, I
suited up in a hat and gloves (because that's all I had) and stuck it out.  The first night was four hours of swatting, snorting, grimacing, smearing bloody bug guts, and, well, fish.  And it was worth it - I kicked things off on the first evening and on the first river with a decent little walleye, followed by a rainbow, then a pretty nice pike, and then a solid brown.  I  rolled a heavy fish that I tried to tell myself may simply have been a carp that I bumped, but my gut said it was the big brown I envisioned occupying that hole.  And the hit came right when it "should have."  A previous trip two years earlier had produced an 8-pound brown from the same deep bend.

By the end of the evening, I'd caught and released multiples of each species.  There was a flurry of action from half a dozen small walleye right at dusk, and as darkness fell I turned my attention full-on to pike. It has been years since I had some good top water action, and it was a blast drawing some vicious strikes on top water plugs and buzzbaits.
I hate to say that I landed none on the buzzbaits, only the plugs,
but I did thoroughly enjoy the three ferocious hits that slammed the gurgling lure, plus one follower that looked like Nemo's submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  By 11p.m. I decided it was time to pry myself off the water if I was going to be fit for work the following morning.

Two evenings later I met pike again, this time on a remote prairie stream along the Canadian border.  I gambled that it might hold pike, and sure enough, it did.  As pike go, they were pretty little.  Classic hammer handles some of them.  But considering the water, they were huge, at least to me. The stream was little more than a proverbial "babbling brook" - and it was actually rocky and clear. I stopped at the first stream crossing I came to.  The clear water emerged from a channel choked with reeds, formed a small pool where it backed up behind the culvert and road fill, and then spilled through to the other side.  Not much to work with, but I was excited at how clear it was.  Most anything else I'd crossed over in the previous couple days was muddy.  I tossed a #11 Rapala across the hole and pumped it back along a submerged weed line.  The cast was barely more than 30 feet.  The entire stream disappeared under the road through a partly-filled 24-inch culvert. But under the glare of the reflected bluffs around me was the distinct rush of fish, coming on a collision course.  It missed.  A cloud of mud passed by.  A quick repeat cast produced a follow, but not a strike.  My first thought was "YES! Pike are HERE!"  My second was "Man, I can't believe a pike would let a meal like that just pass on by in such small water. He can't afford to be picky."  He may have gone 20 inches - not much for a pike, but big when I think he could have gotten wedged between the banks where the stream entered the hole if he turned sideways.  By now I'd gathered a quite a herd of curious cows.  Much better than the mosquitoes of the previous evening.  The fish wouldn't fall for anything else, and I drew only one other strike from a much smaller fish up at the head of the pool.  But I was energized.  Fish were here.  I already felt like I'd conquered the stream just for having found it, deduced from a map that it would be one that should hold pike,and then drawing a strike from one on my first cast.

I moved ahead to the next crossing a few miles further upstream and was greeted by the welcome sight of a large hole weaving among prairie grasses that was spanned by an old timber railroad trestle, the peeled logs from a century ago glowing in the evening sun.  The hole yielded half a dozen pike that decided to join me on shore for a photo op.  It produced three times that many strikes, and even stole off with a Rapala or two, despite my use of a super line and having removed the front trebles, forcing the hookup to occur at the rear of the lure where teeth would be away from the line.
A sandy haired young man rolled his ranch pick-up to a stop to check out what I was up to.  We shook hands over the rifle in his front seat and exchanged names and a few lines.  He was obviously intrigued to find anyone fishing, and probably intrigued that it wasn't anyone he knew.  How could a stranger have stumbled across this water?  He didn't know much about what lived in the stream, although I got the impression he'd lived his life along it.  He gave me the phone number of an area landowner who would grant access to larger stretches of the stream than just these crossings I was fishing, and I logged it away for future reference.  It was unfortunately too late in the evening to be bothering anybody.  I probably
didn't have enough light left to even fish more than one other hole.  The heavy Scandinavian accent, narrow glasses, and wool cap made the man seem out of place in his truck.  His whole demeanor would have been better placed in a wagon behind a team of horses.  He really didn't seem much removed from the pioneers who'd settled the land a century earlier, at least my mental picture of them anyway, which was largely drawn from the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder that my wife and I have been reading to our kids lately.  And in a way, I suppose he wasn't.  My own family can be traced in part to subsequent voyages of the same Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims, and we have scattered about the country in the three hundred years since.  Here is a land settled really only a short time ago.  Sometimes the tipi rings observed on a prairie bluff look like they were left there only as long ago as the abandoned homestead cabins scattered among the creek bottoms.

The third piece of water I fished was the Fort Peck Dam. Walking the huge rip rap along the lake side in summer can produce some good smallmouth action, along with the occasional walleye and pike as well.  I was a tad too early in the year, but I got to check "smallmouth bass" off the list for spring of 2014.  I caught very few fish overall, and most were pretty small.  Another three weeks and it probably would have been just about right.  Still, I got to scratch the smallmouth itch.  At least a little bit.

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