Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Early winter float

I had a float scheduled for this week. The weather was looking good - nice and stable, highs hovering at about freezing. Clear skies without being cold-front blue. But in the days leading up to this was a bit of a storm. First it rained, which then froze, and then it snowed. I'd floated the day before the storm, and as a result, had left my Stealthcraft hitched and uncovered. It filled with dense snow and ice. A couple days of barely thawing temps only served to turn the snow into concrete in the bottom of the boat. So, after my wife was out of the garage and safely on her way and out of sight, I snuck the boat into it.  I shoveled out all that I could, set a space heater on the front deck, and left it for the day. That night I broke up the inches of ice in the bottom and shoveled more out. By morning, the day of my float, there was nothing but water in the boat. I hitched it up, pulled the drain plugs, and set off to the river.

The guy I was fishing with and I ran our own shuttle, and then launched, sending a hoard of geese off the water and into the air from what would normally be a ramp buzzing with people.  Mine was the only truck parked there.  The first half hour or more was void of action. Bald eagles watched intently, seeming to move perches after we drifted by so they could watch us go by all over again. We casted to rocky banks, swirling eddys, longer riffles, and grassy flats. It wasn't till we started along an outside bend where the the water was about chest deep and flowed in a slow, but uniform pattern with a subtle chop that we got our first hook up. I dropped anchor as the fish made its first run, and then we proceeded to take 6 or 8 more solid fish from that reach. They were all a thick 16 to 19 inches - remarkably uniform in size. As we proceeded down river we would target similar looking runs of fairly deep water with steady, uniform flows. They weren't cruising the shallows and they didn't seem to be holding in swifter water. After the slow start, we were doing well now. Fish were coming on 1/16th-ounce Zig Jigs and 3-inch soft jerkbaits on 1/8th-ounce minnow heads.

We rounded a snowy bend, finished up another productive stretch of outer bank, and came to a ledge of rock where the river is forced around a fixed point, creating a large, deep, circular eddy behind. Current hugs both the upstream and downstream sides, each flowing opposite directions and colliding at the point. It's a place I like to spend time focusing on whenever I'm passing by - trying to make a jig work all the faces of rock and reach the extreme depths of the hole. Back in the summer another fellow floating with me on a rainy rainy August day had landed a fat brown of  22 inches on the downstream fringe of this hole. So far that's been the only "big" one that the hole has given up for me, but there's got to be many others - I just haven't unlocked the secret to the presentation in this big swirling hole yet. I was just explaining that out loud when my partner ties into what turns out to be the second big brown of this hole. A nice 21-inch fish that started with a sluggish fight and then finished strong at the net. This is what we'd come for. Fish like this are well worth pushing ice out of your eyelets every few casts. The brown had taken the soft jerkbait dropped along the upstream side of the rock ledge, nailing it as it reached the extent of its drift and was on its way back up to the surface on a taut line - a "minnow" caught in a current it couldn't escape from.  An easy meal for a fish-eating fish on an icy day.

Later in the float, right before taking out, we would drift by a smaller rock ledge that provided very similar structure, depth, and flow. From the bow of the boat my partner fed his jig to the icicled ledge at very close range as I hovered just upstream of it with the electric motor. As the jig swung up in the current and came into view, a brown that dwarfed the first appeared behind it, zeroing in on the rising jig. The same presentation that took the first.

Watched hits often don't go well. At least not with lures like this that you are in tune with feeling rather than watching. It's different with a surface bait - a dry fly, a zara spook, a buzzbait - baits that you anticipate seeing the strike on before the hook set. This was a fish that materialized at a point in the retrieve when you are thinking of your next cast.  Seeing a fish of these proportions does something to a person's reasoning abilities. For the moment the average person, especially one who is very seldom in the position of seeing large fish at the end of the line, goes a little mushy in the head.  My partner cried out some sort of gasping, astonished sentence.  Then, more coherently says "Look at the size of this one!"  He stuck with it and managed a hook-up - like coaxing a pike with a figure eight at the boat - although the hookset was premature and the battle unfortunately short.  What followed was one of those moments of silence that happens in every boat from time to time.  The blank stare.  First at the water, then at the dangling, lonely lure, and then at whoever you just shared that moment with.  Defeat.  And yet, success.  One of the fish on the upper end of the scale was momentarily fooled.  It was the caliber of fish many folks hope to catch once in a lifetime.  It had been hooked, and its whereabouts are now logged in memory.  The blank stare gives way to a broad grin.  There will be a day to try again.  And it will likely be another frozen winter day when not another soul is floating and the water is alive with fish.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Getting a decent river boat has been on my wish list for about 15 years. I haven't been without one entirely - back when I was in college I got my hands on a narrow 14-foot aluminum boat that I've hauled from coast to coast in the bed of my old pick up. A classmate came into lab one day and, knowing I intended to get a boat, told me she'd come across one in the woods that morning while chasing her runaway dog. I followed her directions and sure enough, there it was. An old aluminum jon boat situated over an abandoned and overgrown chicken coop. It had apparently served as the roof before the forest swallowed it up with disuse. At the time, an aluminum jon boat that I could carry in the bed of my pickup was exactly what I had in mind. Both for rivers and for a particular lake with no boat ramps that required four wheel drive and creative launching.  I tracked down the landowner by going to the courthouse and sifting through land records. Hard to believe I've had that boat since before all that was researchable on the internet. I called the elderly lady up who happened to live a couple counties over and got the answer I was hoping for. "Why sure son, I'd be happy for you to have that." Turns out some previous neighbors had spilled over onto her property in the past with their gardens and such, and so it was a relic of previous trespass anyway. Useless to her.
I hauled the boat out of the woods that very day.
I have since banged that boat down rivers in five states. I've launched it in alligator-inhabited southern waters across Texas and Florida.  I've floated it in northwestern alpine lakes on the reflection of volcanoes.  I built a little pad on the blunt bow to receive a transom-mount trolling motor. I reversed the motor's head so that "forward" pulls the boat forward, allowing me to use it like any bow-mount trolling motor or to hover in current with the bow pointed upstream. But it took what might be it's last trip for a while this spring - a float down a prairie tailwater where it boated trout, pike, and walleye.  A superior vessel now sits next to it in my driveway.

I'd been researching river-worthy boats for a long time. Mostly drift boats, but also motorable boats. I came across Stealthcraft, a company in western Michigan that produces a wide variety of motorable drift boats.  Even rowable power drifters they refer to as "all terrain boats" (my next boat). And they build them all out of a lightweight, honeycomb plastic material coated in kevlar composites and fiberglass resulting in a light, tough, and quiet boat. Each boat is custom built to order and the options are seemingly endless, even down to custom artwork on the sides if you are so inclined. I soaked up every bit of media I could find on them. Even followed a boat down the highway I saw being trailered and talked to the owner when he pulled into a gas station.  I'd found the place I wanted to buy from. I settled on one of their smallest models - the 12-foot MiniFly. I wanted to
continue my trend of launching anywhere and everywhere, ramp or no ramp. I wanted the boat to be intentionally motorable, yet I wanted a drift boat.  I wanted it to be light. I wanted it to be spacious and comfortable (relative to my narrow little 14ft jon boat), but small and nimble enough to tackle tiny waters.  I added electrical features such as running/navigation lights, headlights, interior lights, and a 12-volt power port for things like cell phones, a spot light, etc. I had it wired to the transom so that I could hook up my electric motor without cords trailing around the interior of the boat. I added an onboard charger for plug-in-and-go battery charging.  I had chine guards installed so I could strike rocks with a little more peace of mind.  I also opted to keep the front deck as open as possible, installing a removable casting brace (rather than a built-in hood style) and a removable pedestal seat (rather than a built-in box seat - strapped down Yeti coolers with seats mounted in the lids are also an option). The open front can be used to hold a large cooler, to pack camping gear, or to carry hunting gear and game. When floating solo I pull out the seat and casting brace and cast from the fully open deck while anchored, with as much space as if standing on the carpeted bow of a bass boat.  And all of this was thousands of dollars cheaper than any other brand I researched - and that would have been with none of my electrical upgrades, if they were even available at all.  I wound up with an affordable, highly functional, and an extremely versatile boat I can use day or night, motor or no motor.  It has three areas of covered storage (even with me opting out of a built-in box seat for the bow angler), a tackle tray that runs half the length of the boat, and racks to hold four rods underneath the tray.  The interior of the boat is fully open, front to back.  A guy can walk circles around the boat when hooked up.

I was fortunate enough to get to make the trip from Montana to Michigan to pick it up. It was nice to meet and visit with Mike Batcke (the owner of the company) and the crew that had built the boat. Even took a little float down a piece of the famous Pere Marquette, the first river in America to have brown trout.  If you pick your boat up in person, Mike will treat you right - a night in his lodge and trip down the river.  You might even get a shirt and hat or two. I was impressed with the area and its rivers, and if ever possible, I will return for some winter steelhead fishing with Steve Cornetet, Batcke's Baldwin Creek Lodge's head guide.  The evening Steve took me down the Pere Marquette I did land my first Michigan brown and failed to bring a much nicer one to the net, but none of the salmon or steelhead runs from the Great Lakes were in the system at the time.

My boat's first trip on water was a walleye float on the upper Missouri River - the stretch above the lakes and famous blue ribbon tailwater sections.  I was pleased that I could easily motor the boat just as I had intended - "rowing" with my electric motor and fishing at the same time instead of being confined to the oars for mobility. The anchor system is easily reached from either the rower's seat or from immediately behind it. I can have one hand on the tiller and one hand on the anchor rope.  This is extremely handy for pulling a sticky anchor, or for dropping anchor exactly where I want to be.
Subsequent trips have taken place on various sections of the famous tailwater below Holter Dam.  The Missouri is my "home" water at this point in my life, and with the boat being so new, it hasn't been launched in another stream yet.  2015 will change that.
It has carried various members of my family, a number of friends, and some folks I'd never met till the
days we fished.  To buy the boat I sold a pickup truck I'd had for 17 years.  The first vehicle I owned.
All the things I'd done in that truck!
All the places it had carried my old aluminum jon boat to!
And now its legacy will continue in the form of a fine boat.  One that both my kids have already caught fish from, and will likely continue to for much of their lives.
I've floated it in stellar Montana summer weather.  I've floated in an all day down-pour where twice I had to drag the boat on land and pull the drain plugs.  I've floated with snow blowing sideways. I've broken ice out of the floor with a shovel.

Its been a good boat, all six months of its young life.  I admit I row it infrequently, but when I row, it responds well. Spins on a dime. Tracks nicely. There are five oarlock positions and an adjustable (and removable) foot brace on the floor.  Even at just 12 feet it carries three folks fine.  I've spent my time with a fisherman on each end while I row and I've also stood in the stern at the electric motor, while all three folks fish.  The boat is absolutely ideal for two fisherman, and comfortable enough for three that I don't hesitate when the need arises.
Mostly I stand by the transom and guide my drift with the tiller of my trolling motor, hopping onto the oars whenever the water is too shallow for the motor.  Of course that will change on swifter rivers, but in flow where it's possible, using the reversed trolling motor is working as I intended - just as I used to do on my jon boat for all those years, but in much more comfort and functionality.  In future trips I'll be sticking one of my outboards on it and puttering up portions of the Missouri and other slower rivers where ramps are infrequent.  I won't be able to cruise like a jet boat, but I'll likely be one of the only drift boats on some of those stretches.  I'm sure it will see use in lakes as well.

So far I have only one complaint - it takes forever to launch.... if anybody else is around that is.   I spend so much time fielding questions and giving tours of features while at a ramp that it seems half my day of fishing has slipped away by the time I'm floating.  Oh well, I understand the attraction.  I should have brought a stack of business cards back from Michigan....

Thursday, December 11, 2014

One shot at Fall Browns

the big October brown I was looking for

In the middle of hunting season, its hard to take days that could spent in the woods and head to the water.  I've missed the bulk of fall's fabulous fishing for too many years.  I swore this year would be different, but so far I was wrong.  I had two November days penciled in on the calendar for fishing, and those were at the request of a friend to float some out-of-state family members of theirs down the Missouri for a weekend.  I really enjoy taking folks, especially now that I have a highly functional river boat, but that still wasn't going to be my time for pursuing the lunkers of fall.  Although we did catch a few good ones those two days.

But, the need to travel for work came to my rescue.  Turns out I'd be crossing over one of my absolute favorite rivers for browns as I headed to a few job sites.  It's a somewhat obscure river in terms of Montana fame, although by no means unknown, but I still hesitate to mention its name.  I set out for my field work early in the day, preserving the afternoon hours for the water.  After all, this was very likely going to be my only day in all of October to fish, and October was nearly gone.  I arrived with a couple hours of daylight remaining.  I started probing the depths of a large hole that's treated me well in the past with an 1/8th-ounce jig .  Pretty quickly I landed a nice brown.  Last time I'd fished this river in the heat of summer it had taken me a lot of hard work to locate a fish as nice as this first one.  But as time wore on, I wasn't finding them as quickly as I'd hoped.  I figured pre-spawners would be stacked in this hole, with good spawning riffles both above and below.  It seemed a slow-rolled jig bounced in front of their noses would be the ticket.  But as I reflected back on all my casts so far, it seemed that the follows, swipes, and hookups I was getting were on the retrieve, not the "jigging."  I swapped out for a sinking plug and went to
work with cross-stream casts, swinging the plug in streamer fashion, but with much more action and covering much more of the river.  The difference was immediate.  These fish were on the chase, and hookups picked up.  By dark I'd landed four or five browns in the 20 inch range, among other solid ones, and several pesky little rainbows.  I'd covered several hundred yards of river, and I'd driven to a new section once.  As darkness fell, I went back to my original hole.  I dressed a little more warmly and strapped on a headlamp.  I still had faith that this is where the some big ones were likely staged, and they'd probably be much more likely to cruise at night.  I landed two more good ones in the dark.  The second of the two and final fish of the evening was my best brown of 2014.  There was no moon.  It was black as it gets.  Casting relied entirely on knowing what was in front of me beforehand.  Working a lure is tough to do blindly.  Even the tiniest sliver of moon would have made a world of difference for targeting seams and structure.  Without having fished this hole in the daylight, I could have done nothing with it.  As it was, the majority of my casts were likely ineffective and passing over water I wouldn't have casted to if I could have seen. But I'd done what I'd set out to do - I had squeezed in some fishing time into a day that wouldn't normally have found me on the water.  I'd tied into a number of quality fall browns, and one of them was very near a personal best.  Maybe it was.  And all of them are back out there to be caught again - hopefully on a moonlit night or on some foam hoppers next summer.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The hot days of winter

Lately my free time has been poured into hunting season. Elk, antelope, and deer called me away from water for most of three months.  During that time I think I fished only four times. For me that's not much, although one trip resulted in one of my biggest browns to date. A post-spawn bruiser hooked in moonless blackness.
November and hunting season wrapped up with temps around zero. But with the first week of December came a warm-up to near freezing. And field work was on my calendar.  Which means travel.  Which means passing water. And this time of year, it means water void of people. And I can't pass water without stopping....
I needed to head north along the Missouri for field meetings the following day. So, with half a work day behind me and four hours of driving time ahead, I hit the river while en-route for the last couple hours of ever-shortening daylight. The water was steely perfect, and no one was around. I couldn't quite tear my eyes off the hillsides since they'd been glued there for three months scanning for animals, so I wore my binos and checked out the deer as they appeared. After all, the rut was still peaked. And sometimes bighorn sheep show up.
The air temp was just high enough that ice on the line and in the eyelets was not a problem. I got to work swinging jigs and searching out the type of runs they were holding in. I was cutting the first tracks in snow that was days old and frozen to a hard crust.  I was on a stretch that would be crawling with folks in the summer months. The sub-aqueous grass that plagues fisherman summer and fall was all but gone. I slipped along ticking bottom and popping jigs till I found myself in a deeper run and setting into my first hookup. Doesn't matter the time of year, nice trout always enjoy a fat minnow. But now the water was cold enough that even these larger ones were feeding midday and the lethargy of summer was gone. Each fish of any size peeled drag and pumped the rod with spunk I hadn't felt since about March. Funny, everyone flocks

to the river as some of the best fishing is ending, and then go home again about the time it picks back up. Summer is convenient when it comes to hatching bugs and warm fingers, but it's kind of a bummer in terms of pursuing big fish and a heavy fight. At least during daylight hours.
The fish were picking up the jig in subtle but solid unmistakable taps. I'd cast far enough upstream to gain the depth I needed by the time the jig was passing me. Then I'd swing it like a streamer, but also bounce bottom and sometimes feed it line to increase its travel time through the strike zone at depth.
It was hot! The only other guy I saw was a duck hunter. The biggest fish were rainbows. The browns seemed to be holding in swifter water today. At least the ones I hooked into.
Ducks whizzed up and down the river, their wings screaming as they careened by. The occasional shotgun blast rolling through the canyon walls.  Geese honked as they passed overhead in stringy viceroys. Bald eagles circled and perched, eyeing equally the river and the cawing crows. And the deer on the ridges kept my binoculars busy. The draw of glassing for antlers doesn't diminish even after the tag is filled.
I could have just driven by like everyone else and camped out in my hotel room earlier, but packing a rod and a box of jigs was my ticket to a beautiful evening full of late fall/early winter action. And I don't just mean the fish.
As darkness fell the temperature started its dip to single digits for the night. Still, it was hard to leave.  Only nine months left to fish before next hunting season.