Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spring (crazy) fun

April in Montana.  Everybody gets excited when it hits 60 degrees, but nobody puts their jackets away.  Parts of the state saw 70 degrees last week, but Saturday on the river found me knee-deep in water squinting through the snowflakes stinging my eyes.  It was a brutal day weather-wise.  It was 40 at dawn, the high for the day.  Not bad really, but it was windy, rainy, and snowy all day.  By the time I got back to the truck ten hours later it was hovering just above 30. Most every part of me was numb, but well worth it (although a few folks have been known to call me crazy).  These can be the best days.  The action might not always be hot, but the fish are quality.  Big rainbows are stirring as spawning urges them out of the depths.  Higher water flows get the browns motivated to cruise the eddies and stake out ambush points.  Sometimes the action is only limited by the fisherman's ability to function in the frigid, ever-changing conditions.  I like days like Saturday.  Only the serious folks are out, but the fishing is unaffected by the time of day.  On the Missouri, if it weren't for the tailwater aspect, there'd be no fishing right now.  The upper river is blown out by snowmelt.  In response, the lower river is flowing at rates double its typical stage, but the water remains clear.  Streamside trails and access points are drowned under a couple feet of water.  Wading remains essential for getting around obstacles and stepping out onto the occasional strategic boulder, although wade-fishing is mostly not an option.

I tackled Saturday's conditions with two spinning rods, each spooled with 4lb line.  I keep one holstered behind my back in my Badlands Black Jack waist pack while fishing the other. The pack is not built as a fishing pack, but I find it to be nearly perfectly suited to it.  My 9.5ft G. Loomis Bronzeback was rigged all day with various jigs.  I will always fish the lightest jig I can get away with, and on Saturday this was no less than an 1/8th ounce.  My 6.5ft Crossfire was rigged with various plugs and crankbaits, although I did take a few fish on Zig Jigs with it as well.  I switched between rods as the water dictated.  Big sweeping holes and runs found a #7 or #9 Rapala Countdown swinging through them.  Boulder pockets and distinct seams found jigs bouncing their way along their boundaries.  For the first half of the day I caught only rainbows.  The very first fish turned out to the biggest - a beautiful rainbow exceeding 26 inches that was around 8 pounds, although I'll admit I forgot to weigh it.  I
caught several other solid rainbows throughout the morning and into the afternoon.  Many on plugs, but most on jigs.

By about 2 o'clock I came to a particularly rocky shoreline framed by high bluffs.  Anyone who knows browns knows that they are likely to be caught anywhere, but they also know that quite often browns orient off a particular structure or stretch of water.  Especially if their population isn't the dominant fish in the stream - then they really tend to just occupy whatever their favorite parts of water are, much like a bass.  When you find these spots, you can often return to them time and again and expect the same results.  The same is true of smallmouth bass in rivers -once you've identified a piece of water that holds them, you can almost always find them there.

This rocky stretch was on the outside of a bend, and the swollen river was slamming into this bank.  An astute observer of my photos once pointed out to me that I often fish steep rocky edges.  It's true, even in smaller streams.  Often at the point where a fisherman typically crosses over to fish from the inside of the bend, I stay on the outside, and precariously pick my way along the edges, thoroughly working the deep pockets that are nearly impossible to keep a lure or fly in from the other side.  I do the same thing when steelhead fishing.  Poise yourself over the water in the best way possible for keeping your lure or bait in place the longest.  Casting over the current from the "convenient" side often means that your presentation will fall out of the productive holding water sooner than it should have.  Once you've hooked up, finding a place to land your catch can be the real adventure - but at least you hooked up!  My big rainbow to start the day was in just such a spot.  I descended steep rocks just to reach one eddy.  The result was a photo op that looked more like I was posing with a Coho salmon than a Montana rainbow.

My first brown was laughable.  I was tending to a nest in my reel (something not all that unusual when winding on near-tensionless jig retrieves cast after cast). My jig dangled on a rod's length of line in a few feet of water, just off the bank.  The nest of line was pulled from my fingers and up to the first eyelet as a nice little brown grabbed the jig that I must have been dangling on his nose.  I stripped it back in like a fly line and fought the fish for only a few seconds before it flopped off.  Funny, but it got me thinking as I entered that stretch of rocky bank. Turns out the browns were all holding tight to the bank on the outside of this bend.  Some were sitting on what would normally be dry ground, others were deep against the sides of vertical rock faces, but each one was an arm's length off the bank.  The second was a small one.  The third was a savage individual that slashed my jig as I raised it from the water, like a largemouth inhaling a Zara Spook.  He was a girthy fish with a lot of length, and was sitting in very shallow water over rocks that would normally be a part of the trail.  I could see the crooked lower jaw clearly on each of the next two attempts to take a bait.  I
switched lures between each cast, always giving him something different to look at.  I don't know why I was unable to connect with such an aggressive fish, but it wasn't to be, and I moved on.  I had a few chasers and a few followers, each one a brown.  By the end of the rocky stretch I'd landed only half a dozen, but two were fish exceeding 20 inches.  Both nailed a Zoom Tiny Fluke in Arkansas Shiner fished on an 1/8th ounce jig head.  A couple other smaller ones came on 1/8th ounce Glass Minnows from Kit's Tackle, also sporting a Tiny Fluke on the shank.  Unfortunately my camera batteries, including my spares, died.  I guess they'd been through too many freezings and thawings on my recent trips to the river.  I took a couple mediocre cell phone shots on an outstretched arm and one segment of video.  Normally I reach back behind me and set up a camera attached to a small tripod to capture a self portrait as I raise the fish out of the water for a pic.  It still pains me to think of the fish I released that afternoon without a decent picture.  By the time I reached the end of the rocky stretch and the river was straightening out again, I knew I was nearing the time to hike out.  But, still casting the Tiny Fluke up against the bank on a straight downstream presentation, the river had one more pig to part with before I left.  My last fish of the day was a beast of a rainbow that went 6.5 pounds on my pocket scale.  Both my first and last fish of the day were trophy rainbows.  I'll take that.  And I was more than happy to start walking the distance back to where I'd parked to try and get my body temperature back up to human levels.  My wife and I went to dinner with some friends that evening.  After hearing a few details of my long cold day in the pursuit of fish, the lady of the couple across the table quite witfully said, "This isn't the dinner date you think it its, this is an intervention."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ten dollars for water and a beaver hole

A fishing trip is never just a trip.  There's always more.  Occasionally a trip is smooth sailing, but more often than not there is something else besides fish to make it memorable. 

As a kid I remember things happening that ranged from being stranded on a lake after burning up an outboard motor, getting tossed from the bow of the boat when the motor seized (different occasion), to losing a rack off the back of the truck that contained the coolers with the week's worth of food.

This past weekend my family and I took our first camping trip of the year.  One chore to accomplish before leaving was changing the switch that controls the water pump in our camper.   I'd had the time to take it off and match it with a replacement at a hardware store, but didn't get it reinstalled before we left.  I wasn't really concerned, I just figured I'd do it after we arrived.  It has a manual pump handle as well.  But as we wound our way up Highway 12 through the Big Belts bouncing over the frost-heave damage from the fading winter, I noticed water pouring out of the sink drain in my side mirror.  I pulled over to see what was going on and found water in the sink, but nothing else.  Maybe I'd overfilled the tank and some was sloshing out.  Never had that happen before, but I supposed it was possible.  As we crested and started down the other side, I noticed it again.  Turns out the bouncy road had taken the two pump switch wires and miraculously touched them together.  This time I found the pump running and the last few ounces of water from our reservoir spewing from the sink faucet.  Apparently the first time I stopped the wires had separated before I entered the camper to investigate.  Now, with an empty water tank - and two freshly duct-taped wires - we entered White Sulfur Springs in search of a water hose.  The hotel manager I spoke to at my first stop tried to smile away my request for water by saying  "water sure is expensive these days."  After a little more haggling we settled on me trading a ten dollar bill for a full water tank.  Once the deal was done, he softened, and seemed to enjoy the silliness of the whole situation.  "This is a first," he said.  "I've never sold water before." "Yeah," I said, "and I've never bought it from a garden hose."

The rest of the trip went well, minus the wind.  Despite the 50 degree daytime temps, the wind kept conditions brisk to say the least.  Still, we knew we were pushing our weather-luck venturing out so early in the year, and all-in-all it was a good trip.  The water was clear enough to fish and the browns that fell for my jigs ranged from 12 to 18 inches.  None of the brutes I was hoping to encounter made an appearance on this trip. But I'll find them on the next. Or the next.

In order to liven things up a little, or maybe just to escape the wind, my soon-to-be-six-year-old son decided to spelunk down a beaver hole.  He had showed it to me, and talked about wanting to go down it.  But after some discussion of how that was a bad idea, I thought the matter had been settled, and went to tinker about the camper while he continued to play around its entrance.  A short time later the alarm was raised, and I find my boy head first down the beaver hole and out of sight.  The hole was dug from the top of the bank on the flat land above the creek and plunged sharply downhill toward the water, surfacing again near the water's edge on the steep face of the creek bank.  My son was yelling something about being stuck in the hole, and I was a bit thrown off at first about where that yelling was coming from.  I climbed down the bank to find his face poking out of a root mat a foot or two above the flowing water.  It seems the burrow had taken a bit of a turn at this point and he had become wedged.  He couldn't even turn his head.  I'm not sure where his arms were.  Understandably he was a bit upset, and I was doing my best to talk him through the importance of remaining calm while I tried to do so myself.  I couldn't let him see me seem worried, and I chastised him softly for getting worked up (while making no mention of the absolutely hair-brained act of diving head first down a hole he couldn't see into that was barely bigger around than his head).  Guess he's not claustrophobic.  What had been going through his mind!?  I'm glad no critters were home, and I'm glad it had an outlet - at least he was looking at the sky and breathing fresh air.  Otherwise he was in about as good of shape as he would have been had someone rolled him up in a carpet and leaned it against a wall with his feet toward the ceiling.  I climbed up the bank, relieved that he wasn't in any danger of drowning and that he was at least immobilized until I could figure out how to extract him.  I was already more or less assuming I was going to have to dig him out.  There was no way to pull him through the direction he was going, I'd already concluded that - although like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit's hole, it seemed a shame to waste it. The bank above him was a tangled mess of dogwood and willow.  Digging would be tough.  I peeked into the hole to see perhaps how far I'd have to dig to be able to reach his feet when I noticed the soles of his shoes at the extent to which daylight reached into the hole.  Now I went into the hole head first.  Granted I didn't really fit, but I got my head in, and one arm.  There was enough space that we could talk, and I told him I was behind him.  I groped for the feet I'd seen, but couldn't find them, and asked where his feet were.  He started kicking them up and down, and I realized I needed just a bit more reach.  A little squirming and I had hold of one ankle.  I yelled to him to close his eyes and started a steady, firm pull.  He slid with less effort than I anticipated.  Perhaps it was his slick winter coat.  He moved enough that I could now back out myself and reach in with both arms, grabbing both ankles.  A couple more hauls and he was sputtering on the surface, smeared with mud and looking the part of a chimney sweep.  We hope he's cured of his curiosity about holes. I joked with him as I dropped him off at school Monday morning, telling him to be good and to stay out of holes today.  He looked thoughtful, promised he would, and then said that he might dig a few in the sandbox at recess.  I affirmed that would be fine.

He tried his hand at fishing for a little bit after being pulled from the hole, but the wind sent him seeking shelter before long.  The next day, before leaving for home, my daughter expressed her desire to catch a fish before leaving.  She's a much more dedicated soul than my son, except for perhaps the exploration of beaver holes and Lego creations, and she laughed at the wind for messing with her casts.  She managed to catch one, and she correctly declared it her first brown trout, which she named Brownie, and decided it should be supper.  It soon took up residence in the cooler as we headed home.  There was no further incident of mention, and in the end, we all fared better than Brownie.