Friday, July 11, 2014

Little cutts, little girl.

In Film Canisters and Cane Poles: a fly history I commented how I might like to break out the old Eagle Claw glass fly rod sometime this summer and introduce it to a few cutthroats.  I got the opportunity this past weekend when my family and I took a short hike up a stream. Mostly it was just a day getaway.  A picnic.  A walk in the woods.  I even took note of a few features for the upcoming elk season.  But, like any outing that happens to pass near fertile trout water, a rod must also be involved.  Two hikes ago we were also along a stream, and I employed the ole "film canister" technique.  That is, I cut a long whippy stick for my kids to trade off flipping a fly into the stream with.  The results were less than stellar, mostly due to the young-ness and lack of intuition my kids possess so far when it comes to approaching water with the intent to catch something.  So this time I packed actual fly rods, knowing there was potential to put in more time on the water.  Even my wife carried her rod.  In the end though, it was still mostly me who fished.  The kids climbed around log jams, scaled high cut banks calving away into the water, took unintentional swims, and fended off all sorts of imaginary dangers that threatened our very existence in the woods.  My wife, very unaware of the danger she was being spared from, read a book in a tranquil patch of sunlight along the spruce-lined stream.  Her rod never got assembled.

My daughter however, joined me on two prolonged stints of casting.  The first one with the old Eagle Claw.  Generally she takes instruction very well and usually puts it to use right away, no matter what the topic.  Today she would have none of it.  I still snuck a hand onto the rod occasionally and made the fly land a little better, and those were generally the drifts that hookups came from.  She did, however, on her second round of casting later in the afternoon, catch one entirely on her own.  She made somewhat of a circular cast, lifting the line as it passed by her and rolling it back up in front.  And on that roll she picked up her first-ever unassisted fly-caught trout when the fly came to rest upstream again.  The fly line was not in her hands and as she lifted the rod the reel spun freely - the drag singing out like she'd just hooked a steelie fresh from the ocean.  Made for some excitement.  A minute later she dragged the nine-inch cutthroat onto the wet gravel in front of her and scooped it up for me to take the hook out of.  She insisted on personally letting each and every fish go that she was around for.  At least after she had come to terms that we weren't keeping any on this trip.

The faithful yellow rod of my youth found new life in the hands of my daughter.

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.