Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fall in Montana: 2016

some trout, a rabbit, plenty of big game, 
endless scenery, and a healthy dose of camaraderie

[Montana Sunrise, Elkhorn Mountains]
[September brown]
Missouri River, MT
Hunting season has a way of interfering with fishing.  Or at least elbowing it's way to the front of the line. [Not that I'm complaining!] Priorities shift for a brief span of time each fall - and right when some amazing fishing is heating up. [Okay, maybe just a little.] I always hope to be successful early and then get back to fishing. But that really isn't ever going to happen - even when successful, there are more tags and more hunts to shift the focus to. I did however run a couple September float trips for folks during the archery season, both of which saw some good action. I even got to fish myself.

Although fishing happens year-round, and hunting only in a tiny window, preparation for hunting is year long. Licensing is purchased at the beginning of the year when all licenses have to be renewed.  I'm not going to spend one day of the year without a fishing license in hand.....   
[Client's beautiful September brown]
Missouri River, MT
Then by March the first round of big game drawings must be submitted. Earlier for turkey.  From then on you're either putting in for more drawings or looking at results of previous ones. Plans are always evolving as the summer continues and drawings are held. I fared well this year and drew several opportunities across the state for various species and picked up a few surplus tags as well.  I held multiple tags for each species I hunted and managed to take bull elk, antelope buck, and mule deer buck. I also had the privilege of being joined by a friend from out of state for a late season deer hunt on his first trip to Montana.

Chapter 1:  Missouri Breaks Elk

[Missouri Breaks sunset]
hiking out of the canyon after quartering my bull
The first big trip on the list was to try and put an archery elk permit to use in the Missouri Breaks.  I packed by bag, my bivvy gear, my bow, and wandered around in the remoteness with no action for a string of days to start the season off.  I was part of a group of four with the same permit.  We split into pairs, the four of us overlapping in the same camp only once the entire season.  My archery partner JJ and I have been elk
[Looking across the Breaks at the Little Rockies from a highway pull out]
hunting the past few seasons by bivvying where night finds us, leaving us totally free to follow elk with no fear of ever getting "too far from camp."  No more hiking  miles in the dark back to base camp just to get up early and hike all those miles back again before daylight.  But we've also learned to save time and resources when there's no action and pull out - either to jump to a new spot or take a break and return later.  After making a few day hunts from home following our initial trip (mostly because I had a cow tag for a local unit burning a hole in my pocket), we packed up to head back to the Breaks for another longer hunt.

[Final mouse-eater of 2016]
But before I could leave, I couldn't help but string up a fly rod and hit the water for a night of full moon mousing. While JJ was home readying his gear and sleeping like a sane person, I was scrambling over rocks in the moonlight and swinging mice along shoreline structure. I knew it'd probably be my last chance of the season.  Didn't find any big September browns, but I found a few rainbow mouse-eaters.  Landing those fish meant that I had hooked and netted at least one fish on every mousing adventure I had made during 2016, and that was pretty satisfying.  Since I would be leaving after sun-up for another four-hour drive back to the Missouri Breaks, I cut it off early and caught a few hours of sleep.

Twelve hours later we were on foot packing in for the second big push, hiking across dry drainages and up dusty ridgelines.  We were trying a new area - navigating across a wide creek bottom, cutting around some private land, and then drifting out into an expanse of BLM that we had been glassing into from miles away during the previous week.  Hopefully there'd be more elk here than where we'd started.

[7-point shed found during the first trip
A reminder of what is possible]
At about three or four miles from the truck we heard our first bugle.  That was already more than last week.  The bugles grew more intense as we made our way towards them.  Dusk was coming fast, but we spotted a few animals on the ridge opposite us, separated by probably a mile of hiking.  We could make out at least three individual bulls by the location of the bugles.  We set up our bivvy camp, being careful to dodge the cactus, and lay there all night listening to their music.  They never really went anywhere. The ridge they were on was mostly private land, but it was surrounded by plenty of public land and timber they'd likely head into during the following day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My [present] take on targeting big trout (always subject to change)

I have places I love to fish because I enjoy catching what's there, or because I like being where they live - experiential fishing rather than trophy hunting - like little Smoky Mountain specks, cutthroats across the Rocky Mountain West, or largemouth from a tannin-stained Southern cypress swamp. Same is true of my hunting and other outdoor pursuits - getting somewhere special. And I think it's important to point out that this type of fishing is probably the bulk of what we all do.  It's the heart of fishing and should not be brushed aside in favor of 'bigger is better.'  But with that said, bigger often is better, and that's deeply rooted in the heart of fishing too.

From the perspective of chasing trout and other cool water gamefish in moving water, and wishing I knew what I was doing...

Define "big."
25 inches of deep structure brown
We all know "big" is a relative term. Maybe "mature" is a better word.  In the right water, a 12-inch brookie is a monster to celebrate.  Somewhere else it might be an eight-pound brown or a 30-inch walleye. Figure out what a reasonable definition of "big" is for the where, what, and how of your fishing.  It varies by location.  It varies with species.  It varies within a species across different regions.  "Big" can even vary with chosen techniques - perhaps you're on a quest to beat your personal best using a fly rod, maybe even a specific type of fly.  And I've come to learn that my own definition varies with my own age and experience - what I saw as 'big' ten years ago and what I see as big now are quite different. At the same time, pictures of what I presently call big would probably not get pinned to the bulletin board in more than a few tackle shops.

Set your expectations and goals reasonably, but don't underestimate a stream's potential to produce. Think big. Whatever you do, don't look at another guy's photos and whine that his fish are bigger than yours. Drooling is fine..... but so is adding his water to your bucket list. Or his methods to your toolbox.

Beast of a brown from the creek where it lives
Fish where big fish live.
Such an obvious statement, but even with the knowledge of relativity, so many people just continue to hit what they are used to and hope for better results than last time (and with baits they are used to - more on that next).  They stay put in their rut of familiarity rather than spending time searching, researching, and ground-truthing.  If you want to chase something bigger, search out water with a reputation for size, or check out unsung water that you think has some potential.  Start generating some local or regional "go-to" spots.  I'm not necessarily talking about destination fishing. Admittedly I do live in Montana, but I've never been to New Zealand, Patagonia, or the Amazonian watershed.  I haven't even fished Alaska or the White River in Arkansas. I'd love to do all that.  Hopefully I will.  But I do know (to some extent) which waters within my reach are better than others for producing hogs.  And there's still more than I can ever possibly explore.  

mouse-eating rainbow
There are established places I go when I want to hunt big ones. And I'm always looking for clues about where to try next to expand my list.  I take note of reputable waters.   I look for trends of larger fish on brag boards, articles, fisheries research and surveys, etc.  This past year I noted a couple monster rainbows (as in well over ten pounds) caught by different anglers from the same Montana river, each listed on a different online brag board.  I haven't been there yet.... but now I'll make a point of it.  That river has demonstrated it can generate size.

I shamelessly glean info off landmarks and terrain in the background of people's photos (hey, if they don't blur it out or do a better job of discretely framing the shot, it's public domain).  I spend time analyzing aerial photography and picking "hot spots" ahead of the trip, sometimes marking them on a gps to be sure and hit them as I float or hike by.

Pre-float aerial photo scouting
Hit tailwaters.

Hit fertile waterways (hint, they aren't always the most picturesque - instead they might be murkier, slower, nutrient-rich cow pasture streams).

Fish above lakes and below dams - and both at the same time if  possible.

Fish the transition sections of rivers where they go from cooler to warmer (baitfish population and other meaty forage can increase, and carnivore size can go up, even if overall trout population decreases).

Side note:
25-inch "transition section" December brown
-lanky post-spawn-
Often my search for big trout translates into hunting browns.  Brown trout are a tantalizing fish to target, and when it comes to browns, bigger can't help but be better.  And a good thing about a stream that has browns - there's always a big one. 
The typical fish in the system might be under a foot long, but there's generally a brute or two that makes their living eating those typical fish. If you think the streamer on your rod is too big for that water, or if a flat-brimmed guru with a suitcase of size 24's laughed at you as you walked by, then you are probably using the right one.

Use a food they prefer.
Using flies or lures that are truly representing preferred foods of larger fish (or at least a food that triggers a predatory or opportunistic response) might rule out "normal" fish. You are certainly going to greatly reduce the number of hookups you could have on a given day or night if you are willing to ignore a majority of the gamefish population.  Be willing to throw baits that are outside of convention - could be oversized, could be something intended for another species entirely.  Picking up decent fish on #11 Rapalas? Jump to a #13, or even an #18.  Cast big mouse imitations in the dark.  Swing streamers that are next to impossible to fly cast with your regular trout gear.  For me, unless I'm mousing (I love mousing!) or working crayfish imitations, this almost always means appealing to the fish-eating side of
Of course a caddis imitation may draw
more strikes - but on the hunt for a big
one I want what is willing to eat the mouse.
trout.  I love big meaty minnows - streamers, jigs, plugs, and soft plastics.  More often than not I'm tossing some of these when hunting bigger-than-average trout in any given water.

    - Downsize?
But a "food they prefer" does not always translate to "big."  There are times when smaller is better. Even times when all this goes out the window and you just need to drift microscopic nymphs (maybe the flat-brimmer above was right) - the timing of which I can never seem to anticipate, so I'm no help to you there, but it happens often enough that it's worth mentioning, even if the practice of it doesn't appeal to me that much and I practically never do it.  Add to that the fact that the  "targeting" of big ones with tiny flies (without the luxury of sight-fishing them) is essentially lost.

Be willing to downsize if your [well-learned and wise] gut tells you should have seen a fish or two by a certain point but haven't - but don't fall back on this too soon!  Downsizing can be tempting - it leads to more action, more numbers, and takes you back to the familiar.  And remember, "familiarity" isn't necessarily your ticket to finding heftier fish.

Taken at night in a small river in a bend
that had proven itself as a holding spot
for larger browns on previous day trips
The hunt for big ones is a mental game of patience and persistence.  You have to be willing to fish all day or night for that one bite.  But it's also a game of observation and intuition, and after you've been at it long enough to recognize trends, you may be able to distinguish between when you truly feel it is necessary to downsize and when you just want some action.....

I downsize most frequently in  water that is ultra clear and water that is both clear and slow (or rather, nonturbulent) - such as dropping from a heavy four- or six-inch jig or streamer to a lightweight 2-inch that more closely matches the minnows or fry I'm seeing.  I think it often just comes down to visibility - a bait has more calling power in clear water than it does in off-color or turbulent water and the fish needs to come closer to a smaller offering before it determines to reject or not, by which time it's more apt to hit (my theory from observation anyway). Likewise, it can make the determination to reject a larger artificial from a greater distance.

I may also downsize in temperature extremes - cold winter days or hot midsummer days.  But when truly hunting bigger trout, I try to stay with larger baits the majority of the time.  Fish a big plug or an ugly streamer long enough and you're going to see that dinner plate-sized flash sooner or later.

Time your trips to coincide with their presence or activity and be repetitive.
It may seem obvious, but I think it's often not put into practice.  Be intentional about trying to intercept the seasonal movements of fish, especially the ones that coincide with elevated feeding activity - such as rainbows in the spring or browns in the fall.  This is when it's worth driving three hours one way for just a few hours of fishing instead of staying on the usual water and spending an entire day on fish you know won't be big.  Play the odds of hitting stretches of river where the population of big fish should increase as fish stage prior to or after a spawn (confluences, deeper water alongside gravel bars, etc), during a special hatch (salmon flies, summer hoppers, etc), or maybe during high or low flows.  And often it pays big dividends to 'always travel with fishing gear' because you just never know when the place and timing may simply fall into your lap - if you're prepared and looking for the opportunistic.

Taken on a mouse from a stretch of rocks I've targeted
repeatedly for 3 years after learning it held good fish. Finally paid 
off big. I hiked 2 miles in darkness to fish 100 yards of 2am shoreline.
But also be intentional about intercepting daily movements and activity levels along with the seasonal.  Make a point of being on the water for first light and last light. Take advantage of the movements of larger fish in the dead of night - as they move from their mysterious daytime haunts to feed in the shallows, sitting in water you wouldn't even look at during the day. Particularly in summer. This gets me really excited.  Some of my favorite trout fishing is pulling all-nighters and swinging mice through shoreline structure.

   I like topwater hits.
   I like big fish.
   I like solitude.
   Summertime mousing in the dark brings all that into one place.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Fantastic Weekend of Montana Mousing

big browns and a new personal best

This was the first full moon weekend of summer.  The third weekend of June, 2016. Up until June the mouse bite had been slow.  It just hadn't turned on yet. But  after getting into some great mousing action during the darker moon a week prior [see Mousing: 'tis the season], I couldn't wait to get out with moonlight to see by and sling some more mice. The switch had flipped and it was time for the summer games to begin.

Sometimes all the effort pays off in a big way. Those are motivating moments.  They pull you forward as you anticipate when they might occur, and then they propel you into the future with renewed vigor after they've happened.  All those hours of exploring spots in daytime. Casting into the darkness of night. Hours logged.  Fish encounters - successful or not - filed in your mental database.  You hope it will happen, you know it CAN happen, but deep inside you wonder if it ever really will.  But it only takes one bite, and that bite came on my second consecutive solo all-nighter of the weekend when my mouse pattern was slurped off the surface at 2:30 in the morning.  

I was targeting a shoreline of big chunky rocks I've been hitting repeatedly for three years after discovering it holds solid browns.  More often than not it is persistence that catches fish more than any particular technique. I knew it had to hold big ones. Over the past few years I've taken browns measuring in the low to mid twenties (inches) off it. And I'd broken a bigger one off in a lousy rookie-like hookset - I'd seen the giant brown take my offering in broad daylight and it had made a fool of me [in the 2014 article Looking Back]. If I had to rank my current spots for potential to produce a trophy, this one little stretch of shoreline only a couple hundred yards long would be on top. And I hadn't even fished it at night before. So I opted to take night number two, pick my way for nearly two miles along the stony and essentially trail-less river edge to get there, and cast to this one spot. The result was likely my biggest trout to date, and certainly my biggest on a fly rod.

But before that, the first night was fantastic all on its own.  The hits were infrequent but solid - a typical story 
First big brown of the weekend
on a night of mousing. And browns outnumbered the rainbows. I lost two mature browns, one of which I saw clearly enough in my headlamp to have counted spots - it was very acrobatic and jumped constantly, ultimately coming off on a leap just as I finished setting up my tripod. I'd seen by flashlight that he had a pretty pronounced kype and I was wanting to get a picture of him while he was still wearing the mouse on it.

This was a shoreline with ample structure and slower current - an ideal setup for tossing mice. And it stretches for over a mile before transitioning into terraced cut banks and trading the rocky structure for clay bluffs.  I caught fish on three different mouse patterns that night.  All of the browns hit when the mouse was inches from or touching rock that extended out from the shore. They were waiting in ambush points like largemouth bass, but sitting in water you'd never find them in during the day.  I managed to net and photograph three browns at or over 20 inches, two of which were particularly impressive in overall size and coloration. Two stunning browns in one night!  It was such a good night. Seemingly so hard to beat.  It was exactly what you hope for when working a trout water with mice. I was satisfied enough that if I didn't make it out again this weekend I would still feel fully accomplished.

Beauty contest winner of the weekend
But then on Saturday night I chose to make that hike.  Friday had been too good.  It was possible to go.  I could fit it in.  Who needs sleep anyway?  Remember, persistence.  Make it happen, or it won't.  The spot was gnawing at me, and it was bothering me that I was yet to ever try it in the dark when I knew it would eventually produce. So I tossed civilized common sense out the window (i.e. that I should catch up on some sleep) and worked my way to it, sometimes just walking, sometimes stopping to cast to likely looking spots along an otherwise bland stretch of river.  Not that there wouldn't be fish, and I did catch a couple, but there wasn't any major structure for the browns to key in on.  I generally catch rainbows in open water and the browns tight to structure - just like the daytime, but perhaps even more so. And browns were the focus.  There was one vertical wall along my path, and I stopped to work it.  I had a great take and completely missed.  First hit of the night. Casting was more difficult than the night before.  A stiff wind was blowing up river, which messes with placing the mouse and drags the line, slowing the drift.  But there were calmer lulls.  I pulled a rainbow from a pocket behind a lone boulder.  I climbed on top of the big domed rock and drug the mouse around the perimeter, not casting at all.  Jigger-poling for trout.  The fish smashed the mouse and dove down alongside the boulder.  I was very surprised to see it was a rainbow.  But the ice was broken - one fish down.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mousing: 'tis the season

A friend of mine and I pulled an early June all-nighter. My kind of all-nighter. I never stayed up the entire night in college or graduate school. No test was ever worth that. I've never worked a graveyard shift. Video games bore me.  But for fish? No-brainer. I'd do two or three in a row if necessary.

We started fishing before dark and hiked out well after sunrise, after the first anglers of the day had already begun filtering in. Fought bloodshot eyes the remainder of the weekend.

Once it was too dark to see, out came the mouse flies. I couldn't see them land, but the soft 'splat' told me where they'd come to rest even though the wind robbed some sound and meddled with placement. The moon was only a thin crescent-shaped sliver and was gone over the ridge almost right away. But you can always see better than you think you can. At least enough to have a vague idea of where the structure is.

We dodged storms, twice hunkering down against rocks and logs encapsulated in waders and rain gear to wait out thunderstorms.  Lightning-flash danced on and illuminated the canyon walls. The white and gray crags sprung from the mountains in a crystal-clear three-dimensional form not seen in sunlight, only to be gone again a second later - the ashen image still burning vividly in your stunned vision.
One of Stormy's 'bows

No one else was around to witness the show.

The unsettled weather and passing storms brought rain and wind, along with periods of calm. But the bite was great throughout.

The first fish was a dink rainbow that ambitiously stuffed a big mouse into his face. But it WAS a fish and we were on the board with the first mouse hook-up of 2016.
The hits came steadily - not constant, but more predictably than a typical mousing night. And rainbows were killin' it. Mousing is the one time when fishing this water that I expect to see more browns than rainbows. But not tonight. It was easily 8:1 rainbows.
First fish on mouse 2016

The first storm passed and the cloudiness gave way to a clear Montana sky seemingly polished clean of grime and haze. We both stood in awe of the vividness of the Milky Way framed between canyon rims. The depth and vastness of outer space plainly visible in the absence of artificial light and moon glow. Staring upward it felt as though you may fall - only not down into the water, but weightlessly up into the stars. A sizzling shooting star interrupted the daze, the trail hanging in the atmosphere long after the meteorite had burned out.

The fly of the night was the Mr. Hankey.
The particular specimen I was tossing came from Big Y Fly Company in Oregon - known for speedy service, great prices, and a wide selection of flies and gear. Last summer a photo I submitted to them featuring a nighttime brown caught on their slim version of the Morrish Mouse was used as a 'photo of the month' [click here to see it].  Folks chosen for photo of the month get to pick out a selection of flies.  I stuck with the theme and requested mice - these very Mr. Hankey's that were getting the job done tonight in fact.  And one Mr. Hankey survived the entire night of action.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Spring has arrived

Bryan Allison  Steinmetz Outfitters

Spring is here for real in Montana. Not only has it arrived, but it feels like summer is bearing down at an overwhelming speed.  Things are green.  Fly shops are all open and buzzing with activity.  My favorite jigs always seem to be sold out. It rained the other day and I never saw even one snow flake in it.  The white is fading from the mountains.

And the trout are eating everything. You can expect to catch them on nearly any forage and at any position within the water column.  They are gorging on bugs, emphatically chasing minnows, and eating crayfish like candy.  I cleaned a couple rainbows for the grill with my kids the other day that were bulging with crawdads.

It's a great time of year to fish throughout all daylight hours - lots of action, not too hot, not too cold, not too grassy, willing surface feeders, and the big browns haven't yet faded into the nocturnal routine.  Take your pick of how to target and what to target.

On a recent float I saw other drift boats doing everything from nymphing to dries and streamers to wet flies. Everyone was catching fish. What didn't I see?  No one was reaching into the depths.

Sometimes I get fixated on looking for big browns along structure (okay, a LOT of the time).  And to me, the best way to reach them is to jig.  On this float I was drifting with a friend who I hadn't fished with before.  Gabe was perfectly happy to focus on jigging and see what it is I do when in that mode.  And honestly, I get a kick out of doing stuff that no one else is doing. Spinning gear may be taboo on fisheries dominated by the fly fishing industry, but to me the techniques, skill, and even the equipment itself can be just as artful.  And I sure don't mind the bonus of being about the only boat to reach fish along the bottom of 20-foot holes....

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The mouse hunt

My son got off the bus after school with a painted face.  His class had held some kind of party. He looked something like a warrior, although maybe closer to a football fan on bowl day.  I didn't realize how fitting it was going to be.

Once we got home, the kids piled out of the pickup and wandered around outside looking for the cat.  It wasn't waiting to greet them like it often is. It came trotting down the hill to their calls, mewing emphatically and carrying a mouse.  It sometimes brings the kids mice in a devoted sort of way.  This time it was live.  He placed it in front of them and let it go, seemingly wanting them catch it.  Maybe to finish it off.  I suppose he was 'teaching them to hunt on the pride.'

After a scramble, the mouse managed to squeeze between a log and the ground, mostly out of reach.  The cat didn't seem to mind, he just looked on approvingly as the two kids poked and prodded around the log.  Cooper stood up, an idea obviously forming, and asked enthusiastically through his face paint "Can I get the BB gun?"

"Sure," I said.

When he came back with the air gun I used a stick to ease the mouse out.  It moved down the outside of the log, seemingly hesitant to leave the only structure within sight.

Cooper fired a few rounds as Cadi cheered him on.  Then she begged for a turn and pumped a few of her own into the mouse.

The happy hunters collected their prize and walked up to the back patio.  They posed for a picture - Cooper in his war paint, Cadi with the fearless 'hound,' and the mouse stretched out on the concrete like a bear.

After the picture Cooper mentioned that he'd like to tack the hide to the wall of the shed.

"Huh?" I said.  "Skin a mouse?" 

"Yeah.  We should hang it up."

We'd read Where The Red Fern Grows aloud during Christmas break.  He had liked it so much he'd immediately read the whole book again when I finished.  I'm sure he was likening this to a coon hunt.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pike on the Road

I could see on the calendar that my travels would soon take me within striking distance of a favorite river.   That always gets the juices flowing.  It's an out-of-the-way place that is an investment to get to under normal circumstances. Not that my gear wouldn't have been with me anyway, but I made certain my boxes were in order and well-stocked.  As it turned out, enough time remained at the end of the day to strike and being sure to Always Travel With Fishing Gear paid off.

When the work was done, I rambled down the gravel road I was already on, then veered off along a little two-track that would take me to a particular hole that always holds fish. Over the years I have found big browns, hunky rainbows, the occasional walleye, and a number of pike in that spot. Today, at the end of March, I was anticipating pike and trout.  A little early for walleye in the river. So I rigged a lighter rod with 6-pound monofilament for trout - upped from my usual 4-pound for some incidental pike insurance - and tucked a stout nine-and-a-half foot spinning rod strung with a braided line and outfitted with a beefy floating plug in my belt behind me.
Honestly, I hoped I would see a brown worthy of hitting that plug as much as a pike.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Thirty-inch brown

30 inch brown trout
It's not every day you are fortunate enough to see a brown that breaks the 30-inch mark.  I'm not sure I've ever seen one in person till now.  Mid to upper twenties a number of times, both on my line and on others' fishing with me.  But not 30.  There was one time that I didn't have a measuring tape for a fish - guess I'll always have to wonder just how close it was.

The other day I was on board Josh Steinmetz's boat of Steinmetz Outfitters.  I'll be working under Josh running guided trips from my own boat starting this year (more on that another day).  We were fishing upper Holter Lake on the Missouri River, targeting the staging spring walleye, and hoping for one of those elusive yellow beasts of spring.  Ryan McCourtney, a guide at Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig and a friend of Josh's, was with us briefly in the morning before stepping off to join a guy in another boat.  Josh hooked the brute on his third cast.  I know because I was rigging a rod - hadn't made even one cast yet - and was watching Josh work his jig while I ran line through my guides.  I saw the hit, the hookset, and the telltale bend in the St. Croix rod.  If Ryan hadn't still been on the boat, I would have been on net duty.  Instead I was able to jump to the gunwale, catch some footage of the battle, and snap pics when the fish came on board.  From that I was able to put together the short video below.

30 inch brown troutLike with any uncommonly big fish (and I don't care who you are), the three of us bumbled around the boat all weak in the knees while trying to make decisions through clouded minds after our first glimpse of flash beneath the water. Big fish are always within a split second of being gone it seems. So much has to go right. Each one is somewhat of a miracle. And this one was no different. Even once it was in the net the jig it had taken just fell from his jaw like it hadn't ever been attached - mangled and the bend of the hook wide open.

The fish was one of Josh's lifetime best.  Possibly his first personal brown to break 30 inches. We laid the fish on a measuring board, but when we went for the digital scales the batteries had fallen out into a gear bag.  In all likelihood the fish was around a lanky 12 pounds, but we'll just have to leave it to the next person who catches that brown to weigh him.

Phones were buzzing as the photos and stats circulated the local region.  We fished the remainder of the day and were last to load up at the boat ramp.  Other fish were caught, even a couple trout that could have been trophies on other days.  But we didn't even take pictures of another fish.  We were still reveling in the magic that had happened first thing in the morning.  That fish will likely carry Josh through the summer and on into fall.  But for me, it just piled more fuel on the fire.

*Be sure to watch on a computer in order to see the text annotations.  They are not visible on most mobile apps.*

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bring on spring

Well, its not officially spring, but it seems as though spring has come ahead of schedule this year. And when the weather is nice, what better to do than go fishing. With a forecast reaching temps near the mid 60s, something not seen since perhaps October, I was already laying plans to hit some water.
Justin's rear view shot

About then I received a message from a friend in Billings: his brother-in-law was visiting from out of state - could the two of them come and fish with me? That was an easy "yes," given my current plans involved no one other than me. I fired back a message to Travis (the same Travis from Beartooths) and laid out a plan for when the two of them arrived. It involved a day of hiking and rock scrambling. That's when he informed me that his brother-in-law Justin had a broken leg. Well, good to know.  Scratch that first idea. Plan 'B' took root and I hitched up the boat.

Justin and Travis arrived late Friday night. They crashed in the basement and we were all up and heading down the road before daylight. We made a quick stop at Hardee's (well, quick for crutches) to calorie up on greasy biscuits. Travis and I poked fun at Justin by making sure we got him an ADA-approved table equipped with all the appropriate handicapped signage. I'd never met Justin before, but it was quickly evident he was a guy who could be messed with.

50-ish miles later we had dropped a car at the take-out for shuttling and were launching at the top of our 9 mile run. Crutches were stowed like spare rods alongside the net.

First fish of the trip for Justin

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Rapala Roof Rescue

The kids were playing in the yard, waiting for me to unlock the truck so we could load up and head off to school.  A beloved stuffed animal, more or less a bean bag in the form of a cat, was being tossed up in the air to pass the time.  Just as I was shutting the front door and turning my key to lock it, I saw the cat - practically in slow motion - take a trajectory that was undoubtedly bound for the roof.

Two stories up, the bean bag thumped on metal.

If we didn't leave inside of ten minutes, we'd all be late.  Rain clouds hung low and heavy.  My daughter, to whom the animal belonged, was melting into a puddle of first grader dispair in the front yard. My son, who'd made the last toss, was apologizing profusely to her - whether he meant it sincerely or was hoping to avoid a beating, one can't be sure.  Maybe both.

I told them to hop in the truck, we'd have to get it later. We'd just moved into the house within the past few months and I knew I didn't own a ladder yet that was tall enough to let me climb on the roof.  It's on the list. I briefly considered driving around to the back of the house where the roof is lower and placing the ladder I do have into the bed of the truck.  That would work, but would eat more time than I had.  Getting this cat wasn't at all necessary, but if I could snap my fingers and get it down right then the day was sure to be sent down a better path than the one it was currently on.

Ideas were coming into my head and being dismissed just as quickly.  The clock was ticking. The truck was running. Tears were flowing.  Rain was just starting to fall. I hated to think of the plush toy soaking up there all day till I could get to it after work.

I did what any angler will do when he needs to solve life's problems -  I thought of my fishing gear. I stepped into my garage, selected a spinning rod off the wall rack, and dug into the pockets of one of the gear bags on the shelf above. I first considered a fly rod for the accuracy and swiftness of repeat casts, but decided trebles and a weightless line would be better.  I tied on a #11 Rapala.  It had already been customized to have only the two rear trebles and the barbs removed - I wanted a nice friendly 'catch-and-release.'

The kids slid out of the truck and gathered around me when they saw the rod.  My daughter was already smiling and laughing and proclaiming the cat as good as rescued.  I warned it might have to wait till evening if I didn't get it right away.

Missed the first shot.  Lined it with the second. Hooked it on the third. Hopped it over the gutter and dropped it into the yard. My son would have preferred I used 'the Force,' but I'd done the next best thing in my book.

For about two seconds I held somewhat of a superhero status, but then it quickly faded back to normal and we were off to school.  Kids under 8 or 9 just expect the supernatural from their dads. No biggie - another catastrophe averted, another threat to civilization squelched.  I blew the smoke from the muzzle of my fishing rod and holstered it into the passenger seat of the truck. Always travel with fishing gear and keep the skills sharp - you never know when you are going to need them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

At the end was a rainbow, or two.

After a day of field work I found myself within 10 miles of a nice little tailwater I like to hit on occasion. It's always well worth the stop. And if I have time I like to hike a distance below the dam. It's a river I find buffalo bones in sometimes, remnants of
bygone days melting away with time. Once I came across a nearly complete skull. The river is not known as a trout fishery, except maybe in the extreme headwaters. Before today I hadn't personally seen any there. It's hardly known as a fishery at all for that matter. Somewhat obscure, but not unknown.

There was only about an hour of daylight remaining when I parked near the water - and I had walleye on my mind. But I have taken pike here as well and thought I might find some this evening. Actually, with the temps in the upper twenties and barely any time before dark, I knew I'd be happy with anything. Heck, even just a chance to walk along icy waters under cobalt-blue Montana sky on a strangely windless winter evening was reward enough for the effort made to carve time from the day.

I headed straight to a spot I anticipated would produce some walleye action and worked the hole hard with light line and one of my long nine-and-half foot rods. I rotated through meaty jigs and various retrieves.


Resigned to slow action, I started working my way along, picking apart little pieces of structure.

Still nothing.

I crossed in a shallow riffle and hiked a ways downstream to a long, slow, deeper hole where I've caught northern pike in trips past. I worked it till the sun was very gone. I stowed my rod in my waist pack and started hiking back upstream.

When I got to the riffle where I had crossed I couldn't bring myself to leave. So I continued upstream in the twilight covering water I had casted to earlier, but now from the opposite bank where I could reach it better. In a swifter run, one I hadn't really casted to all that much before when thinking of walleye, I picked up my first hit.

The hookset was into SOLID fish. The slow, muscular, bulldogish thrashing without-really-going-anywhere gave me visions of a big walleye. The broad red sides were a complete surprise. Disappointment of it not being a walleye wore off very quickly as I slipped my thumb and finger around the tail of the mature buck rainbow - a tail square and stout enough to grip like a baseball bat. I was in awe of the huge trout that I'd never even suspected was there.

After a quick couple photos and sending it back on its way I started working that seam more intently with a new focus. Within only the next cast or two I hooked into a second. Spunkier and smaller, it was no surprise this go-round to see the pink cheeks of another mature rainbow, this time a chunky hen.  I would have been equally in awe of this one if it hadn't been dwarfed by the first.  An owl landed on a spindly limb overhead and watched with what seemed like keen interest. When the show was over and the fish was swimming away, he flew off.

I could not help but continue to work that run to the head of the hole. I pushed the feathery ice out of my guides and resumed casting to the water that was becoming nearly impossible to see. I really wasn't set up to fish in the dark, but with fish like those I had to see if there were more. But they were the only two to strike. I had been fortunate enough to stick them both and land each of them for pictures. My fingers had been frozen earlier, but now, despite sliding my gloves off to handle the fish and rinsing my hands in the frigid water, I was thoroughly warm. And completely satisfied.

Once again, making sure to Always Travel With Fishing Gear had paid off. The key was being there and simply trying, with confidence and persistence. An unexpected trophy had been waiting in lonely winter waters. And like always, I now know more about a river than I did before.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The proof is in the.... meat bags.

I guess all posts can't be about fishing. Some just have to be for a good outdoors chuckle.
My 2015 hunting season wrapped up with one final adventure and a decent whitetail buck. It was a beautiful, cold, fabulously mountainous Montana day. Half a foot of frozen snow was on the ground. The predawn zero-degree landscape was fully moonlit.  My hunting bud and I saw six different moose that day and the deer kept the binos busy.
A pair of bull moose photographed through my scope
The temps barely made it to double digits. I'd passed on a lot of bucks as the season had progressed and was down to the final couple days to fill my tag or just start dreaming about big bucks in 2016. When this old warrior gave the opportunity at sunset I took it. I could see he was missing an entire tine on the right and later found that two others were broken. His burs were polished smooth. Must have been quite the fighter. And I can certainly attest that his manliness was persistent....

The meat bags had frozen after the pack out and were solid long before I got home. I just put them in the chest freezer to deal with later. I finished processing the meat after the new year holiday. Apparently when I washed the bags, some "proof of sex" was still tucked away in a fold somewhere and made it as far as the dryer, where it was discovered by my wife.  I was rolling! We both were honestly, although she maintained a "more disgusted than amused" front. And she's really enjoying giving me heck for it.  I suppose I'll need to wash those bags again....

2015 buck (photo by T. Copper)