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.