Across northern Montana, each of these make their way to the Missouri River on their eventual path to the Gulf of Mexico. The waterways are not as plentiful as they are in the mountains. The relaxed landscape contains watersheds spread over many more square miles than those squeezed into the small spaces between ridges and ranges. Many of the tributaries only flow intermittently. Some perennial creeks flow muddy and are steep-banked. Many flow surprisingly clear. Often I can find pike or walleye in them. I've caught northerns in the tiniest trickles, in larger rivers, and in isolated ponds. None of these waters are places that many people purposely seek out. The locals fish them of course, but no one travels to Montana with these streams in mind. I enjoy the small opportunities I'm handed when travel takes me across them. I make sure to be ready. This time I was hoping for pike.
|UPS truck on a rural prairie road|
My vehicle was packed. Everything I needed for a few days of work was in there. And then there was everything else - a tote with various boxes of plugs and bags of plastics, several spinning reels, just as many fly reels, three different lumbar packs prepped for spinning or fly, waders and boots, a net, and multiple rod tubes. Surprisingly all this recreational equipment fits into nooks and crannies and was out of sight. Hopefully there'd be time when each day's work was done. I knew there would be. I have a way of always finding that time. Even if it is dark before I start.
I got three opportunities to walk along these waters. Each was at the end of the day with little daylight left, and each water was very different from the other. There wasn't time for research or poring over maps. I had to take what was nearest and in-route to my destination. Each place I fished was nearly 200 miles from the previous. Once I stopped in a local sports store, but the man behind the counter could only recommend places I wouldn't be passing (but I definitely noted for future) and he knew nothing of the little streams I mentioned by name. I had to use my gut and choose a water I thought should hold pike based on previous experience and research.
The first evening was relatively unproductive. I was on a river I've fished before. A favorite river of mine for both trout and pike, but the water was still too cold, with my thermometer showing readings still in the upper 30's. I caught only one rainbow.
I found an array of ponds with public access. It wasn't ideal, but I had less than hour of daylight. As I was hurriedly prepping for the water, a man and his dog pulled up in a pickup to check minnow traps. A compound bow with a single arrow in the quiver rested on the passenger side. Turkey maybe? A fellow opportunist apparently. He told me which of the ponds was best for pike. We tipped hats and parted ways. To save time I left my waders and stayed in regular boots. I strung up an 8-weight, tipped the beefy leader with a mouse, slid my big net down my back, and headed in the opposite direction than I'd originally intended to go.
I often catch myself rushing hastily into opportunistic fishing situations.
I have to consciously slow
down, pretend I have all day, and pick the water apart with purpose and decisiveness. Ten intentional casts are better than a hundred fanned out without thought. As I slowed down I heard a turkey gobble off in the river bottom.
The shoreline grass extended out quite a ways and I wished I'd wadered up. But casting beyond the grass was simple enough. It was a perfect example of a fly rod being the right tool for the job - I could work the weed line without having to retrieve through the grass between casts.
I brought the mouse to life while scanning for any movement in the shallows. A chorus of frogs piped up and reminded me that spring was truly upon us. I swam the mouse all around a shallow bay and then began to move toward water that appeared deeper. A coyote whined once the sun was fully out of sight. The water seemed alive - even smelled alive - yet I hadn't seen anything move in it.
My fingers mechanically took the line to the reel and I instinctively arched the rod around bushes and shoreline obstacles. It was kind of like I'd stepped back and watched the fight in third person, then set the camera up for myself and came to my own net assist.
As I hit the road a great big red full moon rose above the horizon.
To think I could have already been
sitting in a hotel room some time ago and missed all this....
My third evening on the prairie finished up fairly remote. Canadian radio stations were stronger than any American ones I could find. It was the last day I'd have the time between the end of work and a hotel to fish. I had ideas about creeks I'd like to test - more than I'd be able get to. I'd been on a few around there in the past, but there are so many others yet to try. It's not an area known for fishing. A spot here and there, but nothing on anybody's bucket list. But that's the beauty of always being ready to fish - hitting obscure water and discovering hidden gems. Being somewhere different and having the excuse to get out and walk in it.
The wind was howling this day at a sustained 30 miles per hour with gusts to 50. The sort of weather you'd avoid if at home. I was near a lake I knew held pike. Maybe being on the leeward side of the big water would be manageable. Pike ought to be up the creeks, and that's where I wanted to find them anyway.
|gearing up to hit the Montana 'salt marsh'|
My only bite came at the confluence of two streams
where one poured into the other with noticeably
But this one fish was satisfying enough. Despite the roar of the wind, the sound of the topwater hit snapped me to attention and brought my rod tip up into a hookset as the line tightened. The fish surged to the middle of the stream, made a few runs, and then came close again as northerns will do. I stamped down a space in the grass big enough to take a picture, then landed the pike and returned it to the water.
I look forward to when I'll be there again. It's out of the ordinary. It's out of the way. It's special, yet plain. Fishing is a bridge that, for me anyway, connects a person with a place, a piece of ground, its water, and its wildlife. It allows access and a means of experiencing. It turns any road crossing over any nondescript piece of water into a potential portal to outdoor adventure. Which of course you would miss if you didn't always travel with fishing gear.