Thursday, June 15, 2017

30 inches of mouse-eater: a morning of predators

When was the last time you saw a 30-inch brown and a mountain lion in the same day? 
For me it was as June's full moon faded into morning.

I chuckled to myself as I slid my net into my waist pack and looked up at the moonlit slopes.  Here I was in a fairly popular spot for recreational users without another person around.  I picked up my eight weight, slid my fingers down the heavy furled leader, along the 16lb tippet, tested the knot, and then stowed the mouse on the keeper.  This evening I had decided to try somewhere new.  I had scouted the place earlier in spring, so I had hiked it in the daylight, but this would be the first overnighter. The spot required more time investment than my usual places.  I planned to finish up about two miles from where I'd parked.  I had driven about an hour from home.  Given the added remoteness, I added my .44 to my belt.  Aside from the occasional coon who doesn't want to give way,  I haven't had any midnight encounters - but there wasn't any need to tempt one tonight by being unprepared.  Once last summer I had a bear mosey along the slopes well above me.  It moved along noisily and bellowed once as it faded away. I figured it was saying good bye.

I shut my tailgate and hit the trail.  The time was now 11:00pm.  Five solid hours of mousing lay ahead of me.  Memories of key pieces of rock structure mentally noted six weeks ago were on my brain. I'm learning to treat mousing for browns like tournament bass fishing - skip the 'so-so' water and hit the primary structure.  Then move on. No need to waste limited darkness picking the entire shoreline apart.

Full Moon June 2017
This was the night of June's full moon.  Last year on the full moon in June I'd caught another brown of a lifetime.  The literature seems divided on full moon vs. dark moon, although most folks tend to prefer total darkness.  I'm yet to form a strong opinion.  I enjoy the full moon because the experience of taking in the surroundings is heightened. And Montana sure is pretty by moonlight. 

I'm beginning to theorize about the a full moon as two independent components: 1) the event of the full moon, and 2) the light of the full moon. The "event" may induce activity on its own accord.  Full moons are responsible for other elevated animal activity by my observation - does it affect trout similarly too?  The light of the full moon, while useful to the fisherman, can be a pain.  Like direct sunlight, it seems to inhibit action.  Like high noon, full moonlight puts a damper on the fishing.  At least the mousing.  There are times that hatches seem to take off under it and trigger lots of surface activity, but I haven't yet tried to tap into any of these.

Unlike other folks around the country, I seem to do well on a full moon.  Maybe it's because I'm fishing within terrain and can pluck fish from the shadows, or wait till the direct light is behind a ridge.  Tonight would prove to be no different.  Throughout the course of the night I was hit by six fish, hooked three, and landed two.  What I assumed were rainbows slurped flies from mid river pools in the moonlight.  I ignored them and chucked my mouse into dark pockets and around the edges of boulders.  I crowded the bank and swam it through scum lines and where the bunched field grasses met the water line.  If there was no structure I moved on to the next piece I knew of and stopped at ones I hadn't remembered.  Hits all came tight to the bank and in shadow of terrain or cloud.  And with the exception of deep rock walls, the hits came from spots that would be void of fish in the daylight.  In fact, I peeked at the places I'd gotten hits when I walked back after the sun had risen.  Some of them will be dry land when the spring runoff subsides.  Others were just nondescript flat stretches with a single boulder marking an ambush point for a nighttime prowler.  Nothing was there now.  The single boulders were stained white where birds perch on them during the day.

The first brown of the night came fairly early on.  I was working the first stretch of shoreline I'd
First of the night
planned to target.  Instead of rocks, I was casting to clumps of upland grass presently submerged. It was a solid brown.  Nothing to complain about at all.  What it didn't have in length it made up for in girth. It had made a couple runs toward mid river before sliding into my net.  A couple pictures and it was back on it's way. 

The next four fish to hit were all misses.  Such is mousing.  They came over the following three hours.  Most of that time was spent fishing, but a significant chunk was also spent walking and carefully climbing around the steep and rocky terrain.  I was glad to have scouted it ahead of time.  One particular rock face had seemed like the end of the line during my daylight scouting trip.  It had been a while till I found a reasonable passage up and through a crag.  But tonight I wasted no time in getting up and over it.  Scouting that day was about to pay off big time. 

I worked my way along rock faces, behind islands, and through a slough.  They were all spots I'd drooled over for quite some time.  I had first viewed them in aerial photography, then later when floating by.  I'd checked them out in person during my spring scouting trip.  Now I was mousing them. I wasn't drawing hits from places I'd really hoped to, but there will be more chances.  I spooked a big fish in the still water of the slough by casting over it and laying the fly line across its back.  No doubt it was in there hunting the flats.  Bummer.  That is exactly the type of prowling fish I was looking for.

Night tools
Eventually I came to a large ridge of rock plunging from the mountain above and jutting out into the water, squeezing the river into a smaller space and creating a hole both in front of and behind it, separated by 100 yards of rock.  It was so large that to get around it I had to climb up above the river quite a ways, hike cross its width, and then work my way back down to the water again.  I could only reach portions of it.  To really fish it would require a boat.  But I could reach just enough.

The front side produced nothing and was really pretty hard to cast to.  I couldn't touch the vast majority of  it.  I made the climb up and over to fish the back side.  I couldn't remember noticing a route down during my scouting trip.  From the ridge top I could see a set of boulders a little further downstream that stretched along the shoreline for more than a hundred yards, glowing like pillows in the moonlight. They looked perfect.  I could hear the murmur of current sifting through them.  I began my descent towards the boulders, initially deciding that the cliffy drop to the back side of the ridge just shouldn't be done in the dark.  But as I got lower, I started to be able to make out the hole that occupied the corner where the ridge abruptly met the river.  It was a vertical wall with foam lapping up against it as the eddy swirled in a very calm and steady way.  The bits of white foam reflecting moonlight while floating on the surface defined the seams and made the story of the current discernable from above.  I could just make out a rocky chute that appeared to provide a way to the back of that eddy within casting distance of the wall.  There was ten times more wall than I would be able reach, but it looked promising enough for me to make the drop. 

By the time I was to the water's edge it was 3:00am.  Only about an hour remained before the sky would begin to brighten.  I figured I'd hit this eddy and then beeline it over to the stretch of boulders I'd seen.  That would probably wrap up this night.

About the third cast toward the wall, each one working a little further out along it, my mouse was smashed from the foam in a not-so-delicate take.  With the rod held parallel to the surface of the water I pivoted my body away from the wall, letting the twisting motion draw the line tight while still maintaining my arm and rod position for a hookset.  When tension was there I set back into the rod like I'd just connected with a largemouth on a Texas rig.  The fish responded with a run away from me along the wall, and then a thrashing that left the rock face dripping. 

It was a good fish.  And immediately it was obvious that it was the caliber of fish that brings a person out all night on the river.

It turned and swam directly at me.  I barely managed to maintain tension as I backed up and cranked on the reel at the same time.  I flipped on the red light as it made a pass along the bank near me.  I wanted to see it!  Might be my only glimpse should it manage to free itself in the pending battle.  The light confirmed what I'd hoped - a brown as long as my arm - and it just cruised methodically by as if to show off and let me take it all in.  I flipped the light back off and waited for the next surge. 

It took off downstream and reached the head of that stretch of boulders.  I was making my way along the bank to keep up as best I could, fighting the vegetation and the massive rocks concealed within it.  I wasn't in my backing.  Just before it reached the boulders it turned and burned out toward the main river and went airborne.  It flopped back into the water with a pleasing heaviness.  Next it ran back toward the wall where I'd hooked it, causing me to chase right back along the shoreline I'd just come down.  It jumped again at the wall and splashed a gaping hole in the foam covering the surface.  There were moments of headshakes, rolls, and throbbing surges.  In its next run I could feel stutters through the rod signaling the wraps of leader sliding off its body where it had rolled up in the line.  There were times it came close and then times it peeled away again.  I was forced to loosen my drag more than once.  It made a third jump near the center of the large eddy behind the big ridge of
30-inch mouse-eater

I was reminded of my days living in Washington State and my battles with steelhead.  I'd grown so much there in terms of fighting big fish.  They were all big - like what was on the end of my line now - and my composure was a result of that experience. I'd been schooled by steelhead, and I'd gotten to where I could school them.  Creativity in traversing a stream bank is essential.  Knowing when to gain line and when to just hang on for dear life; knowing when to run in pursuit and when to hold your ground.  It's all a balance of gamble, calculation, instinct, and luck.

After the third jump the fight began to sway in my favor.  I chose a rock and set my tripod on it.  It was tight quarters for a photo, but it had to work.  I stomped down the grass and unholstered my net.  I stepped in the hoop and extended the handle.  A few more surges and boils later I slid the net under the fish and watched in my head lamp beam as the body spanned the 17-inch frame by nearly double, then folded into the rubber basket. 
Done!  Relief waved over me.  Getting a picture would still be a feat, but I'd won. Picture or no picture.

I straddled the water's edge, bridged the net across my knees, and reached into the submerged net.  I raised the fish - my hands pretty far apart compared to a typical trout, even for normal larger nighttime predators - and started triggering pictures from the camera with voice commands.  Four or five flashes later I was stretching tape across the fish back in the net, trying my best to get a meaningful reading.  I wanted to be hurried and skip this step for the sake of the release, but I wanted to know. 

back to the wall
From blunt nose to broad tail was exactly 30 inches.  I did it again to be sure, and then slipped him out of the net.  I righted him in the current, moved him back and forth, and then he snapped away and glided back toward the wall where it had all started.

I immediately started to doubt.  Did I measure right?  Was the measurement real?  It was a skinny fish, definitely no girthy giant.  It didn't have the mass of the brown I'd caught on June 2016's full moon.  There were no witnesses.  Witnesses?  The camera!  I scrambled over to it as if I had to catch it before it ran off.  I laughed at my eagerness and then opened the gallery.  There were my shots.  A few blurry ones, a few where not all the fish was in the frame, and some weird faces on my part. But there were a couple that had turned out - closer to the lens than I'd prefer, but decent.  It was on film.  There was even an inadvertent shot of me tossing my gear bag aside with the fish in the net the moment I'd stood up from the water with it.  The picture is blurry with motion, but the fish in the net is plainly visible, arching in the basket from frame to frame. 

net full
Like I had on the night of the full moon one year earlier, I sat for a minute looking out across the river and up onto the moonlit hillsides.  Most people think I'm crazy.  Maybe I am.  But sleep seems a small sacrifice compared with this.  To make this hike, see these nocturnal sights, catch these fish - it's something so few people will ever experience.  In a world where there's nothing but deep oceans left to explore, it's neat to find something that this can be said of.

I fished more, but it was mostly a race against sunrise.  As the sky glowed I climbed back up on the big rock ridge I'd been on when I noticed the foamy pool by the vertical wall.  I found a grassy spot overlooking the river, leaned back on my gear bag, and watched as the sun rose. Purples and pinks were cast on the clouds and reflected in the river. I closed my eyes to catch some rest before traversing the two miles back.  I'd been up nearly 24 hours and would be back out again after dark that night.  I can generally leave the water as the sky begins to glow and be sleeping by 5:00am.  Today it would be after 8:00 before I'd be home.  Yet I wasn't tired - or at least couldn't sleep - and abandoned the nap idea when a cold  Rocky Mountain morning breeze whipped over my bare knoll.

The hike back to the truck was enjoyable and scenic.  Trout rose in the river below.  I've learned not to carry other types of flies on a night of mousing - otherwise I'm tempted to stay beyond my limits and fish into the day.

At the truck I unloaded my gear and switched out of my wet boots. The rosy and golden light illuminated the yellows and reds in the rocks above me.  The pines seemed intensely green.
Really, it was time to be stringing up and getting on the water.  But here I was breaking my gear down and packing up.  When it comes to fishing, I kind of revel in the abnormal.

The night of the full moon had one more surprise for me as I pulled my truck onto the rough forest service road and started the climb up out of the canyon. In a clearing ahead of me stood a cougar. In that same instant I saw it the cat was running for the tree line.  It would be gone in seconds and wasn't close enough for a good picture.  I didn't even bother trying to find my camera.  I just sat back and took it all in.  The long strides, the tan coat shining with sunrise glow, the tail curled slightly up at the end - I'd have missed it if I'd tried to get a picture that I knew wouldn't turn out anyway. 

It had been a morning of predators. My first 30-inch carnivore of a brown and now a mountain lion.  The first I'd seen in Montana, second lifetime.  I pulled over as it disappeared and probed the mountainside with binoculars.  I never got another glimpse, but I was glad that my sighting had been more than just a fleeting glance.  I'd watched it run.  I'd watched it slip away.  I think I've seen just as many 30-inch browns as I have mountain lions.  And I'd just seen one of each in the same day.


  1. You are certainly a kindred spirit. Really enjoyed the write-up, and can relate to all of what you said. Always kind of chuckle inside when I'm getting on the water when people are leaving, and then find myself leaving after a remarkably productive night, and people are just beginning to show up again. It's a world not many are willing to venture into, and leaves the bigger rewards to those of us willing to conquer the fear and hesitation to get out there and do it. And, like you said, there are so many rewards. It makes fly fishing all that more exciting with the possibilities.

  2. That is just a stunning fish. Great write up. I love how you get after it at night.

  3. Thanks guys! Yes, I'm learning just how very few are willing to venture into it, let alone 'get after it.'