Dust to mud: a fishing trip’s early demise, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.  That means you should read Part 1, first.

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Marck’s 11th hour fish.

Downstream of camp the fishing was slow and over a couple of hours I managed only one small cutt while Marck did quite a bit better, as expected. He landed a beautiful 17″ cutthroat just before I decided to head back upstream and work through some water with a streamer before returning to camp. The sun had given way to cloud cover and as I rigged up the streamer I smelled rain. Immediately thereafter large drops began to fall, gently at first—spread far apart. Ominous in a way that small drops close together are not ominous. Shortly thereafter the drops, still large, came with increased frequency. I decided to call it a day and began hoofing it back toward camp. By the time I got there it was raining hard and I was pretty well soaked through my lightweight shirt.  My first thought was to grab my rain jacket from the Man-Van; a decision I did not soon regret as the temperature had begun plummeting significantly. Thunder boomed repeatedly in the distance and with each concussion the rain came down harder. Marck showed up and joined me under the relative shelter of a large spruce tree; its canopy doing a fine job of keeping us fairly well protected from the downpour (we just hoped lightning didn’t choose to strike that particular tree). We figured the storm would blow through so we did what anyone would have done: we cracked a couple beers and waited for it to pass. And then we waited.

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Firehole Ranger Lake

It didn’t seem possible that it could rain any harder until it did just that. And then the wind came from seemingly nowhere and hail the size of one’s fingernail pummeled the ground, and everything else. It wasn’t long before the big spruce tree was no longer capable of keeping us dry (OK, technically we were already soaked, but you know what I mean).

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Casualty #1

Nash’s tent was the first to cave under the pressure as a gust of wind picked up the front of the tent and began to topple it ass over tea kettle. Thunder roared. I sprinted through the lake that was rapidly forming in the middle of camp and grabbed hold of the tent frame to keep it grounded as hail beat down on my knuckles. Shit was getting real. Soon the tent began to sag under the weight of the rain water and the threat of it blowing away lessened. My work was done There was nothing else I could do. We continued to be hammered by rain and hail as we noticed Morris’s tent had crumbled under the pressure of the storm. I wanted my mommy. It was worse than Nash’s tent. By the time we could tend to it Morris’s air mattress was floating; his sleeping bag and other gear soaked. This storm wasn’t messing around, nor did it appear to be short-lived. Perhaps the smart thing would have been for Marck and I to retreat to the dry safety of the Man-Van but we stood in the face of the storm trying to salvage what we could, which we couldn’t. We placed Morris’s wet gear in the back of the Explorer, not that it would do much good at this point.

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Casualty #2

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Even Marck’s tent, despite being new and properly set up, couldn’t keep its contents totally dry.

For the better part of an hour the rain continued to come down in sheets. The lake in the middle of camp grew to a depth of 12 inches (fortunately we still had our wading boots on). The picnic table held previously dry boxes of crackers, potato chips and paper towels and many other items that are best off not being waterlogged. However, the true mark of the storm’s severity was a plastic cup that filled with 4 inches of rainwater in less than an hour.

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A glass half full, or half empty?

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Put the waders on and have a seat!

After an hour the storm’s ferocity lessened, though it continued to rain steadily. After an hour and a half Jimmy, Morris and Nash slogged into camp. The appearance of camp told the story of what had happened there, but they had stories of their own. Since I wasn’t there I can only touch on the big picture as they relayed it to us:

When the storm hit upriver it did so with concentrated intensity as it funneled into the narrow river canyon. Thunder boomed all around and the wind snapped tree tops. Sheets of rain blew across the river’s surface and the three Rangers were instantly soaked, save for Jimmy who had a light rain jacket in his pack which gave him some protection from the elements. Nash and Morris soon began to shiver as the temperature went from pleasant to unpleasant in an instant. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide they huddled under some brush by the side of the river where Jimmy put his arms around the other two and told happy stories to keep them calm. The hillsides began sloughing mud into the river, which in turn began to raise and turn the color of chocolate milk in very short order. The 3 lone Rangers had several river crossings before they would make it back to the trail, the thick dust upon which had turned to a quagmire of slippery muck.

For the sake of authenticity I asked each of the 3 to weigh in with their own words.

Nash recounts the harrowing details:

“Well it seemed like a nice enough late afternoon to go out for an evening session of fishing.  Warm, overcast and according to Ranger Rick, only a 30% chance of rain later that night.  So of course, I confidently left the rain jacket in the tent.

 I decided to go straight to the “Swimming Hole” where rising fish haunted me the day before.  They had not wanted any of the bugs I had in my box.  I started at the riffle at the top of the hole and landed a nice, fat, 17 inch cutty.  I decided to move up stream a couple hundred yards and that is when it began.  It first started out quit calmly. Large rain drops, but spread very far apart.  I fished for a bit with Trevor Morris and Dave Jimmy down stream from me. Then the rain got harder. The thunder and lighting started, so I made my way down to them, and we all huddled up in the bushes by the Swimming Hole.  We were far enough way from the trees, in case shit broke loose, which it did. The sheets of rain could been seen blowing across the hole. The thunder became louder and the lighting closer. We decided to stay hunkered down until the lighting passed.  Easy decision for Dave, because he was all comfy in his rain jacket. Trevor and I just had on our light weight fishing shirts. The the wind picked up, and started to snap some trees up on the mountain behind us. The snapping trees were very loud. So loud, Trevor thought it was the ones immediately behind us, and he jumped up and towards the river, like a cat being burned with a hot poker. I did not know he was so quick and agile, nor I didn’t know his eyes could get so big. The rain became hail, and Trevor and I got chipply (chilly nipples), so we decide to get the hell out of there even though we had to cross the river 4 times in a lightening storm.  I blame it on Ranger Rick and his shitty weather forcasting!”

Morris offers his traumatic account:

It was fun. Until it wasn’t.

A short story by Morris

“One-hour into the storm of the century as the buzz was wearing off and our humor faded, we were still huddling in the thick brush, soaking wet and shivering uncontrollably. As the temperature dropped by what felt like 30 degrees, I knew we had to risk a move. We attempted three failed departures held back by falling trees, close lightning, waves of heavy rain, wicked wind gusts and one guy with a gore-tex jacket. Finally about an hour later, the decision was made to make a run for it. Running like three gazelles being hunted, fight or flight instincts take control as we sprint back to camp making several river crossings along the way. As I led the team from the depths of hell, happiness erupted with high-fives all around as we entered camp safely. A completely destroyed camp site didn’t even matter compared to prison raping we just endured. Pinned down by the storm of the century on the Joe is no way to die. Or is it.”

And Jimmy recalls it this way:

“Rained hard, got wet, glad I had a coat.  Fishing buddies got wet, got cold, shit pants. I think lightning hit the top of my 3 wt and broke off the eye (he means the top guide—ed.). The fine Redington cork handle took all of the impact and saved my hand.  Be nice if they covered it under warranty and sent me a new rod end.”

So there you have it—just like Reader’s Digest: Drama in Real Life.

The end result what that Marck, Morris and Nash realized spending the night would not be a pleasant undertaking so they tossed their wet gear into their car and departed at 9 PM, driving home through the night. Upon their departure Jimmy and I took shelter in the Man Van, thankful for a solid roof over our heads. The rain had continuted well into the the night but had ceased and when we awakened the next morning to low clouds. We decided to take a look at the river before making a final decision as to whether or not we should go fishing. The Joe had cleared nicely as far as visibility was concerned, but it was a good bit higher than it had been prior to the deluge the evening before. We decided we would take advantage of the lack of rainfall and pack up all the remaining gear before heading out to do see about some fish. We hiked a short ways up the trail and dropped into the river, hopeful that the fish would be aggressively feeding after the water-freshening rain: The infusion of rain was certainly good for the fish but it was not good for the fishing and after an hour, during which Jimmy managed only one small fish, we decided to cut our losses and head back to camp. During our hike back it began raining steadily, again, and continued to do so. We hit the road and it rained for the next 3 hours, all the way back to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho before finally drying out. What had been a small chance of a thunderstorm had turned into a widespread system that cloaked the Idaho panhandle in a Seattle-like shroud of gloom.  At least the fire danger was temporarily lessened.

Hopefully when we go back next year we won’t encounter a similar fate. In case we do, I hope that Morris and Nash will have acquired new tents by then.

Dust to mud: a fishing trip’s early demise, Part 1

Dusty-Not

 

The Pacific Northwest began to dry up early this year. After a bleak snowpack and virtually no Spring runoff, rivers were running strangely low all across the region by mid June. We saw it on the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers; we see it at home.  Local rivers look like they normally do September, and it’s only mid-July.  Wildfire season hasn’t proven to be any worse than normal but it’s still early yet (knock on wood).  Dry as a bone, the West is. And so when the Rangers departed on our trip to Idaho’s panhandle for a few days of cutthroat fishing, we did so with a bit of trepidation as to what we’d encounter. Flows were checked on a regular basis in the weeks prior to our trip and on paper the river was low. How it would actually look when we saw it in person remained to be seen.

A stop for ice and a self esteem boost at Walmart in Kellog, ID

A stop for ice and people watching at Walmart in Kellogg, ID

On the Wednesday of our departure the weather was hot and dry across the state of Washington, as it had been for every day throughout the month of June and thus far into July. As we passed through Idaho the temperature was 90°F although the forecast for Idaho’s panhandle called for a slight cooling trend into the low 80’s and even the upper 70’s (brrrr). There was also a slight chance of thunderstorms on Friday and Saturday. By slight we’re talking 10%-20% chance: not enough to cause concern. Jimmy and I planned to camp for 5 nights, fish for 4 days; Marck, Nash and Morris would be returning home a day sooner. The Man-Van was loaded with plenty of ice and firewood, knowing we would absolutely need the ice; not knowing if we’d even be allowed to need the wood. Did I mention that it was dry?

Road

If the road doesn’t look dusty that’s because this is a photo a different year; a less dry year.

The road is dirt for the last two miles, and even though we traveled slowly the tires kicked up a thick plume of nearly-white dust. Just how dusty was it?  Suffice it to say that one did not want to be following another vehicle on this road. Jimmy and I arrived around 6pm to a nearly empty campground. We selected a site that would accommodate everyone and set up camp before cooking supper.  At around 9PM the others arrived, emerging from a crammed Ford Explorer belonging to the wife of Nash. The amount of gear they had managed to fit into the Explorer was impressive and left just barely enough room for 3 guys. Morris was shoe-horned into the back seat surrounded floor-to-ceiling by fishing and other gear. Besides personal items, groceries, Marck’s large (and brand-new) Camp Chef cooktop, and a Yeti cooler that was big enough to hold an adult corpse (it weighed enough that it may have contained just that). They each also brought their own tents so as to avoid a three man sausagefest. Additionally the roof pod was full of firewood so we would have ample supply for the duration of the trip (there were no campfire bans posted). The late arrivals pitched their tents as darkness fell and we toasted our full attendance late into the night.

Marck's new cooktop was soon defiled by bacon.

Marck’s new cooktop was soon defiled by bacon.

The next morning we broke in Marck’s new cooktop before embarking on Day One of fishing.  With bacon in our bellies the Rangers marched single file up the trail a couple of miles; Marck and Nash dropping down to the river at the “Log Trail” while Morris, Jimmy and I proceeded onward to “The Mine”. The plan was to fish the first part of the day before returning to camp for lunch during the mid-day lull. We would then go out for a later afternoon/early evening bit of angling. As it turned out we ended up fishing straight through the mid-day lull, living on protein bars and water. It’s not that fishing was so good that we didn’t want to take a break—it was just easier to keep fishing than hike back to camp on the trail. Besides this is gorgeous country, and it doesn’t take much before one loses track of time and space, even when the catching slows to a crawl.

It's easy to lose yourself in this.

It’s easy to lose yourself in this.

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Antiquated remains from an ill-fated garnet mine.

Fishing was slower than normal, but better than expected, given the low flows. Fish that would normally be found in the riffles weren’t there. But deeper runs and holes still held some fish, which we caught. Morris may have done some nymphing but mostly it was a dry fly game—that’s why we come here. On a normal water year we can expect to find fish in nearly every inch of the river.

Morris with one of many bends in his rod.

Morris with one of many bends in his rod.

Using a Purple Haze, and later a black foam ant, I managed a handful of small cutthroat in the 10-12 inch range before switching to a streamer as the mid-day lull set in.  The streamer soon yielded a nice 15″ cutt as well as a fish of a lifetime (details of that can be found HERE). It turned out to be a better day than any of us had anticipated, and in the case of the lifetime fish the day was better than I could have ever imagined.

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The lifetime fish.

That evening after further defiling Marck’s grill, Nash, Marck and Morris ventured out for some evening caddis action while Jimmy and I stayed back at camp and stoked the fire. It was nice that we could still have campfires because camping isn’t camping without a fire, around which men can gather to solve world problems or site in silence without it being awkward.

The Breakfast Club.

Dry camp.

The next morning(Friday) we put another good hurt on the Camp Chef before embarking on a downstream journey to seek out some new water. The previous day had yielded decent fishing but we wanted to try some stretches of river that we’d previously only driven past. We had time to explore—after all this was only Day 2 of a 4 day trip. Nash, Jimmy and Morris were dropped off at one spot while Marck and I drove a couple miles further down stream. The idea was that the other 3 would fish down to where we had parked the car, then drive downstream and find Marck and me. That plan worked well, but when we met up and compared notes it was agreed that the water we’d all fished was less desirable than the water above camp. The river down here was comprised of long, straight and shallow sections with fishable water only to be found at the occasional bend in the river, and there weren’t nearaly enough bends in the river. Fishing had been dreadfully slow until I came upon one run that produced 8 fish in 10 minutes, though nothing bigger than 10 inches. Marck caught several fish as he always does. We headed back to camp for lunch and the mid-day lull.

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Marck releases a fish that he had just caught.

That afternoon a couple of Forest Service Rangers stationed at Red Ives stopped by the camp of the Firehole Rangers to let us know that the threat of lightning strikes was very high for the next 12 hours. Despite that the region still looked green, they informed us that it was bone dry—tinder box conditions—and that we should take great care to manage our campfire. Smoke jumpers had been putting out small fires in the greater vicinity and while there were no big burns currently, that could change rapidly. We hoped that it wouldn’t. The threat of thunderstorms wasn’t particularly great and would become even less the following day, but the rangers informed us that on Tuesday the Forest Service was imposing a ban on all fires.  Good timing on our part—our last day was to be Monday so we could enjoy a campfire each night of our stay.

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Jimmy stresses about the possibility of thunderstorms.

At that particular time the skies were clear and we were fairly confident wouldn’t be any lightning strikes in the area. As far as rain goes we weren’t too worried: Summer storms tend to roll in fast, do their thing, and roll on out just as quickly as they rolled in. With nary a care in the world we killed some time relaxing around camp before heading out to fish late in the afternoon. When the time came to grab our rods, Jimmy, Nash and Morris hiked up the trail a couple of miles as Marck and I headed downstream. It was our plan to return to camp earlier than the others and get dinner started.

To be continued in Part 2…

The reason for the two part series is two-fold: 1. By breaking the story into 2 parts, I create a sense of drama—a cliffhanger, if you will; and 2. It greatly reduces the length of the drivel. If I were to keep it as one lengthy story nobody would stay focused long enough to read it. Hell, chances are nobody will read each separate story anyway.

Not targeting bull trout in Idaho

Bul Trout Country

Like the sign says: Bull Trout Country

It’s been said that one should never bring a knife to a gun fight, and, being a reasonably marginally intelligent person, I would never intentionally do that. To be very clear I would never enter into a gun fight in the first place—not a knife fight, either. Nor would I be inclined to arm myself with a 3 weight fly rod with the intent of seeking fish that would be better suited to, say, a 6 weight.

That said, when fishing for westslope cutthroat trout on a particular Idaho panhandle river one knows that, despite being pretty rare, bull trout do inhabit these waters. During the summer months they eat their way up the system before entering small tributaries to spawn in September.  But when was the last time anyone caught a bull trout while fishing small dry flies?  These predatory char are known meat eaters that likely wouldn’t waste the energy to sip small bugs off the surface unless they were really bored. They’re much more likely to chase down a hooked cutthroat trout that had eaten your dry fly. But that’s not a common occurrence either, despite that I nearly had it happen once (if one were so inclined one could read about that HERE).

Troubled waters.

Troubled waters.

In my 4 previous trips to the upper Joe I’d never seen a bull trout—not that I can confirm, anyway. In 2014 Schpanky and I were fishing a couple miles above the St. Joe Lodge, which is itself 5 miles above the trailhead at Spruce Tree campground. We had just come ’round a bend in the river when we saw the shadow of a very large fish moving from beneath a logjam. It slithered, snakelike, and disappeared downstream at a rapid pace before we could get close enough to make an absolutely positive ID. At better than 2 feet in length, it was much bigger than any cutthroat likely to haunt these waters, and I’m confident it was a char. While unconfirmed, that’s the only time I’ve seen a bull trout on this river. But they are there, and they are endangered so targeting them is frowned upon, as is detaining them for questioning. Retaining them is illegal.

The upper Joe is all catch and release for any gamefish in the system and all you’re going to find here are native species: cutthroat, whitefish and, allegedly, bull trout. It’s pristine country, unpolluted by any human activity now or in the past (save for a brief garnet mining stint that proved unproductive and thankfully failed long ago). This is prime, and critical, habitat for the last self-sustaining population of bull trout in the Lake Coeur d’Alene watershed.

When the Firehole Rangers visited the Joe this year we encountered lower than normal river levels. This came as no surprise because every river in the west was low due to a mild winter that produced very little snowpack. But the Joe was still fishing pretty well despite low water: the riffles that typically hold ample cutthroat were devoid of inhabitants but deeper runs and holes still held fish and the fish appeared to be good shape. Overall the size of the fish was smaller this year than in the past but there were larger fish to be found—it just took a bit more work. The river temps were 58° F in the morning, warming to 64° at the heat of the day so it was still within the safe range without unnecessarily putting additional stress on the fish.

The first day of fishing was a bit slow but a handful of cutts were convinced to take dry fly offerings. A size 14 Purple Haze was moderately effective on a few fish, as was a size 16 black foam ant, but around mid-day things slowed considerably as we expected it would because it always does. It was during this mid-day lull that I reached into my bag of streamer tricks and extracted a white conehead Zuddler, size 6. I’ve always like fishing streamers, particularly when fish aren’t rising. It offers hope when hope is all but lost.  If there’s a fish in a run that has ignored dries, there’s a decent chance it may not ignore a streamer. And little fish don’t usually chase streamers.

Ammunition.

Proper ammunition for not targeting bull trout.

It should be noted that I was fishing my 7’9″ Sage Circa 3 weight. It’s a sweet little stick for throwing dries all day long, and while I may have been better off using my 4 weight rod, this was day one and I wanted to put in some time with the Circa (I fully intended to rig up the 9′ 4 weight on day two). The biggest cutthroat I’d caught on this river previously was 17″ and I knew, that while not ideal, the diminutive rod was capable of handling a a decent sized fish. My capabilities, on the other hand, are always in question. On my Circa I use a furled leader by Cutthroat Leaders, with a couple feet of 4x tippet spliced to another couple feet of 5x. This setup presents small dries nicely but it does not do a very good job of turning over large flies—especially not weighted streamers. While I managed to get the big bug out there it wasn’t pretty. After Jimmy and Morris worked through a particularly run with their diminutive dry flies I came through with the Zuddler and managed to land a chunky 15″ cutt. I would be a happy man if I didn’t catch another fish the rest of the day.

A productive hole.

See that log on the left?

A short time later I came to a nice run with a trough of deep water against a log on the bank. A large rock protruded, breaking the current flow. Had to be a fish there, right? By this time Jimmy had fished well ahead and Morris was behind me. I’m sure Jimmy had fished this spot but he had been employing the dry fly so I approached the hole as if nobody had previously touched it. I put the streamer upstream of  the rock and let it swing close. Then I began stripping (you know what I mean). An aggressive fish slammed the streamer but didn’t allow me time to set the hook properly. After an initial run and a couple of violent head shakes I got the fly back. It was a nice fish—felt like it may have been 15″ or better. Oh well, even streamer fishing, with it’s often violent strikes, doesn’t guarantee success. I knew I wouldn’t entice that particularly fish a second time and doubted there was another good fish in that run. Still, I decided to fish through the end of the deep green water (which was only actually about 3 feet deep). Another ugly cast toward the end of the log and the fly slapped down on the water. Swing, strip…strip…BAM!

This time felt different—the fish didn’t run—it just held its ground as if daring me to try to move it. The wee Circa doubled over under the strain of the stubborn fish and I’d have thought I had hooked a submerged log had it not been for the savage head shakes. When the fish began to move it did so at will, though without lightning speed: it felt more like a diesel powered truck than a sports car. All I could do was palm the Sage Click III reel and hope that my 4x-spliced-to-5x would hold up (I had my doubts). The fish made one good run but I was able to turn it before it had peeled too much line from the reel. As I coerced the fish into the shallower water opposite its lair I got a first look: that’s when I noticed fins with white leading edges. Not a cutthroat. I began to think ahead to landing the fish and wasn’t sure how that was going to happen as I had no net. Every year I tell myself I should bring a net to the Joe, and every year I decide that it’s too much crap to carry so I leave the net back at camp. Fortunately Morris was coming down the river toward me so I hollered squealed like a school girl, “Bull trout!”  He quickened his pace. I had managed to get the fish into the shallows just a few feet from where I stood and the fish remained fairly calm, as if it wasn’t particularly impressed by me. All of the bull trout I’ve caught (and there had only been 3 previously) were grayish-silver bodied; this fish was a more of a rusty-orange, and it was considerably bigger than the previous three as well.

All the bulls I've loved before.

All the bulls I’ve loved before.

Morris held my rod (you know what I mean) while I removed my Nikon AW1 from its case and switched to underwater shooting mode. All I could do was point the camera at the fish, depress the shutter and hope for the best—I had no idea what sort of images I would capture.  The big char didn’t take kindly to my attempt at a front angle shot and darted into the faster water, giving Morris a chance to play the fish back into the shallows. After a couple more shots I grabbed my forceps and gently removed the streamer from the fish’s maw. I didn’t want to  handle the fish if at all possible, and I sure wasn’t going to reach into it’s mouth with my fingers to remove the hook—its teeth were formidable and would have made short work of my phalangeal flesh.

Handling with kid gloves.

Handling with kid gloves.

After a clean hook extraction the big char moved quickly back to the deeper water whence it came. “That was pretty cool,” I may have said to myself and possibly to Morris as well; I don’t know—it was almost dreamlike.  Following a high five we discussed the length of the fish. It was mutually agreed that it was likely equal to the distance from the end of the real seat to the stripping guide: (B) 25 inches; or on the conservative side equal to the distance from the end of the reel seat to the first ferrule joint: (A) 23 inches. I’ll agree to split the difference and call it (C) 24 inches.

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A + B divided by 2 = C

No matter the size it was a fish of a lifetime and I can now die a happy man with a debt of gratitude owed to Morris for coming along at the right time and holding my rod.

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BullTrout2

BullTrout3

 

 

A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part V

Welcome to the final (thank god) installment of a five part series—it’s almost over. Did you even read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 yet?

After the beat down on the Cornhole Madison, we drove 4 hours to Rock Creek, with a quick stop along the way in Deer Lodge for a bite to eat. Deer Lodge is actually a pretty interesting place because right in the middle of town is the Old Montana Prison (known as the Montana’s Territorial Prison when the first inmate was incarcerated in 1871). The facility hasn’t provided three squares a day for inmates since the late 1970’s, nor was there much to choose from as far as eating establishments elsewhere in town. We did manage to find a joint that was open and horked down a meal that was barely a notch above prison food before continuing on our way.

Buy some balls.

Twenty miles east of Missoula lies Rock Creek. It’s a place, not a town, despite having a Clinton, MT designation (Clinton is actually a few miles west). Interesting to note is that in this small settlement you have a couple of very well known establishments: Rock Creek Lodge, home of the famous Testicle Festival; and the Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile. Inside the bar at Rock Creek Lodge you’ll find a handful of what appear to be locals, playing pool and pinball and drinking (this is not your Columbia PFG crowd). The wall behind the bar is adorned with a wide variety of interesting signs and stickers, my favorite of which being the one that says, “I don’t care that you fly fish”.  A quarter mile up the road you find the renowned “Merc” which does indeed care that you fly fish and exists because you do. Flowing just behind both establishments is Rock Creek—the legendary Rock Creek—another of Montana’s storied blue ribbon trout streams. Upon arriving at our destination we stopped for a beer at the Rock Creek Lodge before checking into our cabins at the Merc (shop was closed; keys were under the mats).

Buy some flies.

The first time the Rangers fished Rock Creek was in 2008 when we weren’t even known as the Firehole Rangers and our current assembly of corps hadn’t yet been fully assembled. That first visit was during peak runoff, on a year when there had been plenty of snow (unlike this year). We probably shouldn’t have been catching fish that year because we probably shouldn’t have been on the water. But alas we were and we did: lots of big water, lots of medium-sized fish, despite that we were too early for the salmonfly hatch that year. The second time we fished Rock Creek was in June 2014. We’d only been home for couple of weeks after returning from the annual pilgrimage to the Firehole when Marck, Morris and I went for a long weekend. It would appear, in going thru my records, that I didn’t write about that trip. I reckon there wasn’t much to write about. We were there during the peak of the golden stone hatch but fish were only wanting a Purple Haze. I didn’t discover this until the last day when it was all but too late to change the outcome of the weekend.

Morris, Nash, Goose and Jimmy proudly(?) displaying their Ranger shirts

The good news, this year, was that we had timed our arrival perfectly. We talked with a guide who had just gotten off the river and he told us the salmonflies were working their way upstream and we could expect to encounter the giant stoneflies at about mile 30 up Rock Creek Road. The salmonflies begin popping on the lower river and work their way upstream as the days/weeks progress. It was decided that we would drive to the big bugs in the morning.

High octane fuel to start a long day on Rock Creek.

There’s not a lot at Rock Creek other than the Merc, the Testicle Lodge and Ekstrom’s Stage Station. But there is, of all things, a coffee stand right outside the cabins where we stayed: good coffee, too. After breakfast we piled into the Soccer Mom Express and proceeded up Rock Creek Road. The first 8 or so miles are paved; after that the road turns to dirt and potholes, although being early in the season the road was still in pretty good shape. Good thing, too, because with the weight of 6 guys in an already-low-slung mini van, it could have gone badly had the road been in worse condition. After what seemed like an hour (because it was) we arrived at the river access near the Morgan-Case Homestead (interesting story behind that—stop by and read the signboard next time you’re up that way). We geared up and packed our Gore-tex jackets—rain was forecasted. I had intentionally left my lucky fishing hat back at the cabin because it doesn’t accommodate the hood of a rain jacket as well as a ball cap, and frankly it hadn’t proven to be lucky the day before (stupid hat, anyway). We hiked a short ways to the river and spread out; Marck and I heading upstream while the others moved down. Before we had even gotten to our first run I heard Goose yell, “I got one!”  That didn’t take long and it gave me hope that it would be a good day.

Up Shit Rock Creek without a paddle.

The river looked nothing like it had in 2008, when it was a raging torrent of chocolate milk, and while it was still flowing plenty fast, good visibility was in ample supply and we didn’t have to stand far back in the bushes to fish. That said, at these flows wading was not much of an option so reaching good water was a challenge. Fishing was a bit slow to get started: I was using a salmonfly dry pattern with a SJW dropper. After an hour I had one 10″ brown to hand that ate the dropper. Marck hooked his first ever bull trout about the same time, making Rock Creek the first river on which we’d each caught a bull trout (mine came in 2008, and was a lot bigger).

We hadn’t been at it for more than a half hour before the weather took a rapid turn for the worse: the wind came from downstream with little warning and we could see a squall blowing rapidly in our direction. In the time it took to remove our jackets from our packs and put them on, the rain was upon us; blowing sideways. Fortunately it didn’t persist for more than 20 minutes before the clouds parted. Despite that the we had dry conditions for the remainder of the day, a dark cloud continued to follow me around.

A load of bull for Marck.

No fish were rising and no bugs were out and about. In fact we didn’t see many of the big bugs until much later in the day, and even then they weren’t prolific. The fish weren’t keying in on them either, which field research confirmed: we tossed a few live bugs into the river and watched them flutter as they floated downstream without a single fish rising to take them.

Protein a’plenty.

I tried several different dry varitions of a salmonfly but I had zero takes. Big ones and slightly less big ones; bright orange ones and less brightly orange ones. Not even a tasty looking Cat Puke could rise a fish. All I could surmise was that the fish had seen and eaten so many of the big stoneflies recently that they were absolutely stuffed and they couldn’t eat another bite (reference Mr. Creosote, Month Python’s Meaning of Life). That, and/or we were simply in the wrong place. A few rafts drifted past during the day, casting to the opposite bank, and we observed several of the boat anglers catching fish as they cast their bugs under overhanging branches. So apparently there were fish in the river willing to eat, but most of the good water appeared to be on the opposite bank, far out of our reach: there was no wading across at these flows so we made do with what we could. I tried different ant patterns, a golden stone dry, different droppers…all to no avail. In retrospect I probably should have tried pulling a streamer through some deeper holes.

As the day droned on and the fishing remained painfully slow (for me anyway), I had plenty of time to appreciate the surrounding beauty. Rock Creek flows through a narrow canyon carved into the Sapphire Mountains and if the fishing had been good I may not have taken the time to appreciate where I was. However, I was there to catch fish and because I wasn’t catching fish, some of the natural luster wore off by afternoon.

Another beautiful place in Montana.

I slowly moved downstream, all the while trying to convince myself that my luck would change, until I came to a spot where I saw 3 moose on the opposite shore. They were most likely a safe distance away and fortunately none were cows with calves. But I don’t really like seeing moose when I’m alone in the wilderness and I’m not afraid to admit that their presence put me on edge. Had I been distracted by catching fish I may not have even noticed the moose; but since I wasn’t, I did. I glanced around to find the nearest climbable tree but when nothing promising could be found I moved away from the spot and headed back upstream toward the main trail from the road. Shortly thereafter I ran into Nash, Jimmy and Morris: all had been catching fish and none had noticed the moose. Morris barely slowed down to exchange words: he seemed to be on a mission as he aggressively worked through water that I had just fished. I tried to warn him that there were no fish there, just as he hooked up with and broke off a nice fish before continuing upstream at a frantic pace, changing flies in mid stride as he focued intently on the next piece of promising water. Nash drifted a fly through some water I had just passed through a half hour earlier. Before I could tell him he was wasting him time he landed a fish. Screw this—it was 3 pm when I finally walked back to the truck mini van, climbed out of my waders and broke down my rod. And reached for a cold Vitamin R from the cooler.

The sign offers false hope that anglers can expect to catch a Rock Creek Grand Slam.

After an hour the others began to trickle in. The fishing had been tough for almost everyone but nobody had caught just a single fish, other than me. Goose managed to land 6 fish and, due to having been distracted by soggy feet, missed the hook set on about 20 more. Morris caught “more than anybody else!” by landing about 20 fish, including 4 out of 5 of the Grand Slam species. Jimmy only remembers catching a brookie and some others. Nash recalls catching 6 or so, but “had a hard time seeing the size 4 salmonfly dries” he was throwing (I think he was being sarcastic). Marck declined to weigh in with his fish total, but I know he caught at least a bull trout (undoubtedly many more other trouts as well). If you count all the fish caught by everyone, collectively we got the Slam: bull trout, rainbow, brown, brookie, and westslope cutthroat. And a bonus whitey.

I stood idly by while the others talked of their fishing prowess and geared down for the last time on the trip. For Goose, this was a welcome end to having spent the past 5 days wearing leaky waders. As he removed his foot from the custom garbage bag liner I snapped a quick photo and made what may have been some sort of wise-ass comment. “F#ck you!” he said, offering a familiar hand gesture, “You’re not going to make fun of me on your damn blog.”

I would never do that.

His waders may have leaked, but he caught more fish than me.

 

And so the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers is in the books and, other than a single day on the Big Hole, it’s one I’d just as rather forget. If I wanted to get my ass handed to me I could stay much closer to home, wear my lucky fishing hat, and spend a day on the Yakima.

But at least my waders didn’t leak.

A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part IV

Please note: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 precede this drivel. It’s your option, but I recommend reading those parts first.

 

The Madison at Three Dollar Bridge is a deceptively welcoming place.

The Big Hole. The Firehole. And now my nemesis: The Cornhole Madison.  With one of the prettiest backdrops imaginable, the Madison lures me in each year with its beauty, then kicks me where it counts. That river never treats me with much respect excepting perhaps last year when I caught 6 fish, which exceeded my total catch rate from the previous 5 years by 2 fish. That’s right—in the years from 2009 to 2013 I caught a grand total of 4 fish on the Madison (on some of those years not a single fish, while on other years as many as 2). Last year was an exception rather than the norm, and while I thought perhaps 2014’s outing might be the great slumpbuster, it turns out to have been merely a freak occurrence. If you’re really bored you can read about my first encounter with the Madison in 2009. That was a foreshadowing of my jaded relationship with that river.

The road to the Cornhole River

Bidding farewell Saying good riddance to the Firehole, we departed West Yellowstone after a stop at Blue Ribbon Flies for some bugs and intel. Jimmy may have also bought a new hat, bringing his total to no fewer than 5. As we drove along the shores of Hebgen Lake toward Three Dollar Bridge, the weather looked iffy. Rain was forecasted for later in the afternoon but it appeared we might get an early dousing. Thusfar on the trip we’d had favorable weather for avoiding rain jackets despite that it did rain every night of our trip. As we exited the mountains and descended into the Madison Valley the skies cleared and it was evident we were in for another fair day. We arrived in the parking lot where a couple of other cars were already parked. Sometimes we have the river to ourselves, but given the lower than normal flows the Madison had allegedly been fishing quite well and it was no surprise to find other anglers with the same idea as us. We geared up before taking our traditional team photo.

Team Photo, Take One.

As the designated photographer I carefully placed my camera on the hood of Jimmy’s truck, set the self timer, and promptly tripped while hurriedly attempting to get into the photo within the allotted 10 seconds. That blunder should have been a foreshadowing of the day to come, but I got up, dusted myself off and managed to get it right the second time around. Note to self: never stand next to the giant of the group.

Team Photo, Take Two.

After the ass kicking on the Firehole, during which my lucky fishing hat was intentionally left behind in the truck, I did not want to tempt fate again and so began the day by confronting the Madison head-on with the old stand-by lid atop my noggin. Marck, followed closely by Morris, headed across the bridge to the south side of the river while Nash and Goose fished upstream on the near side. Jimmy and I set off in the opposite direction to see about finding some decent water and willing fish downstream. Usually I fish above the bridge, but we’d received reliable intel that there was good water in that direction—we just had to walk quite a ways to find it. We bypassed a fair amount of water that doesn’t look particularly enticing before dropping off the trail to the river’s edge. Angling as we went, we plied the water at a few likely spots near the bank and deliberately worked our way downstream.

Jimmy confronts the Madison temptress

Putting the double rigged Turd/SJW dropper in front of, behind, and on both sides of the large rocks yielded nada, for me anyway: Jimmy had a fish or two in the first hour. As we continued our downstream jaunt we encountered another angler, also moving in the same direction as the river’s current. Rather than following in his footsteps I decided to hold back and work through some of the water we’d already fished. The plan was to be more thorough and cover some of the water further out from the bank. The main current was ripping fast, but there were some seams that likedly held fish, if I could wade out to them (I was able to wade out and reach some of that water but no fish were found to be there). Jimmy continued downstream. Another half hour had passed when the downstream gentleman came walking past me, headed back to his truck, his head held low. A brief greeting and inquiry revealed that he’d been unable to entice any trout but had caught a couple whitefish. He seemed like a friendly sort and looked like he knew what he was doing. I’d have felt bad for him except that by this time I’d have been happy with a couple whitefish. Even just one.

Having grown weary of watching an indicator, I decided to try a streamer since I enjoy that style of fishing. I tied on an olive Conehead Zuddler and on my first swing had a grab but didn’t get a hookup. I could blame the fish for being non-committal but in all reality I was rusty from not having had much practice of setting the hook for a couple days. Knowing that the fish, having tasted the hook, wouldn’t fall for the same antics a second time, I switched to a black version of the same streamer and repeated. Nada. Despite the rather cold reception the day was beginning to heat up. My head, under the not-breathable canvas of my lucky fishing hat, was caked in sweat. Jimmy was by now well downstream out of sight—in my estimation too far to walk in my breathable waders that weren’t doing a very effective job of breathing. I wasn’t enjoying my current situation very much so I opted to head back to the parking lot for lunch and a change of hats.

Lunch befitting an unaccomplished angler.

When I arrived there were a couple of more cars parked in the lot that hadn’t been there earlier in the morning: I pitied the poor fools that had showed up late with the hope of catching fish. None of the other Rangers were back for lunch, which likely meant that they were all productively preoccupied. I traded my sweaty lucky fishing hat for a cool cotton alternative, peeled off my equally sweaty waders and enjoyed a respite from not catching fish: the pre-made sandwich was good, the Bugles exceptional, and the Vitamin R was cold on this day, unlike the day before on the Firehole. A steady w#nd had kicked up and for once I welcomed the breeze, at least for the next 30 minutes.

As I was gearing up to face the opposite bank, Goose and Nash returned for lunch. Graham was in good spirits, having caught some fish. Despite having caught a couple fish, Goose was less enthusiastic: “I hate this f#cking river.” Marck returned shortly thereafter, and like always he downplayed his success. Morris could be seen frantically working the opposite bank as though he were on a mission. He didn’t appear willing to stop and break for lunch. Jimmy was nowhere to be seen.

Trying to catch fish on the Madison is like swimming against the current.

I crossed the bridge and walked a half mile or so upstream along the opposite bank. There are a couple spots where I had caught fish in the past, but I didn’t hold out much hope for the afternoon session. I was already a defeated man before even wetting my line. My ‘can’t do’ attitude was either justified throughout the remainder of the day or it determined the remainder of the day. I tried streamers again, unsuccessfully. I went back to the Turd and SJW dropper. Zilch. I reminded myself that I was on a beautiful river, in Montana; the Rocky Mountains within spitting distance. Once things were in their proper perspective, I found myself still loathing the Cornhole Madison and sat down on a log to ponder my fate. Opposite from me were a couple of the poor fools who had arrived late in hopes of catching fish. As I gazed from across the river one of them proceeded to land a very nice fish.

Open wound, pour salt.

At the pre-arranged time of 4pm the Rangers met up at the parking lot again and compared notes. Marck caught “about 20″ (whatever). Graham caught 8 and noted, “I’m damn proud of it” (I’d have been even more damn prouder). Jimmy isn’t good at recalling his fish totals and guessed that he caught about 7, though Marck maintains that Jimmy had caught more than that before lunch. In predictable fashion Goose caught his standard 2 fish, which included a whitefish. The big surprise was that Morris caught only two this year—he generally does much better. But it had nothing to do with Morris—the Madison just sucks.  I took it in the brought up the rear with 2 fewer fish than Goose and Morris.

We piled into the truck and headed off toward our next destination. My arse was so sore from rogering I endured on the Madison I could hardly stand to sit for the duration of the 4 hour drive.

Would Rock Creek play nicely or earn a new nickname?

Stay tuned.