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Happy Birth Anniversary, ‘Murica

by Kirk Werner on July 3, 2014

 

Wishing all y’all a fabulously fishy fourth.

If you like this design and want a t-shirt, they can be had HERE.

(I make just enough off each shirt to buy about a quarter gallon of gas to go fishing, so thanks in advance)

 

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Missouri loves company

by Kirk Werner on July 1, 2014

 

A company of Firehole Rangers on the mighty Missouri.

I don’t have an offishial bucket list—to keep one would surely lead to disappointment. I do, however, have an idea of some rivers I’d like to fish before I kick the bucket. One of those rivers is the Missouri. I know lots of folks who’ve fished it, and I’ve read much about it. While it always sounded a bit too busy and populated for my tastes, I have always wanted to experience it firsthand and draw my own conclusions. The allure of 8,000 fish per mile (and nearly as many anglers); a river that fishes like a giant spring creek; wind that can literally blow boats off the water, etc. Yeah, I’ve wanted to visit the Missouri for some time, and if I kept a bucket list I could now scratch this river off the list.

Prior to our annual Firehole Rangers excursion we had made plans to fish Rock Creek on the last leg of our journey. We had cabins booked at the Rock Creek Mercantile and we’d lined up a guide: Scott Anderson, owner and outfitter at Montana Fishing Company. As the day drew nearer, reports indicated that the Creek was running extremely high and fast, and it was Scott’s assessment that it would not be a good idea to float it. The Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork—all nearby rivers—were also out of shape. We were told the only viable option was the MO.  With that guidance we canceled our lodging at the Merc and, after fishing the Madison on Monday, drove to Helena.

The Firehole Rangers see the town of Craig for the first time.

As The Rangers headed north of I-90 we found ourselves in uncharted territory as none of us had been to Helena before. Nor were we there long enough to do more than grab a bite to eat and sleep before heading out the next morning toward the bustling troutopolis of Craig, MT. The countryside traveling from Helena to Craig made me wish I’d been there before. I imagined Lewis and Clark as they passed through this area over 200 years ago, and surmised that the countryside probably hadn’t changed all THAT much since then.  Ever since the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s journey to the the Pacific coast I’ve fancied myself a bit of an armchair historian when it comes to the epic journey of the Corps of Discovery. As we proceeded on I began to feel all romantic about the unspoiled Montana countryside of the past. That said, I have to admit I was glad to be traveling at a high rate of speed on a paved highway, drinking coffee within the comforts of a minivan rather than walking overland and/or paddling dragging heavily-laden canoes upstream; worrying about my scalp and lamenting the fact that the whiskey had run out.

The sign about sums things up: Craig=fishing.

It was with great excitement that we pulled into Craig, a town that needed no introduction. Three fly shops and a restaurant and a bar, and not much else, comprise this angling destination which likely wouldn’t exist if not for fishing. We browsed through Headhunter’s Fly Shop to kill a little time before meeting our guides at the Craig boat ramp. It was there that I was surprised (and delighted) to see a certain set of books on the shelf (I hear that those books have since been purchased so it is my hope the folks at Headhunter’s have ordered more—gotta pay for my gas to go fishing, you know…).

Got Olive?

At 9 AM we met Scott Anderson and the other guides from Montana Fishing Company, loaded our gear into their trucks and drove a few miles upriver to Holter Dam, our launch point.  Holter Dam is a a massive, aging structure measuring 1364 feet long and 124 feet high that, as one might imagine, presented quite an obstacle for Lewis and Clark and their men as they pushed up the mighty Missouri River in the spring of 1805.  But I digress, back to present day…the current powers-that-be that manage the water coming over Holter Dam had been busily reducing the flows from 11,000 CFS the day before, to 5,000 CFS the day we fished. We anticipated that this would be a good thing, and the water was running clear and cold as we boarded our vessels for the day. We’d drawn numbers the night before to determine who would fish with whom, and the results were that Jimmy and Morris would share a boat, as would Marck and Nash.

Team Jimmy and Morris.

Team Nash and Marck.

Goose drew the unlucky number and was paired with yours truly. We carefully took note of the very important information clearly displayed on the sign at the launch and mentally prepared ourselves for a day of fishing. 8,000 fish per mile: surely a couple would offer themselves up for the catching. Undoubtedly Marck would catch at least 4,000 of them. We set off for the day under partly cloudy skies, pleasant temperatures, and no w#nd. Yet.

The sign.

That’s not the Great Falls of the MO in the background.

With Holter Dam still in view behind us, fish began to fall for the scuds that dangled beneath indicators and split shot. Goose was first on the board in our boat. He was also second on the board in our boat. I was down 2-0 before I knew what had happened. Then I reminded myself that Goose and I were on the same team. Now before you roll your eyes and proclaim that fly fishing is a leisurely activity intended for pure enjoyment and not meant to be a competition, keep in mind that we had three boats. It wasn’t important that any particular boat caught more fish than another, as long as you weren’t in the boat that caught the least.

Goose enjoys the first bent rod of the day…

…and pulls to an early lead.

Another beauty for Goose.

After an enjoyable morning we broke for a shoreside lunch and compared notes: none of the 3 boats were slaying fish, but all had caught some.

Lunch break.

Drifting with the lazy, often swirling current, we saw hundreds of large fish sunning themselves in the shallows as we floated overhead. The Missouri really was living up to its billing as large spring creek with an abundant insane trout population. Despite that it isn’t really a spring creek, it fished like one: in spring creeks the fish are not very often easy to catch.  We confirmed this later in the day when our boat anchored up on a large pod of rising fish, just about the time the w#nd started to pick up. We must have seen 30-40 noses sipping small mayflies at any given time, and many appeared to be rather large fish.  Goose was first to take a turn on the one boat rod that was pre-rigged for dries. As he wiped sweat from his brow he declared that he’d only ever caught one fish on a dry fly. After three casts—casts that may have lacked finesse and delicate presentation thanks to some annoying gusts— Goose could no longer say that he’d only ever caught one fish on a dry fly. The fish ran downstream like a freight train, taking line to the backing. These Missouri fish certainly proved strong…especially when ass-hooked.

Goose’s second ever fish on a dry fly!

After Goose made it look so easy, it was my turn. Now bear in mind I’ve caught a few more fish on a dry fly than my teammate, so I fully expected that it wouldn’t take 3 casts before I got a fish to take my expertly presented fly. “When you see the fish take the fly, count to 3 before you set the hook,” was the advice of our guide, Scott Anderson. That’s easier said than done, particularly when your nerves are shot from 20-30 casts, made between strong gusts of w#nd, to large rising fish that want it placed right on their nose with no drag. I finally got it right and the result was a beautiful Missouri hen, a fish I felt I had really earned. My nerves were shot, my casting arm spent.

My 1st fish on a dry fly on the Missouri, with Scott Anderson

We were about to pull anchor when it happened again. I may have been hard to live with for the next few minutes.

The insufferable UA with another fish on the dry.

Distracted by the rising fish, we’d lost over an hour and it was decided that we needed to make some fast time in order to catch up with the other two boats. By now the w#nd was really started to rear its ugly head, and we pushed through a lot of slow water without really fishing much. No worries, we’d caught some fish nice already.

Another for Goose.

First caught, then released.

And another…

We did finally catch up with the other boats, and while they hadn’t enjoyed the dry fly fishing we had, they’d been catching a few fish and hopefully having a good time. There was an uneasy tension in the air as we approached and asked how everyone had been doing. Answers were vague.

Are Jimmy and Trevor having fun yet?

Morris relaxes with a nice Missouri rainbow.

Goose and I had been a well-oiled machine for most of the day and had even enjoyed a double on nice rainbows. That’s teamwork, folks. We were in it to win it.

Double rainbows…what does it mean?

Craig, MT

By the time we got off the water that evening at Craig, the Missouri had partially flexed its muscles by offering up some pretty serious w#nd—not the stuff that legends are made of, mind you, but enough to make a person realize what it’s capable of. I’m fairly sure I’d rather not experience the Missouri’s full potential if given a choice. We were also not heart-broken to have dodged a thunderstorm which had been threatening for the last hour of the day.

Storm brewing.

All in all it was a fine day on the water, and everything I’d hoped it would be—and less. The river was not crowded. I imagine that in another month we wouldn’t be able to say that. We drove off into the setting sun en route to Missoula where we spent our last night. The next morning The Firehole Rangers headed west, taking a more direct route than the Corps of Discovery had done 209 years before us. I still don’t understand why Lewis and Clark continued south, then west over Lolo Pass. I-90 is so much faster.

Oh, and lest one should forget about the score at the end of the day, the tally went something like this:

Morris: “A little less than 10, but I don’t count fish. A couple whites. Are there browns in that water? I think I may have caught one.” (His words, not mine)
Jimmy: 5 rainbows

Nash: 3 rainbows and one 20″ whitey
Marck: 3 rainbows, one golden bone and one whitey

Goose: 5 rainbows
UA: 4 rainbows

By my reckoning, Team Goose/UA won, because Morris doesn’t count fish and cannot be relied on for the truth. And we didn’t catch any trash fish caught only trouts.

 

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Making peace with the Madison

by Kirk Werner on June 23, 2014

As we’ve done since 2009, part of the annual Firehole Ranger pilgrimage is a stop along the way back west to visit the fish of the Madison River near Three Dollar Bridge. Prior to arriving this year, if I had a dollar for every fish I’d caught on the Madison at Three Dollar Bridge, I’d have $4. That’s right: 5 years, 4 fish. Which means exactly what it looks like it means: The Madison is not kind to me. My best year was in 2011 when I managed to scratch out 2 fish. Marck is the only one who truly thrives on this river this time of year and quite frankly I feel a mutiny is in order. In two short years Morris seems to be have quickly found some love in the Madison, but he just does what Marck does, so Morris doesn’t count. We could drive a short distance south to Island Park, Idaho, and fish the salmonfly hatch on the the Henry’s Fork.  I’m pretty sure we’d all enjoy increased catching if we went just about anywhere other than the Madison.

Gearing up under the promise of a fair weather day.

At least this year, even if the fishing turned out to be poor, the weather was unseasonably good. Or, maybe it was seasonably good. We’re usually there as week earlier and the weather tends be rather hit-and-miss. The mountains had less snow than they normally do, which is not to suggest that the snowpack had been light: it hadn’t. But the melt came early and fast, as evidenced by the all the rivers in the vicinity and the Madison itself. It was running as high as we’d seen it before, and it was off-color. That being said, it had come down and cleared a bit in the 3 days since we’d driven past on our way to West Yellowstone. Despite unsavory appearances we knew there were fish in the river that needed to eat. Convincing them to take our offerings would be the challenge.

The Firehole Rangers at Three Dollar Bridge.

Despite my past issues with the Madison, I approached the day with a ‘can-do’ attitude: whatever had happened in the past was water under the bridge. With an outlook as sunny as the day, Jimmy and I headed upstream about 3/4 of a mile and began fishing down. Marck, Morris and Nash crossed the bridge and headed upriver on the opposite bank. Goose set up operations downstream a ways nearest the bridge. With the river flows being what they were, the fish would likely be tucked in tight to the bank, which meant fishing right in front of our toes—no casting, per se. Just flipping out some line, mending, mending, mending and watching the indicator for any subtle shift in position. And mending. Rigged with an indicator above a Turd (Pat’s Rubber Legs) with an MK Flies Hula Worm (it may have many unofficial names) dropper, I proceeded to work slots of water broken by large boulders.

The Delectable Worm/Aloha Worm/Hula Worm tied by Aileen Lane.

I’d done this many times before: watch the indicator for any subtle change in position, micro mend repeatedly and —BAM! Well, perhaps not quite a violent take, but I had a fish on: a 12-ish inch brown with very little fight in him due to the icy run-off, but a fish nonetheless. An early fish, too, as I’d only been fishing for 10 minutes.  Normally the early fish gets the worm, but this one took the Turd.  This gave cause for hope and enthusiasm.

First fish of the day.

As I angled on I noted that Jimmy had gotten into an early fish as well. I stepped methodically downstream, doing more of the same that had gotten me into the first fish. When I happened to take my eyes off my indicator to look around I could see Marck with a fish on (no surprise there). Morris, who was following close behind Marck like an abandoned puppy, also enjoyed a bent rod.  I had no idea where Nash was, but assumed he was into fish as well. While Goose finds the Madison equally as frustrating as I do, he always catches at least one fish and I was confident that he would do so. A sense of calm swept over me as I considered the very real likelihood that everyone would avoid a skunk on this day.

Across the river, Morris is into another of his ~20 fish.

Over and over I’ve tried to decipher the secret code needed to crack the Madison’s vault. We all fish it the same way, every year, and the results are that Marck always catches WAY more fish than anyone else. I usually catch the fewest. What advantage does Marck have that I, and the others, don’t?  Besides a much higher view of the water, and cologne that smells like Powerbait, nothing comes quickly to mind. What does he do that I don’t? I’d determined that he sets the hook EVERY time the indicator shifts position, whereas I have a tendency to dismiss subtle movements as shifting currents, and sticks. I decided on this day that I would consider every movement of the indicator to be a fish, and set the hook incessantly. The result was another fish shortly after the first fish. This one was a much more respectably-sized rainbow that had been lying in a seam a few feet off the bank, right where a trout should have been. It took the Hula Worm and gave a much better fight.

Second fish of the day on the Hula Worm.

Two fish! To what did I owe my good fortunes?! I’d equaled my best day on the Madison and had only been on the water for 30 minutes. As I proceeded to fish downstream, I did so with a certain confidence I’d never had before on this river. To say that I had a swagger would be a stretch—after years of demoralizing hardship, one does not develop a swagger so quickly. But things were going my way: not only was I catching fish, but I wasn’t losing flies on the countless snags! My confidence skyrocketed. On my next drift I hooked a fish that immediately ran toward the fast current and peeled line before snapping me off. I rationalized that it was OK to lose flies that way. Certainly that would have been the best fish of the day—perhaps the best fish ever caught by any of the Firehole Rangers on the Madison. I had plenty of Turds left in the fly box, and 4 more Hula Worms. I needn’t worry about running out of ammunition.

I did continue to catch fish, but nothing to write home about. On the Madison a 12 inch fish seems a bit like a Participant’s Ribbon, and while I was grateful to have caught 6 fish by the time I broke for lunch, only two fish (both rainbows) approached the 16 inch mark; the others were more diminutive browns that would have been right at home in the Firehole where 10-12 inchers are all the rage. During our lunch break Jimmy reported that he’d caught a few fish and Goose groused about having scratched out just a couple.  After lunch I crossed the bridge and headed upstream along the opposite bank. I ran into Marck, who was returning from a morning of slaying fish. He asked what I’d been using and I showed him the Hula Worms. He asked if I might spare him one. Of course I obliged—I still had 3 left.

As I began the task of trying to continue the good fortune of the morning, I rapidly began a downward spiral. The section I was fishing tends to fish better because it has more structure. It also tends to steal more flies because it has more structure. At one point I decided to step into the river to see about retrieving a snagged rig, and as I set foot into the water I spooked a good sized fish out of the hole and was unable to retrieve the flies. Salt in the wound. It wasn’t long before I’d lost the last of my Hula Worms. Any confidence I may have had quickly eroded like a clay bank being eaten away by a river’s raging torrent. My attitude plummeted as I seemed incapable of doing anything right. I did hook into a fish that quickly dispatched of me. This time I was unable to rationalize that loosing more flies—even this way—was acceptable. After that I cursed to anyone within earshot, reeled in my flyless leader and began to hike back to the parking lot. Along the way I stopped to watch an Osprey returning to its nest after an unsuccessful go at fishing. Misery loves company.

The Osprey returns…

Unaccomplished.

As I walked the meandering mile back to where I knew a cooler of cold PBR awaited. The weather had heated to the point where ‘breathable waders’ proved to be an oxymoron. I was not only defeated, I was hot, sweaty and defeated. Trudging through the sagebrush I reflected on the day that had been so good in the morning, and so filled with despair in the afternoon. I’d caught more fish than ever before on the Madison, but I was also reminded of just how cruel she can be. I decided to take the moral high road and remember the good while forsaking the bad.

And next year I vote for the Henry’s Fork instead.

Opposing bannks: The Yin & the Yang of the Madison River.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series, sort of. You don’t have to read part one or part three if you don’t want to.

 

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Few words will describe The Firehole

June 16, 2014

The annual trip to Yellowstone is in the books, and while there’s much that I could write about the trip, hardly anyone reads the Drivel®. Conversely, nearly everyone likes pictures. So, rather than hunker down and scribe a plethora of words that will fall on deaf eyes, I’ve made the decision to tell about this [...]

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A step back in time to the present

June 5, 2014

My family has had a place on the shores of Hood Canal since I was 4. It was the summer of 1967 and at that time I was a bit too young to do much fishing, but gradually over the years I branched out with friends who lived there year around and we dabbled in [...]

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