fly fishing in Montana
Note: Last week’s blog entry referenced Carly Simon’s song, ‘Anticipation’. Let me make it painfully clear that the song was chosen for the title alone, and not because I actually sit around listening to Carly Simon. If you must know, I fancy the Allman Brothers Band, although Carly is much easier on the eyes than Brother Gregg.
Our annual trip to The Promised Land began when Jimmy arrived at 4:15 AM at my house. We loaded up my gear into the back of Mrs. Jimmy’s Suburban, which had fortunately been commandeered for the road trip. This was a welcome development because the enjoyment of the 1617 mile round trip journey is directly related to the comfort level of the vehicle in which we ride. The comfort range spans 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Over the years the comfort level has been as low as 1 (the year 4 of us were packed into my old Jeep Cherokee). A couple of years ago we ratcheted things up several notches when we took the Soccer Mom Express. I’d give the comfort level a rating of that trip a 7 overall. The vehicle itself was physically very comfortable, but the emotional uneasiness of passing through Montana in a mini van kept the rating artificially low. There was no shame associated with the Suburban, and with ample legroom for everyone including even Marck, leather seats and a DVD player, it was like flying first class. Jimmy has 4 kids so food remnants were readily found tucked between the seat cushions, providing us ample opportunity to keep hunger at bay during the trip. I would give the comfort rating a 9, and the only reason I withhold the highest rating is because I have to leave room for a perfect 10, which would require a limo, complete with it’s own driver and a wet bar.
Once Marck and Stan (The Goosemaster) were safely aboard, we pointed the nose of the Suburban east and made short work crossing the state of Washington. It rained nearly the entire way, which was an indication of the really lousy “Spring” weather the state of Washington had been having. According to my daughter, we’ve had exactly 27 minutes of sunshine since March. While that may be somewhat of a frustration-based exaggeration it’s not far from the truth, and rain would be a sign of things to come. We had breakfast in Coeur d’Alene per standard operating procedure, topped off the gas tank, and resumed our journey. Next stop: Rock Creek Lodge, MT for a quick inspection of the facilities, which did not disappoint. We also poked around the gift shop briefly, but opted not to spend any of our money. The Wood Peckers were admittedly very tempting.
As we drove through the town of Whitehall, MT, I detected the unmistakable smell of skunk, and then saw the roadside carcass. I convinced myself that this was not an omen. We were in Montana, and skunkings don’t happen here. Right? Under big, gray skies and Seattle-esque rain, we rolled into Twin Bridges at 4pm. Due to my ability to navigate (Lewis & Clark would be impressed) we had no trouble finding The Stonefly Inn & Outfitters. Actually Twin Bridges is a one horse town (if that), so finding anything would be easy for even the most unaccomplished of explorers. The season was not yet in full swing, and the Stonefly was abuzz with construction projects. The Roost was being enlarged to what appeared to be double the previous capacity. The shop/office was in a bit of disarray and smelled of newly painted shelves, but we were greeted and quickly checked into rooms 5 and 6 of “The Jefferson” where we made ourselves right at home. The rooms are small and quaint; very clean and comfortable. An impressive selection of fishing and hunting magazines dating back to the early 1990’s provided interesting reading material. Marck and Stan would be bunking together, and coincidentally (or not), the wall of their room was adorned with waterfowl artwork. Luckily the walls were also thick so I wouldn’t hear the geese that night.
The first order of business was to reconnoiter downtown Twin Bridges. Since the distance from one end of town to the other isn’t much longer than the Suburban, we set off on foot. It wasn’t raining hard at the moment, and the walk would do us good since we’d been cooped up for 9 hours. We stopped in at 4 Rivers Fly Fishing Company to purchase our Montana fishing licenses and look around the impressive shop and converse with the proprietor, Robin, and her shop assistant, Spook (the black lab). After our licenses were secured, we moved on to our next order of business: Finding a cold beverage. As we exited the shop, a young couple of anglers were just entering. As we passed, I did a neck-wrenching double take. I was pretty sure I recognized one of them – the chick. I could swear it was the Fly Fish Chick, but I didn’t want to impose like a member of the paparazzi so I followed my compadres outside. Standing on the sidewalk I couldn’t curb my curiosity so I headed back inside the shop and imposed myself like a member of the paparazzi. Approaching the lady angler I stuttered with all the confidence of a nervous schoolboy, “Ummm, errr…excuse me…Fly Fish Chick?” She turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “Yes?” she replied with a southern drawl and a hint of hesitance. I introduced myself and she instantly displayed the grace that someone from The South is reputed to possess. I’d spoken with her on the phone before and shared email correspondence in the past. I’d even sent her daughter, Little Chick, a set of the Olive books a couple years earlier, so it wasn’t like I was a complete stranger hounding her for her autograph (although I did request a photo with her and The Professor). They were in Dillon on one of several pilgrimages they make to fish the MT rivers each year. The chances of running into them were astronomically slim, and it was a thrill to finally meet the voice behind Flyfishchick.com. They would be fishing the Big Hole the next day, so there was a chance that we’d run into them on the river as we also hoped to fish there in the morning with Superguide, whom the Chick and the Professor had met the previous summer. Checking another item off my bucket list, I bid them good fishing and rejoined Marck, Stan and Jimmy, who were undoubtedly rolling their eyes at me for having chased her down like some sort of groupie. I was OK with that.
The Blue Anchor was our next stop, for a couple cold beers to wash down the dust from our long trail ride. There were perhaps 4 other folks, clearly locals, in the bar. No doubt this place would be packed in another month or so, but for now it was a quiet watering hole and suited us just fine. After quenching our thirst we ate a good bacon cheeseburger at the Wagon Wheel before retiring for the evening. We’d be meeting our guides at 8:15 the next morning, so we opted for a good night’s rest rather than staying out late and painting the town. Besides, at least one part of the town had already been painted – a trout statue right in the heart of downtown Twin. Fly fishing dominates this area, and for good reason: There’s no shortage of great water to fish, what with the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Jefferson, the Madison and the Ruby all within easy distance. Business may have been a little dead when we were there, but with summer fast approaching soon the town of Twin Bridges would be hopping.
After breakfast at the Wagon Wheel the next morning we hooked up with our guides back at the Stonefly. Brett Seng would be taking Stan and Marck in his Clackacraft LP, while Jimmy and I would be aboard the blue Clackacraft skiff owned by Joe Willauer. The weather reports I’d been watching all week had apparently been completely fabricated and inaccurate, and instead of temps in the 60’s and scattered showers, we faced temps in the low 40’s and steady rain with little snow mixed in for good measure. The Big Hole had spiked overnight, so our quarterbacks called an audible and we’d be running a different route: the upper Beaverhead. Joe informed us that it wasn’t as scenic as the Big Hole, but the Beav had some hogs in it. And lots of them: 3500-4000 fish per mile. That got us excited, and as we drove to our launch point the steady rain didn’t dampen our spirits. I was glad, however, to be wearing my Simms jacket as I sat in the back seat of Joe’s truck. The rear window was leaking and if not for Gore-tex I’d have been wet before we ever reached the put-in. Along the way Joe pointed out Beaverhead Rock, which held great significance to Lewis and Clark on their journey. As an armchair Lewis & Clark historian, I found great interest in this. However, big trout were my main focus at the moment. Discovering a waterway through the Rockies to the west could wait for another day.
The Beaverhead is tailwater and the flows are controlled by the Clark Canyon Dam, which is where we launched. As we strung up our 6 wt rods with double nymphs, bobbers and as many as 5 split shots, we saw large fish rolling at the base of the spillway. The size of these fish indicated that this was clearly no Yakima River, though Joe knows that water as well. He’s a Washingtonian who has done time on a lot of rivers out west. I’d “known” him for a couple years in the way that the internet makes people familiar, and had met him in person on the Methow River during fall steelhead season the year before. Fishing with Joe was another item on my bucket list that I was checking off on this trip. The good fortune of fishing under the guidance of Joe, and the presence of the Lucky Fishing Hat would ensure that this would be a good day. And it was.
As we prepared to begin our float, Brett pointed out the obvious : ”Remember, boys – you are the weak link between the fish and Joe and I.” While that was certainly the case, and a few fish were broken off before they could be landed, everyone got into fish. Stan drew first blood by taking at least two nice fish before Marck started working his magic. Jimmy’s first fish was a nice 16 inch brown that was small for the Beaverhead, but a sweet fish by any other standards.
Being true to form, I was last to get into the action, but my first fish put an ear-to-ear grin on my face. At a solid 19 inches with plenty of girth, it was the biggest rainbow I’d caught to date. There would be others like it throughout the day, and while I wouldn’t land as many fish as the others, it mattered little because I am not competitive and don’t keep track of such things. My logbook records indicate that Jimmy landed about 10 fish and Stan and Marck each caught 12-13 fish apiece. Stan managed one 6 incher which was by far the most undersized trout of the day, and one 12 incher. The rest were all big fish, with Marck imposing his dominance by catching one that he claims to have been 24 inches. I’ll take his word for it, and hope to see photographic proof someday. I didn’t personally see him with any fish over 23″.
The number of fish in the Beaverhead was staggering. At one point while standing in less than a foot of water dead drifting my “amberlamps” pattern through an inside seam, Joe calmly said, “Look at all those fish right there,” as he pointed a few feet from us. Joe’s vantage point is about 4 feet higher than mine, and his Osprey view of the water allowed him to spy 8 to 10 fish (all big) stacked up in the calm shallows not 6 feet below us. I couldn’t see them, and noted as much. His reply was the sort of thing one would expect a fishing guide to say to a paying client who would determine the amount of the tip at the end of the day: “I almost brought along a milk crate for you to stand on today.” That’s some good stuff right there. I laughed politely and made a mental note to deduct a portion of the tip accordingly. There would be other comments throughout the day that would slowly erode my self esteem, such as the couple times I was slow with my hookset: “Did you want that fish?” By the time we finished I think Joe actually owed me money. I thought a little sucking up to the client might be in order, however such would not be the case.
The Beaverhead was, not surprisingly, busy with other anglers. One stretch had us running a slalom course to avoid wade-fishermen, but we were the only boats on the water. We were able to fish a two mile section before reaching the point where Clark Canyon Creek spewed chocolate bile into the river. Just below that point proved to be a convenient place to take our lunch break because the highway overpass was essentially a roof over our heads. We were able to dine in relative dryness.
Lunch featured Torpedoed BBQ Venison Hand Pies which were delicious and consumed quickly so we could resume our fishing. Luckily we were able to take out here and drive upstream to float the 2 miles of clean water a second time. Normally one would think fishing through the same water would yield less than productive results, but such was not the case on the Beaverhead. We slayed ‘em again in the afternoon, and the clouds actually lightened such that something resembling filtered sunshine greeted us in the afternoon.
My best fish of the day came around 4 pm when a thick 19-20 inch rainbow hammered my fly and went instantly airborne three times. One never grows tired of that sort of thing, especially when it hardly ever happens to that person. Unfortunately Joe’s camera opted to malfunction as he snapped photos of my fish, and the digital memories were washed out images that couldn’t be helped with even the best software. Even Photoshop has its limitations. I’ll have to go back and catch that fish again, and have Joe use MY camera next time. If there is a silver lining to the washed-out photos, all the photos look like I’m holding a dime bright steelhead.
The rain was kept at by for the remainder of the float, and fishing continued to be good until we took out at 6:30 pm. In impressive fashion, I made one final cast hoping to hook just one more good fish for the day. A gust of wind, combined with the unsightly assembly of end tackle and flawed casting skills created an epic tangle and provided a photo finish to the day.
Once back at the Stonefly, we paid the balance due on our lodging bill and thanked Joe and Brett for a great day on the water. I slipped Joe a $5 bill and told him to keep the change – you can’t put a price on a great day like the one we’d just had. We hated to leave Twin Bridges, but we had a two hour drive to West Yellowstone where we would meet up with Erique for two days of fishing the Firehole. As we headed south through Twin Bridges, rain fell from the dark sky as we collectively agreed that fishing the Beaverhead was something we wanted to do again. We also acknowledged that the small fish the Firehole were going to take some time getting used to. We headed toward Ennis for dinner, which would provide more amusement for Day One of our trip.
Gear review: My recently acquired Sage Typhoon Waist Pack impressed. Although I didn’t have it around my waist during this first day, it proved its worth laying in the bottom of Joe’s skiff getting soaked by rain and standing water. Everything inside the bag was bone dry. Thumbs up.