The forecast called for 100% chance of fishing

A dry camp galley.

After our route less traveled via Moon Pass, Marck and I finally arrived at our destination just before 4 PM on Thursday. The campground was full, but fortunately Morris and Jimmy had arrived days earlier and procured a spot large enough for the Man Van and another tent. Much to our disappointment, however, our Ranger compadres weren’t there to welcome us with high-fives, plates of hors d’oeuvres and cocktails (selfish bastards were out fishing).

Tent City.
Tent City.

We unloaded and set up Marck’s tent, and the kitchen canopy. We learned our lesson last year—that the camp galley should be sheltered from the possibility of inclement weather—and vowed to not get caught with our chef’s pants down ever again. Based on the scene we encountered, Morris and Jimmy hadn’t taken particular pride in their culinary center: it was a if they’d been in the woods so long that they had lost the ability to lead a civilized life. We tidied things up a bit and an hour or so later a couple of haggard anglers drug themselves into camp, looking like they hadn’t had a shower or human contact for weeks, which wasn’t far from the truth. Jimmy had arrived at camp on Sunday, joined by Morris on Monday. They had fished hard each day and clearly spent too much time together already, bickering like an old married couple. At least they had their own separate tents, although we had only their word to refute the suspicion that one tent was merely a decoy.

The conversation quickly turned to fishing, and we learned that many and large fish had been caught, and that the river had not been devoid of other anglers. On at least one of the previous days they had seen as many 15 anglers on the water—more than I can recall ever encountering. With a full campground it didn’t surprise me that others were fishing, despite that not everyone camped was also there to fish. As we swatted mosquitos we noted that the dust was down considerably from previous years. Morris and Jimmy proceeded to inform us that they’d been rained on the day before—an intermittent rain, hard at times. That didn’t dampen our spirits for the next day, as there was only a 40% chance of precipitation. Being the sunny optimist that I always am, I took that to mean that there was a 60% chance that it would not rain.  If I were a betting man, I’d take the 60% over the 40% every time. Good thing I’m not a betting man.

Fire good.
Fire good.

We gathered round a good fire that evening, solving world problems by discussing what flies would work the next day. As per usual, Morris declared the tan elk hair caddis to be the only fly necessary while Jimmy argued that a wide variety of flies would be needed. We were briefed on the details of their week: what fish were caught where, on what pattern, on which day. Jimmy and Morris confirmed what I had heard from other anglers who had been on this river this year: the fish were consistently larger than in recent years, with 18-20″ cutthroat being more the norm than the exception.

I attribute the increase in the size of the fish to at least two years in a row of lighter than normal snowpack, resulting in less runoff to scour the river. Admittedly, snowpack is ultimately a good thing for rivers and fish, but the more river scouring that occurs may increase less insect abundance. The more bugs, the better the eating for the fish. The better the eating, the bigger the fish (and we all know how big fish make us feel). My science could be wrong—there’s at least a 60% chance of that being 100% true.



Day One:

The next morning, Morris—having some obligations that prevented him from staying to fish another day—packed up and left. Jimmy stayed on to fish another day, so the three of us donned our wet wading gear and set off up the trail for a 4 mile hike before dropping into the river to fish our way back. It was a pleasant day with ample sunshine—the stuff one would expect during the second week of July—albeit a good bit cooler than usual. The cooler weather was nice for hiking and the first step into the river felt good after the forced march up the dusty trail. Despite rains from 2 days before, the river was running lower than normal, and clear as a gin and tonic without the tonic. It felt great to be back on what has become my most favorite river, armed with a 4 weight and a dry fly, and nothing but miles of river ahead of us and a 60% likelihood of no rain. The high clouds seemed only to be passing through—at least early in the day.

St. Joe River
Quite a pleasant day in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho.

It quickly became apparent that fishing was not red hot, which I attributed to possibly two things: First, the river may have bumped up just a tad from the earlier rain; and/or secondly, Jimmy and Morris had pounded the river for 3 days already, not to mention other anglers. Fortunately we started catching a few fish before too long and saw no other fishermen on the water all day. Jimmy fished well ahead as Marck and I took our time, fishing at a more leisurely pace and enjoying our first day on the water.

Marck prospects for willing participants.

We fished a variety of dries, catching fish on small mayfly patterns (in a range of colors from dark to light), large and small black ants, a spruce moth, and—just to make Morris happy—the tan caddis. I always fish a streamer at least part of the time and did so for a short spell, catching one nice fish out of a deep run known appropriately as the “Streamer Hole”. I certainly didn’t want to risk catching a bull trout like last year, so I soon switched back to a dry fly in pursuit of surface feeding trouts.

St. Joe cutthroat
One of several fine, Idaho westslope cutthroat trouts.

The fishing that first day was exceptional, despite that the catching was considerably off the typical pace. I landed perhaps 8-10 nice fish, many in the 15″ range with one 18″ pig and only one fish under 12″. Marck, not surprisingly, fared better, as he always does. When we caught up with Jimmy in the early afternoon, he had been catching more than his fair share of fish as well.

Marck catches more trout as a downstream spectator looks on with envy.

By around 4 PM, the nice day we’d been enjoying yielded to less savory weather as the 40% chance of rain became 100% rain. With that we donned our rain jackets and continued to wet our lines as a steady drizzle fell. Marck and Jimmy posted up on a particular run that hadn’t been giving up any fish. I moved on slowly, not catching fish in areas I would normally expect to catch fish. Anticipating that the others would catch up fairly soon, I took my time. A half hour later, with no sign of the others and no fish showing me any love, I checked my watch: it was 6:15 PM so I decided to make my way back to camp. I had begun to get a bit chilled from standing in the cold river in the rain, and it was time for some grub and maybe a wee dram of whiskey. But just before deciding to call it quits I managed to pull a 15″ trout out of a fishy looking hole—a nice parting gift before slogging the mile or so back to camp on an increasingly muddier trail. Once back at camp I slipped into something more comfrtable and began slowly cooking dinner, expecting that Marck and Jimmy would be along at any time.

It was almost 7:30 PM when I finished the last bite of my supper. I covered the chicken and reduced the heat on the stove to keep the sauteed squash warm. The rain began to dissipate so I started a fire and was just getting comfortable when my compadres walked into camp, wet, but in high spirits. They had stayed on that one particular fishless run for a couple hours until finally figuring out which bug the fish wanted. Once they had cracked that code many fish were caught. By delaying they also arrived in camp to plates full of hot food served up under the shelter of the canopy. Good for them the freeloading sonsabitches. That evening the skies cleared, offering a view of a gazillion stars overhead. The conversation around the fire was lively and lasted well into the night. I slept soundly that night. Life was good.

Day Two:

The next morning I awoke later than I would care to admit. Marck had been up for a few hours already, had built a campfire that was already reduced to embers, and had rearranged all of his fly boxes, twice. Jimmy had packed up and left by 7AM (I was in a dead slumber and didn’t even hear him do so—the beauty of a comfortable bed in the Man Van). Marck and I discussed the day’s plans: Despite the mostly blue sky overheard, there was a 100% chance of thunderstorms. We agreed that we would wader up and make a shorter hike up the trail than we had the previous day. I’ve never worn waders on this river but since the forecast called for cool temperatures, in addition to the 100% guarantee of thunderstorms, it seemed the prudent thing to do. Two miles up the trail we may have been cursing our decision to do so, but once we got to the river and the sweat dried, we took comfort in the knowledge that when—not if—the storms began, we would be well prepared.  It didn’t appear, at least initially, that we were in for any sort of threatening weather, but we knew how fast that would could change.

A beautiful morning—perhaps the calm before the storm?
A beautiful morning—perhaps the calm before the storm?

Fishing was slow again for the first couple of hours, which we attributed to a strong low pressure system moving in. Ominous clouds drifted overhead and we expected to hear thunder at any moment. But then the clouds parted and the skies grew less ominous.  This would go on all day, with extended periods of mostly sunny skies. On more than a couple of occasions I wished I hadn’t been wearing waders.

St. Joe Flyfishing
We enjoyed a rather beautiful day where thunderstorms were 100% guaranteed and 100% absent.

We fished slowly—more slowly than we normally would do—taking our time to switch flies often, hoping to find out what the fish wanted. What had worked for Marck and Jimmy less than 24 hours earlier wasn’t getting it done now, but it provided us with an enjoyable and challenging day of fishing. We savored every moment that Mother Nature didn’t unleash her wrath upon us and treated each fish as it if were the last we’d catch that day before the lightning bolts crashed around us and locusts began swarming. That never happened.

Another of Marck's fish.
The fish were 100% picky and even more beautiful.

We fished into the early evening until our stomachs growled for some of the Shephard’s Pie that Marck was planning for supper (which was delicious). The campfire that night was as good as the night before, under skies that once again revealed more stars than we could have imagined possible. We felt pretty damn good about having dodged the 100% guaranteed weather bullet that day, and slept comfortably knowing that the next day held only a 40% chance of rain, like Day One (and all things considered the rain that first day wasn’t too bad). Our last day of fishing would surely entail more wet wading.

Day Three:

We awoke to another morning of hope and encouragement: a lightly clouded sky that threatened to turn blue. That threat never materialized, however, and over breakfast we noted that it was noticeably cooler than it had been on previous two mornings. In fact, there was a chill in the air reminiscent of early Fall rather than early Summer, so we decided to don the waders once again. We repeated the 4 mile hike from Day One, a decision which resulted in plenty of breathable-goretex-induced sweat by the time we hopped off the trail into the water. Even with waders on, the river felt colder this morning and it wasn’t long before we were glad for having decided not to wet wade. Fishing started out moderately slow, but we were catching fish in runs that hadn’t produced for us the previous day. I landed one nice 17″ fish that, when I extracted my fly from it’s mouth, had another artificial bug embedded in its lip: a tan elk hair caddis. I called Marck over to share my discovery. There was no tippet attached to the hook so he surmised that Morris’ knot must have failed.

Come noon the weather took a decisive turn for the worst as the clouds descended and began to release copious amounts of precipitation. We briefly pondered whether the 100% chance of thunderstorms was merely a day late, but it was too cold for thunderstorms. No, this was just rain. Plenty of it.

St. Joe River
The forecast called for 60% of this not happening.

The liquid sunshine continued to fall as the afternoon wore on. Mostly it was a steady, hard rain, with sporadic and extended periods of steadier, harder rain. At one point it rained so hard that it distorted the surface of the water, making it impossible to see one’s fly, or rocks on the riverbed for that matter. Wading became a bit precarious at times, though neither Marck nor I took a swim (even in what is known as “The Swimming Hole”). We soldiered on, wondering how much more rain could possibly fall. We tried to stay positive, noting that it just had to stop. Or at least lighten up. It did neither. We fished on.

An appropriate day for wetting a line.

The fish were actually pretty cooperative for the better part of the afternoon. A couple fish fell to a foam ant pattern, but mostly they were in the mood for small bugs, PMDs in particular. Fortunately I had just the ticket, and caught one of my better fish on a size 20 fly. I fished smaller bugs than I typically ever do, partially because I can’t usually see to thread my tippet through diminutive hook eyes. Thanks to some incredible bugs tied by Aileen Lane of MKFlies and The Old Guys Flies, not only could I thread the oversized hook eyes, but these little bugs floated well and could be easily seen, most of the time, even in the rain. Honestly, these flies made all the difference on a wet day when the low light made it difficult to see much of anything. The fish certainly saw them.

A penny for my thoughts? These Old Guys Flies are exceptional.
Marck works a small inside seam, and caught several fish, in the rain.
Even a fish out of water was plenty wet. #keepthefishermenwet

After four hours with no reprieve from the rain, the hillsides had become saturated. Without the ability to absorb the rain, the steep slopes began shedding surface water into the river. Feeder streams were full, and by 4PM the river was starting to show signs of coloring up. The fish ceased playing nicely and we decided to make for the trail. As we negotiated the slippery riverbed we continued to hold out hope that the rain would taper and at least allow us a campfire on our final night. When we got to the trail it was a torrent of brown muck. We slogged on toward camp, hoping that the galley canopy had not succumbed to the deluge. The majority of the smart campers had packed up while their gear was still dry, and the campground was all but empty save for two sites occupied by new arrivals. It was not a good day to have arrived if fishing was the intended goal: based on the rain that had fallen, and continued to fall, the river was going to be out of shape for at least the next day, probably two.

A damp camp galley.

Fortunately the canopy had held up, but it was so wet that even things that were sheltered from the weather were damp. Marck’s tent had also withstood the elements so I didn’t need to worry about renting him a bunk in the Man Van. But even that, coupled with an amazing dinner consisting of Marck’s BBQ ribs in the Dutch Oven, couldn’t lighten the dark cloud of despair that hung over camp. It was obvious that the rain wasn’t going to let up so that we could enjoy a fire on our last night. This troubled me greatly because to me a good fire is the heart and soul of camping—perhaps the best part of an entire day—and without a fire there was nothing to do but hit the sack early, which we did, at 7:45 PM. The pitter patter of steady rain persisted until I nodded off sometime later. At 4:15 AM, when I awoke briefly, it was still raining. When I crawled out of the sack at 6:15 AM it had finally stopped. Not confident that the rain wouldn’t return, I began stowing what gear I could, putting down tarps inside the van to keep things from getting too wet and muddy. Marck emerged from his tent shortly after that and mentioned that it had rained until 5 AM. Based on that I calculated that it had rained for 17 hours straight. We broke camp without so much as making coffee.

As we stowed the last of the wet gear, a gentleman—who bore an uncanny resemblance to a billy goat—walked over from his camp to chat about the prospects of fishing and to inquire as to how long it had been raining (he and his son had arrived the evening before and planned to fish for the next 4 days). When we told him the rain had started at noon and the river became unfishable by 4 PM, you could see the disappointment on his face. We suggested it would be a good day to sit by a fire (if it didn’t resume raining, that is). His shoulders slumped as he admitted that they only had a few bundles of firewood.  He perked up a bit when we told him to help himself to the remainder of our dry firewood. This was the second year in a row that we had been unable to burn all the wood we’d brought.

We departed camp at 7:30 AM and headed toward St. Regis, MT, for coffee and a hot breakfast. Despite the dreary end to our trip, at least we weren’t going home 3 days earlier than planned, as we were forced to do the year before. When we got into cell range Marck pulled up the graphs to see just how much the river had spiked with the previous day’s 40% chance of rain. We were both a bit shocked, and grateful that we’d managed to catch some nice fish the day before.

Yeah, we were fishing during that steep spike.

I’m already looking forward to going back next year. And when we do I’m at least 40% sure we’ll bring more firewood than we’ll need, although there’s always a chance I could be at least 60%, or even 100%, wrong.


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