As 2020 enters its final month (good riddance, you piece of dog turd year), I give pause to think back on the strangeness of the past several months, hoping to remember some good things that occurred since the COVIDS swept the globe. I didn’t have to think too hard to realize that despite the weirdness of it all, I can’t complain about the fishing during 2020. I no longer fish with great frequency, but I do rather enjoy a high quality of time when on the water when I do fish. And this is despite that most of the guys I fish with are unsavory lowbrow types who lack social refinement and would say the same about me.
With 2020 still in its infancy, the whole COVIDS thing seemed fairly obscure and didn’t have much significance as pertaining to my life (or the lives of most Americans for that matter). Then suddenly in early March it became clear that the pandemic was going to affect things close to home. On March 13th (Friday the 13th, no less) Washingtonians were presented with guidelines for 3-foot social distancing. In late March the Gubna of the great state of Washington closed down pretty much everything required for outdoor recreation, including access to all public lands and all recreational fishing.
Fishing During the COVIDS: Part One
Fortunately I was able to get out with the Brothers Albacore for a day on the Yakima River before the lockdown was mandated. I don’t recall any fish being caught other than one whitey, but I do remember a fine time being had by all. There may actually have been some trout caught, but that wasn’t the measure of success on that day. Three foot social distancing was easy to maintain as the distance between seats in the boat is at least 3 feet, and the Brother’s Albacore are each about 3 feet (or more) taller than I am.
Once the lockdown was in full effect, no fishing took place. In fact, not much of anything else took place, for that matter. During this time I begrudgingly rode my mountain bike on the streets and binge-watched Shameless on Netflix (highly recommended if you haven’t seen it). As April approached I did as I always do and began thinking ahead to the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers in early June. However, during the months that preceded the trip, it became uncertain if we would actually be able make the trek to Yellowstone, as the state of Montana had closed down fishing to out of state anglers, barring a 14 day in-state quarantine. Fortunately for us the ban was lifted just in time and we were able to pull off the trip. And it was a success, as always.
Fishing During the COVIDS: Part Two
On June 3rd we fished the Bighole with the guys from 4 Rivers Fishing Company in Twin Bridges, MT. The river was not crowded and we enjoyed a fine day on the water. It was a beauty of a weather day and some typically nice Bighole fish were caught. And plenty of them.
That evening we made the 2 hour drive to West Yellowstone. It wasn’t a ghost town by any means, but it wasn’t crawling with the numbers of tourists that we come to expect each year. The big change for us this year was that instead of staying at the infamous Ho Hum Motel (which has been our home away from home since forever) we were forced to find other accommodations. The Ho Hum was not open for business this year, and while we missed our time with Bernadette (AKA the Cat Lady), we adapted as best we could to the change and stayed at Al’s Westward Ho Motel. In all honesty it was a considerable upgrade, and it was comforting to know that there is still a Ho in West Yellowstone.
The next day the Firehole Rangers were once more on our namesake river in Yellowstone National Park for another beautiful weather day. Fishing was better than it had been in recent years, though still not on par with what it was 5 years ago, and before that. The weather was brilliant and there were far fewer people fishing than is typical for this time of year. And there were no tour buses. Win-win-win.
As is always the case for this trip, a good day on the Firehole was followed by a
good day on the Madison, and on June 5th we made the stop at Three Dollar Bridge for some Madison River humiliation. We are never the only anglers here, and the river is always high this time of year. This year there were scores of other anglers spread up and down the river, the Madison was higher than I’d ever seen it before. It would be easy enough to know where the fish would be: tucked under one’s toes at the river’s edge. As every angler knows, the wind always makes casting a double nymph rig a pure joy, especially along a brush-lined river bank. And it wa windy. After an hour I had all but resigned to having my ass handed to me by the fish of the Madison. Then, surprisingly I landed one decent 16″ brown and had another, bigger brown, break me off and leave me with one fish for the day. That was cause for celebration, as that single fish ensured that it was not my worst day on the Madison.
The high and dirty Madison River.
Other Rangers who typically do better on the Madison did better on the Madison that day as well, though not as well as they typically do. It had been two years since our last visit to Three Dollar Bridge, and the changes there were impressive. This area is so popular that it gets loved to death by anglers year round as they trample the sensitive areas that are in close proximity to the parking area. But a collective effort by Western Rivers Conservancy, Montana Fish and Game, Montana Land Reliance, and Trout Unlimited had seen to it that this would be remedied. A new picnic shelter had been constructed, as well as hundreds of feet of boardwalk for accessing the river while protecting the sensitive riparian zone nearest the bridge.
As the day wore on the weather continued to deteriorate ahead of an incoming storm. We departed Three Dollar Bridge, but not before attempting to make the annual donation of $3. Unfortunately the donation envelopes were not available this year—another sign of the COVIDS, no doubt. And with that we headed off down to road toward Twin Bridges. The next day we were scheduled to fish once again with guides from 4 Rivers, and the forecast promised an interesting day of thunderstorms and potentially torrential rain.
The next morning, under dark skies and rain, we met at the shop and it was decided we would fish the Jefferson as overnight storms in the hills to the west had caused the Big Hole to blow out. I love fishing the Big Hole, but I was excited about the prospects of a new river as I had never before fished the Jefferson. We had worried overnight that the wether would force us onto the Beaverhead so we were relieved when that would not be the case. I’m glad we made that decision because the Jefferson, while it may not have given up the numbers of trout that the Big Hole is known for, did produce some serious brutes.
We got fairly lucky as far as the weather was concerned, too, as we managed to dodge the only squall that dumped rain on our boat. The bridge that provided shelter from the storm could not have come at a better time as we pulled in and waited out the brief deluge. A few miles behind us, the other boats didn’t fare so well and got a bit wet throughout the day.
After that single squall we continued to catch fish with the wind being our only complaint. Truth be told, even the wind wasn’t all that bad, and even if it had been I wouldn’t have complained because the fish kept us distracted. I caught my biggest brown to date and would have been able to say the same of a huge rainbow had she not broken me off at first sight of the net. Suffice it to say that the Jefferson made some new fans of the Firehole Rangers that day.
After the fine day on the Jefferson, the fishing part of our fishing trip was concluded. The next morning we arose early and departed Twin Bridges for the 10 hour drive home, which would be a bit longer due to Ma Nature. As we climbed the Continental Divide we enjoyed winter-like driving conditions. Descending into Butte, the snow continued to pile up and we were escorted westward by a June snow storm that dumped several inches of white stuff and turned interstate 90 into a winter wonderland of driving snow, limited visibility, and spin-outs (though fortunately not for us out-of-state drivers).
Fishing During the COVIDS: Part Three
The remaining weeks of June flew by quickly as July fishing in Idaho neared. The annual trip to the Idaho Panhandle has become my favorite trip of the year for many reasons, but most notably because it entails backcountry fishing where we rarely see many other angling types. Certainly it’s not completely devoid of other people, but the state forest campground is accessed by a forest road in an ever-worsening state of deterioration that likely keeps out some folks with RV’s. The campground is limited in size, and not all other campers are there to fish. And those who are there to fish don’t usually hike as far upriver as we do, which means we often have a lot of good water to ourselves. This year was different. Because people were not living their normal lives and taking their normal summer vacations, apparently they were all in the Idaho backcountry camping and fishing.
Goose and I arrived late in the afternoon on Tuesday following the 4th of July weekend, and by doing so on any normal year we would expect to pretty much have our pick of the best campsites. Well, to be completely honest, the best campsite is usually taken, but we can almost always have the second best spot. This year we felt lucky to have gotten the last site available, a site that we have always avoided with intention. The other campsites were filled mostly with multiple families that were dug in and appeared to have been here for several days already. There’s a 14 day limit here, and from the looks of things many were testing that limit. And the majority of the campsites revealed the presence of fishing gear as well, so we knew that no untouched water likely awaited us.
Goose and I set up camp, noting that it was more than a tad chilly for this time of year. We walked down to the river and dipped a hand to check the temperature: it was COLD. Back at camp we put on warm jackets, built good fire and waited for the next arrivals. Jimmy, and Marck rolled in after dark that night and couldn’t believe that the campground was full. Our second-rate campsite turned out to not be so bad, and in fact afforded us a vantage point close to the trailhead. From the comfort of our chairs which we could keep track of the several vehicles that would drive in from downstream campgrounds and park across from our site each morning.
On the morning of our first full day we sipped coffee and relaxed as scores of anglers made their way up the trail that follows the river. The day was cloudy and cool, and we decided we would avoid the morning rush and let the day warm a bit before heading out. After breakfast and a second cup of coffee, we decided that the fire needed more wood and we needed something a bit stronger than coffee. As the day progressed, we did just the opposite: ambition levels were low.
My pal Chuck was driving down from his home in Whitefish, MT, and would be joining us that evening. When he finally arrived around dinner time (which was a good thing because that was his meal to provide), Goose, Jimmy, Marck and myself were all gathered around the warmth of the campfire. Chuck enthusiastically asked how the fishing had been and no doubt our response both surprised and disappointed him: We had not left camp. The day had never warmed to anywhere near summer-like temperatures and we just never worked up enough gumption to leave camp, especially knowing how many other angling types were upriver fighting for a spot to fish. In full disclosure, Marck and Goose did gear up and walk downstream of camp for about an hour of fruitless fishing earlier in the afternoon. It was obvious that their half-assed effort was merely an attempt to feel better about themselves. Conversely, Jimmy and I had been content with our decision to stay behind and hold down the fort. Lest one should think the day was wasted, think again. We had brought plenty of liquor and even more firewood, and while we kept both going all day long we had not burned through either supply yet. Fishing could wait until tomorrow.
This would be a new river to Chuck and I’d previously captivated him with children’s story-like tales of a vast wilderness, ample solitude and plentiful Westslope cutthroat trout. Suffice it to say he was eager to set foot in the fabled waters of the Idaho Panhandle, and the next morning we set out to make his dreams come true. Unfortunately the fish were not real welcoming of Chuck, or any of the rest of us for that matter. The recent, unseasonably cool weather had ensured that the wildfire danger was low. It had a similar effect on the fish, which were not particularly active. There were exactly no hatches coming off. With the river as cold as it was, waders were donned by the majority of us (or at least those of us who had brought waders). It’s easy enough to endure the cold water if the air temperature is warm, which it was not. Waders in July? Blasphemy! I’d never have believed I’d be wearing anything other than shorts and wet wading, but this was 2020, after all.
On our second day of fishing I left the waders behind at camp. My legs below the knees were numb most of the day, but the air temperature was a bit warmer than the previous day so it was bearable. Fishing, however, never heated up and our catch rates were way below what is typical for this time of year. Obviously the weather had something to do with it, but with the numbers of other people camped and fishing, the pressure on the fish was also a factor. 2020 was certainly a very different experience on the Idaho Panhandle river and this phenomenon of overcrowding was something that was seen all across the West this summer. Hopefully next year will see a return to the way it was before the COVIDS. Then again, maybe this will be the new normal?
Fishing During the COVIDS: Part Four
It was late August when I next grabbed my rod and wet a line. My buddy Lancelot had invited myself and Large Albacore to join him for a Friday float on the Yakima. Backstory: Lancelot and Albacore grew up in the same town of Wenatchee and were school chums, so they’ve known each other for countless decades. Albacore and I were college fraternity brothers, so we’ve known each other for nearly countless decades. Lancelot’s wife and Mrs. UA were college sorority sisters, so he and I have known each other for almost nearly countless decades. So, that’s the connection. Anyway, the three of us had enjoyed fishing together before, but apparently not enough to have done it for a few years. After hounding us incessantly for months, Albacore and I finally ran out of excuses and conceded to take Lancelot up on his invitation to fish the Yakima.
It was decided that Lancelot and I would maximize the opportunity and slip in a quick evening float the night before, and spend the night in Cle Elum. This would allow us to sleep in until 6:00 the next morning, as opposed to getting up at some ungodly hour to drive over the pass to meet Albacore at 7:30 on Friday morning. And so at around 5:30 PM Lancelot and I met up at the Bristol put-in with Young Bill (Lancelot’s eldest spawn). Young Bill had recently passed the bar exam to become an attorney, but rather than put his hard-earned education to use as a productive member of society, he had opted to
waste spend his summer as a fly fishing guide on the Yakima. Young Bill is not the first overeducated fly fishing guide I’ve known, and I’m not here to judge him—or anyone else.
At any rate, the plan was to have Young Bill take us in his raft, just as if we were real, paying clients and he was a real, paid fly fishing guide. But before we began our float we would need to run our own shuttle. While Young BIll waited with the boat, I drove his beat-to-hell Toyota Tundra and trailer to our take-out as Lancelot followed in his not-so-beat-to-hell Toyota Tundra. Along the drive I marveled at the condition of Young Bill’s truck. It certainly looked the part of a guide’s truck: random flies strewn about the visor and dash, food scraps and spent burrito wrappers on the floor. A thick layer of dust covered the interior, and nearly every dash warning light was fully illuminated. The odometer showed somewhere over 200,000 miles and exhaust sounded as if the muffler was missing entirely. Suffice it to say that
when if Young Bill decides to pursue as career as an attorney, he’ll likely need to replace his fish bum truck with an Audi sedan, and get a haircut.
But enough about Young Bill’s life choices. Lancelot and I left Young Bill’s truck at the Green Bridge take-out and backtracked upriver to begin our float. We got into fish right away and our overeducated fly fishing guide continued to put us on many good fish. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I’ve had as much consistent action on the Yakima—it was fantastic! Why would a young man with this much talent as a guide choose another vocation? I cannot imagine!
The evening was pleasant and we were on the water well past sunset. It was, in many ways, a near-perfect float and we pulled into the takeout in high spirits. The only thing that kept our float from being perfect—aside from Lancelot’s pink fishing shirt, which he maintains is actually “salmon”—would have been the presence of the keys to Young Bill’s truck. Which were, of course, in Lancelot’s truck. Which was more than 10 miles upstream. That’s a long walk in the dark.
Fortunately Young Bill’s roommate back in Cle Elum had nothing better to do that evening than to drive 20 miles to our current location, pick up Young Bill and take him to Bristol, where Lancelot’s truck was parked with Young Bill’s keys locked safely inside. Right where I’d left them. While we waited in darkness for Young Bill to return with the keys, Lancelot made me promise to publicly document my moronic actions, and so here I am to open myself to public ridicule and harsh judgment. You’re welcome.
The next morning Lancelot and I met Large Albacore for full day float on the Yakima. Missing from this day were any shuttle snafus, and the numbers of fish. While it was a grand day willed with debauchery, foul jokes and the corresponding laughter, the fishing was more typical of what I’ve come to expect from the Yakima. This may have been due in part to a low pressure system that had begun moving in during the day, bringing strong winds ahead of heavy rains (fortunately we dodged both while on the water). More likely it was just a normal day on the Yakima, with the exception having been the evening before. At any rate it was a fantastic float and Large Albacore and I look forward to fishing with Lancelot again. In another five years.
Fishing During the COVIDS: Part Five
I actually wrote a separate entry about my final fishing trip of the year, to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. If you missed it, and aren’t tired of reading by now, it can be found here: Finding our Groove on the Middle Fork Salmon.
And so there you have it. I’m all caught up on fishing for the year. I wish all 11 of of my remaining UA followers a peaceful and COVIDS-free Holiday season. Here’s looking ahead to a New Year that sees an improvement over 2020, which, in hindsight, wasn’t such a bad year for fishing. Just different.
Another great read my friend. I always enjoy your take on our trips. Happy Holidays from your unsavory, lowbrowed, unrefined friend!
Thanks for reading, and for staying awake and keeping me alert behind the wheel on our long drives this past year, amigo. You’re, like, the best wingman ever.