River conditions here in Montana are always changing. During the spring, our high mountain streams transport the snow melt into the larger rivers. This causes a "blow out" period that can last a month or more, making fishing dangerous and sometimes impossible. The period after the spring run-off can be excellent angling however. The trout are hungry after hunkering down while the rivers raged. Summer brings low water, as much of it is used for irrigating crops and the snow-pack running thin. In the winter, water levels continue to drop, making for concentrated pockets of fish. Knowing where the fish are during these periods is critical. During the heavy flows, fish get pushed to the edges of rivers where the current is less resistant. In winter, the low, clear water forces fish into deep calm pools where they can escape from the raptors above. Its a never ending game of change and pursuit, here's my two cents on finding trout year round.
They say the ideal current speed is around three miles per hour. Foam bubbles are a key identifier of current speed. You'll notice faster water and slower water just don't carry bubbles on the surface. On the outside of a feeding lane the water is rushing fast, but inches next to it, where current meets slower water, bubbles form. The fish love this speed. It gives them enough time to identify and eat insects as they drift down stream plus they can efficiently hold themselves without using too much energy. Remember to always look for the right current speed, this is where the majority of trout lay. We have endless miles of rivers in Montana, so it can be intimidating trying to find where the trout are. I often walk a quarter mile or more between good trout lies. Not all water holds active fish. Get it in your head to remember what the current speed was after each fish is caught and it wont be long before you can easily identify good trout water. I'm not saying that fish aren't in fast riffles because they are, particularly rainbows. You just have to get out there and experiment with what works. I've seen people fishing holes that have nothing in common with trout water. Its too shallow, muddy bottom, not significant enough, or just the wrong time of the year. Don't be that guy wasting your time on water that holds zero fish.
Just because the rivers are blown out doesn't mean you cant fish. Yes, some rivers get very dangerous but others, for example Hyalite Creek, is still great even when its raging. Finding fish in these waters can be much easier than say, during the middle of summer. During summer the whole river looks decent and fish are so spread out. When rivers are near maximum capacity, still within the banks, fish are concentrated in the slowest moving water. Hyalite Creek is a steep mountain stream with class IV rapids at places. The other day I drove many miles looking for anything other than whitewater. When I found a bend where the river flattened out and slowed down, I also found a ton of trout. One particular stretch I walked had nothing but whitewater, but near the bank there was a small pocket of calmer water. I fished this until I caught three brookies. How easy was it for me to find these fish? Very easy! Making my way downstream I found a gorgeous body of water familiar to every fly fisherman. I could have easily fished this hole for three hours without leaving, and I did. Its so simple, like I said before, the fish are now concentrated in these slow moving stretches.
I would like to talk about water clarity for a moment, it has a lot to do with where the trout will be feeding. Most people pack up and go home if the river is muddy and visibility is low. They believe the trout wont see their flies and they'll have to put it on the tips of their noses. Well this just isn't true. Obviously if conditions are chocolate milk, and you cant see your hand an inch below the surface, yes its time to probably go home. Around here though, many rivers never turn to chocolate milk. I personally love fishing when the river is slightly high and cloudy, maybe a bit green. It makes the fish feel protected from raptors and other predators. A typical cycle in the summer tends to be on bright cloudless days the big trout hold deep, away from the sunlight. At twilight they feel comfortable to come out and feed. This is the same during cloudy conditions. The trout feel comfortable spending the entire day, even if its bright and sunny, feeding. Also, as fan of the art of high-sticking, I can get much closer without being seen.
With that being said, I'm going to move into finding the trout during the summer months. It can get blazing hot outside. Just as you wouldn't want to fish below thirty degrees (the fish slow down), It's not the best time to fish when its one hundred degrees. The fish get lethargic as the water temp rises, making them more active at night and twilight. Shallow water is a no-go during the dog days of summer. The fish are deep, often avoiding the warm rays of sunlight. Its a good idea to try the riffles this time of year, many rainbows will be found there. Deep and slow runs, fished with just about any fly works great. Hot days usually means low water, so fish are concentrated within the confines of the river channel. When its hot and there's no cloud cover above, try to focus on the deep holes within the river system. There are often long stretches of shallow, clear water that hold no fish. Its easy to recognize these spots, walk a little further upriver, and you'll eventually come upon a deep hole. Its here that the smart trout will spend their days, hunkered down deep, chasing down nymphs and sculpins that enter their feeding zones. It can often be difficult to reach these fish with the traditional nymph set-up. Use a longer leader, 12 to 15 feet, tapered to 5x tippet, and weighted flies. If you're flies arent heavy enough, simply put on a split-shot or two. Remember, you want to be on the bottom. If you're not detecting the bottom then you need to change your approach so that you are down where the fish are. If fishing during peak daytime hours this should have you covered. Its during low light that your technique should change from the above mentioned during summer months. In low light times, its the lunker brown trout and pig rainbows that move out of the cover of deep water and into ambush mode in the shallows. Its no surprise that big trout are naturally nocturnal. Pack a headlamp and begin your outing an hour before dark. Use large flies like black sculpzillas, mice patterns, crankbaits, etc. Night fishing can be a challenge within itself but is often one of the best times to be on the river. Theres nothing like casting dries to rising fish during a full moon either!
Fall is one of the best times to fish, if not THE best season. The brown trout have spawning on their minds, along with all fish trying to stock up for the coming winter. Water levels remain low and its still easy to find the fish if you know how to read the water. During the fall you can fish in pretty shallow waters, all day. The photo period is shortening and trout are taking advantage of the cool temps and low light. Large browns will ambush small fish all day long and the usual riffles and holes will produce hungry fish eager to eat your flies. Its during fall that you can throw larger than usual streamers, larger than real life insect patterns, and that crazy Bozangles Betty that you tied a couple of years ago. The feed is on and trout tend to get out of their comfort zones in order to secure a high calorie meal, take advantage of this. Trout will be found in any and all stretches of rivers and lakes during the fall, so find some fishy structure, tie on the right flies or lure and enjoy the action. Keep in mind that egg patterns go hand in hand with early spring and fall. Brown and rainbow trout cant resist the high calorie morsel and will cross water to reach them.
Where are the trout during the coldest months of winter? You may be the type that puts down the fishing gear when winter arrives and dust off the ski equipment. But, there are still excellent opportunities to fish year round in Montana. Winter can be one of the most beautiful, solitary, and calming time of the year to fish. There's just nothing quiet like fly fishing in the middle of winter on a beautiful sunny day. The fishing can be pretty phenomenal if you have some insight and a little bit of luck. Fish get pretty lethargic during the cold temps of winter. They are less eager to viciously track down a streamer over larger distances and typically stay in a narrow feeding lane, letting the food float to them. Its easy enough to find fish during the winter. During real cold, sunny days, the trout will stack up in the big pools, similar to summer holding patterns. Its during the warmer, overcast days that you can find fish moving out of those holes and into shallow riffles and runs. Small nymphs like #18 pheasant tails, #16-18 lightning bugs, similar sizes disco midges, zebra midges, WD-40s, etc should be fished on light tackle. I use 5x in the winter because visibility tends to be crystal clear, along with lethargic energy levels from trout, thicker tipper is not necessary unless throwing streamer patterns. The winter time can host some pretty spectacular dry fly hatches. Its a midge game so having on hand some small Griffiths Gnats or #18-22 Parachute Adams is ideal. Keep your setup light and simple during the winter, find those winter holding areas and you'll be skipping a ski day at Bridger to head out to your favorite honey hole, and the best part is you will likely have the river to yourself.
As mentioned above, spring can bring a halt to the fishing in all but a few places in SW Montana. This period is known as the blow out and happens every year, some better than others. This causes the rivers to swell to dangerous proportions, creating low visibility and unfishable currents. After the blowout subsides however, and the fishing picks up pretty good. After a long winter of low angling pressure, than a month or so of zero angling pressure, post blow out means the fish are feeding heavily for the first time since last fall. The rainbows are beginning to think about the spawn and all fish are putting on the calories that were lost while holding over during the winter. As soon as the rivers clear and lake levels settle, one needs to hit the water. Trout will be in all stretches of the rivers now and finding them is relatively easy. Just fish those pools, runs, and riffles with the usual flies it wont be long before you're netting fish. Fly choice is more important during the spring than where you fish. San Juan Worms and spring run-off go hand in hand. Fish are more aggressive during this time of year, a lot like the fall, and will go out of their way to eat your fly. Dry fly fishing can be spotty, as this time of year is known for the higher than usual flows and stained water, which doesn't really have fish looking up. High calorie items just as eggs, worms, leeches, bait fish, salmonfly nymphs, etc will work best. Don't be afraid to use some extra weight to get those flies down deep, and be sure to bring plenty of extras to compensate for more debris floating downstream.
Monday, June 4, 2018
Saturday, May 26, 2018
When my good friend Cody first told me that he drew for the Smith River in early May I declined. After a seemingly longer than usual winter, camping during a cold, wet spring turned me off. It wasn't long after his offer when a news story appeared about a group of Smith floaters who were rather unlucky. They were the third group to float the river this year, and early April trips can be very cold. Waking up to snow on the tent is one thing, but group three woke up to a completely frozen Smith River. Fortunately they were close to a ranch road and were able to get help. That was April 8th. Cody's float was scheduled a full month later but its not uncommon to have snow up into July there. The Smith begins its journey to the Missouri River from the Castle Mountains in South Central Montana. It then winds its way through farm land and cattle country before entering Smith River State Park. Here, the river flows for fifty-nine miles through some of the most beautiful country around. The Smith's highly protected waters are the prize that so many cherish and will travel many miles to float. There are a limited number of permits given each year, via a lottery system, which 6,000 people that hope to draw, only about 1,000 or so will be lucky. It wasn't long before I changed my mind. Several warmer than average days came in mid April and I was itching to kick my cabin fever, let alone in one of this country's most beautiful places. I mean, what was I thinking saying no?
|Camp Baker morning of the launch|
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, May 7th was finally here. With my truck loaded full of gear and the raft, I began the two and a half hour drive north to the check-in station at Camp Baker. My plan was to leave Bozeman and show up a night early to reserve an early launch for the group, but by the time I arrived my name was already fifth on the list; apparently, 1 pm the day before isn't early enough! Camp Baker soon filled with nine groups, our group of four being the smallest, all the way up to the bigger groups, with around fifteen people. The scene at camp was a lively one. One hundred people all hanging out in a unique landscape, all there for the same reason. Not one soul had to work for the next five days, and the beer count was already taking a hit. The mood was very chill and relaxing. I was a little worried about tomorrows launch, unsure of what the river would throw at us. Did we bring enough gear? Do we have enough food? Is it going to snow on us? How bad are the whitewater rapids with these high flows?
|Ranger discussion at Camp Baker|
At around nine o'clock we had to register our campsites with the ranger.
|Last gear check|
|Our first mile on a new river|
It was this first day on the river that we spotted a sow black bear and cub. The mom had a watchful eye over the little one, who was grazing on riverside vegetation, talk about a shore-lunch. They didn't fear us, and watched as we quietly floated by. The day was warm and sunny, the river calm and peaceful. There was a calmness in the air, the smell of pine, the sound of the occasional duck taking off, or a gaggle of geese passing by overhead. There was a sense of wonder as to what would be around the next turn in the river. The current was pushing us at about four or five knots, it was tough to sit back and take it all in.
|Sow black bear and cub|
We made it to our first camp in a hurry that day. We left plenty of room for a longer than expected float, or in case something happened, we wanted to have tents up before dark. It only took us three hours to float the days seventeen miles.
|Boat camp Syringa|
I awoke on Wednesday morning around six o'clock. I made a cup of joe and took a hike with my fishing rod. The rest of the group was sleeping in. I figured it would be a good time to wander around and explore the area. I fished for an hour with absolutely no luck. The water didn't look all that bad really. At times the visibility was around eight inches. Once awake, everyone was feeling pretty energized and we were eager to get on the water. After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and biscuits 'n gravy, we consolidated a couple piles of firewood into the rafts, packed our gear, and headed downstream.
In the middle of a remote stretch of the canyon there sits an oasis to floaters. The Heaven on Earth Ranch is kind of an odd place. You almost have to see it for yourself. We had read about it beforehand and thought we may stop for a drink, or round of golf. Yes, there is a beautifully kept nine hole golf course out in the middle of the Smith River Canyon. They are happy to serve rafters free hard drinks but will take donations. You can also stay at one of their many cabins and enjoy a hot shower or soak in the hot tub. "Shall we stop?", Carly hollered. Dark violet and ominous, the clouds besieging us were moving in fast. There was friction in the air. "Can we keep moving?" I yelled back. A nod was given. I think we all had the same feeling.
|spring number two, before the storm|
The rain eventually subsided and we made it to our 3rd camp, Camp Crowsfoot. It seemed as we realized there weren't any trees here to hang a tarp for shelter, the rain had stopped.
|Evening view from Camp Crows Foot|
|several pictographs from Camp Crows Foot|
|The canyon walls grow taller|
The canyon walls were at their tallest this day, and within them, there was a 'pictograph cave' that we were on the look-out for. It was river mile thirty-eight we discovered it, high above the river. A small trail came into view around a slow bend. The shore was so steep here that instead of landing the rafts, we had to tie them to trees and let them float. We strapped both rigs together to make a large barge that we used to change into more fitting clothing.
|Riley sits on the shore in front of pictograph cave|
|Our boats at Upper Ridgetop|
A short trail from our boats led to our sheltered camping area. The fire pit sits in the middle of a triangle of three towering conifers trees, and each tent-site is isolated, a few yards from where we would all gather for dinner. It managed to stop raining for the few hours, we set up camp and cooked our dinner. We feasted on elk chili and other snacks on this night. The gang preferred to drink coffee in the evening over beer, I guess we are getting old. Speaking of old; it was the day before Cody's thirtieth birthday! What better way to spend a milestone like that than floating down one of the countries unique rivers, in Montana?
|Fun around the campfire, Upper Ridgetop|
The rain that night once again determined when we would get into our tents and go to bed. This time, I strategically placed my tent under a large pine tree to avoid as much moisture as possible from the monsoon like rains. I tried to position the tent onto a hump, so water wouldn't pool inside, and I added an additional rain tarp over the original for added coverage. Despite my best efforts, the rains were just too strong and consistent. I was tired during the night that I didn't let it bother me as much, and woke up inside a half soaked sleeping bag. I couldn't believe I still managed to get wet, along with most of my stuff in the tent, that wasn't in a dry bag. It was difficult to get up and pack but there wasn't much else to do. Annoyed that we woke up to a very cold and rainy morning, we brewed some coffee, water proofed our bodies and got to work taking down camp.
|Staying dry during the rain|
We donned every piece of dry, waterproof material we had. The rain was falling at a steady rate and there was a stiff breeze blowing upriver. We turned our boats and backs to the wind again and held our heads down as we paddled seventeen river miles to Eden Bridge. The terrain turned from mountainous canyons, much like that of the Gallatin Canyon, to a whole new world. Suddenly I felt like we were in New Zealand. There were flocks of sheep grazing in fence-less, wide open spaces. Giant rolling hills of green were shrouded in a thin layer of mist. The absence of roads, telephone wires, fences, buildings, and people, gave the scenery a boost of remoteness. Still, the river making sharp turns every few hundred yards. Black Angus cows dot the landscape along with huge cuts of exposed earth and limestone caves. The pines gave way to small trees here and there with geese still all along the banks. The river began to widen up and slow its current. To make up some time I paddled ahead of Cody's boat and imagined a warm, dry Toyota 4Runner patiently waiting for us at the take out. We passed under a privately owned bridge, which read "Eden Bridge take out 5 miles". I was thinking we were much closer than five miles. After the bridge I entered a pretty large farming operation. Someone was sheering sheep in a huge metal barn. As I silently drifted by, sheep would joyfully run from the barn to regroup with the others. I remember thinking how happy those sheep looked. They do live in a pretty spectacular place. It wasn't much longer after this when I caught up with a group ahead of us, three boats. I was cruising along pretty good, my back downriver; every now and then Id glance back to see where I was going. To my relief, Eden Bridge was much closer than the five miles the sign read. The river narrowed here, braided a few times, I didn't want to miss the ramp. As I made my final turn on this magnificent river, a friendly gentlemen kindly grabbed my throw rope and pulled me in hard against the fast current. We exchanged a few words and I began unloading my gear. About ten minutes later, Cody, Carly, and Riley came down and I caught their rope.
Eden Bridge has some of the nicest changing facilities I've ever seen at a campsite. I guess this is where part of my floater fees comes in, and I'm more than happy to pay them if this is where it goes. There's dumpsters there to get rid of all the trash we accumulated and a camp host who is happy to answer any questions you might have. From here we loaded both rafts onto the trailer and we began the long drive back to Cascade, down to Helena, Townsend, back over to White Sulphur Springs, then north to Camp Baker. Once my raft was in my own vehicle we made the two hour drive back to Bozeman.
|View from our hike looking for the cave|