Welcome to Montana Trout Fishing!

Bringing you up-to-date information for fishing around Bozeman Montana. Feel free to Email me anytime at Norbaracer13@gmail.com!

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

High Pressure and Hellish Riverbanks

         If you find that your home waters are exceptionally beautiful and full of wild trout, you may be facing increased fishing pressure over the years as people from all over the world flock your way. There are only so many rivers, and for every new angler that moves to your region, that is one small piece that you'll no longer get to enjoy in solitude, peace, or quiet. 

         Where I live, every year there is open comment on how to better regulate the summer madness on the Madison River for example. Outfitters complain that there are too many boats out during prime-time angling mid summer, and that added pressure hurts their business. As Bozeman grows by five thousand residents a year, thats X amount of hikers, anglers, hunters, all showing up at your favorite accesses. Five, ten, twenty years ago (and rarely today) you could show up to one of many rivers and smile as you're the only vehicle pulling up, the happy river awaiting. Nowadays, if you show up to an easy to access, popular trail head or fishing access, you're almost engulfed in a feeling of dread and disgust. 

          As an angler, always learning, we have our favorite spots, our honey holes, and they too change as we grow. We have our favorite stretches of river that we think about to get through a hectic day at work, or perhaps a favorite time of day at a certain run on a lazy, quiet flowing stream. Sometimes we go days or years between frolicking around the waters waste deep, but it ultimately calls you back, for reasons unknown, often overlooked. We just know that "we need" that moment of tranquility, or we have the itch to hook a trout on a dry fly, so we head out to our favorite stream on a seemingly quiet Sunday morning, just to pull up and have your whole mood turned upside down as the parking lot has turned into a zoo. Whats a fisherman or lady to do? There are a couple options, some better for some than others, depending who you are and what kind of fisherman. 

           Fish the weekdays! If you live in a destination location, you realize that people travel from around the world to experience a day or two, or week enjoying what you have anytime. Vacationers often do not have a set schedule, and are often the ones being guided any day of the week. You can easily avoid where guides take their clients, but I have learned that these are not the ones crowding our rivers. Also its important to point out that most "tourists" do not get out beyond the normal "tourist spots", and they are very easy to avoid. Most locals, hard working folks that know the area and are exploiting for themselves (rightfully so!), have to get out on the weekends. Weekends, beginning in early March have trailheads and river access overflowing with area natives itching to get out to their favorite trail or stream. If you live and work in one of these great places on earth, and you enjoy solitude outdoors, it would be wise to ask your boss to work weekends!

          Get an early start! Most fisherman that want to get the most out of their time on the water like to get out to the river early! Some of the best fishing of the day, certain times of the year, take place between sunup at 10am. Many easy going anglers are going to sleep in, and start fishing much later, continuing to to hit the evening hatches. 

           Avoid the popular areas! Sure, your favorite river or stretch may be the most popular, sought after stretch in one hundred miles, that would be a bummer! However, many of the most popular put ins, bridges, access, and parking lots are so overloaded with pressure, that unless you're the first angler to hit it that day, its just not something to pursue with heavy crowds and pressure.. You may be thinking that the stretches with nobody fishing cant be as good as the ones loaded with boats and waders, but that is FALSE! Most of these rivers and streams have thousands upon thousands of trout per mile, trust me, they are everywhere. You can do some things like simply fish these areas during the off season, or early mornings, and may increase your odds of success and enjoyment. 

           Fish out of season! It seems that July through August is the busiest time for trout fishing in Montana. Guides are booked everyday, every campground is taken, RV's and campers outnumber commuting vehicles. Mid to late summer is also the nicest time of year and experiences some of the best fishing (although I disagree on the latter, read on). This makes that time of year extremely hectic at the popular fishing rivers, lakes, streams, and accesses. The trout are at their all time most picky when it comes to preference feeding and certain flies. So you have highly pressured, extra finicky trout matched up with extremely high angler numbers and sure that can lead to a nice day sometimes, but for me that's a headache. Some of THE BEST trout fishing occurs when the weather is NASTY. That means mid march till early may, and October-November. During these times you have extraordinarily hungry fish loading up their stores for winter matched up with seemingly nonexistent crowds and pressure. As an ex walleye fisherman myself, I always led with the motto "The shittier the weather, the better the fishing" and "fish dont care if they get wet, they're already wet".

           This one is similar to the previous tactic but one of my favorites! Sure, July to August in Montana is spectacularly gorgeous, and it rarely rains those months. However, any other month of the year is bound to throw some weather your way! Raining on a Saturday? Most easy going anglers are going to stay indoors, or maybe take a drive. Put on the rain gear and get out there for some great fishing. Snowing sideways, might as well get out there and experience the beauty of the gloom on a stretch of your favorite river all by yourself, or with a tail wagging friend. Just remember, the cold, the rain, and the wind will keep half the anglers off the water! Its not a bad thing to schedule a day on Depuy's or head up to the park when the weather is 'subpar' for some of the best fishing experiences.

           Walk at least a mile from the rig! There are things an angler can do during the busy hours on a world class river or stream to beat the crowds and pressure. Just add anyone of the above tactics together, and experience even better odds of solitude! If you show up at an access to your favorite river and its full of people, you better plan on hiking out a ways if you want to experience easy going trout and less competition with people and more with the eagles. I always start AT LEAST a mile from the rig, and see what it looks like from there. Now, don't be surprised when there are a few others like you, escaping the hellish outdoor experience of the once a year fly fisherman and his two misbehaved setters ruining your honey hole, or the hollering and yelling of drunken worm drowners at the boat ramp. Typically once you're this far out from the madness, you can really spread out and slow down, enjoying your time there without the pressure or distraction. 

              As more and more people flock away from big cities to smaller, rural western locales, these small rivers and ecosystems will begin to feel the weight. You'll need to walk further and longer to get out there away from people, but this will also open new opportunities for the wanderlusting adventurer. I cant complain or deny my existence here, I am only a ten year resident here in the great state of Montana. These are some tips I learned to beat the crowds and I hope you too can enjoy a moment of peace as things grow and change. Tight lines! -Mike

Monday, June 4, 2018

Finding the Trout: Beginner Lesson

                 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.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Smith River Float 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
             After a night of rest it was around seven the next day that Camp Baker came to life. People packing up their tents, prepping for the next days, the clinking of pots and pans and oars and anchors. We all migrated to the ranger station where we had a twenty minute group chat with the USFS ranger. He was great and went over everything we would encounter, such as springs, pictographs, rapids, float gates, etc. I'm glad I took notes because he was saying all kinds of things, rather fast, and nothing is marked on the map except for camps and tributaries.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               At around nine o'clock we had to register our campsites with the ranger. 
We didn't have a clue as to which camps were good, besides the little research we'd done, so sort of took the rangers word for it. Our flotilla was small and because we were all ready to go, we ended up being the second group to launch. We carefully loaded all of our provisions for the next four days into our rubber boats, and there we stood before the raging, chocolate milk colored water that we've been itchin' to meet for months. Our boats packed to the max, hundreds of pounds of gear. I actually wondered if mine would sink while going through the first set of whitewater rapids. Once the last bit of gear was strapped tight to the rafts we ran up to the station to tell the ranger we were ready for his inspection.
Last gear check
He dropped his pen, and with a smile on his face, followed my anxious butt down to the ramp. Without even looking over our stuff, he said "You guys all ready for a good time?", we replied with a nervous "Yeaaaaaaah". It was after this that he said "Alright, good to go, have a good time guys!". I was hoping we were set up with the right gear and weren't launching to our deaths. With the water at record flows, I knew this could be a challenge in my raft, which is much smaller than the regular rafts that float these waters. The first bend didn't send us over a waterfall, or push us against a cliff, and we slowly meandered and tapered our way into more narrow terrain. I thought the first stretch would be a lazy one and that maybe we would slowly transition into a more rugged environment. To my surprised it wasn't but after the first couple miles when the environment began to change into that steep canyon country in so many photos.
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
It didn't take long for our life jackets to come off. The Smith gave us a pleasant, welcoming feeling that first day. Stress slowly turned into relaxation and contentment. Both rafts, although heavy, were navigating impeccably through the giant boulders, shelves, and limestone walls. There are few things more calming than drifting effortlessly through a wilderness such as this. Oh how I wish it would never end.

                  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
Camp Syringa is the name of our camp for the evening. It sits in a quiet part of the canyon, where the water flows slower than most other places. We tied our boats to the provided 4x4s sticking into the grass covered bank. The fire ring is located about twenty yards upstream from the boats and the latrine was a short hike up into the hills behind camp. We set up our tents and began cooking dinner. We would be having elk fajitas. After a full belly we tried to stay awake into dark, but we were beat. It wasn't long before camp was quiet other than the sounds of rushing water and the occasional goose.

               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.

           Our first stop on this day was at Tenderfeet Creek. Here we were hoping to find some healthy brown trout in clearer water. We pulled the boats into a small, clear pool of spring fed water. I was less interested in fishing and excited to keep moving down the river. After throwing our lines around for a few minutes and see what we could see, we decided to cut loose. It was near noon and the sun beat down.
Pictograph handprints
             We twisted and turned around spires taller than any building in the whole state of Montana. The turns, so frequent, that by the time you maneuvered the boat to avoid the turbulence of one turn, you'd have to turn 180 degrees to set yourself up for the next one. I've never drifted down a river so wide that snakes as tightly as the Smith. A few more miles downriver and we witnessed another black bear. This time we watched as it slid down into the river, swam across, then stood up on both legs before turning and running into the wild lands. I tried to swing the boat around for another pic but he was a healthy bear and quickly disappeared like good bears do. The river here was swift and powerful. We had our first pictograph coming up, where exactly we did not know. Keeping the boat on a good line and away from rocks was taking most of my focus. Lucky I was to see this pictograph, as it was about fifteen feet off the water, in the middle of a fast riffle. There were five red hand prints in a horizontal line, and a quick glimpse was all I could get along with a quick photo. At the time, it was a dismal feeling, floating past them at five knots, but we would soon see many more.


        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
              It wasn't long after the ranch that we stopped to fill our water bottles at a quiet little spring. By now, the sun was gone completely and the sky was ever darkening. An enormous bolt of lightning hit the canyon rim directly above us, thunder instantly rumbled around us. In a moment, our day went from bright and fun to wet and possibly dangerous. While we covered the firewood with tarps we discussed our plans. The rain began to fall hard. "The ranger didn't mention what to do during a lightning storm did he?" I yelled through the sound of rain pelting the water, but I already knew the answer. We couldn't risk losing precious hours holed up under a shelter waiting for it to pass, this thunderstorm could potentially last all day. We tucked our graphite fly rods down low and slowly left our little cove of cover. With our rafts turned and our backs downriver, against the rain we paddled on Water  would eventually finding its way into every little dry space on me. Lightning clapping all around us. I sure felt vulnerable during that hour on the Smith. Natures power can make you feel small at times. I felt some protection from the canyon and hugged the walls until we reached our next camp.

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
We were overjoyed when the sun came out, just in time to set up our camp for the evening. A few more hours of daylight were yet to come, so we hiked a short ways to look at some pictographs that Riley had found. I must say, we had a much better look at these than the previous ones. There were probably twenty that we found.
several pictographs from Camp Crows Foot 
The cliff face that held these had eroded heavily over the years, putting a few pictographs on large slabs on the ground. I wondered how many pictopraphs have fallen off over the years; it would appear with some imagination, that the whole limestone wall was at one time covered in paintings. We saw paintings of a buffalo hoof, a fox, hand prints of adults and children, finger prints, finger swipes, symbols and many more we couldn't identify. I myself am a huge fan of ancient peoples, and this site was worth the trip alone.

The canyon walls grow taller 
             After a much needed refueling of spaghetti dinner, we tried sitting around the campfire to enjoy the natural stadium that mother nature had created around us. I found myself pretty tuckered out after each day. You'd think floating down a river would be easy, but the constant chores of moving camp everyday took a lot out of us. We watched as lightning from another thunderstorm rolled closer and closer to us. The rumbling storm slowly moving our way. It was then, as pellets of rain splashed down around us, we ran to our tents. The wind picked up and lightning was striking nearer. I would experience a rather miserable evening that night. The tent had some weatherproofing issues, and eventually succumbed to the constant saturation of wind and rain. All four corners of my shelter had little rivers, all trying to gather in the middle where I lay inside my sleeping bag. It was difficult to sleep, I was worried about waking up covered in water. The temperature would drop into the thirties at night and I did not want to get wet. Around midnight, fatigue finally knocked me out and to my relief, I woke up halfway dry. I wasn't sure if my tent could handle another night of rains. The next morning we woke up to dry weather, the rain had quit sometime early that morning. We splayed out tents, tarps, and our gear to dry that morning. The suns rays were warm and welcome. We found ourselves getting on the water each day between ten and eleven AM.. Averaging around fifteen miles a day and each day we floated for around three hours, with intermittent stops here and there.

             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
            After lacing up some hiking shoes and finding the bear spray, we had a quick snack. We followed the trail to the cave, which we could clearly see from the rafts. Little did we know that this would be more of a challenge than we anticipated. We knew it was a tad dangerous and difficult to reach, but we figured that was a warning for the 'average folks' out there. Riley and I climbed up to the top of the trail. There were about twenty different foot trails forking all different ways. I made several attempts to locate the right path, and each way took me to precarious ledges and drop offs. We scrambled down and tried an alternate route. Riley found me and we explored this ridge to the fullest. It was one heck of a hike be we ended up walking about one hundred feet under the cave without even seeing it, just to climb above and get an amazing view of the Smith.  We still had a half day of boating to do and decided we could look no more for this darn cave. With low energy, we climbed several hundred feet in elevation looking for it. There is a sort of illusion that plays out when you're there looking for it. The cave is a lot larger than it looks from the bottom and it throws off your judgement. The ground is pretty sketchy and getting hurt out here, thirty miles from the nearest road, is not a good idea. Defeated, we played it safe and decided to head back down to the river.

Our boats at Upper Ridgetop
            After the cave ordeal, we had about five river miles to go. This would put us in camp between four and five o'clock that afternoon. Our destination was Camp Upper Ridgetop, which sat nestled privately in between two other boat camps along a tight, steep turn in the canyon. The boat landing was directly above a left hand turn that quickly turned into a small whitewater rapid. The sound of the water, the view of a steep canyon wall across the river, and the fact that everything was wet, gave Camp Upper Ridgetop, a rain forest/Pacific Northwest feel. The best part of this camp was that it was surrounded by willows and large Douglas-fers, so it was quite cozy.
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
             After a full belly, we explored our little nook of land. We were completely blocked in by an impassable rock wall to our backs, and across the river, there was narrow corridor of public land, also blocked in from the back. We had "camp deer" in our camp on this day. There were six or seven little mule deer does that had no problem with us being there. With few flat, green areas in this rugged country, this was probably where they spent a lot of time. The scenery here was spectacular. At one point, as it began to get dark, I played a game of flashlight tag with one of our neighbors at the camp upriver from us. They were shed hunting and had climbed way up this large rock outcrop. He would shine his light a number of times and I would repeat it. It was enjoyable, noting they were probably a good half mile away and a few hundred feet up the canyon. This was the only night that we could see and hear our neighbors, not to mention our latrine was about twenty feet from the group below latrine. Besides the close proximity toilets, this was our favorite camp. Its amazing how every mile of river will show you something new, and each camp has its own personality and charm. There are better camps than others, so if you plan on doing a Smith float, research some good campsites, write em down and bring them with you. It helps to arrive the morning before the day you float, to reserve the good sites.

         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
There would be no stopping the rain from this point on for the rest of the trip. We would have no way to dry all of the gear, so if we were planning on another night, we would have been soggy. We left Camp Upper Ridgetop at eleven o'clock that morning.

           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.

Incredible scenery
         This trip is something I will pursue every year. MTF would like to start an annual Smith River float trip. The more folks we have putting in for the permit, the better our chances. If you'd like to join us, feel free to send me an email. I will post information next year about the upcoming float possibilities.  Next time I would like to add one more day to the adventure. Scheduling a layover day would be nice. We had more than enough food. I'm glad I didn't rely on eating fish, I would have been hungry. The fishing was tough. Cody hooked into a couple of trout but there was literally zero clarity in the water. The river is rated as a Red Ribbon stream, which obviously isn't as good as the many Blue Ribbons we have in SW Montana, but still holds some very respectable brown and rainbow trout. Prime time to float the Smith River is May 25th through mid July, after that, the river gets too thin to float in the bigger boats. I would say a beginner could navigate a large raft down the Smith, but you need to respect the river. I also came to the conclusion that I myself would not float a canoe down this river during high water. There are too many heavy currents, pushing water all over the place, up against cliffs, etc. The wildlife was abundant. The myriad of waterfowl was incredible. Baby goslings were with about every other couple of geese, some trying to tag along with our rafts. Birds of prey, bears, deer, elk sign, and plenty of baetis hatches were visible. We were actually rather lucky to see three bears. We talked to a couple other groups, and people that have floated it in the past, and none have had bear sightings. The weather, despite the rain and low thirty temperatures, we managed to stay relatively dry and happy. It can snow every month out there, so its wise to always bring a bag with full winter gear, including the infamous 'goggles'.
View from our hike looking for the cave

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Why I Came...

Cody is an Oklahoma Transplant,
here for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people.

       A dear friend of mine had grown up North of Hyalite, raised in a red barn school house, and tossed into bear country at a young age.  We met working in the hotel and restaurant  industry in Oklahoma City somewhere around 2010.  We had similar hobbies, like hopping barbed wire and slicing through the briars and woods in search for the farm pond sure to hold large, gullible bass.  Although at the time i was throwing a tandem hook imitation worm with spincast gear, little did I know I was well on way may to Montana.

            The apartment I lived in was on a waterway between two small city lakes that had a dam to form a long wide, mostly shallow waterfowl pond, yet in the drainage there was flowing water and bobbers from bait fishermen lined the trees.  I left many Rapala grasshoppers hooked into those same trees before learning the art of fishing with a fly. 

           I was eventually introduced to the fly, and bought my first fly rod from the world of Ebay.  I ended up with a fiberglass antique, and attached, an ultralight spinning reel.  I discovered "bubble fly fishing" when I googled "how to fly fish with a spinning rod", and I would catch fish in quantities that left others fooled.  My method to "drop" a fly off the swivel and toss the weighted bubble under the edge of overhanging limbs proved fun.  WHAMMO! fish on!
Soon I would buy my first fly reel after a trip to bass pro sent me home with the name of a man in New York that carried affordable and reliable gear.   I ordered line, and a reel, that has recently been passed along to my next of kin. 

This all led to me throwing Clouser minnows to smallmouth in NW Oklahoma, and then chasing trout on the South Platte outside of Florissant, CO.  I proceeded to drive north through Wyoming into Big Sky country after feeling I had proved myself in the South Central Rockies.  I spent that week looking at churned water in the Gallatin River runoff, a day below the dam in Bear Trap, and accepting the challenge that I had encountered.

            I pursued recruiters to help me find a job in Bozeman.  "Immediate opening" they replied.   Within a year I would be driving across the same stretch of Wyoming with a Kayak strapped to the roof and filled with bags of gear.  There was a guitar case in my car, full of fishing rods of course.

I first interacted with Mike through his blog, some time before arriving in the Bozone. He invited me to join him on his most local water.  It will soon be a year since I have put down in Southwest Montana.  I've had the pleasure of knowing Montana Mike, and am grateful of the privilege to submit content to Montana Trout Fishing. See you on the water! -Cody

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Carpin' the Big Sky

Carping is a rewarding experience
         One day in the middle of summer, 2015, I sat in my home watching Youtube videos of giant brown trout in New Zealand. The conditions at the time left me without many options for good trout fishing and I was getting my kicks through the lens of some lucky guy thousands of miles from me. From bull trout to bonefish, I found myself being sucked into the dark corners of the internet video world; my rear end settling lower and lower into the couch. Inside my body, the energy was high. My mind was seeing things that would make any fisherman overjoyed. I soon felt the urge to head out and find my own world class angling experience, without topping off the gas tank. Then, somewhere along the way in my mindless video surfing, I stumbled upon a video of a man fly fishing for carp. Now I've had my fair share of experience with carp, but mostly by snagging them with a spinning set-up or randomly hooking one in the lip on a jig. Cursing at them for breaking my line, yet secretly wishing I could have another go. However, since moving to Big Sky country, carp have been the furthest thing from my mind. I did a little research on the subject. With a little luck, a full weekend, and a relentless urge to land one of these beasts on a fly rod, I scored big time.

              Carp have often been ignored by sportsman in the United States as they are considered by most a trash fish, for reasons that remain fair enough. It's not uncommon to see them tossed on the bank or hit over the head and left to die. Most of the time this causes more unwanted waste than it saves but gives a feeling of satisfaction to most that do it. Respect for them is growing ever so slightly in the sates. In the Western states, where trout and carp live together, many guiding companies now offer carp trips. The Missouri River is known for its plentiful carp numbers, and word is spreading about how enjoyable it is. In Europe, carping is one of the, if not the most, popular fish to pursue. There's some good reason to that too. It's the same reason I used to wish for one to gulp down my Mr. Twister back in Iowa, they are the Mac Trucks of freshwater fish! These golden beasts often grow well over thirty inches or more and can reach upwards of 40 lbs. Not only are they incredibly fun to catch, they are also surprisingly difficult. One has to fully commit, completely understand the fundamentals, expect failure, and be able to land a fly in a tea-cup at thirty feet, before anticipating a successful attempt. If you ever thought trout were finicky and are ready for the next challenge, carp are for you.

Prehistoric looking
            It's well known that carp generally live about everywhere. It's not hard to find them during the summer if you take the time. Look for large splashes and movement around the shallow western side of the lake, the hotter outside the better. The carp will be in the shallows feeding and sunbathing.  It's important to know whether or not the carp you are looking at are feeding. Feeding or "tailing" carp are very similar to bonefish. Both carp and bonefish feed by shuffling around in the mud with the snouts down and tail up. Its not uncommon to see half a carp sticking out of the water as they root around for anything organic. As omnivores, fly selection is pretty easy. Anything that feels like a crunchy, squishy bug will be held in the mouth long enough to make a hook set. I've noticed that carp will suck in a mouthful of mud or sand, and then blow out, holding on to whatever food it finds. Forget streamers or anything big, colorful, or fast moving. One of the more difficult aspects of carping is how easy they spook. After spending some time with these amazing fish you can see how evolution has taken trout and carp down two completely different paths. Carp have been around for millions and millions of years, they have changed little and still retain many primitive traits. All of these traits in turn allowed the carp to grow to such sizes. Trout may be much newer and more advance by design but the tortoise is winning the race at this point. The large scales on carp protect them from predators whereas trout have very small, delicate scales, we all know how fragile trout can be. Eyesight; we all know trout have excellent vision, including great night-vision. They can see a fly the size of a pinhead flying to them at speeds of fifteen mph or more. Carp also have excellent vision, and its one of the frustrating things you will realize while trying to stalk them. Unless they've got their head in the mud like you would a breakfast burrito , move still, very still. The other couple of extraordinary senses are hearing and sense of smell. It is IMPOSSIBLE to fish for carp in a noisy boat. One bump with an oar and every carp in the area will make a mad dash, sending off a domino effect of chaos throughout the area. This will require another length of time before the next attempt is made. Forget the sunscreen, don't leak oil, and you better wash your hands off after smoking that cigarette. Carp have exceptional sense of smell and can often tell them you're there long before your line is rigged up.

             A good rod and reel set-up is not necessary but will help. I recommend a sturdy 5/6 weight up to an 8 weight, with floating line and a 9 foot leader of 3 or 4x tippet. A good fly pattern to try is Joe Montana's Hybrid Carp Fly. This pattern can be changed up a little to suite your needs, but keep in mind black is always a good color. Avoid bright colors which may scare them off. Foam beetles, drowned hoppers, hare ears, etc all work very well. Weight IS important and highly depends on the conditions at the time. Have on hand non-weight, slightly weighted, and something heavier but not so heavy it causes a big splash. Weight comes down to the depth you're fishing, and how fast you want your fly to land on the bottom. The key is to land your fly right where the carp is headed. Forget blind casting, this is a head-hunting game. If you spot carp actively feeding in the mud, try and land your fly where you think the carp will be in a few seconds. If the monster fish is swimming but not feeding, try a slightly weighted or non-weighted fly and let it gently float at the fish's sight level. A turn of the head in your fly's direction will indicate a take, lift that rod tip up, set the hook and let the ride begin. Carp have soft lips, hook sets are easy even with smaller hooks. Just hope your rod has enough backbone to turn the fish away from cover and obstacles. It's quite a challenge even after you've landed several fish. In my book the common carp has become an icon of epic fishing. I wouldn't take any whiny kids along, forget bringing anyone without a considerable amount of patience, this is for the die-hard fly fishing enthusiast. Thanks for reading! Check below to read about my first day carping in Montana.


         My first hook up with the poor man's Bonefish was a day I will never forget. It was the day I got my butt off the couch and did a little field research on the subject of carp. I didn't know anything besides the little bit of reading I had done earlier. I packed up the raft, two fly rods, a box of flies, and my wiener dog. I knew right where I was going had carp. It was about noon, sunny and eighty-five degrees. I launched and set out across the lake. After paddling around for a little while without a clue what to do next I saw someone with a bow. She was in a bikini and had a cowboy hat on. I figured she wouldn't mind some dork in a boat with a dog coming up to her so I got out and went to ask a few questions. She said she was looking for the carp too but hadn't seen any, then pointed across to the other side of a different lake. "If I had a raft I would go over there" she said. Well, that's good enough for me. So I wished her luck and made my portage across the hundred yards of dry land.

        Soon after reaching the other side of the this lake, I paddled into a shallow cove. Immediately I noticed plumes of mud by the dozens coming up from under and around the raft. I knew exactly at that moment that I'd found them. They were darting outt left and right. I was utterly dumbfounded on what to do. It wasn't until an hour and half later that I realized casting a leech to them from the raft wasn't going to work. Frustrated and over-heated, I ditched the boat and slowly made my way to some splashing on a shallow shelf. Twenty minutes of stalking, there before me were two massive carp circling each other. One was almost black, the other smaller one was a shiny golden color. I watched and watched until I started letting the fly line fly. I hadn't learned that my little leech was too much to spook them off until they both let loose in a wild bid to escape my deadly flailing clump of black marabou. The whole situation was nothing more than muddy waves retreating across my shins and I headed back to rebuttal.
Carp flats, not always pretty

          I tied on a Blue Midge Spinner pattern I like to use for trout on the Gallatin River. It was small and would sink slowly. It was another hour that I noticed more activity near the shallow shelf. I took my shoes off in order to make less disturbances. What felt like an eternity later, wading through stinky muck up to my knees, I had several large silhouettes cruising around twenty-five feet in front of me. The sun was starting to cut my glare making them more difficult to spot. I found the biggest one was the closest to me, and after watching its behavior I started letting line out. Cutting line through the air until I had enough, I made one last motion and set the fly in front of the feeding fish. One pass after the other, my offer was denied. Finally, the big fish managed its way into a little cul de sac of heavy vegetation. This fish was so big that the top third of it's body was just sitting there out of water. I made a few false casts and landed my midge right on top of its nose, between the wall of weeds and its vacuum mouth. I could tell the fish had found something, eagerly digging where my fly slowly fell. I took a shot and set the hook. All hell broke loose. The five inches of water soon became so displaced, I'll call this carp Moses. The powerful creature pushed with its tail so hard it was nearly walking on sand. My tension kept him charging and on and on he went. I saw my backing for the first time as the rocket powered fish sailed passed one hundred feet, halfway into the main lake. My drag screaming while he went airborne, pushing until exhaustion overcame his effort. Every other carp in the area was long gone and a few minutes later I manhandled the big guy into my arms. I walked all the way back to the raft to admire him some more and give a good revive. Still strong he swam away back to the hundreds of others out there.

         It wasn't only the victory I accomplished over landing the magnificent animal but the revelation I experienced while doing so. My thoughts and preconceptions I once had were now replaced with great respect for the golden bone. Since I have managed a few more on each trip. The sheer effort involved has left me contemplating recently and I know they become more aggressive towards small streamers come fall. I may have to make a trip back before the year is over. Tight lines!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Streamer Spotlight: Mark's Muddler

         If you've been fly fishing for more than a year, then you've probably heard of the Muddler Minnow. It is a streamer pattern created back in the 30's to imitate a previous sculpin pattern. The Muddler is a very reliable streamer perfect for about any setting. The fly has been tied in many patterns and colors, usually incorporating the spun-hair head for buoyancy. Wing, tail, and body, materials may vary depending on conditions or the prey imitated. Grasshoppers, leeches, minnows, sculpins, and crayfish can all be resembled with different color and material combinations. This fantastic fly can be swung in the current, brought downstream with a fast retrieve, or slowly twitched and stripped for big numbers and big fish. Time has proven that the Muddler Minnow's design is something potent and special. Working with the basic build, many fly fisherman are fine-tuning this deadly recipe for ever changing environments. One of those fisherman is Mark.

        My friend, roommate, professional kayak fisherman, and up and coming fishing hot-shot Mark Lyon, came up with a solid variation while fishing the streams and rivers of Montana. He deems it the Mark's Muddler and its a keeper. I've used the MM a handful of times, more recently now that I have been focusing on streamer techniques. My first impression, the fly was bulky yet light, had a strong profile and abstract colors. The usual feather wing is replaced with maribou. Mark uses some silver tinsel for a bit of flash along the shank. His pattern in particular is made in olive or purple on a number six hook, but I have tied the MM with a number eight hook for smaller streams and trout. A long, ten to twelve foot leader, of straight mono will help this fly get down deep. The buoyant reindeer hair gives the fly excellent up and down action. Mark trims his Muddlers head to a bullet-like profile, rather than the traditional spherical cut; this lets the MM cut through the water better while finding the right balance in head buoyancy. Mark's Muddler is a good search fly. This pattern resembles juvenile trout or baitfish. When tied in olive and fished along the bottom it looks more like a sculpin.

Marks Muddler
               -Number 6 streamer hook
               -Small gauge lead wire
               -Black dubbing
               -Heavy black thread
               -Reindeer Hair
               -Purple or olive maribou
               -Silver tinsel

           How do you tie Mark's Muddler? Well, I don't have a video yet but I can explain in step by step directions. If you are familiar with tying the Muddler Minnow then it should be easy. Start off by adding small gauge lead wire to the entire hook shank. With some strong black thread, tie in the lead securely. With the thread hanging near the end of the hook shank, tie in some silver tinsel, then tie in a generous amount of maribou for the tail, The maribou will be trimmed, just make sure it is at least two inches long. Now, add black dubbing to your thread and wrap forward. Once you are about 1/4 the distance of the hook shank from the eye stop. Next, wrap your tinsel evenly with spaces up towards the eye. Be sure to wrap the end of the tinsel in well with thread. Take a pair of scissors and cut approximately 1 and 1/4 inches from the maribou tail, this will become the wing of the streamer. The remainder of the tail should be about 1/2 inch. Tie in the cut maribou to where your tinsel stops, with the trimmed ends to the hook. The wing should extend past the tail about 1/4 of an inch. Once your wing is secured, cut a nice little pinch of reindeer hair. There is no need to stack the hair unless you feel the desire, Tie in clumps of reindeer hair until you start to build a nice thick head. The hair will extend as far as the wing, or slightly shorter. Once two or three clumps of hair are tied into the top of the hook shank, forward of the wing, you can do a few over hand knots or whip finish either between the head and wing or behind the eye. Now it's time to trim the Mark's Muddler and give it the bullet-head profile were looking for. If the head is not a solid piece of hair, or seems thin, next time just add more hair. It can take a good amount to get the bullet-head profile correct. I do believe getting a good thick head can be the difference between this fly fishing well or not.

      There you have the first ever write-up of the Mark's Muddler. I do hope this pattern can get out there to the fishing public. I know it will help improve anyone's chances at hooking up, as this is a solid and well proven design. If your are not a dry fly only kinda guy, or want to try throwing streamers, then this pattern will bring joy to you and your rod, and its easy to tie! Get out there, tie on a Mark's Muddler, and thanks for reading! Tight lines everyone -Mike

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Video Blog: Hyalite Creek Experience, Summer 2015

       Here's a video I made of me fishing Hyalite Creek this summer. I fished two different sections. Please be sure to watch it in 480p for the best viewing experience. I would have preferred 1080p but was having issues rendering it at such quality. I hope you enjoy! -Mike