Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trout trip

OK, I was wrong. Or maybe I was right. Perhaps it was being right by being wrong. Looking forward to our Montana fishing trip I tied up a bunch of flies hoping at least one of them would be the answer and I'd be pulling in big trout while sharing that certain fly with my companions, thus making me the hero. Past experience, however, has proven my best intentions and efforts are often for naught. It seems no matter what patterns are tied there is always some new hot fly that catches all the fish, and I don't have it. So, to put it simply: I tied flies suspecting they would be wrong, and I was right.

Our cabin was located one other cabin and three trailered drift boats away from the fly shop, so a short morning stroll for coffee and advise seemed routine. I've said it before – folks running fly shops have to make money, but they won't try it by selling you a pig-in-a-poke. They can't guarantee anything, but I've come to learn their suggestions are mighty close to fly fishing gospel. If you don't wanna' ask outright, listen for the subtle, like when we were peering over the massive fly trays and someone mentioned they were almost out of #16 Rainbow Warriors, the guy behind the counter smiled and said, “There's a reason for that.”

If there was a downside it was that the river was higher than I'd ever seen it the few other times I've fished it. There were bugs on the water, bwo's and midges, and a few caddis hatches but the trout were just not rising. It's hard to know if anyone actually knew why but the water level got the blame. Seemed reasonable. So we fished nymphs and tossed steamers.

I'm impressed with sixteen inch trout every time, but those were the exception. The trout we caught were thick and strong and we taped plenty that made the 20 inch range. A few ran an inch less, and a few were several inches more but it's the size of the fight that gets your heart thumpin' and it didn't take long to realize a 5x tippet wasn't going to cut it on those jumping Missouri River rainbows and deep pulling browns.

Days on the river with good friends; great suppers grilled outdoors; fine whiskey and stories makes for easy sleep and sweet dreams, and so another Montana trip is in the books.

Monday, May 1, 2017

going fishing

The first time I went to Montana I brought my three English setters, a shotgun, a fly rod and backpacking gear. The mission was to meet up with some friends from Wisconsin and Idaho for some early season sharptail grouse hunting. I was to drive to Culbertson to purchase a license from the hardware store then drive north watching for a roadside information sign that would have a handwritten note tacked to it with the directions to our camp location. There were no cell phones in those days, so if I didn't find the sign or note there'd be no way to contact those friends I was to meet. That's how it was done then and no one thought a thing about it – heck, it was simple, what could go wrong?

After driving to the other side of Minnesota I crossed North Dakota only stopping for gas and letting the dogs air out. Montana highways had no speed limit in those days and I spotted a half dozen white crosses along the ditch in the first few miles of that two lane Big Sky highway. Some six hundred miles from home I parked in front of the bank in Culbertson and walked over to the store. The gal selling my license invited me to some sort of round-up/festival the town was having that weekend. Sounded fun but I had other plans.

Northbound I found the sign and note, then camp and companions, and after several days of good shooting, good food, and sleeping under the stars we split up to head home. Except I didn't. I hadn't seen enough of Montana so I headed west to the Rockies for several days of backpacking with my dogs.

Good memories were made, but two events stand out from that trip. On the first day hunting I shot a true triple with a borrowed auto-loader over my pointing setter, and in the mountains I found a little alpine lake that I fished without results. On my way back out I ran into an old cowboy who liked my dogs. For some reason I confessed I'd been fishing without a Montana fishing license and he surprised me stating I didn't need one. So I'm thinking, Montana – no speed limit, legally drink a beer while driving, and no need for a fishing license! "No," the old-timer explained, “You don't need a Montana license, you're in Wyoming.”

Since that trip I've been out west a number of times, always for the fishing. I've had the pleasure of angling on a number of fine Montana trout rivers. Some were big, wide and strong and others meandered lazily through the landscape and a short cast would have your fly on the far bank. They all held trout in numbers I'd never seen.

In preparation for the first western fly fishing trip, I did a minimal amount of research and concluded the elk hair caddis was the dry fly to have. So I tied a box full and another box with an assortment of standard nymphs and hoped I wouldn't wear out my net the first day. It was the biggest case of over-confidence since Custer stood at Little Big Horn and told his troops not to take any prisoners.

It turned out I was sort of on the right track with the caddis flies, but it took helpful folk at a friendly fly shop to steer me to the correct species of caddis. That's when I started catching fish and realized it's not only OK to seek some advise, it's a darn good idea. I tie flies for every trip and sometimes have a few of the right ones, but don't rely on this years flies to work on next years fish. There was the time on a spring blue-wing-olive hatch that I caught fish on a #20 imitation with a white post wing. So I tied a bunch for the next year but the fish wouldn't touch 'em. The fly shop guys showed me what was working so naturally I bought some and caught trout with their #20 bwo tied with a black wing. Hhhmmm, go figure.

This time next week the boys and I will be trout fishing in Montana. Road tripping with a couple of driftboats in tow, our cabin is waiting and I'm looking forward to it. I'm tying some flies for the trip – drys, emergers, nymphs, midges, etc. I'll go down to size 20 but between fat rough fingers and tired eyesight they never turn out all that well so it's likely some money will be exchanged at the fly shop. Still, I have to believe some of my stuff will work, it always has. I actually have quite a few flies left over from past trips so I probably don't need many more, but there's inspiration that comes from the tying along with picturing one of those flies lodged in the corner of a 20-incher's mouth.

I can't wait.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Happy Easter

OK, it's spring and there's a lot to like about these springtime early mornings. I'm sipping hot coffee and watching impatient robins hopping about the frosty yard searching out a daybreak meal. Sure, the early bird gets the worm and I'm no expert but my guess is the worms will stay tucked a little deep until the sun knocks the frost from the grass. Still, the robins sing a happy song and seem confident breakfast is on the way. The winter birds have left, though there's always a few resident chickadees around. A flock of juncos are busy under the feeder and a few purple finches stopped by this morning.

We're enjoying a normal spring this year and it's a welcome change from last year when it felt like winter lasted right up to summer. Bright colored mallards sit in water filled ditches and beautiful wood ducks are checking brushy streams and backwoods ponds. Grouse are drumming all day long and it's hard to stay indoors in such inviting weather.

Gabby has been finding grouse and woodcock in good cover daily. I like spring training – it's like October hunting but there's nobody else out there and I don't have to fret over my poor shooting.

Folks who hunt and train bird dogs live for this kind of spring. Like the trout fisherman who watches the stream open up and settle after the snow-melt, bird dog folks see the snow disappear from favorite covers and turn dogs loose to find returning woodcock and surviving grouse. If there's something better for a young bird dog than spring exposure to wild birds I don't know what it is.

Pencil popple, dog hair aspen – call it what you will – it stirs the soul with a promise of birds after a long winter, and if those thickets go unnoticed by most, all the better. The best of it won't last long so we enjoy it while we can. The grouse and woodcock will be nesting soon, and we'll leave them alone then. But stream trout season opened yesterday, so things should be fine. 
As always, I'm grateful to be living where and how I do. I don't, and won't argue politics or religion with anyone, but it surprises me to hear folks claim not to believe in much of anything other than what's in their immediate grasp. They obviously haven't seen the things I've seen.

Happy Easter.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A full day

There's always that ting of anxiousness when you make that last turn down to the trailhead leading to the river. It's the middle of the week so you don't expect too many vehicles to be crammed into the small parking area, at least you hope not, but you never know. It's a beautiful spring morning and word is the steelhead have been running for over a week.

I'd heard the weekend crowds were pretty heavy so I was pretty happy to see only two vehicles parked in the lot. It was nearing late morning when I got there so some of the earlybirds had probably come and gone. I was pulling on my waders when another truck pulled up and the lone angler came over to say hello and greet Gabby, who was running around checking things out. He'd been a couple miles downstream that morning and though he wasn't giving up, he'd had no action and figured the run was about over. He said he was going to check a hole downriver and I was quietly relieved he wasn't going the same way I was. Well then, I told him, I'd go up the other way.

I hiked in and looked down the steep bank at a favorite run I like to fish and was a little surprised no one was in it. After a clumsy clamor down the hill I stepped into the river between  the snow and ice still hanging on the bank and used a walking stick I remembered to bring for a wading staff. I had to get out in the river a little ways to clear the overhang stream-side brush and I don't dance around those slick rocks as well as I used to so the stick was welcome in the steady current. It hung off my wading belt by a cord while I fished.

A size 14 prince nymph was my choice under a single split shot and and indicator set at about six feet. This rig has worked before for this sort of fishing where the casting is basically slinging it upstream and watch it go by. Slowly working my way upstream I had my eye on a promising hole ahead. The rig seemed to be right, ticking bottom and now and then hanging up. I broke off a couple of nymphs trying to pull free and twice I got lazy and tweaked a hook that straightened on snags.

Other than enjoying the sunny day listening to the river and the grouse drumming up in the woods there wasn't much happening and I was thinking about hiking up to another spot. Then it struck! I didn't need an indicator to tell me a fish was on – the line darted sideways and the rod jerked to the steelhead barreling downstream! Fish on! Game on! There's nothing like the thump and tug and when it cleared the water I suddenly wished someone was watching. After some fun minutes I was gaining line and the fish was coming closer – and that's when I realized I'd left my net in the truck. Well, I'd hand land it out in the river, have a look and let it go. I got it to about a rod length away when it pulled deep and was gone. The hook broke. The one I'd bent back with my hemostats. Good going, dummy. Standing in a river feeling like an idiot.

The second steelhead came 30 minutes later, smaller than the first but strong and bright. When it tired I grabbed it's tail and held it up for a look. Without a net to hold it I couldn't mess with the camera, so I lowered it to the river leaving me with just a story. By then I needed to get out of the water and warm up a bit so I hiked back to the truck to see Gabby and get my net. The fellow who came in after me was gone but there were a few other vehicles there. I'd planned to run Gabby on some spring woodcock on the way home, but there was still some time to fish.

I'd already hooked two fish and short of falling in the river there wasn't much that could go wrong with the day, so with net hanging on my back I headed the other way and half slid down the hill into the river to try another promising spot. I tied on a #12 gold marten nymph just to try something different and before long was into a fish. It figures, ready with net and camera for a hero shot of a big steelhead, the third and last fish of the day was a tiny resident trout that hardly covered my palm. Still, catching fish is better than not catching and Gabby found a couple of woodcock and a grouse in some cover on the way north to top off a satisfying full day.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

waitin' for spring, thinkin' of summer

Yep, it's cold again. Everything is frozen, more snow came and general conditions have added another verse to everyone's version of the late winter blues. This steady teetering between spring fever and cabin fever is making us all nuts. Reading about and seeing photos of anglers in other parts of the country standing in picturesque streams catching trout compounds the ailing.

Gabby and I took a hike into John's creek the other day for a change of scenery, and, mainly, because I've had a hankering to lay my eyes on some flowing water. There was some flowing water, all right, but not a lot, it's just starting to open up. John's creek is a tough little stream to get to and the brook trout that live there don't attract much attention. There is no trail along it's banks and I've never seen the tell-tales signs of anyone ever being there – no broken styrofoam worm cups, no tangled monofilament in overhanging branches, no candy wrappers or beer cans. There's an old deer stand perched on the pine knob about halfway there but when the terrain starts dropping toward the creek you have to push through a maze of balsams, willows, and alders before you finally hear the trickling of water. It's probable other anglers get there (I can't be the only one, can I?) but not the type to leave any trace of their travels, thank you. Over the years I've made several half hearted attempts at chopping out a trail but yearly blowdowns and new growth frustrated my efforts to the point that now I just bushwack in by the path of least resistance. Don't have a net hanging on your back (you won't need one, anyway) and keep your rod in the tube until you're sitting on a rock looking at the creek. You won't need waders but sturdy hiking boots are a good idea.

When you get there you'll wonder how to cast. Well, you don't. This is a brush lined backwoods little creek with no room for a backcast and not much for a forward cast. I mean, if you position yourself in the right place a very short roll cast is possible but mostly you'll fish this by flipping a weighted nymph into pockets nearly under your feet, though sometimes a quick drift with a dry fly will bring a wild brookie darting up to grab it whether there are bugs on the water or not. The season opens mid April but the creek will likely be high over its banks then, high and muddy, and the best times to catch steam trout around here seem to start when the blackflies and mosquitoes come out in force.

John's creek may be known, but it's seldom visited – it's hard to get to, tough to fish, and the reward might be just getting back to the car. Besides, no one should soak themselves in Deet that often. I'll fish John's maybe twice a summer when I can't stand not being trout fishing and feel like doing something a little bit rugged while I still can. More than once I wonder why I bother, knowing there's easier fishing elsewhere, but one of those times I'll carry a tight little pack with a campstove and pan and fry up a couple of trout in butter right on the spot 'cause sometimes ya just gotta eat 'em, and it will be fine. No, I won't build a fire and if anyone comes in behind me they'll never know I was there.

Monday, March 6, 2017


Often this time of year the days warm to above freezing and drop at night to create a crust on the snow that can hold the weight of a hiker or skier and I've had a lot of fun mornings skijouring with the dogs. It usually has to be early morning, because the couple inches of crust weakens during the day and you'll be out there slogging knee deep if you're late. I broke a ski once when I didn't get off the snow in time, but it's been a little different this late winter.

After several days of thawing temps that softened the snow and gave us all spring fever, it turned cold, real cold, twenty below zero. Two days of that and a light dusting of new snow created a condition the outdoor industry should have promoted. A week ago you could hike all day through the woods on two feet of snow frozen almost rock hard. Open meadows and fields on XC skis were effortless – better than the groomed trails – and four miles of uninterrupted power line right-of-way made for eight miles of easy recreation. It's a rare opportunity to enjoy the outdoors that many miss out on, and it doesn't last long.

I couldn't resist a hike north towards the lake so I turned the dogs loose and we were off. Easy walking on the hard snow between trees and around thickets, climbing the hills and crossing the swamp while the dogs raced ahead. The fresh snow revealed movement of wildlife only hours, or perhaps minutes, old. Even the deer could run on the hard surface. Two grouse flushed when we approached but were gone before Gabby had a chance to point. Here and there a fox had hunted the mice and snowshoe hares that left their prints everywhere. A weasel had searched edges of the ash swamp. On the hill overlooking the lake I found a stand of young Norway pines that had suffered the work of porcupines. A dozen or more six inch pines stripped of bark.

Those of us who run bird dogs have no love of porcupines but more concerning to me were the wolf tracks we came upon. Wolves are not uncommon and it's not a surprise to hear or see them occasionally, but I felt a little uneasy with the two setters running among wolf tracks that were not very old and I instantly thought of the pistol I'd left at home. We're in the woods a lot and I don't generally worry much about the wolves nor have I ever had trouble with them, but I'm not looking for the first time, either. I turned the dogs around and we headed back.

That was last week. This morning it is near 40 degrees and raining. The snow is turning to mush, the driveway is turning to slush. It's a messy time of year. The good news is there are steelhead starting in to the Brule River, and they're catching a few kamloops and cohos off the north shore of Lake Superior. It's not that far away, I think I'll rig up a rod.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Rocks and fly fishing, especially warm water fly fishing, go together like... well, you know the analogies. If there's something more fun than casting poppers and divers to a rocky shoreline populated with healthy bass, I don't know what it is. Sometimes, however, we gotta work the weeds. Particularly in late summer when the milfoil and coontail and the rest of that underwater vegetation reaches up to the surface. The same bay that was such springtime fun now clogs the trolling motor and the only way to really get to it is by paddle power. The fish are there but when each cast brings in a wad of weeds it starts to lose a lot of the fun. Then there's that pond full of lily pads. Plenty of bass and bluegills for excitement, but you only cast to the bigger openings of which are too few. A lot of water gets missed. And how about those log jams and wood filled shallows that grab even the most buoyant top-water fly?

I don't tie many weedless flies. Nobody seems to like them and there's probably a reason. Weed-guards get in the way of the hook, and thus, the hook-up. And a guard over the hook doesn't mean it will never grab some cabbage. That thing has to be stiff enough to cause the fly to ride up over some green stuff and logs but flex enough to collapse when struck by a fish and it won't be right every time. Until now I think I've had two weedless deer hair bass bugs in my box. I may have cut the guard off one I'd have to look but I know there are times when I miss the target and wish I was casting a weedless fly.

It's good to have a few so I'm tying a few. Nothing fancy and I'll likely be satisfied with a couple of foam blockheads with added mono weed-guards. Start with a green flip-flop and utility scissors and go from there. They're easy to tie and as much as I enjoy tying and fishing deer hair, those blockheads are as productive as anything. So this summer I'll be testing a weedless frog in the thick stuff. For the guard I used two strands of 20# mono lashed to each side of the hook and curved around and pulled right through the head with a needle. When the length seemed about right I pulled them up a little more, snipped 'em off and added a drop of glue before easing them back down so the ends disappear into the head. Easy to do and should work, right? It's so easy someone else is probably doing it already. I hope they're doing well.




Sunday, February 12, 2017

winter fish rambling...

Trout get all the attention, all the consideration and favorable regard, at least when you're in the midst of a group of fly fishers. I suppose it's understandable as I assume the act of sport angling was initiated by a fellow who thought it would be more fun to fool the trout in a stream with a rod, a length of silk line and an imitation of what those trout were eating rather than dragging them out in a net.
That angler was probably something of the white-collar class of the day and just as probably pretty well fed without relying on eating what he caught, though returning home with a mess of trout was certainly something to boast about and enjoy for dinner. If he really needed the food he may have used different methods. I wonder what would have happened if the spinning reel had came first.
Wild colorful trout are as pretty as can be and I'm not particular about the species. I've caught hefty brown trout that I believed, at the time, were the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. Then there were stout and strong rainbows that took me into the backing and when (and if) they were finally landed it felt like being accepted into some sort of fly fisherman's nirvana. I've also stooped in a tiny stream wondering why my photos never do justice to the gorgeous little brook trout that innocently and bravely grab a fly.

Once, after a half-days drive to a driftless area trout stream, I was stringing up my rod when a Dept. of Natural Resources truck pulled up. A fisheries tech with a clipboard hopped out and of the few questions asked one was to rank, on a scale of one to five, the importance of brook, brown, and rainbow trout. I gave 'em all a five – was there any other acceptable answer?
Yeah, I do like trout fishing and even though growing up near some fine trout water and using a fly rod, I saved for the day I could buy an ultra-light spinning outfit like everyone else was using. Opening day was mostly like a colossal tailgate party. There were old Willys jeeps and broncos fording the river; dirt bikes racing up and down and on and off the two-track near the water; camps set up with volleyball nets, gas grills, stereos, and beer kegs; families sitting in webbed lawn chairs along the banks dangling nightcrawlers under everything from canepoles to ugly sticks and trying to keep the dog away from the bucket of chicken. The sportiest of all were wearing Red Ball waders and skillfully flipping #0 Mepps spinners from little Shakespeare reels. Now and then someone would hook a trout and whoops could be heard up and down the river.

Going back on opening day years later – shortly after “the movie” came out – and it was all fly fishing then. Looking each way from the bridge all I could see were yellow and orange fly lines flinging through the air. I'm not sure if it was better, but at least there were less motorized vehicles running around and participants seemed to be more focused on the fishing and less on the other crap. Of course, it was a cold, rainy day so that might have had something to do with it. Now and then someone would hook a trout and whoops could be heard up and down the river.

The trouble is, where I live there's a lot of neat water to pass to get to most trout streams – water that is home to bass, northern pike, muskies, walleyes and tasty panfish – so it's not really trouble and it's pretty easy to rig up for some of the warm-water fly fishing only minutes from home. Even at that, mentioning to one of the locals that I'm going fly fishing they're likely to assume I'm going after trout. Sure, the trout are hard to beat in the beauty department but those bass and pike are a lot of fun and look pretty darn good to me.

There's a lake 20 minutes from here that's big, full of structure, known for its walleye fishing but has also developed a reputation as a bass and musky destination. I know folks fly fish it for both, at least I've heard they do, though I've never actually seen any other fly anglers when I've been out there. Last spring while in my boat tossing deer hair bass bugs along a rocky shoreline a boatload of walleye anglers cut their engine just outside the bay I was in and sat watching me cast for ten minutes. Another day on another part of that same lake I cast my way around a point and came into view of a group of people outside their summer home to hear one of them exclaim, “look, that guy is fly fishing!” – so, apparently fly angling is not all that commonly seen.

Around here, when the uninitiated hear about landing a musky on a fly rod they think it's really something. Fly rods still carry the stigma of whippy little wands used for little trout on little streams. Landing a musky on the fly IS something, but it's a combination of good things that come together at the right time. Still, rather than trying to explain the difference between a 4 weight and a 10 weight to someone who insists the heavier the lure the farther you can toss it, enjoy a bit of bragging rights and let 'em think what they want.
An acquaintance seemed interested so I showed him some flies. He held up one of my largest 6/0 musky creations and liked the looks but informed me it was way too lightweight to cast. I didn't show him the trout flies.
It will be a while before there's any fly fishing around here. We're still driving pickup trucks on frozen lakes, skiing on several feet of snow, and trying to get some firewood put up. The days are getting longer, though, and there are some open trout streams a couple hundred miles south, so, you never know.