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 advice, 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.