The storm clouds have built all morning along a ridge of pressure to the northwest, and they've finally begun to hunt us down. We're rocking a bit now, riding waves pushed by the steadily building wind, but the 26-foot aluminum lake cruiser rolls with the punches like a champ. I turn my attention to the skipper's chair, where Pat Campanella looks at the rain machine-gunning the surface of Flathead Lake, and then back at me.
"I'm not too worried about this stuff yet," he says. "You want to keep fishing? You never know. Sometimes a little commotion up top can get the bite going good."
The bite. It's a term shared by just about all fishermen, and it boils fishing conditions down to their naked essentials: whether the fish, in this place and at this time, are eating or not.
I walk out on the rear deck and survey the half-dozen fishing rods twisting akimbo over the stern like busted fingers. I can see the photo now: Against a background bled of all color by the wrath of the storm, I hold the behemoth in both arms, straining to contain its massive girth. The look in my eyes, which lock the camera lens under a brim dripping rain and lake water, is one of triumph and redemption, powered by the dawning certainty that no one in Montana's history had ever subdued a leviathan such as this.
Hell yes, we're going to keep fishing. I need the bite.
The laughter coming from the other end of the phone is not quite ominous—it's mixed with too much pity and disbelief to hold a hard edge—but it sends a cold bolt through my guts nonetheless. This is a public servant, after all, a guy ostensibly committed to the common cause of society in general and, given his position as a fish biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to the cause of fish-chasers in particular.
And here I am, a natural-born fish-chaser drawing nigh on the most audacious piscine mission of my life, and Ladd Knotek's bone-chiller of a laugh is telling me all I need to know about my chances of success.
"Trying to catch a state record fish on any given day, well, it makes the guy looking for a needle in a haystack look pretty good by comparison," he says after finally, I can only presume, wiping the tears from his face.
The thing that makes Knotek's laugh truly annoying is that I know he's right. I've been fishing the western part of the state as hard as I can for the better part of 20 years and haven't come close to even hooking a state record, let alone bringing one to hand. That the self-imposed conditions of my task include a two-day window in which to subdue the ultimate trophy does precious little to improve my odds, but make no mistake: While the physical goal of my quest is a fish that will land me in the state annals, what I'm really trying to catch here is lightning in a bottle.
The first question is which species to target. Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) lists records for 61 fish in Montana, ranging in size from a minnow called an emerald shiner weighing .01 pounds to a paddlefish tipping the scales at 142.5 pounds. I decide to rule out non-game species, as any such victory would be a hollow one (Do you suppose the owner of the emerald shiner record ever got laid—or even a free beer—for his trouble? Me neither). Twenty-nine of the listed record species are native to the state; being a non-native myself (though one who has burrowed in with the hardiest of invasives), I reckon I'll stick to my kind. And to simplify things even further, I narrow my reach to the species that brought me to Montana in the first place: trout.
So this is how I find myself on Flathead Lake on a recent morning, dreams of glory sloshing around my rain-addled head. The state record lake trout—a 42.5-inch, nearly 43-pound brute—was landed here five years ago by Ruth Barber, a 77-year-old woman deep-trolling a lure known as a flatfish. Adjusting our rigs—you can bet the flatfish is represented here, though we're sadly lacking in grandma mojo—as we move from relatively shallow (60 feet) to relatively deep (120 feet) water, Pat tells me about two clients he had in June, a father and son who managed to hook a laker that surely would have set a new record.
"If you've seen enough 50-pound fish, you know what they are," he says, noting his extensive experience with the massive king salmon of Alaska. "This fish was pushing 50 pounds."
But as Pat prepared to net the beast, the dad handed the rod off to his 7-year-old, who was quickly overpowered by the creature.
"Like anybody, I really would like to break the record," says Pat, the pained look in his eyes making it clear he did not approve of patriarchal gallantry when so much was at stake. I had found Pat on a random search of Flathead Lake charter captains, but I think I'm on the right boat.
The right boat is one thing, of course; the right time and place is another one entirely. As it turns out, neither the captain's tolerance for discomfort nor mine extends to holding 8-foot lightning rods in an electrical storm and, after getting pushed off the lake by late morning lightning (and me, with no bottle in hand), we return for an afternoon jaunt that is as fruitless as it is pleasant. Day One score: two lake trout, the heaviest of which weighs three pounds.
"Let that one hunt, Nick!" says Tim Linehan as he watches my big foam bug drift perfectly along the surface of a seam that screams "big trout." It's early in the morning the day after my Flathead Lake debacle and I'm feeling charged up despite the recent beat-down. Tim's my ace in the hole, an old buddy who runs a first-class outfitting operation in the Yaak Valley. His bread-and-butter water for fishing clients is the Kootenai River near Libby, which also happens to be the exact location of the state record rainbow trout catch—a 33-pound monster landed just below the Libby Dam in 1997.
We're in one of Tim's driftboats, floating just downstream of the massive edifice that gives this river so much of its character. As Tim notes, the average-size trout here is actually a bit smaller than its brethren in some of western Montana's more famous rivers, but the Kootenai shelters some of the biggest rainbow and bull trout in the state.
Under Tim's watchful eye I had run a big streamer deep through some choice runs below the dam, and though I hadn't landed anything of consequence, I did have a humongous shadow detach itself from a submerged boulder and make a brief but unrequited run at my fly.
I'm feeling good. I'm a fly-fisherman at heart, and in my quiver is an array of rods and setups that will allow me to deploy any method necessary to hunt down a potential history-maker. There's a 9-foot, 5-weight spooled with a floating line for dry-fly fishing, an 11-foot "switch" rod (one that can be cast with either one or two hands) for subsurface nymphing, and finally the big artillery: a 9-foot, 6-weight Howitzer of a rod rigged with a 15-foot sink-tip line for fishing streamers. This last one is my best hope for hooking and subduing a record-class fish, as the weighted front end of the line is designed to put the fly (usually a large baitfish imitation) in deep water where the truly wild things are.
To be honest, I'm still jacked up about the events of early that morning. After staying at one of the Linehans' well-appointed cabins up the Yaak the night before, I'd been heading toward Libby not long after sunrise. Coming down a gentle slope toward a creek bottom, I saw a tan flash on the left side of the road and immediately thought "deer" because of its size and color. Almost as immediately, I realized how wrong I was because the animal moved unlike any hoofed creature alive. In a flash the mountain lion loped across the road in two easy, impossibly smooth strides, towing a flowing tail that must have stretched four feet.
After the euphoria subsided I found myself emboldened in a big way. I wouldn't call myself superstitious, but how could you not feel a bit of extra juju, being on a mission such as mine and having witnessed what I just had? Wasn't there a moment there when the big cat turned its head slightly, throwing my way a fraternal nod that validated our respective positions as apex predators free to toy with the rest of the food chain as we saw fit? Yes, I think there was.
After the first couple of hours on the Kootenai, though, I've begun to realize that my brush with predatory nature was not a sign from above that I possess feral powers or, for that matter, any luck. In short, Mother Nature is kicking my ass. Many fishermen feel that significant weather changes—marked by large barometric swings, which we'd seen in spades over the past couple of days—put fish off the bite until they adjust to the new conditions, and that seems to be what's happening. After a stretch of mostly fruitless fishing, Tim ties a small, weighted nymph a couple feet below my dry fly and we still can't raise any fish—not even small ones, the kind you normally can't keep off a setup like this.
'That's telling, pal," Tim says. "The dinks should be hammering that thing. They're tight today."
By mid-afternoon I do manage to boat a couple of those dinks, along with a pair of stunning Kootenai rainbows in the 15-inch range. And near the end of the day, just a short stretch from the takeout, I get one last shot at glory.
We're in a long mini-rapid pocked with huge boulders, and Tim back-rows furiously to keep me in position as long as possible. The turbulence-encased eddies behind these rocks are notorious big-fish hangouts, and I'm slinging the sink-tip left and right, ripping a huge streamer through every eddy I can reach. From the underside of one of those boulders emerges a huge, dark form that lunges at the fly before turning on a frying-pan sized tail and disappearing back into the depths. It could probably eat every fish I've landed over the past two days for breakfast, and still have room for more.
Was it a rainbow? A bull trout? A state record of either species? I'll never know. And neither, unfortunately, will FWP prophet Ladd Knotek.
Record-seeking or not, you can have a fine time fishing with our guides.
• A Able Fishing Charters and Tours, for trips on Flathead Lake. Call 406-844-0888, or go to www.aablefishing.com.
• Linehan Outfitting Co., leading trips in northwest Montana and beyond. Call 406-295-4872 or 800-596-0034 (toll free) or go to www.fishmontana.com.