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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.