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Tim clipped the woolly bugger from the leader with his teeth.
“Let’s go with something smaller, too,” he said. “These fish are moving into shallow water for the warmth, and we want something that will land a little lighter.”
He knotted a #14 Callibaetis nymph to the 4x fluorocarbon tippet and promised the fly would hit the water lighter than a popcorn fart. I couldn’t fathom what these huge fish wanted with an earwig-size nymph, but I stripped some line from the reel and started to scan the shallows for nervous water.
Beneath the water’s dappled surface, a few stray leafless sage bushes anchored themselves amid the milfoil. Other than that, the bottom seemed as desolate as the surrounding hills.
Before construction of the earth-fill dam was completed in 1964 at the northern end of the valley, three bodies of moving water—Horse Prairie and Maurer creeks, and the Red Rock River—met here and made their way north. Today, the beds of these dead streams contour the bottom of this 5,000-acre impoundment known mostly for its fat rainbow trout, lingcod and speedboating. Downstream of the dam, one of the country’s most productive tailwater fisheries—the Beaverhead River, which boasts more than 3,000 trout per mile—begins, and, sustained by the reservoir’s cold, bottom-draw flows, courses over the heads of the fat trout that draw tourists to the otherwise sleepy Montana cow town of Dillon.
Once, while walking along the Detroit River, I saw a carp eat a cigarette butt my grandmother had flicked into the water. The fish rose like an orange zeppelin from underneath the boardwalk and tilted its barbeled mouth up toward the sky before rolling on the filter, frothing the water.
A similar disturbance frothed and shocked the shallows on Clark Canyon when I pulled tight on my first carp. As the big male felt the sting of the hook and fled south in the general direction of Monida Pass—a hundred or so yards in a matter of seconds—a dozen of its spawning mates split in the opposite direction.
“That tippet is stronger than you think,” Tim said. “Put the screws to him.”
I tightened the drag, turned the rod into a long bow at full draw, and after one more thwarted run the fish was lagging beside the boat. Tim scooped him with an old net he saved for carp, and we admired the creature’s huge keen eyes before removing the tiny nymph from the corner of its mouth.
“Go forth and multiply,” I told the fish. The fish’s schooling mates had fled in the direction of the carp-chers, and now the still air was abuzz with the whistle of arrows piercing the water.
“What do they do with them if they connect?” I asked Tim.
“I don’t know, but I’ve always wanted to eat one,” he said. “Gotta be decent. They eat the same food as the trout and ling in here, and they’re fantastic.”
“If you arrow one,” I said, “I’ll eat it.”
“Deal,” Tim said. “I’ll keep the bow at the ready. But see if you can get one of these big ones to eat that nymph.”
Quick as I could, I cleared the coils of line from the bottom of the boat and threw a cast—frankly, one of my best in the past decade—about 90 feet, the fly landing within a foot of a 15-pounder’s whiskers.
Before I could strip the line the fish was tight, thrashing at the surface before initiating its run.
“You fed him on that one,” Tim said. “Straight on. They don’t have much patience for anything they don’t come on themselves. I’ve never seen a single fish eat something stripped across their path of travel.”
“Do you think they’re eating these little nymphs all day?” I asked, cranking down on the fish. “I mean, how do they get so big? I’ve heard they eat berries, weeds, all kinds of strange stuff.”
Just then, without warning, Tim stood up in the back of the boat and, in one fluid motion, drew the string on his bow and released an arrow into the clear water.
“Oh-for-one,” he said. “Or it would have been carp sandwich for you.”
An hour or so later, back at the boat launch, the other carp-chers were nursing their failures with Natural Light.