Fishing on the Fly 


There are, with some mutations, two kinds of fly-fishermen: those who find, at some level, a spiritual resonance in the excruciatingly Zen pursuit of convincing pea-brained but aquaworldly-wise fish to whom a clump of feathers on a hook is actually a lush meal; and those who wish to purchase, via thousand-dollar rods, get-ups and guided excursions, a hobby lodged firmly atop the recreational status scale. If you live year-round in Western Montana, chances are you are not of the latter ilk. And it's not that this ilk possesses no redeeming qualities; enduring well-heeled sportsmen is preferable to leaching minerals out of the soil and denuding forests as an economic platform, and someone's got to put food on the tables of the area's hard-working fishing guides and flyshop employees.

Furthermore, those who fish armed with every possible trapping can provide valuable insights in how not to go about the whole process, for the very nature of fly-fishing heaps bushels of practical and ethical rewards on those who practice minimalism in their approach. The simple fact of the matter is that most of the crap you see stuck to or hanging off the average MacLean wannabe is completely superfluous most of the time.

I'm talking here about multi-vented, triple-stitched wading boots; the aforementioned spendy magic wand; five-millimeter neoprene body stockings; slick brushpopper shirts in all the right earth tones; khaki vests with twenty-seven zippered and velcroed pockets, all of them bulging with a retail shelf's worth of the tools of the trade and pierced by retractable fobs dangling forceps, nippers, nets, floatant, etc. like so many Christmas ornaments. And, of course, a new, wide-brimmed felt hat that begs for its wearer to be recognized as an able, ruggedly stylish outdoorsman.

Sure, there is a time and a place where each of these items proves to be a handy, if rarely vital, tool for the vast array of jobs a fly-fisherman must tackle on the road to success. A good pair of waders, for example, is a must for early- and late-season immersion in waters cold enough to deep-freeze whatever delicate organs the fisherman (or woman) happen to possess. A rod with a four-digit price tag will probably allow you to cast a bit farther and with a tad more precision. All the better-mousetrap trinkets usually do perform some sort of specialized function. And even the ubiquitous hat has more than likely spared a goodly chunk of soft white scalp from the ravages of a harsh sun. But to have all those accouterments, all the time, is akin to firing up a word processor every time you write a grocery list. A fly-fisherman does not need to impersonate a walking fly shop to catch fish, even though most of the images in fishing magazines and catalogs-which primarily exist to create gear-envy in their high-end readers-would leave you to believe the opposite.

So rail against those who would make this truly egalitarian pursuit into a showcase of high-falutin' clothes and gear. In the months after the spring runoff and before late autumn's bone-chilling nights, do not wear waders. Find an old pair of river sandals and glue felt bottoms on them. Don a pair of rivers shorts or cutoff jeans and a T-shirt. Put a broken-in baseball cap on your head.

Everything you need for a day's fishing, save the rod itself (and a good high-performance composite rod from a lesser-name company can be had at a fraction of the cost of the big-name jobbers)-a fly box or two, nippers, needlenose pliers, tippet material, floatant, weights, reel-will fit into a fanny pack.

Rock Creek is nationally-known for its bountiful supply of both beauty and fish. The creek lies less than 30 minutes east of Missoula.

You're streamlined now, a model of stripped efficiency. You may incur a few scratches on your legs, and you need to be careful of your exposed feet when picking through the streambed rocks, but the pleasure of having constant skin contact with the water, of becoming part of the living river, is immense. If a nice, easy run presents itself on a hot day, fish the thing and then cast aside your rod and gear and dive in; hold onto a rock at the bottom and look upstream through the sun-streaked currents for the food that continually washes by your quarry.

And even on such a day, if the fish are dormant and unwilling to go for your best offerings, if the number of shrubs you've caught is equaled only by the snarls you've patiently worked out of your leader, even on such a dismal fish day, your fishing trip will reward you with glorious contentment as you pass by, cool and refreshed, a likewise-fishless, multi-thousand-dollar sap sweating his ass off beneath a 30-lb. vest and suffocating waders.

The Sweet Spots

Although the recent cold weather has slowed some of the early runoff, chances are, by the time you read this, local rivers will be at or very near their full-blown cleansing cycle. It is a difficult time for fly-fishermen, when roiling brown waters threaten to nullify the primal urge to fish. It is a time that calls for perseverance and resiliency. Starting the third Saturday in May, when the general season opens, some of the tributaries that feed the bigger veins of water will be clear enough to fish reasonably well. It's a great chance to explore some new territory, and the fishing in those little creeks can be fantastic. Trying to horse an 18-inch cutthroat from a hole is an experience no fisherman is likely to forget. Funny thing is, though, I do forget where that happened.

If it's bigger water you want, and you don't have the time or the means to fish tailwater rivers like the Missouri or Beaverhead, you may have to settle for a static body of water. Harper's Lake, out by Clearwater Junction, is pumped with hatchery brood stock throughout April and May. If the whole trout-farm thing doesn't bother you, a shot at an 8-15 lb. rainbow is fairly common here.

There are some good opportunities for bass at Ninepipe and, gadget be damned, fighting a fat bass while in a float tube is like getting walked by a pet seahorse. Salmon Lake and the Flathead River north of Flathead Lake are where the big, bad northern pike dwell-they of the prehistoric, toothy grin. Steel tippets and chain-link waders recommended.

Some local outfitters say that the Bitterroot is your best shot for brown and rainbow trout, no matter what time of year.

As the runoff fades in mid to late June, Rock Creek is one of the first major fisheries to clear. That's major with a capital M, as the Creek remains one of the best trout rivers anywhere. If conditions are right, salmonflies will rise from the bushes like hordes of locusts and put a sparkle in the eye of fish and fisherman alike. Check in with Doug Persico at the Rock Creek Mercantile for info; he's yet to steer me wrong. And if you solicit his advice, buy some of his flies. The Bitterroot clears next, especially in the upper sections, and the name of that game is float trips and matching the hatch. The finicky Bitterroot trout will sniff at your Golden Stones and Yellow Sallys more often than not, but the times you can crack their code makes up for their humbling disdain.

July through September bring a steady stream of hatches, beginning with PMDs (pale morning duns) and moving on to blue-winged olives on all the principal waterways. The Clark Fork west of town is a prime later-season fishery, with football-shaped rainbows slurping surface flies as if they were delicate hors-d'oeuvres.

And if you do it right, the trout will be the only ones in your fishing party eating fancy appetizers. Leave the fly-fishing pretense to those who wish to purchase it. Take on your rivers with as little a shell as possible.

Hook, Line & Sinker

Fly's not your style? Take an angler's advice on the ways of old-fashioned bait fishing


With the recent explosion in the popularity of fly-fishing, letting on that you do your angling with a metal spoon or a worm on a hook often garners dirty looks from the growing crowd of uppity fishermen. People are now watching movies and reading books that tell them fly-fishing is so cool that the only way to be seen within a hundred yards of a fish is in the middle of a stream wearing hip waders with a yellow fly line wisping gracefully overhead.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with fly-fishing. It just seems that many anglers are forgetting that the more traditional means of fishing also possess a rich culture and are just as fun and productive. And since Hollywood doesn't seem too eager to make any heartwarming dramas about bait fishing, allow me to rejuvenate your interest in fishing the way the rest of us do it.

Our Scaly Brethren

The obvious objective when fishing is, of course, the fish (though some would argue that beer-drinking, telling dirty jokes, and lying about prior fishing experiences are all pursuits of primary importance), and the waters of western Montana offer a variety of species for anglers to pursue.

The centerpiece of this ichthyological smorgasbord is the trout. Relatives of the salmon, trout are true Montana natives with seven species residing within our state's borders. Rainbow, brook, and brown trout dominate the scene while lake trout are most frequently found in larger fisheries like Flathead Lake. Two species, the cutthroat and the bull trout are listed as Species of Special Concern by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and must be released, lest the fish gods doom you to nibble on cheese flavored marshmallows for eternity in the big fishing hole in the sky.

While in the company of fly-fishermen you'll likely hear talk of trout and little else, but for the rest of us the list goes on. Many of western Montana's lakes are chock-full of kokanee salmon. Kokanee are a favorite of many fishermen because of liberal limits, not to mention the fact that they're quite tasty smoked or baked. Kokanee are harder to hook than trout because they don't take the bait as aggressively, but an experienced angler in the right spot could easily bring home 50 or more fish in a single day.

The northern pike, meanwhile, is a fish that sparks some controversy. Depending upon who you ask, it's either a godsend or a minion of the devil. Based on appearances alone, I'd have to vote for the latter. A goofy looking specimen, the pike is most easily recognizable by its duckbill-shaped mouth harboring about a bazillion razor-sharp teeth. As you may have guessed, the pike is not a native fish. It was probably introduced to local waters by some sneaky fisherman who wasn't satisfied with the local fare. Unfortunately, much to the detriment of his native brethren, the pike has quite a chip on his shoulder, munching on anybody that will fit in his mouth. In recent years, Fish, Wildlife and Parks has take some steps to try to curb the pike population by increasing limits and opening certain waters to spearing. But for the time being, the debate continues. Proponents of pike say they're better tasting and more fun to catch than trout; conservationists describe the pike as the Slobodan Milosevic of the fish world.

Displaying the bounty of a lake in the Great Burn Wilderness, local fisherman Dillon Rincker enjoys catching his own dinner. With hundreds of rivers, streams and high-alpine lakes, western Montana offers a bit of everything for the angler. br>

Completing the menagerie of the area's most popular game fish are the yellow perch and largemouth bass, both of which are common tenants in lakes throughout northwestern Montana. Bass provide a challenge for any angler while the small but hardy perch is plentiful and usually fried up en masse.

The Tackle Box

"Hmmm. Looks pretty tasty. You'd eat that if you were a fish, wouldn't you?" My friend held up a plastic minnow covered with razor-sharp hooks.

"Yeah," I said.

"Pike love it," he said excitedly. "Sometimes I think they just bite it because it pisses them off." He simulated the action of the pike's mouth with his own and dropped the lure back in his tackle box.

The tackle box is the fisherman's altar, the shrine where he collects the various trinkets and artifacts that are sacred to his religion. Every rusty hook has a story. Just as the fly fisherman can reflect on his favorite fly, the spin fisherman can gaze with fond remembrance upon the gnarled balls of monofilament line and tangled clumps of metal lures. A jar of salmon eggs purchased in 1972 still has a special place in the bottom of a bait fisherman's tackle box.

Visit any sporting goods store, and one is overwhelmed by the volume and variety of tackle and accessories on the walls. Varieties of fishing line alone make up an entire section. Umpteen types of bobbers. An unfathomable number of dangerous-looking hooks. Metal spoons, rubber worms, Rapalas, sinkers, spinners, jigs, Swedish Pimples, maggots, nightcrawlers, minnows, flavored marshmallows, leeches, little frogs pickled in formaldehyde. Good grief! What could a person possible do with all this crap?

The answer is simple. Use it to fill the biggest tackle box you can find. Not that this is a cut-and-dried decision, mind you. Tackle boxes range in size from little shoe box-sized kiddie models to behemoths larger than a mechanic's tool chest. Then you've got the styles to choose from: single-lid, top opening, double-lid, top-opening; side-opening; lift-out trays; pull-out trays; there are even a couple of models that double as a stool to sit on. Come to think of it, you may as well get a couple.

By now you're thinking, "So I've got this giant tackle box that just barely manages to contain this pointy, tangled mess. How would I ever know what to use?"

This is where fishing gets tricky. Hardcore anglers will spend days if not weeks trying different offerings to entice the lunker onto their hooks. My father always taught me to cut open a fish's stomach when cleaning it to see what it had been eating, often making the observation that it would usually be full of "corn and cigarette butts." For those lacking time or an interest in dissection, the simpler solution is to ask someone who's been catching fish what they've been using. My pike-impersonating friend once told me, "I don't fish, I catch."

There are of course some general guidelines one could use to test the water, so to speak. Trout are definitely fond of Meps-type spinners, brass and silver spoons and the occasional Daredevle. Pike can usually be hooked on brass and other shiny spoons, a dead smelt just off the bottom, and, as my friend put it, they also "love" Rapala minnows. Small bits of bait like marshmallows or corn on the hook with some sort of sparkly attractor are a sure-fire means of catching some perch. And while bass lures like Hula Poppers and plastic crawfish are a world unto their own, a black, rubber worm may do the trick as well. Of course, factors like weather, time of day/year and the body of water have an effect as well, so some experimentation will undoubtedly be necessary.

The Old Fishing Hole

If you thought I was going to tell you about all my secret spots, think again. No worry, though; western Montana is so rife with fishing opportunities, anyone should be able to find their own secret fishing hole with a little effort. The many excellent waters within a day's reach of Missoula are too numerous to list completely, but here are a few staples to get you started:

The Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers are consistent trout producers with numerous fishing access points within an hour's drive from town. Unfortunately, there are some areas on both rivers where pike can also be found.

The Clearwater River and lakes have always been a standby. Salmon Lake should probably be renamed Pike Lake, but if that's what you're after, it's the place to go. Seeley Lake offers trout, pike and perch in good numbers. And there's been tell of some decent-sized pike coming out of Placid Lake as well.

Bass fishermen should try their luck at Upsata Lake, the Ninepipe Reservoir, or Lake Mary Ronan, which used to be a premier kokanee fishery, but that's on the decline due to an explosion in the perch population.

If kokanee is your bag, Georgetown is your lake. In addition to kokanee, it produces some beautiful rainbows and is also one of Montana's best ice-fishing spots.

The gargantuan Flathead Lake is a veritable sample platter of western Montana fishing. Lake trout are abundant and excellent kokanee fishing is usually had in the fall. Rainbows, brooks and browns also have strong contingents, as do pike, perch, bass, and whitefish. Flathead is a particularly great place if you have a motorboat.

And don't forget all the little streams and puddles hidden throughout western Montana. One of them could be your new spot.

In the meantime, all those lunkers are waiting, you know. So grab a six-pack and your tackle box and show those snooty anglers how it's done.

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