And then this happened…
Dreams have a way of nudging themselves into reality, only if one truly believes and follows up on them. The Bahamas have been on my radar for many years, but always out of reach for one excuse or another. Not anymore. A chance meeting at Jackson Hot Springs with Craig and Lia Jones of Great Divide Outfitters two months ago began turning this dream into action with the invitation of a lifetime. Planning a month with clients in Andros Island, Bahamas, Craig and Lia selflessly extended an extra bed due to a cancellation, if I could just figure out how to get there. Three days of contemplation, my main man Chris Rockhold and I pulled the trigger on what has now become an experience of a lifetime: fly fishing Andros.
Based out of Fresh Creek on the Eastern shores of the Island, our fishing journey began the moment we arrived, wading flats within the protective confines of Fresh Creek. Not a creek by our Montana standards, this water is tidal and expansive, covering tens of square miles of flats heading inland deep into the island. Bonefish live here year round and stay inland even at the lowest tides, making for consistent targets anytime of day at any tide. On clear days, one can spot these ghosts of the flats from safe casting distances, say 60-70 feet. When the clouds come, good luck. You can damn near step on a ten pound fish and the only indication is an explosive wake screaming off like a blown bull elk in the timber.
Oceanside flats are more affected by tides and wind, but the expansiveness is mind boggling when the tide is low and wadeable. Chris and I toured the Andros backcountry several times, wandering off for miles upon miles of ankle to knee deep flats filled with bones, Carribean lobsters, starfish, conchs, sharks, and barracudas. Pack plenty of water and a little grub, keep a close eye on the tide so you don’t get stranded, and let your legs take you to the horizon. Always keep your eyes peeled for nervous water and those ghostly tails, often in water barely covering your ankles. Every fish demands a different cast: lead them by a few feet if they’re moving, drop it on their head if they are tailing, always a slow long strip when they’re on your bug, and plenty of backing to absorb their mind bending runs.
When Big Al LeFore says he has a tarpon connection, listen carefully. Al is a long time friend and mentor of mine living half time in Andros, and knows a good guide when he sees one. There is a man named Tommy Kee, and I could dedicate an entire blog just to this guy, probably will. Chris and I packed 7 rods to Andros, two of them 12 and 10 weight Thomas and Thomas’s with Bauer MX6’s holding the lines, and really didn’t know if we’d have the chance to use them. Tommy gave us that chance and has forever branded memories into our minds, changing fly fishing forever as I know it. Tarpon.
Tarpon are found mostly on the remote west side of Andros, and very few guides know their routines, habits, and locations. Tommy Kee has these behemoths wired, knowing their affinity’s of tide, feeding patterns, and behavior. After motoring for over an hour and well over 20 miles of expansive ocean, we slipped into areas bulging with tarpon, permit, and countless bonefish. Poling us stealthily into the falling tide, Tommy began blowing our minds with his ability to spot and identify fish from obscene distances. Once we were all on point with the fish we had targeted, the game began with getting within the right distance and angle to make the shot. With patience and excellent coaching strip for strip, Tommy instructed us to a pin point of what to do to make the eat happen. Strip, stop, long strip, bump it, bump it, long strip, loooong, hit em! hit em!
Words cannot explain the excitement and fervor of when a tarpon is interested in your bug, almost like a bugling bull elk coming close to a bowhunter, fire from his nostrils and eyes keen on your locale. My legs shake thinking of my fish as he steadily approached my fly, peeling off from a daisy chain of three fish to come closer, closer, bump it, loooong strip, loooooooong!!, hit em!, HIT EM!!!! And then all hell breaks loose! Jumps unexplainable in power and speed, blistering runs with head thrashing jumps at 100 yards, then right back at you as you try to catch up on him, threatening to jump right into your boat. Fifteen teeth gritting minutes later, if you’ve survived, and this eighty pound minnow is at your feet in the shallows, gulping air on the surface and planning another head thrash, your eighty pound shock tipped mangled from his sharp gill plates….
After tarpon, I’m not real sure what comes next in this life of fly fishing. I’m sure there is much more out there, but I think I don’t need to look much farther for a while. After so many years in the north country with trout as my staple and steelhead as my adventure, this warm climate with backing burning fish and variety as far as the imagination allows is something to admire. I never realized the potential of the salt, and how conducive to fly fishing the ocean actually is. I guess I just thought of a big lake with lethargic fish sitting on structure, when in reality it is a vibrant flowing expanse of water and life, holding fish deep and hidden as well as shallow and visually target-able. All of them powerful beyond belief, and as challenging as anything found in the fresh flowing rivers of Montana.
It’s been a while since I’ve been involved in a catch and release of this magnitude, and just being near this fish is an honor. Our good man Jim hooked onto this hen brown trout at the end of an excellent long day of streamer fishing, Chris rowing him as a single on day two of the trip. Steve and I were sipping beers downstream in the same run, content with our good fortune of fishing for the day. We heard some shouts and figured something good, or really bad, had occurred. Stroking quickly downstream with Jim hunched over the bow holding the net, they pulled up mumbling with excitement and dropped anchor. Chris finally spatted out, Leviathan!, and I understood immediately.
These fish are once in a lifetime to many, and some of us guides are lucky enough to see a few in a career. Springtime and early summer on good water years gives someone the best shot at a fish like this, covering many miles throwing the junk or rolling big stoneflies under a bobber. My biggest client fish was a couple inches less than this girl, and amazingly ate a salmon fly dry during late June. That’s been over five years now, and I’ve personally witnessed only one other fish of this caliber, caught on a san juan a few years back by a fellow guide’s client. No camera on that one sad to say.:((
Our springtime fishing has been excellent this season, with lots of little dinkers like this one. Just kidding, this fish taped 19″ but after Jim’s legit 28 incher the scale got a bit screwed up. The rest of our prior fishing for two days was grand, albeit big water and lots of cast with the big rods. Little dry fly activity was happening, though when your catching solid fish every few runs underneath and having a blast why bother? Keep that elbow in, power up the backcast, and let that puppy fly! This is the time of year to suit up for bear, and get out on the big water with us.
Back to my roots. A last minute decision sent me packing back to the homeland to chase largemouth bass on Tablerock Lake with my Dad. His good friend Sam had to cancel on the annual trip this year, so the old man was thinking of going by his lonesome anyway, just to get away and enjoy the outdoors and lake life. Well, being the good son I am and not wanting Dad to go it alone, I less than slyly suggested he help me-meaning buy me- with a plane ticket so I could come down a fish with him.
Dad’s a great sport, and fell for the ploy hook line and sinker, setting up a killer fishing adventure for us based out of Lunker Landing in Shell Knob, Missouri. Located on the northern bank of the King’s River arm of Tablerock Lake, Lunker Landing’s accomodations are comfortable; small town friendly; and steps away from the boat slip. Walking down to the water at sunrise, we see the mist rising off the lake, hear the blue jays’ sharp cries of the day, smell the green and lush scents of the oak forest, and spot local largemouth guarding spawning beds in the shallows near the docks.
Which get us into the fishing. Late April/early May is prime time for the largemouth’s pre-spawn here on Tablerock: clean water and a warming 61 to 65 degree water temp brings the fish up from deeper water and into the spawning regions of the lake. Protected coves, gravel beaches falling to dropoffs, and woody banks were our focus for finding bass staged up before the spawn. With Dad Fitzpatrick’s lifetime of knowledge of Tablerock and a steady foot on the trolling motor, we found feeding fish in all his favorite haunts.
For three days we worked up and down Tablerock, usually fishing the nearby King river arm but also travelling down past the James river and into the White. Our usual tactic is a spin rod with a plastic worm rigged Texas style with a bullet weight, which is cast to the bank and retrieved slowly-and I mean S-L-O-W- back to the boat. Jigging plastics in deep timber proved effective as well, especially later in the mornings and afternoons when the bass moved deeper to escape the bright angle of the sun. The take is subtle, and one must be very patient to let the fish take the bait, but once a good bass locks on the line starts to move and the tug gets heavy, you give her the mustard! Every fish we stuck came straight up and taildanced with fury, throwing their heads with open mouths and flared gills.
On the final day of our trip, I had yet to stick a bass on a fly rod. Deep holding fish are tough on the fly, and the shallow spawners weren’t interested in my quick moving Clousers or crawdad imitations. Trolling along a gravel beach early in the morning, a few bass finally showed themselves chasing shad minnows near the bank. Big smacks to the surface and minnows hurling erratically showed me a target some fifty feet away, so with a quick rod switch (the XP #9 was rigged and ready from day one) and a long double haul, I airmailed a Montana tied frog pattern within a couple feet of the last explosion. One twitch and it was lights out for that poor frog. With a huge gulp and boil, said frog vanished and up came a flaring pissed off largey, hooked on a 9 foot 9 weight Sage.
Our week flew by too quickly: just when I was adjusting to nightly ribeyes and cocktails at noon, I had to hop on a plane back to Montana. This trip reminds me how much I love warmwater fishing, and the bucket mouthed largemouths that inhabit those waters. Our Montana rivers and lakes hold bass as well, down in their lower stretches where temps allow these fish to exist. When the time is right this summer, we’ll certainly pay a visit or two to some of these haunts, throwing plastics and stripping topwater flies to fish rarely targeted by Montana folk. Back to my roots, full circle.
Adventure is what we all really live for around here. After you’ve thrown a million dry flies to hapless cuttys and river rainbows, it’s time to go check out some other fisheries that Montana provides. These rivers get warm, eventually: somewhere down the system temps become too high for the trout, but perfect for smallmouth bass and pike.
With two days and eighteen miles of enormous river, Chris and I had plenty of time and equipment to seriously check out this piece of water. Two 9 weights, two sevens, four spinning rods and baitcasters combined, we were straight loaded to reek havoc on this river. Sloughs right off the bat held pike and largemouth, while midriver structure supported smallie hangouts: everywhere you fish is a different setup.
Slipping into slackwater sloughs we hunt pike, hanging in the deep mossbeds; way trickier than you think on a fly rod but way worth the effort and the steel leader. Largemouth hang on the edges in the tules and right up into the shoreline, killer fighters and a blast to cast big flashy articulateds to. We fish late into the evening as the bass get going well past dusk.
Miles upon miles we travel on this quest of ours, awed by the size of the river system down here and the variety of structure. We figure out our location to the takeout, finally, and decide keeping a few smallies would be a good idea. Last night we ate one on the weber grill we packed along, and it was clean and fresh like the fish I remember as a kid. Loading up a stringer from just one hole of thirty or so fish cruising around, we stung enough bass to feed the masses and pulled anchor for home.
After months running the big main rivers like the Bitterroot, Big Hole, and the Mo, I’ve been itching to get out into the great wild country of Montana’s national forests and wildernesses to get back to the simple parts of life. With a few days off from guiding, the wife and I loaded up the camper and the kid and off we flew to find some solitude and scenery. The good thing about this state is one never has to look too far to find an untrampled view and clean mountain air.
Being someone else’s secret spot, I won’t disclose our fishing location, but really spots like this are frequent in this country. Take the pavement until it turns to gravel, then another ten or so miles of bumps and washboards, and pretty soon you are fast approaching the base of some killer country wherever you are in Montana. Another bit of sweating up the trail and that’s all it takes to be on some prime fishing with the place all to yourself, not to mention the huckleberry bushes loaded to the gills everywhere you look.
So after a few days of gritting it out in our 22″ camper, sounds rough eh?, we were tickled to pull back into civilization and grab a burger and beer at the first place we passed. Another few hours and the family and I arrived home with an entirely new look on life, happy to have the little things like showers and cell service: OK maybe not the cell service, but it does have its strong points. So if you’re tired of seeing the same old stretch of river day after day, just lace up those beat up Vasques and hit the mountains for your own personal trout stream.