The heat is cranking up in the valley for midsummer, it’s great to spend days on the cool river, catching shade up high on the river system from the towering pines and firs. Cottonwood takes over near Darby, mixed with large ponderosa pines that provide good shade and fish refuge to the main river. We’re starting to get out earlier and earlier to beat the heat, and finding good fishing to boot. Upriver we can take our time a bit more as that water is so cold it takes a while for the bugs and trout to get active, even on the hottest days.
Well the bugs have popped pretty early this year, even though the water is ripping along pretty good. I was kinda hoping they’d hold out a bit longer until water levels dropped, but smoke em when you got em, eh? I just came from Rock Creek and not much is happening over there except for high speed hang on for your life runoff, so the Bitterroot is a welcome sight with the upper portion dam controlled. The boat traffic can get a bit hectic during the salmon fly hatch, but what river doesn’t get busy when the bugs are in?
Running different stretches of the Bitterroot, we can find solitude even in the busiest of times. Good guides instructing our anglers in proper techniques gets the job done on any water, any river. Knowing entomology and how it relates to different parts of a river system can greatly improve your success rate behind the fly rod. When salmon bugs are popping way upstream, other insects are starting to crank up downstream, long away from the rolling whitewater and canyons that house the famous stonefly. Drakes and goldens can fill the void of salmonflies and provide just as good fishing, and on a water type slower and easier going. Catch them where you find them, don’t be afraid to search around in places you wouldn’t first guess.
And then this happened…
These are perfect days, they won’t last forever as the summer is coming and runoff could come any moment. Embrace them as they come; the fields are turning green in the valley, mountains white and loaded with the water we hope to get all through the summer, the tree buds waiting to pop. Fishing is good to grand some days, this was one of them shared with good companions on a perfect weather day. May it last forever….
Early season Mo fishing can be downright troublesome sometimes, and April can bring some nasty weather to the table all day, no escaping it. Occasionally you get some nice windows to find a fish feeding on the surface, but having the nymph handy will be the most useful, as those surface eats can be nonexistent most the day. Little march brown and baetis nymphs set to the right depth with a shot to sink em down where they need to be usually does the trick, finding the right spots on the big river is another thing.
I try to focus on all the ledges regardless of where they lie in the river, either banks or flats where the edge meets the main dropoff. Also finding a depth, even if its shallower, can prove successful by setting the depths of the nymphs appropriately and running that water style when you see it. It’s always a challenge this time of year, but well worth the effort to catch healthy powerful fish that this river supports year after year.
This season looks as good as 2011, as far as snowpack in the high country, and cool temperatures keeping it locked up and the river flows stable. Big and stable. Friends are still skiing and will be for some time to come, while our Bitterroot river is alive and fishing well on our first hatches of the season. Skwala stoneflies are hatching routine now, and the first of the March Browns are here and building every day.
The river is gonna be big this year, same with the Big Hole which feeds from the same mountain ranges as our river. Its been double historical flows for the last month, and a long winter with never ending shitty days and cold temps have kept any signs of runoff at bay. The river and the bugs are happy despite the fickle days, and afternoons produce excellent dry fly fishing for a few hours or better on the pleasant days.
We have a couple weeks of predictable fishing, maybe more, until that big snowpack starts to let loose, and then we’ll see how this year’s runoff shapes out. Right now the valley is just waking up, no leaves yet, deep white mountains overhead, brilliant sunshine followed by a snow squall every thirty minutes or so, and great early season fishing: it feels like a perfect Montana spring.
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.
Holy cow! What a whirlwind of a season it has been this year! A damn fine season of fishing, with many many days back to back for this dude. From early spring on the ‘Root and Big Hole, to Salmonflies on Rock Creek and all the other western rivers, to the final fall wrap up on the Mighty Mo. Jim and I have fished the Mo together now three years, and he is always the final adventure before we switch into hunt mode. Hell, we fished through the opener of rifle season! If that’s not some serious angling dedication I don’t know what is. Oh yeah, steelhead are coming!!! Until next trout season, my friends. Look for some steel and birds in the future. JF
When the skies look like this in September, best get the trailer hitched up and get downriver, quicklike! Dark heavy days are the catalyst for exceptional mayfly emergences, and this time of year the Hecubas and Mahoganies are ready to pop, just give them a good reason. We still have Tricos in the morning, though they could be some other little TMF, and they provide interesting target fishing first thing.
The real deal comes later. Midday when things warm up and if the weather isn’t too crappy, which sometimes can happen, the holy grail of mayflies may bless you with their presence. On some days, which we witnessed once in a five day trip, the river went absolutely bat shit crazy with bugs, followed by the fish. I made sure we were in some serious big fish water around the witching hour, and suddenly twenty to thirty pigs started slurping mayflies right before our eyes, slashing hard at the big duns. Soon enough, it is all over and the river fades back to calm, time to row out.
We’re starting to see the signs of Fall here in the Bitterroot Valley, thank God! It’s been an interesting summer, teetering on the edge of fire danger but dodging the bullet every time. Roaring Lion blew up last month while we were floating the Wally Crawford section right adjacent. Seeing a small plume of smoke, my front angler turned and asked “is that a fire?” I said I hope not, and within 45 minutes all hell broke loose. You can read about the rest of it from the real journalists, I’m just a fishing guide.
So fishing is pretty damn good in the mornings on tricos and the occasional big whack on a searching pattern. On the cooler mornings we are having, we’re getting back to normal fishing hours, without having to be on the water pre-7am and can show up at a gentlemanly 8-9. Traffic is low where we’ve been fishing, preferring the down river stretches this time of year to the upper canyon.