This is been one of the better Julys that I have had the pleasure of guiding on Montana’s Rivers over the years. With a ton of water coming off the mountains, the river has held up wonderfully and fishing has been excellent from top to bottom on the Bitterroot river system. Big water does affect the bugs in weird ways where the hatches are actually not that prolific, though.
When you have a large amount of water coming down the drainage coupled with cooler temperatures, you will see a smattering of many different bugs hatching. On the contrary, low-water years with warmer temperatures will expose more bugs and one will see explosive hatches. The downfall of the low-water is that the hatch will run out of biomass quickly and be short-lived. Big water years you will see the hatches spread out over a longer period of time allowing you to fish a multitude of bugs with all the varied hatches going on at one time. Give any veteran river guide a choice, and I will take the big water hsnds down every time.
Every now and again, us guides get a little time away from tugging on set of oars and we get to hold the rod, getting back to why we love fly fishing after months of teaching it to others. Chris, David Decker, and myself were able to slip away to the Missouri recently to do just that, reconnecting with one another and the fish over a three day weekend.
We often lose sight of things as full time fishing guides and outfitters, playing host and mentor all summer long to our customers. Teaching many lessons for the first time or showing kids the joy found casting a perfect loop, we often simplify this complex art into just a sentence or two so our beginners can start to understand the bits and pieces that make up fly fishing. When the old masters have an opportunity to throw a line together, the level of intensity and precision steps up many notches to a place where no words are necessary and all are one with the river.
We simply guide the boat down the river on the perfect currents, whomever is on the rod needs no reinforcement, no coaching. Before I can nod to a rising ring in a hip deep flat, a perfect loop is already on delivery upstream of the fish, softly laid upon the water with a mend incorporated into the cast. Will he eat it? No doubt. It’s like watching a Picasso painting built in real time, the artist swiftly and smoothly placing strokes one at a time, never looking back to correct anything and always forging ahead with confidence and precision.
I’m not sure how many years we’ve fished together, but these guys are some of my very favorites year after year. Easy going, great fishermen and casters, and tough as nails when the weather gets nasty; traits every fishing guide appreciates in a client. Craig and Lyle show up every fall to the Bitterroot, sometime between late September and October, and they bring their A games every year.
Mahoganies and Hecubas are the bug of choice right now, especially with our weather turning cold and wet on the Bitterroot river. Mornings can see a handful of Pseudos, but the real action is later in the day when the bigger mayflies start to pop. Some days are just too damn nasty to get any real hatch coming off, so a slowly retrieved bugger will do the trick, waiting for that heavy pull as the bug comes cross current back to the boat. Being a versatile angler has it paybacks, not afraid to throw some junk when you realize that elegant dry fly just ain’t gonna cut it today.
I cut my teeth guiding the Big Hole River 20 years ago, just a young kid out of Kansas looking for adventure and a job. Wandering into the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River, Montana, I was lucky enough to land a guide position at one of the most prominent fishing lodges in the nation. One of the top guides there, Wayne Clayton, took me under his wing and selflessly taught me so many lessons applicable to this day to my profession. There are many other veteran guides that I owe homage to: David, Stewart, DJ, Jeffrey, Slim; but Wayne is a teacher we have all learned from, start to finish.
Wayneo, Obie Wayne, has ran this river for nearly 40 years, along with most every other trout stream in Montana. Wondering what’s happening on Depuy’s Spring creek in June? Ask Wayne. Are the tricos hatching on the Missouri yet? Consult Wayne. How many steelhead run up the Kispiox in BC during the B run? Wayne again. With a deep chortle and knowing smile, he digs deep into that intellect he has built chasing fins around North America, and is all too happy to share his knowledge and experiences in a way that only Wayne can deliver.
Pull up a seat by the fire or down on a river’s edge under the shade of the narrow leafed cottonwoods, Wayne’s stories transcend time and place and take you in the moment of the tale, whether swinging a deep bucket on the Bulkley for steelhead or casting Pseudocleons to sipping Rainbows on the Mo back in the grease water. He’s been there, lived it, and it’s as clear today as it was thirty years ago when those casts left his powerful right hand. This river guide is timeless, a familiar friendly face on all these rivers we call home.
Always a pleasure fishing with certain people, and this father/son duet are some of my very favorites. Sean and I have fished together over ten seasons now, mostly the Big Hole, and his son Ryan first came out with me when he was 5 or 6, just a little feller. While Sean has fished the Missouri with me numerous times, this was Ryan’s first time with the big river and big rainbows that can kick your ass in a second. He did great after a little humbling from the fish, who mostly have the upper hand on you regardless of your skill, and started pulling them in more often than not by the end of our three day adventure.
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.
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.