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.
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….
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.
Right smack dab in the heart of the season is when the Bitterroot River sees it’s most consistent days, weather wise. Ha. Fishing is great when and where you can find it, and playing the traffic game can really help this time of year. I like to get out very early right now to avoid the crowds, relative term of course here in Montana, and get a move on the day before things heat up too much. Fortunately, the weather has been very cooperative this summer, with plenty of moisture when we need it most and bearable temperatures.
Bug-wise any little dry fly will do the trick right now, and later in the afternoons we are seeing some crushing takes on hoppers and big uglies. Some days the fishing can get slow, especially if several boats are in front of us pounding away at the water. This is when I will switch tactics, and simply fish an outfit that they are not. On most Montana rivers, this can be one hell of a good play, and the added traffic pressure forces you to fish a rig outside the usual box. Streamers midday in low water? Hell yes! At least give it a roll and you never know, you may find the best fishing on the river.
With all the running around the state this time of season, I always get the jitters when I’m scheduled for the Missouri River. Never knowing what to expect, the Mo can be your best friend or your nemesis, depending which way the weather and conditions go. Cool, cloudy, and calm, chances are we’re going to have a stellar trip hunting heads throughout the day. Bright, high pressure, and breezy, who knows?
This trip went off very well, even though the weather was not ideal. My fishermen were long time friends that have fished many rivers in Montana with me, so we were able to get right to the point on this big river. Right away Elliot set into a good fish with the boat ramp still below us, always a good sign from the gods. Running the nymphs for the first half of the day, we hooked into a good many of the Missouri’s finest rainbows.
With the ice broken, my crew and I switched almost entirely to dry flies for the next two days. Certain banks were alive with rising trout, too random to target specifically, but if one put the right drift out front and left it the hell alone, these big bows would fall for it every time. Sometimes it’s best to just get in the general area with the right offering, and let ‘er ride. Even if you feel like you’ve passed the fish, just keep it riding high and cross your fingers, they’ll find it!
Mid summer is upon us, and on us quickly. Just when I’m getting the hang of rainy days and 2x to my dry flies, the reality of late June and early July is here and it’s back to smaller bugs, shorter floats, and hot afternoons. Fishing is holding up swell, as we’ve been having stellar days out there regardless of the Salmonfly hangover and a few 90 degree afternoons.
The last few weeks have been a blur as we guide throughout the state, covering hundreds of miles in just a few days then off to the next river and a new adventure. We’ve run the Big Hole Tuesday and Wednesday then it’s off to Wolf Creek and the mighty Mo that night to guide Thursday morning. Pick up the drift boat and roll down to the bridge to see what we can stir up, praying for a calm day. Saturday eve the tent comes down, the Adipose goes home, and the big Yeti is hauled back in the rig, a quick stop at Trixi’s in Ovando for a burger and beer, then finally home for a real night’s sleep. Kinda. Because we have another one brewing up the next morning….And so it goes.
From our local Bitterroot, to Rock Creek and beyond, it’s already been a wonderful summer of chasing sunsets and rising trout. Fishing is good anywhere you go if you know how to play your cards, all you can do is give it a whirl and see how she goes. Every river has a different character: some kind and gentle like the Bitterroot, some downright menacing at times like the Missouri. All are absolute gems, and we are lucky to live in a place like Montana that has such abundance.
Some of our favorite trips are with father/son groups, helping both Dad and Lad to hone their fly fishing skills, and giving Dad a much needed rest at coaching the youngster. We’ve got this! Youngsters respond well to patient guiding, listening with full attention to the lessons we teach. With a clean slate to work on, good guidance will stick like glue to an interested lad, as long as the lessons are simple and straightforward.
So off on another ten mile float of the Bitterroot, I started these two in excellent water, albeit very quick with the spring thaws. I worked quickly and efficiently with the youngster, keeping the lessons useful and to the point. Being avid fishermen in the Northeast already, both Dad and son picked up our Montana style quickly, putting those lessons to work immediately on the river.
By midday, we were a well oiled machine, making great casts and drifts to many hungry trout, and with proper fish fighting techniques many strong fish came to our net. By our day’s end, both my fishermen had experienced nymph fishing, dry fly, and even a good amount of streamer chucking, catching fish on almost every discipline of river fly fishing. These are lessons which will stick, as these techniques are applicable across many types of fly fishing situations, regardless if it’s Montana or Vermont. Thanks to those Dads out there for bringing those wee lads into our boats and letting us plant the seeds to our future fly fishermen!
Finally the Missouri is back to her old self for the spring/summer season, meaning some real bugs are peeling off the river and creating some excellent fishing. Not easy fishing, mind you, but excellent nonetheless if you are willing to put up with some serious weather and make that cast twenty more times before you get it perfect. Which is what Don and I did for three long, cold, windy, and rainsoaked days based out of Wolf Creek.
Fortunately on the Mo, when the weather goes to shit the bugs go nuts, which may be the only positive at times on that cruel river. Eventually those big trout heads can’t resist ten million Baetis popping at once and start feeding on the surface somewhere, though the chop on the water makes finding them difficult. With lots of flats, riffles, back eddies, and channels, finding these fish is a matter of searching that endless river for the areas that will produce today, and definitely not always the same lie from day to day.
In between spotting risers, the nymph game fished stellar at times for us. Finding the right bug and setting depth and weight was crucial, but once we solved the riddle those big bows were ready and eager to eat. Our final day was our best: good weather, only a couple hours of gale force wind, a damn good emergence of baetis and march browns, and heavy rising rainbows in a few riffles later in the day. Find them and they’ll eat right now, on the first good drift.
It’s been a long winter around here, it’s snowing now. My mountain bike just got knocked over on the front porch by the latest snow squall that ripped through the valley, and now it’s sunny. All in about twenty minutes. I can see the next one brewing up Sawtooth and Roaring Lion canyons across the valley from my house. It should be here in the next hour. And so it goes, Montana in the spring.
The Missouri river is a place that will haunt your memories all winter long, and you might even get a whacky idea mid December or January to go freeze your ass off there and watch your guides ice up. You’ll catch fish, but freeze you will. So once the bugs stir for the first time and the nights are no longer freezing deep, it’s time to go see what we can find on the big river.
Nymphs dominate the scene this time of year on the Mo. Until the caddis and baetis get their groove on, really midges are the only thing happening on top, and unless it’s epic, you really will only see a couple random rises throughout the day. Streamers have their moments, as well, and both fish I’m holding ate a conehead bugger while ripping it across flats on a sink tipped number seven Loomis. I love the streamer game when it plays, and once a mile is considered playing by my standards.
So get with us on an early Mo trip, unless you are here chasing the Skwalas around on the Bitterroot with us. The Mo offers the utmost challenge in fly fishing with rewards of rainbows in the trophy class. These fish are big and healthy and do not screw around once hooked: jumps, runs, and more runs until you can finally bring them to hand if you play them correctly. Bring your ‘A’ game and get ready for one of the finest trout rivers in North America.