Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Salmon River Steelhead: Part 3...Crossing the Line?

Back in the day fly fishing was a gentle sport, ideally practiced by gentle men and the occasional gentle woman. Unheard of were addicts, bums and maniacs; no beadheads, no coneheads, no rubber legs, you had your dry flies and wet flies and streamer flies and fish porn portraying gonzo jokers, fly rods clenched in teeth, wasn't even a dream; nobody talked of ripped lips and a pig was the main ingredient for New Year's Day dinner.

Some would say "since then we have indeed crossed way over the line." Others would argue...well, otherwise. Nothing to get all fussed up over...beads and cones and plastic lures and strike indicators (believe it or not some of us still call 'em bobbers) and all the rest of it is just...well, just the way it are these days.

Progress my man, simply progress.

Such were our thoughts as we floated the Salmon. As it were grinning fiendishly, much like two kids drooling the candy counter. Hooked steelhead, one we figured every 30 minutes or so, lunged and leaped to rid themselves of us, or perhaps more to the point, the hook point currently imbedded in their jaw--no doubt stinging like hell. Like is it really "fly fishing" rigged as we were with plastic beads pinned to our leaders with toothpics, weighted down with slinkies no less--yes the gear head sort--all of course set just so in the current beneath our bright pink/orange bobbers? 

I know our conclusions but what do you think? Let me know, never mind how hurtful your angst.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Salmon River Steelhead Part 2

A few miles downstream of Salmon, that is north of town. River right Tower Rock looms high against the now dark, ominous sky has been spitting snow and cold rain all afternoon. Impressive in its own right to me the most awesome thing is the house size chunk resting on the bank. The shape and size of the rock leaves no doubt where it originated... high on the face of Tower.

Daydreaming how scary to have been floating past when it broke loose and not paying attention. Suddenly the rod is nearly torn from my grip, line peels from the reel and I'm fast to yet another Salmon River steelhead.

Since late morning Terry and me have netted something like 20 steelhead. Missed, lost, broke off several more, one of which proved hefty/strong enough to straighten a # 6 Gamakatsu hook. Known for stout this is the first Gamakatsu either of us has ever seen straightened.

We are fishing fly rods but some might question our terminal tackle--a dropper rig, sporting two artificial eggs and enough split shot to sink the Lusitainia all off course hung below a bobber--strike indicator if you please. If all this makes you gag all I can say is too bad on you and I do feel sorry you're missing all the fun...really.

Following the typical tug of war eventually the steelhead is beached, requisite photos shot and it's my turn on the oars. Rowing back up far enough so Terry can try his luck in the same run I manuver the boat into position, slow it to match the bobber's drift and...Voila! Steelhead on...And so it goes.

A few hours and several fish later we reach our campsite. Tie the boat up for the night, filet up a couple bison burgers for good measure and call her good. How good is that, eh?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Salmon River Steelhead

With Salmon River steelheading just two hours away who knows why I don't fish steelhead more often but I don't. Without a doubt one reason is of the few times I've tried steelhead for me have been few and way far between...like I don't know diddly. So when Terry called the other day it didn't take much arm twisting to get me packin.

We arrived in Salmon,ID late afternoon so I decided to start my 3-day license next day. Too late to even consider launching the boat Terry headed upstream toward Challis to bank fish a few familiar runs.

Rigging up his gear rod (a typical bait/plug casting outfit)unbelievably (to me) he hooked up first cast. And I might add much to the dismay of a nearby angler who voiced a string of expletives the gist of which being he had been fishing up and down the run all afternoon with nary a bite. Anyway the steelhead turned out to be a wild hen, and as turns out the only "wild" fish we would catch of 20 something in the net over the next two days.

Later back at camp with daylight fast disappearing he again hooked up but this one slipped the hook before we could get it in the net...Not a bad start considering we talked to several anglers and the consensus was the recent fishing pretty much sucked.

Not for us. Over the next two days we floated two different sections of the Salmon and our catch rate was an astounding (to me) one hook up about every 30 minutes! And on fly gear no less. In two days we saw only four others casting fly rods, all the rest were using gear rods one way or the other. If any of the many anglers we ran into (Terry not only "KNOWS" steelhead he seems to know just about everyone on the river)were having similiar luck they sure weren't bragging...We of course didn't either, replying "doin ok" to any inquiries.

Anyway when day three dawned nasty we agreed it couldn't get much better and decided to bag it. Thanks to a great coach who shared more tricks than I might have learned on my own in several seasons now that I think I can I no doubt will more often...And with a little luck who knows I might just put a few in the net left to my own devices.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring Gobbler Hunt Fails But...

Our mission was to shoot (camera) the season's first gobbler alas we failed but we did photo three moose (mama and her youngin' above) as well as Aunt Molly who was tagging along perhaps in case a baby sitter might be needed? No doubt a moose thing, eh?

And we did get Mr. Redwing to pose long enough for a few shots, at least one of which turned out pretty nifty don't you agree? And we did see a bunch of deer, whitetail and mule variety, as well as a ton of antelope, a ringneck rooster all dressed to kill in his spring finery and a fair number gooses and ducks and...and I guess that's about it...oh, almost forgot did "see" a gobbler, a herd of five actually but...but they busted us afore we could pull the trigger, so to speak.

Better luck next time, right? Right.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Each fall I rent a space for the boat in a large empty building south of town. Sometime in March I retrieve the boat for a bit of spring cleaning and minor maintenance...usually nothing more than a coat of varnish on the bright work and a trip through the car wash to clean up the outside, call her good to go and head to the river.

Last year I thought the inside bottom was looking a little worse for wear, ordered a quart of Tuff Coat from Cabela's and spread it around...A quart really isn't enough to do the job but would have worked better if I'd followed directions did the proper prep work...Alas by mid season the new coat flaking off and well, actually looked worse for wear than before I started...Yes I do know better but somehow need to re-tool the ol' noggin' afore it sinks in...

I did however think to flip the boat and recoat the bottom with a mix of epoxy/graphite...After several seasons it was as you might expect plenty scuffed but actually not all that bad...the new coat made it look like new.

No doubt because of skipping steps in the past this time around is a different story. The inside bottom really needs help. Where I smacked a rock late in the season two years ago I thought merely gouged the outside. Since I had off the next few days I filled the gouge with epoxy, repainted the scarred area and...Yesterday I discovered the plywood itself had been shattered in the collision. Then I discovered more damage to the seat pedestals...

Bottom line: It'll take more than a little hard work to get Ol' Greenie in river shape this time around than I ever imagined...shoulda bought a Clack a...Nah, who wants to make life that simple...

On a different track, Tuesday afternoon the temperature pegged at a balmy 65. Naturally I headed for the river, the Big Hole even though I knew better. Since I had the dogs and this was their first time I decided to not get too creative and ended up at Browne's Bridge. Floating ice left no illusions this was gonna be easy and as turned out wasn't. In two hours I had four half-hearted tugs and no hook ups. Oh well it did give me a chance to field test a couple new patterns see how they looked wet...they looked good to me obviously not so hot to the trout...

The highlight if there is such a thing while tasting skunk? A sparse caddis hatch! Yes it's true a thin hatch of caddis, cinnamon colored wing and body about a size 18 what brand is more than I know. Anyway I've been chucking flies more or less seriously for over 50 years and as far as I know have never seen a mid-March caddis hatch...If anyone out there knows I'd be forever beholdin'...Earlier I did see two splashy swirls which didn't look like midge takes so I assumed skwala even though I didn't see any...then I spied the caddis and mystery solved. Of course I tied one on, right size wrong color and the response was what I expected, nada, but as the man says you never know...Anyway it was indeed a nice day and a sure fire prelude what to expect in the coming weeks...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hungry Bears

With elk and wolves at historically low levels in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem biologists remain optimistic grizzly bears emerging from winter dens will still find plenty to eat.

While the mild winter had some bears out and about as early as mid-February most will start leaving dens sometime this month. Older males usually emerge first as early as March 1 with younger males and finally females with cubs later.

Despite fewer elk and thus fewer wolf kills there are still plenty of leftovers, especially in the park for bears to scavenge. Last fall's whitebark pine nut crop was the largest in recent years and many of the nuts remain. One traditional food bears won't find in abundance this spring are cutthroat trout running out of Yellowstone Lake to spawn...thank the dim witted bucket biologist(s)who stupidly decided lake trout would be a good fit for that.

Again thanks to the mild winter and low snowpack there's a good chance the high country will green up earlier than usual providing hungry bears much needed greens to help balance out the protein diet.

Bears actually come out less hungry than some think. Groggy and lethargic after a long winter's nap it takes awhile for the engines to rev giving the big omnivores plenty of time to scout out potential food sources before hunger pangs reach critical mass.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Guide License Application Wars

I know I shouldn't be but it never ceases to amaze how complicated (at least for my worn out brain) it has become to re-apply each spring for a Montana Fishing Guide License. For what seems to me should be a simple, straight-forward process--fill in the blanks, sign the check, get the license--each time around it seems the powers that be feel some need to re-invent the wheel.

The Guide application used to be a single page has now morphed into 5 pages, mostly redundant stuff mostly having to do with swearing you are indeed not on anyone's Ten Most Wanted Lists and that you indeed did hire out your services to a multitude of outfitters and that you do indeed actually know how to fish and...well hell, that this might be you 32nd consecutive year holding said license doesn't mean squat.

Then there's the Independent Contractor's License Ap which once consisted of duly swearing before a notary that you are indeed self-employed, will NOT attempt to collect unemployment compensation and WILL take care of your own taxes...$17 please, KA-CHING, end of story. NOW, however, you must prove up--provide documentation enough to accumulate a number of points (in our case 15) which in my case is certifiable proof of paying said taxes, list of "tools" (drift boat, boat rods, life vests, flies, net, etc. etc.) in sufficient quantity and value to satisfy some unknown lacky who in all probability wouldn't know a drift boat from a bath tub and proof of proper licensing. OK no really big deal but the process once so simple and straightforward and cheap recall $17 now runs $125...no surprise there, eh?

And then of course you need to join FOAM (Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana) to get a decent rate on your insurance--which this time around is actually 50 bucks LESS than last year--I know hard to imagine but true...

So you say what's the point old man? Heck, I don't know just seems way too complex just to row a boat down the river, tie on a few flies, net a trout every now and then...besides it's been a long boring winter...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Upland Bird Photography

Spring, from about now through May, is the best time to photograph upland birds (any bird for that matter). Because it's breeding season birds, especially males, make a point of dressing in their finest. With love on their minds males are far less cautious than usual and with a little planning and a lot of stealth you can often get right next to them...as was the case the day I shot this handsome male blue grouse.

While he strutted and clucked about a pine covered hillside here in southwest Montana, moving slowly I simply followed along clicking away as the opportunities arose. Certainly aware of my presence he acted oblivious was still doing his thing as I walked away after shooting several dozen frames.

Other's such as sharp-tailed and sage grouse act similarly oblivious as they strut about traditional "dancing grounds" (leks). In most cases even a two-ton pickup in their midst fails to draw much more than a cursory glance.

Turkey gobblers are a bit more cautious, less oblivious and some are downright difficult to approach. But set up a simple blind, put out a decoy or two and even Ol' Two Toes, reputed wariest Tom T. ever strutted is likely to come callin...especially later, once his gals have gone to nesting.

Regardless to get good photos usually means screwing on a telephoto lens...I shot the blue grouse with a 300mm f2.8 lens, mounted on a sturdy tripod. In this case because of the relative darkness beneath the pines even at midday the fast f2.8 lens allowed me to use a high enough shutter speed to stop whatever movement. Today's digital slrs boast an incredible range of ISOs. Which means you can ramp up the ISO to compensate for low light and still obtain decent noise free photos. In other words you can get away with slower lens.

High quality telephotos in the 200mm to 400mm range are both widely available and affordable. Aftermarket brands such as Tokina, Sigma and Tamaron get high marks for both quality and affordability...in most cases hundreds less than you'd expect to pay for, say, Nikon and Canon lenses.

As with most photographic subjects the closer you get the better but ethically speaking there is indeed a need to draw the line far enough away so as to not disrupt the bird's natural behavior.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Heaven On Earth

Off the beaten path, narrow, deep (relatively speaking) and cold (most urgent), grass-hung (bug factory) wall to wall undercut banks equates to ideal living for trout and heaven on earth for Chuck and Gale (do you suppose Kate the wirehair would agree?).

The trout live here--mostly brook and cuttbow with the occasional cutthroat (to our untrained eyes anyway)and grayling are all wild and fat (in comparison to many living in similar small as often as not infertile environs) and pretty as hell.
One day way downstream from here where the tiny crick merges with a tiny river I hauled two really fat whitefish and a sizeable brown of about 15-inches (perhaps 16-17-inches so long as honest to God truth isn't an issue).

One day several years ago Gale pitched her go-to Orange Stimulator, four times to, as I recall, the first pool she tried that day and hooked--a brook, a cuttbow, a gorgeous cutthroat (had to be pure strain although a fisheries buddy would argue vehemently against it)and an arctic grayling. The fifth cast also brought a vicious strike but no hook up so we had no choice but to officially call the phenomenal run of luck (leavened nicely of course with excellent fishing technique)good and move on...

The bad news to an otherwise paradisical spot is about every three years in four cows are allowed in over summer. In the worst years "bovine stomped" is truly an understatement...and while I can't prove it with each invasion the crick seems to get a bit wider and a bit shallower and damn how we wish the USFS would step in and do something...like a little bobbed whar would do this little piece of heaven a world of good...besides there's plenty of evidence out there nobody, including the cows and the rancher's bottom line would suffer.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fly Fishing's Best Kept Secret

The idyllic scene above was captured following a fine day fly fishing a favorite little freestone creek beside a well-traveled forest road about a hour's drive from our home in southwest Montana. The solitude was palpable (we did not see another angler all day although we did hear the occasional vehicle passing by), the fishing on a scale of 1:10 was at least a 9+ (many trout, all wild, most of decent size [10-13 inches or so]all on dry flies, can't beat it..right?).

Early in the morning we watched a cow elk and calf feeding a nearby meadow and later saw black bear sow with two tiny cubs--one cinnamon, one black--in tow. In addition over the course of the day was an almost endless wildlife parade--beaver, muskrat, mink, a hen merganser and a vertitble flock yougins, a golden eagle, a kingfisher or two, countless songbirds, pine squirrels and on the way home, more elk, mule deer and, of all things, a fisher cat scooting across the road. I don't know about you but this ol' boy hasn't seen many of those elusive critters in a long life of looking.

True all days spent flinging flies on little seldom fished waters are not so...ah, dare I say it, phenomenal but I can hardly recall one wasn't at least damn enjoyable.

Which begs the question why don't more folks do it? By far the vast majority resident and non-resident anglers instead flock to our many "blue ribbon" streams where truth be known the crowds are often such they rival flocks of sheep. One day last season I landed my drift boat at Melrose (Big Hole) and counted an astounding 60rigs IN the parking lot...the overflow parked on the road all the way from the entrance to the bridge!! Believe it or not I shot the above photo next day.

With a little research and map work you too can find your own "secret" trout spot...make that 10 or 100 secret trout spots. Actually in Montana there are countless dozens (100s, 1000s?) what a friend calls "jump cricks" that for all practical purposes go unfished year in year out.

As previously hinted solitude and wildlife viewing are high on our list while the fishing hot or cold puts us in bonus territory. But jump cricks are full of surprises, some are wall to wall willing easy to catch trout, where you bean counters in the audience can run up truly mind-boggling numbers; some hold trout of surprising size, especially considering the small stature of the crick itself. Trust me, an 18-inch trout tearing up a 10-foot wide crick...well hell, give it a try ya just might like it.

Obviously we do, and I could go on and on but by now I'm sure you get my drift so...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Survey Reveals Top Selling Fly Fishing Brands

According to Southwick Associates "Anglers Survey" released recently, here's how the major fly fishing brands stacked up:

Top fly rod brand... Sage @ 16.7% of all purchases.
Top fly reel brand... Orvis @ 11.1%
Top fly "combo"... St. Croix @ 18%
Top fly line... Scientific Anglers @ 28.8%
Top fly pattern brand... Orvis and Cabela's tied @ 11%
Top fly leader brand... Rio @ 28.4%
Top fly tying material brand... White River @ 60.5% (If anyone out there knows where/how to contact this outfit let me know, I've searched every which way and came up empty...)

For whatever reasons the survey failed to include the following:

Top wader manufacturer... (Around this neck of woods I'd say Simms or Dan Bailey)
Top wading boots...(Again Simms and probably Orvis or Chota but that's just a wild guess?)
Top polarized glasses maker... (Ono?)

So how do you stack up?

Somewhat surprising to this ol' boy is with exceptions for "fly brand" which I can't remember the last time I bought any but they would have come from a fly shop not Orvis or Cabela's and as mentioned above since I've never before heard of "White River"...like I'm actually mainstream...Although since I've not bought much beyond replacing waders and boots as needed and a couple leaders every now and then (I tend to either tie my own butt sections or tie on a commercial job (Rio of course) then hack the hell out of the same basic leader until the line itself fails and after respooling repeat same...works for me. Same with rods and reels use 'em up or break 'em, once in while misplace 'em...never ever have I simply decided to upgrade...well OK almost never ever...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Big Hole Tour

Yesterday was Gale's birthday--yes, that is all you need to know--so she thought it would be nice to "do the Big Hole loop." Dillon to Wisdom to Divide to Dillon is I think our favorite drive, if not it's right up there. Anyway we timed our arrival in Wisdom (about 60 miles from Dillon) so we could eat lunch at the Big Hole Crossing Restaurant (Gale of course wanted to browse the gallery as well but alas found it closed). Lunch was delicious by the way--we each got the Reuben special and a cup of chicken noodle soup.

It had snowed a skiff overnight, barely enough to make the road wet but the lingering clouds killed any chance to gawk the awesome snow-covered peaks surround the upper Big Hole most of the year. Dull, damp and dreary actually most of the day with just occasional peaks of blue sky and even less sun. But the worst thing was the scary lack of snow--the side roads would have been bare mud if it weren't for the overnight skiff. Below Fish Trap all the way to Dillon the hills, at least the south facing slopes were nearly snow free.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the lack of wildlife--I think we saw a single bald eagle, a handful of geese and ducks and that was it. Although judging the tracks around Squaw Creek a sizeable elk herd is overwintering there--no doubt because of the lack of snow.

Another surprise was finding the river mostly open already below Jerry Creek--low and clear you might scrape bottom some but still floatable--not too many years you can say that in early March.

We let the dogs out below Melrose (Browne's Gulch) and kicking up dust for cripes sake,hiked a two track back into the hills--lots of prickly pear not much critter sign--a few antelope tracks and jack rabbit turds was about it. For such an empty spot, miles and miles of nothing running up into the east Pioneers (except for the highest peaks mostly bare ass as well)sure ain't much out there.

All and all a nifty way to wile away a birthday--I think Gale would agree despite the Crossing Gallery closed--and since it's snowing this morning pretty good in Dillon maybe just maybe the Big Hole high country is getting dumped on at last...now there's a really nifty thought.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Best Not Put Away The Snowshoes Yet...

Hard to believe but here in southwest Montana signs that spring is indeed sprung are everywhere. Many geese are already paired, super hardy Eurasian doves are building nests, some local ponds are completely ice free, the other day I spied two sandhill cranes cruising the river bottoms south of town...the earliest arrivals ever so far as I can recall...according to Gale's calendar about two weeks early...

In the valley there is zero snow and not all that much in the surrounding hills, although the mountains still remain winter white...no surprise there. The mud season is already off to a grand start...We tried to take the dogs up Ermont to look for sage hens and nearly didn't get turned around and back down was like steering a greased pig. It took about 5 bucks worth quarters at the car wash to even make a dent.

But it ain't over yet, ice is still wall to wall on Clark Canyon Reservoir (above photo), just the faintest sign of open water around the edges and then only in a few places. On the other hand we spotted a fair number of fishermen on the river, especially for a Monday afternoon in early March. A local guide I know was floating, working or just playing is more than I know. And over the weekend we saw that the Big Hole at least below Divide is mostly open and there were a couple rigs at Browne's Bridge.

So no doubt Ol' Man Winter will rear his ugly head a bunch more in the coming weeks spring is now official and that of course means summer is just around the corner...OK maybe not JUST around the corner but...well, you know.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Update: Sage Grouse Listing in Limbo (AGAIN)

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced yesterday sage grouse, although warranted by biologists for protection under the Endangered Species Act, will instead be put on hold.

Allowing individual states to manage sage grouse effectively puts the heat on special interests--livestock, oil and gas, developers, wind farms, etc.-- to take whatever steps necessary to preserve and enhance sage grouse habitat (sagebrush) and the birds' welfare as well.

The move as expected brought howls of rage from both sides. The public lands resource users/extractors of course want it all--no holds barred. Ditto the environmentalists whose main agenda seems to be to toss private interests off public lands period.

While I can't prove it none of the above appears to care much one way or the other about the grouse itself.

My own take (and I'm sure the Pointer Sisters agree) is for at least the foreseeable futre we get to continue hunting sage hens. Even more important is we get to chase sage hens in the off season--good practice for the girls and a good workout for us--trust me, beats hell outta hanging out the YMCA.

Selfish, you bet, but around here sage hens are in pretty good shape and the few birds we kill each season has been proven (biologically speaking no politics even) to have zero impact on the big picture...So there you have it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Spring Tease

March 1, 50 degrees, no wind to speak of and a brand spankin new fishin license in hand to boot, well hell I'm outta here...gone fishin that is. And wonders of wonders upon arriving at my predetermined spot not another angler in sight...how good is that? Well pretty damn good actually as 2nd or 3rd cast and I'm already hooked tight to what eventually turns out a fat ol' brown trout...not so long, maybe 16-inches but unlike the snaky lookin brown the Ruby gave up the other day this sucker is fat, maybe not high-summer fat but fat enough. Better still unlike his skinny, roll over play dead cousin this one is a real scrapper...

For the next half hour or so hits are fast and furious, alas actual hook-ups are not. Blame it on reactions too long allowed to lay dormant or more likely just another painful reminder Chuck my man you just ain't gettin no younger...blame it on whatever but I just can't seem to get a good hook-set to save my sorry butt.

But like most slumps this one finally ends but...But the trout, another fat brown, is indeed foul hooked--caught by the tail I have a helluva time hauling it close enough to net and then...and then I miss. When seconds later the hook pulls out I almost feel like cheering...really.

Now it is going on 4 p.m. and the shut down is like flipping switch. Not a single bite mind you in the next three runs...Time a call it quits.