In Montana there are two kinds of winter days-those that are warm enough for fishing and those that aren't. Here, cold is a relative term. A week of high-sky, 40-degree weather in early November can send the Baetis hatch into submission and seem downright arctic after a month of Indian Summer. Yet a windless February day topping off at 35 will feel balmy enough to send you searching for early stoneflies.
When deciding which kind of winter day it is, I never trust the weather reports. These predictions tend to discount the importance of four or five degrees, while the winter angler knows better. When the weatherman says, "High between 27 and 35," I hear, "High between (ice in the guides, felt boot-bottoms frozen to the gravel), and (decent morning nymphing with a chance of midges in the afternoon").
I should talk about how cold it gets, how breathing on these days is like swallowing fingernails, how the rivers turn a glacial blue and host flotillas of ice and slush, how the ice grows not only along the bank, but along the bottom, painting the channel a frostbite-white, a death white, that makes you fear for every finned and unfinned creature swimming in the run. If you want to fish in Montana in the winter, ignore the weather reports altogether and pay attention to the birds. The best winged fishing gauge I know is the Bohemian Waxwing.
A little smaller than a Cardinal, a little bigger than a Sparrow, the color of sandstone at evening, waxwings travels in huge, cloud-like packs, and arrive in early December. Filling trees by the hundreds, they huddle in Mountain Ash and Crabapple branches, waiting out storms getting drunk on fermented berries. When I see this, I know midges aren't hatching on the Clark Fork or the Bitterroot.
Last December, while walking to the car on a day the waxwings had told me was too cold to fish, I became mesmerized by some birds ransacking a tree. The wings in the branches-I guessed 300 sets-made the Mountain Ash look like a lung, letting in air and light one moment, sealing it out the next. All of a sudden, the flock spilled from the branches and a Merlin bulleted in, snapping the last waxwing from a limb. "Damn," my neighbor said from his porch, "that Pigeon Hawk stalked those birds for an hour." Pigeon Hawk, Sharp Shinned, whatever. That hawk had some nerve, standing in the snow, squeezing the last drops of blood from my thermometer.
I believe waxwings prefer bugs to berries. Whenever a decent midge hatch occurs on the Clark Fork, the waxwings abandon the fruit-filled neighborhoods and swoop down to the river to pick off the emerging diptera, a dozen of which wouldn't cover a dime. On one such day, the trout in the flat were midging as well, following the larva off the weedy bottom on their way to the surface, sometimes pressing their steely snouts to the still air. The midges that broke the film were soon picked off by waxwings spinning down from the bushes. As the birds retreated, the breath from their wings left boils on the water, identical to those left by trout bumping the roof of their world.
It was something to see on a winter day: the hole boiling from both directions. Midges ascending, waxwings falling, trout flying up from the bottom. I gave it a few moments before casting a Griffith's onto the water, hooking a cutthroat and ruining it all.