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See them coming, swimming toward you like ducks across the sky at dawn. It's hard for a Northern Rockies trout chaser to fathom: no hatch to match, no current seam to aim for, just you and a couple dozen bonefish headed your direction. Throw it too late and you'll spook 'em. Too early and your fly sinks to the bottom. But time it right and suddenly there you are-light breeze, palm trees and a fish heading straight for Honduras.

Standing thigh-high in the waters of Belize will teach a dedicated western river angler more about our sport's diversity than a thousand bonefish books could ever hope to accomplish. Because the tropics are so not Montana in November. Because a place like Turneffe Flats or Glovers Reef is everything steelhead fishing in springtime isn't. You're warm. You're comfortable. You're wearing shorts. And for once you can leave the "Nobility in Suffering School of Flyfishing" packed away at home with your leech patterns and neoprenes. It's doubtful bonefish will ever replace brown trout on the unspoken scale of our piscatorial caste system. Still, a day on the flats leaves your head as clear as the surrounding sea and you never have to worry about hooking your backcast in the willows.

--Denver Bryan

Here they come again, slightly smarter than last time. As the sun sets over your shoulder and the pull of another double haul turns your forearm to mush, you pick out a fish and aim...

Winter Fishing and Waxwings

by Chris Dombrowski

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").

Winter Fishing
--Walter Workman

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.

Class Distinction on the Yellowstone

by Allen Morris Jones

Here's how you float the Yellowstone: With a good friend, it's impossible to make a mistake. It's also impossible not to. Every oar splash and drift through a seam is cause for good-natured accusation and graceful riposte ("You're the shithead." / "Hey, fuck you.")

Waiting your turn at the put-in, sizing up the other fishermen. Judging. There is, you decide, at least one fundamental truth about fishing. You yourself are the standard by which other fishermen are measured. Turns out that everyone is either a clown in costume or a sunburned, squint-eyed guru. On a hot weekend morning, the boats are lined up anchor to bumper. Tired guides tying on flies. Nervous clients pacing back and forth, glancing at watches. Name brands everywhere. Which leads to another truth about fly-fishing: Like a magnet with paperclips, it collects pretension. Look at these people. Christ. Inevitably, you find yourself in one of two camps. Competing with or reacting against. That guy in jeans soaked to the crotch and a stringer of browns for the barby might be somebody you could drink a beer with . . . or a local to be ignored. The fat man in the Orvis waders and Armani polarized glasses, his pipe leaking slow trails of Prince Albert, is either a resource to be mined or an out-of-stater to be mocked.

Class distinction
--Jay Ericson

With your boat in the water half an hour later, and with the world comfortably (if inappropriately) distilled down into yins and yangs, you see that three of those goddamned yangs are already spread out through your favorite riffle. You float past, lighting a cigarette. Cracking a morning beer. ("Hey, you just missed a fish." / "Kiss my ass.")

Let's say, for argument's sake, you're in the wet jeans and barbeque camp. Inevitably, the displays of pretension have brought out your worst side. If you were in a bar, you'd get in a fight. And so, dragging up a foul-hooked whitefish and thumping its head on the gunnel of your Clacka, you announce quite loudly (for the benefit of the custom-built mahogany on the corner), "Man, these cutthroats are gooood eatin." And later still, floating past another guided party, spread out chest deep in a hole best fished from the shore, you say to your buddy, "No, no, no, you got it all wrong. It's catfish that like trout chunks."

An hour into it, the rowing itself takes on immoderate importance. The mirror twist and turn, the pull and release. Touch, touch. It's an art, and not many people think of it that way. It's like playing pool. When you're good, it looks easy. Positioning the cue ball so that every shot is straight in. It's only the mediocre players who have to make banks and hard cuts. Make it look easy. Slide between boulders already scarred by somebody else's fiberglass. It's like writing. Present the best water to your fisherman the way Faulkner used to weave his sentences: One long, smooth ribbon.

At the end of the day, at the takeout, the fat-man with the pipe comes up with three beers in his hand. He opens them for you. He's got fish scales glittering across the knees of his waders and blood dried around one thumbnail. At some point, he's lost the pipe and has started smoking Lucky Strikes. He glances in at the pile of empties, the three small brown trout already cleaned for dinner. Notices your rod. Nods and says, "You know, I used to fish with one of those growin' up back in Wisconsin. Gave it to my grandson when he said he was goin' to school in Bozeman. Said he wanted to be someplace where he could fish. I told him hell he should go big, try for a school with a reputation. Then I went and gave him my old rod. He's smarter than I ever was I'll tell you that. Hell, I loved that rod."

You reach up with your beer. You clink the rim of his bottle. You grin. That's how you float the Yellowstone.

--Allen Jones is the former editor of Big Sky Journal in Bozeman, Montana. His new book, Last Year's River (Houghton Milton, October,) will undoubtedly be an Oprah favorite.

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