WHEN IT'S RIGHT
The sun on this late Montana morning rose over my Big Sky home into a robin-egg blue sky that, in Montana, seems to go on forever. The mountains were tack sharp against the blue sky and the air had a certain crispness that foretold the coming of fall. I was aware that somewhere beyond those mountains the first cold winds of winter are gathering, but not today.
Seated in my nephews truck with float tubes, fly rods and assorted fly fishing paraphernalia stowed safely under the topper covering the bed of his truck we swept north between the Crazy Mountains on the right and the Bridger Mountains on the left toward our destination. The wheat fields were turning a golden brown, and the emerald green of the second cutting of alfalfa served as a sharp contrast to the tawny brown color of the surround foothills. Antelope dotted the landscape, potholes along the road, still full of water after our wet winter and early summer, were inhabited by ducks, and over it all the cloudless Big Sky of a late Montana summer day unfolded.
Our journey ended on a dirt road that wound back into the foothills somewhere north of Ringling, Montana where we had been asked to explore two private ponds and provide some input to the land owner about possible improvements. The ponds were established six years earlier and they have been stocked with Kamloops rainbow trout on a regular basis ever two years since. The oldest fish would be approaching seven years old and some should be approaching truly bragging size.
The ponds are situated on the edge of the foothills along a small stream that provides the water for the ponds. One pond is about 5 acres in size and the other is about half that size, and each pond is about 17 feet deep. They drop off sharply from the edge and the soft soil along the edges makes it a challenge to get into and out of them from a float tube. The first suggestion that we intend to make to the landowner is to put in a ramp and a gravel pad on each pond to allow for better access. I think if my nephew, who is a few years my junior, had not been available I might be forever paddling around in the smaller pond unable to get out of my tube. Even he had a struggle navigating the slippery mud along the edge when he tried to get out.
The access issue aside, when we arrived shortly before 9 o'clock on this most perfect Montana late summer day there was a mass flight of long-horned caddis flies milling over the water and Callibaetis spinners dancing over the surrounding fields and mated females dropping to the surface of the water. Cruising along the edge between the drop-off and the narrow shoreline sizeable trout were tipping up and sipping in an occasional spinner or crashing the surface film in pursuit of the buzzing caddis flies that were hovering in mass above the surface. Unfortunately, before we could take advantage of this activity the Montana wind began to blow and the insects seemed, as if by magic, to disappear and the rising fish disappeared back into the depths.
While my nephew busied himself with a dip net and seine collecting the resident insect biomass for later study I got into my waders, assembled my fly rod, loaded my float tube with fly boxes containing my stillwater fly patterns that I have assembled over the years, and, after fighting with the sticky mud along the shoreline I managed, somewhat ungracefully, to get into my tube and onto the surface of the pond. This was my part in this expedition, catch trout. I selected an old favorite from my collection of fly patterns, a green woolly bugger with purple hackle and a long black marabou tail. I tie them on a long-shanked Mustad hook – 9672 in size 6's and 8's – some weighted and some with weight. I use red thread to identify the weighted flies. I started out with an unweighted bugger size 8 fished on a 9 foot leader with a 3x tippet fished on a floating line. I was using my old HMG Fenwick graphite 857 model fly rod. [8½ foot for a 7 weight line] Despite all the rods in my rod cabinet I always reach for this rod when I'm fishing from a tube.
I began to slowly kick down the south side of the bigger pond trailing my fly about 40 feet behind my tube and giving the line a short – 3 to 6 inch – strip every 30 seconds or so. As I kicked passed a small point that projected out into the pond I felt a tap, and then another tap, and then another tap. I thought that my fly was hitting the tops of the bladderwort weeds that were growing just over the edge of the drop-off. When I raised my rod tip the weeds fought back by shaking their head!
"Fish on!" I called to my nephew who was poking along in his tube gathering insect samples.
The fish was strong and put a good bow in my old Fenwick before he succumbed to the pressure and slid over the rim of my landing net. I easily popped the barbless hook out of his jaw and held him against the butt of my rod. [I squash the barbs on all my hooks for easy removal either from fish or myself] I put some thread wraps on my rod butt several years ago so I could quickly measure a fish and release it. The first fish of the day was a full 16 inches and very solid.
In the course of the next couple hours I hooked and released several more fish before I stopped to rest my legs and refresh myself with lunch. Getting out of the pond proved to be an adventure but I finally managed to pull myself out of my tube by clawing my way up the bank. It wasn't pretty.
After lunch we proceeded to check out the other pond which was about half the size of the lower one. It did not drop-off quite so quickly but the edges proved to be just as muddy and slippery. Once again it was an adventure just getting into the water and even a greater adventure getting out. They definitely need some solid gravel pads. My nephew was done with his collecting and began to fish in the afternoon.
Throughout the day the wind continued to gust; first from one direction and then another making kicking around in a float tube a bit of a struggle. I had spent all day Saturday helping a friend frame-up and addition to his garage and my old body was already sore from that exercise when I hit the ponds on Monday. Trust me, I found even more places that were sore after 8 hours in a float tube kicking against the wind.
The trout in the upper pond proved just as cooperative as the fish in the lower pond. Using the same green woolly bugger I immediately began to pick up hits and fish. Like the fish in the lower ponds the takes were extremely subtle, just a series of taps. During the day I only had one fish that actually hit the fly hard and I missed him!
It was interesting that when we pumped the stomachs of several of the fish that we caught that they had lots of tiny water fleas and only a few of the larger nymphs.
The action on the upper pond was almost continuous. Most of the time one of us was fighting a fish and on several occasions we both had fish on at the same time. Some of the fish were small, 10-12 inches, the results of the planting that was done earlier in the year, but most of the fish that we landed were in the 16-18 inch class with a few approaching 20 inches. My nephew did hook one of the larger fish but the hook pulled out just as he was about to slip him into the net. That fish looked to be about 24 or 25 inches.
We had hoped that the wind would die down in the late afternoon but it actually got stronger so we pulled ourselves, literally, out of the pond about 5 o'clock. I did manage to catch my last fish on a dry fly by walking along the edge of the pond and looking for a cruising fish. When I spotted on cruising just over the weeds I dropped an adult damsel dry fly almost on his nose and he jumped on it. The last fish of the day was a full 18 inches long.
My nephew holding my last fish of the day, which rose to a dry damsel fly pattern in shallow water.
I don't have many days when I can't seem to do anything wrong but this was one of those days. This was one of those kind of days that you hope you will have each time you go out but there are only so many of those days in an angler's life. Boy it sure is great when it's right!