Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Eighty-one

March Madness, Montana Style

By Stu Farnham

You're never too old to learn. Here, for example, are some things I learned on my trip to Montana in March 2002:

  • Gloves are best organized into pairs consisting of one each for the right and the left hands. Pairs consisting of two for the left hand are less useful.

  • Tie good knots!

  • When working around water, it's a good idea to tape the battery compartment of your camera shut.

  • Anyone who tells you that the beginning of March is early spring in Montana is either delusional or dishonest.

It had been a long winter. My job had me traveling three to four days a week, and my enthusiasm for the job was low. The economy was shaky, and my company had gone through layoffs in each of the four preceding quarters. I hadn't had much enthusiasm for fishing (or anything else), and when I did the weather didn't cooperate. I needed a break, and in early February I decided to take a long weekend, spend some of the pile of frequent flyer miles I had accumulated, and go fishing. I polled the FAOL bulletin boards for ideas, and settled on a trip to Montana. I'd fish the Missouri below Holter Dam one day and DePuy's Spring Creek the next. As an added bonus, I could visit my friends Ron and Mary Ellen Johnstad in Emigrant.

Hans Weilenmann suggested I get in touch with John Mundinger and Chris Brozell for information about the Missouri and DePuy's. I did, and arranged to meet and fish with them. John knows the Missouri well, and Chris fishes DePuy's at least twice a week. You can see some of John's and Chris' flies on Han's web site, www.danica.com/FLYTIER/index.php

I planned to fish on March 8 and 9, and travel the prior and following days. As my departure date approached, I monitored the weather reports and forecasts. An Alberta Clipper had dropped down over the Rockies. Overnight lows were running in the minus teens (Fahrenheit), with highs in the single digits. A snowstorm was expected late in the week. By Wednesday, it was clear that it would remain cold at least through Friday, but it looked like it might warm up for the weekend. So, I pushed my trip out by a day and hoped for the best.

When I got off the plane in Helena, there was four inches of fresh snow on the ground. The temperature was minus one, although it felt warmer with the bright, late winter sunshine and a light breeze. The forecast for Saturday was hopeful, predicting highs in the mid 30s John had plans for Saturday, so would be unable to meet me to fish the Missouri. Fortunately, he had recommended some fly patterns. Dean at Hatchfinders Fly Shop in Livingston www.hatchfinders.com had recommended a couple of spots to fish.

Saturday morning was clear and sunny. The fabled Montana wind has returned, out of the South, and temperatures were climbing quickly from their overnight lows. I headed up I-15 to the Wolf Creek exit, which would lead me to the Missouri just below Holter Dam.

While I had heard and read about the Missouri, this was my first time fishing that river. The stretch between Holter Dam has a low gradient and a fairly regular cobble bottom. Overall it is more like a spring creek than a tail water. There was only a little shelf ice to deal with despite the cold.

The first of Dean's recommended spots was occupied, so I crossed the bridge at Wolf Creek and headed downstream. I found a gravel bar that ran diagonally most of the way across the river. I could wade along the bar and nymph into the drop off below.

Although the air temperature was now above freezing, the wind was blowing straight upstream. I was cold as I geared up, and glad I had brought along one of my two pair of fingerless gloves with fold over mitts. After pulling on, zipping up, tying, snapping, and otherwise fastening all of my gear, I pulled the gloves out of my bag. Hmmm. Two lefts. Sadly, not the first time I had made that mistake. I was fortunate to find the wool gloves I bought for tailing steelhead, in the bottom of my gear bag.

This was the maiden trip for the new 6-weight that Dave Lewis www.performanceflyrods.com built for me on a Sage SLT 690-4 blank. This rod replaced a SP 590-3 with which I never really came to terms. I'm happy to say that the rod performed very well for me casting multi-nymph rigs, plus split shot and strike indicator, in the stiff wind. Dave did a very nice job finishing the rod, too!

There was a consistent hatch of #18-#20 baetis the whole time I was on the river. However, there was no surface activity that I noticed. I started out trying a variety of baetis nymphs, soft hackles, wets, and drowned emergers, to no avail. John Mundinger had recommended a couple of midge patterns: the Red Hot and the Lightning Bug. I tied on a lightning bug below a tungsten bead head prince and proceeded to fish an area where choppy standing waves and a change in water color indicated a deep slot.

It took a couple of casts to get the drift I wanted, and then I was into what felt to be a large fish. I played the fish for a while, and backed into shallower water to net it. The fish thrashed in the shallow water and my leader parted. When I retrieved my line there was a pigtail in the end of the leader - knot failure. My guess is that I wasn't careful enough when tying on the fly with cold, bare hands.

I tied on another lightning bug, tied on a #20 TMC 101, and waded back out to the slot. This time I hooked and landed a very nice rainbow, this one 22 inches. Unfortunately, I left the digital camera back in the car, as I didn't trust myself to handle it over water in the cold and the wind; so, no fish pictures from the Missouri.

As I moved down the gravel bar, I hooked three more fish, of which I landed two: one 24" and one 18". The third bent the hook and escaped. All five fish were hooked on #20 lightning bugs. These are beautiful fish, big shouldered, deep, and fat.

After landing the last fish, I decided to call it a day and drove down to Livingston.

Paradise Valley is aptly named. The broad valley floor stretches between the Absaroka Mountains to the East and the Gallatins to the West. Cottonwoods mark the path of the Yellowstone River as it meanders northward from the Park towards its eastward turn in Livingston. The valley narrows at the North end, funneling the ever-present winds. The famous Paradise Valley spring creeks are at the throat of this narrowing, with Armstrong's and DePuy's on the West shore and Nelson's across the river.

I had fished Armstrong's once, several years ago. This time I had reserved a day on DePuy's. Winter rod fees are one-third of peak season. Although I don't fish a lot of pay-to-play water, I highly recommend that you fish these waters at least once. They are beautiful, and real graduate schools for fly fishers.

I met Chris Brozell at the DePuy house when I pulled up to pay my rod fee. The house is quite out of place in Montana, being modeled on a Southern Mansion. Still, it is in a beautiful setting. The creek is dammed up in front of the house to create a small pond. There was a pair of swans in the pond, and a small herd of wooly sheep, plus one watchful llama, in a pasture across the pond from the house. DePuy's has the best amenities of the three creeks, with several warming sheds (including chairs, tables, and woodstoves) and a small fly shop along the creek.

This time I brought the digital camera with me, and got a few pictures. However, later as I took the camera out of my vest pocket, however, the battery compartment opened and the rechargeable battery fell into the creek. I managed to retrieve it, but did not want to risk damage to the camera by putting in the wet battery. The lesson: next time I'm going to tape over the battery compartment to prevent such a mishap.

The temperature had warmed to the mid-40s, but the Chinook wind that ushered in the warm air was blowing strongly out of the South. Chris and I sought out a quarter-mile stretch of the creek that was sheltered from the wind by a high bank, by the upper end of the creek. Chris was fishing a broad section of very fishy looking water below a riffle. I started in a deep pool just below the culvert dividing the DePuy section from Armstrong's. It was about 10:30, and the baetis hatch that Chris was expecting had not started yet, to I tied on an olive CDC soft hackle below a small, olive, bead head hare's ear. I managed to take a couple of rainbows in the 14-inch range out of that hole on the soft hackle before the fish started rising.

Once the rises started, I switched to a #16 CDC baetis emerger on three feet of 7x tippet and started casting to rising fish. These fish are very, very well educated, although not particularly spooky. Imitations must be good, leaders fine, and presentations first-rate. Any carelessness on the fly fishers part will put the fish down. It seemed to me that you had at most two casts over a fish before they would stop rising.

If you've looked at Chris' flies on Hans' website, you know that he has some patterns tied with tightly twisted thread bodies. The thread bodies are nicely ribbed, and very durable. Chris gave me a #16 olive bodied parachute, with a knotted antron shuck, to try. I fished this fly for the rest of the day. Final count: 11 fish, 7 rainbows and 4 browns, with the largest being a 'bow of about 16 inches.

On our first trip to Paradise Valley, my wife Colleen and I stayed at a bed & breakfast owned by Ron and Mary Ellen Johnstad www.wtp.net/go/johnstad/. Ron and I hit it off immediately based on our shared love of fly-fishing, and I'm fortunate to now count Ron and Mary Ellen among my friends. Ron was injured in a car accident late last year, and my trip gave me the opportunity to visit with them on my last night in Montana. I'm happy to report that Ron is recovering well from his accident, and I look forward to my next trip so that he and I can fish together. ~ Stu Farnham

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