August 26th, 2002

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Eye of the Beholder
By Paul Dieter (pdieter)

Many fly fishers have taken solace in the notion that "trout only live in the most beautiful of places" on days when the catching is a bit slow. It is certainly true and an element of trout fishing that is often held as important as the size or quantity of the fish present in the location. So what happens when you find yourself fishing in a locale that seems at odds with this notion?

I recently found myself in this dilemma trying to work in some Montana fishing while staying in Anaconda for my niece's high school graduation. We were staying at Skyhaven Lodge just outside of Anaconda on Warm Springs Creek and about three minutes from the 'Toxic Trough' of the Clark Fork. I had only a couple hours each day to wet a line and this included dashing over to the Clark Fork ten to midnight one 'day' and 5-8 am another; a couple other afternoons gave me an hour or two to explore the creek running by the lodge.

Neither location could be considered pristine or even ascetically pleasing. The area of the creek I fished was strewn with town garbage brought down by flooding and was trampled by cattle as well as possessing pockets of putrid black mine tailing sediment. The beginnings of the Clark Fork for those who haven't seen it is a monumental Superfund clean up site with much of the river birthing out of a spillway from huge settling ponds and beginning it's way to the Pacific winding through a somewhat lunar landscape.

As I took delight in browns slashing out from cover at streamers I stripped through their territory I struggled to reconcile the contradictory qualities of the landscape and the fishing. As in all perceptions I had a choice, I could let my mind focus on the debris and destruction around me or I could focus on the beauty inherent in simply fishing to the fish. These bulky browns had little concern for ascetics; in fact they seemed to reflect the environment. They were bar room brawlers, cantankerous and broad backed like the miners who carved a livelihood out of this valley.

The first afternoon on Warm Springs Creek I fished my way downstream, artfully drifting dries and nymph droppers along undercut banks and just off of tangles of branches in deep holes and ended up with a mile of nothing. Turning around to work my way back up to the lodge I discarded civility and tied on Cone-headed, Rubber-legged, Flashabuggers and Zudlers ripping them through the same slots and logjams. This guttural style brought forth streaks of yellow and toothy strikes sometimes jerking the line out of my hand. Following cow trails from hole to hole, stepping over mangled tricycles and plastic bottles I knew I was learning something but I wasn't sure what it was.

The last morning I dragged my nephew and my niece's boyfriend down to the Clark Fork before dawn to get in a couple hours on the water before breakfast with other family members. The two young men were new to fly fishing but eager to learn. We walked downstream while it was still dark and spitting a light freezing rain, Whitetail deer scattering before us like Killdeer on the beach. I set each of the young men up on their own eddy and before I could put on a new leader my nephew had brought a respectable sized brown to hand. I rigged a Zudler and headed for a steep drop of pocket water I had fished the year before. The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten as I started into the pockets. By the top of the drop I had only landed one fish but had strikes and crashing fish in every lie along the way. I moved up into the next ong deep run and immediately had fish of respectable size tearing into my streamer.

As it got light enough to reveal the desolate landscape the run came alive with rising fish. I could tell from the rise forms, heavy with backs and splashy tails, they were feeding just under the surface but I couldn't see any evidence of what the food was. With that strange logic that only a fly fisher has, I lengthened my leader and tapered it to 6x, cutting off a fly (lure) that was working well so I could cast to rising fish. I tried a few caddis emergers and pupas and kept scanning the water for a look at what they were into. I didn't pack my seine because I knew ahead of time that I wouldn't be fishing such technical waters and I cursed my arrogance and failing eyesight. The only thing I could see floating just under the surface was perhaps some tiny aquatic worms. I was casting my third or fifth attempt at something similar when my nephew appeared and reported that the fish were rising but not to anything they could imitate. I had to confess I too couldn't match this hatch yet and when I did I would certainly pass along the information. I could also see that he was struggling with the cold, as he hadn't come prepared for such weather. I spent the next half-hour tying on different flies in a futile effort to find something that worked for the risers. Nothing worked and I couldn't be sure if it was pattern, size or position in the water column but my hands were getting too cold to keep tying on flies.

I cut my leader back to 0x and put the Zudler back on and the first cast produced a respectable fish but somehow I felt less respectable for my tactics. It took me several minutes to hook into most every fish that was feeding on the surface in the bend and then I headed down to see how the youngsters were doing. My nephew had lost the battle with the cold as it had started to snow in earnest now so he took the keys and headed for the car heater. I showed the boyfriend how I was working the streamer, stressing that they really can't be stripped too fast. He got it down right away and I informed him I was going to fish my way back to the car.

All the water between there and the parking lot was new to me and since it was still before 8am and snowing steadily I figured I wouldn't meet too many folks along the way. It became a smooth rhythm of cutting between the bends and fishing the deep runs from the inside bank. Many times fishing in Montana I have been overwhelmed by the quantity of fish per mile (or even foot) in some of the rivers. This spot is probably as great an example of that as anywhere, yet my mind began to wander to the disappointing environment and even my failure to figure out the rise (which had stopped now), and a strange guilt began to creep in concerning the quantity of fish I was getting with such a low-brow technique.

I stopped and really took a look around. The snowflakes were large, wet and settling quietly on the grass and small trees. It was all part of the process of reclaiming this land from the destruction wrought upon it before the West awakened from a mania that went back to Lewis and Clark. This ecosystem was not a disgrace, it was actually a wonderful testament to the effort of humankind to right a wrong and the ability of nature to heal and forgive. My daughter and her children might very well find this river to be a lush destination fishery in their day, an example of successful wildlife management, but it will get there on nature's timeframe not ours. My current desire to be awash in a panorama of fly fishing marketing images was the short fall of my own expectations, not an inherent flaw in the environment. So too, my shame at not tossing a "proper fly," was based more in media driven preconceptions than any substandard experience.

All around me the world was showing the perfection of flexibility and somehow I was trying to turn my back on that and fit the day into a preconceived mold. For God's sake it was snowing in June! These wet jumbo flakes crashed on my cramped psyche like a Zen instructor's stick and I became awake once more.

A reach cast dropped my fly on the edge of the undercut and laid the line right down the seam, a few hard strips while adding twitches with the rod tip brought a large yellow streak from under the bank. It crashed on the fly so hard the surface of the water exploded. As the fish turned for cover I drove the large hook home with all the backbone my 486LL had. This fish would come to hand but not before repeated efforts to get back to cover and then a few moments sulking in the depths. In hand it showed itself to be the most colorful inhabitant of the area and every outward appearance of health. I continued up through pockets, bends and inviting seams, picking up fish or missing explosive strikes, boils and wakes. I saw a teenager bounding through the brush like one of the Whitetails, only he was headed for a warm car. I had the whole river to myself, the fish were on the feed, snow was building up on my hat brim; how could this be anything but picturesque? ~ Paul Dieter (pdieter)


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