Monday, January 18, 2010

The Missouri River in Winter

The weather in Montana for the past couple of weeks has reached temps in the 40-50s, which is excellent conditions to get out on my favorite tail water, the Missouri River. I have made two trips to the Missouri the past two weekends, to press my luck in hopes of hooking into some nice trout. The first outing was pretty uneventful, only hooking into a single fish that got near enough for me to see, and then losing him just as quick as I had hooked into him. The wind was brisk, and deterred me from hanging around for too long.

This past Saturday, I made my way out once again, with a cloudy forecast, 4-5 mph winds and a solid mid 40 degree temperature. I was able to get on the river below Holter Dam by 1:00 and had a good 4-5 hour day ahead of me. I had just purchased a new fly box, lined it with trout candy, and was ready to put in a solid days effort.

The walk from the pullout on Recreation Road takes about 10 minutes to get right below the dam. The ice is still visible on the wall of the dam itself, but has slowly been melting off as the days have been warmer than usual. I decided to get as close to the dam as I could, and work a good stretch back down river. I began the day with a rainbow Czech nymph, drifting it deliberately, taking a few steps and repeating the process. As I was doing so, I caught a glimpse of big fish hanging just feet from the bank behind me. I got a decent look at him as he was close enough for me to net him if I wanted to, and quickly realized it was about a 22-24 inch Whitefish. He languidly held near the bank, not making many movements, and then slowly disappeared below the surface and swept himself away with the current. I made a few more drifts and then again noticed he was back, and this time I had a good angle to drop a morsel on top of him. 3-4 good drifts right on his nose yielded no results with the scud pattern. Once again, he moved on and was lost to the river. The next hour or so was slow as I repeated the tedious nymphing process. I was now in a section of the river, still near the dam where the previous weekend I hooked into the rainbow. By now, I had tied on a red zebra midge off the end of the scud, in hopes of increasing the odds of what the fish might be particular to this day. A few drifts in and I had a tug on my line. I wasn't ready for it as I had a little too much slack line out and was unable to properly set my hook, a few seconds of struggle and the line went limp. I decided to drift through the run again without stepping downstream, hoping another unsuspecting trout would sink his lip into one of the tasty treats at the end of my line. As expected, a dozen or so casts later, my line once again went taught. I immediately had a good hook set and the fish was on! I felt the immense power and struggle of this fish, two to three massive head shakes and he was running like a bat out of hell! I let him take line, he wasn't slowing down. I'm now halfway to my backing, and realize I need to put the brakes on this fish, I take a hold of the spool handle to try and reel him in, but he still isn't stopping. In a flash, I'm down to my backing and have yet to take control of this fish. Once again I grab hold of the spool handle put the pressure on and SNAP! Dead line. The fish got the best of me. I reeled in the 100 feet of empty, lifeless fly line, defeated. The scud pattern was still at the end of my leader, but the zebra midge I had tied only days before was gone. Sometimes I wonder if the result of losing a fish is due to a badly tied knot, bad tippet, or just plain ole' poor judgement. The funny thing is that the sun, which had yet to make an appearance all day, until that moment, at the precise moment of hooking the fish, peeked out from behind the clouds brightly, as if the heavens had opened up for a split second. As soon as I lost him and reeled in my line, the gateway of light closed and never once did it make another appearance that day. It's as if the fishing Gods were making a mockery of me for letting that fish run all over me. I can only imagine the moment I had just lost.

I took a break on the river bank for a little while, enough time for my feet to warm up, gathered my thoughts and made my way back down river. I made a few more drifts along the bank as I crept along, slowly drifting the same setup. It was near sunset when I got back to the parking area, I decided to take a moment and just watch the river. It never seems to fail me how the quiet passing of the water in the river can soothe me, and lick the salt from the daily wounds. It was about this time I noticed something special begin to happen. Fish were sporadically rising in my near vicinity. I did see some tiny midges near the banks earlier in the day, but could not make out any hatch on the water. I tied on a size 22 dark midge pattern, and decided to cast in the direction of any rising fish. The river had come alive as I eventually witnessed a few dozen surface breaks over the next half hour. I casted to, above and below every rise form I saw with no interest from the fish to my offering. Dry fly fishing will always boggle my mind in some way, and I don't think I will ever fully understand or master it. It's a game of cat and mouse, and more times than none, the mouse eventually always gets away! Overall, I was pleased with the day, but sometimes you win some and you lose some, and this day was only fuel for the fire to get back out and get em another day.


  1. Ah yeah - now that's a great post. And the pic of the sun says it all.

    This is the stuff that makes me keep coming back for more...although landing some nice fish doesn't hurt either.

    'It never seems to fail me how the quiet passing of the water in the river can soothe me, and lick the salt from the daily wounds'

    I don't think it can be said any better than this.

  2. After visiting with you on Friday I wanted to "stop" by the blog and leave a comment. I stumbled across your work some time ago and have since enjoyed reading about your adventures on the water. Keep up the good work and let me know when we can hit the river. -Snipes