Yesterday was the first day of Spring, perhaps not by the calendar, but certainly going by the weather. Winters tend to be long and hard in Montana and when the warm weather arrives residents are ready to bust out! Saturday many of them came to the river. Drift boats galore, kick boats, kayaks and canoes bristling with fishing rods antennae. I'm sure they caught lots of sun, but not many fish, tho a good time was guaranteed for all on a such a splendid day…..
The real work started when they left. By 7:15 PM there wasn't a boat, fisherman or car in the parking lot; the river was all mine.I can't complain, it's been pretty much all mine since mid Feb. when I started fishing this year. As long as there have been clouds or the sun has set the dry fly fishing has been unparallelled. I've been fishing pretty much all over the river tho I hadn't fished my favorite run yet, the Braids. During the 10 years I've been fishing the Mo., this is my favorite, go to spot; I consider it my home water.
Situated less than a half mile from the Holter Dam boat launch it gets plenty of attention most mornings during the summer. As the lower river warms, the trout move up to this area for the cooler faster water with its thick lush weeds. The inverse is true in the Spring and it is one of the last areas to fish well. The Braids are comprised of three distinct areas, the upper, middle and lower sections. What makes the Braids so intriguing is a mid river underwater sandbar that stretches from the Riffles to the top of the upper section. By crossing a waist high 50 yard channel you can reach the bar and once on it the water runs no higher than your boots laces. Well out in the river, it gives the fisherman numerous options and opportunities. The bar itself is no more than 30 feet wide and runs approx.100 yards up river until it drops off into relatively high fast water and becomes too difficult to wade. Those shallow hundred yards are magical as large fish,when undisturbed, lay on top of the bar picking flies off surface or eating nymphs, emergers, or numerous invertebrates in the weed beds to the side of the bar. The variety of currents along the bar gives the water a braided appearance, hence the nickname. This part of the river is particularly rich in nutrients and has the coldest oxygenated water being closest to the tailwater dam.
The mid section is a large riffle, actually the shallowest, widest end of the bar before it drops off into deeper water. One often can see large trout racing thru this section. Rarely used for dry fly fishing; tho once in awhile during an abundant hatch one can see of heads poking up if you look very closely in the variegated water.
The lower section runs a quarter mile along an island which begins mid way thru the riffle. This water is imminently wadeable; the currents are slow and uniform. Due to a gradual gradient, while standing in waist deep water, the middle of the river can be accessed with a long cast. The islands's end has it s own flat which I don't consider part of the Braids as it has a separate topography mostly influenced by a large island across river.
From 2001-2003 I fished the riffle. These were unusual years that produced a large class of 18-22” fish. Circumstances that caused this were three high water years in the late 90's, always good for natural reproducing fish, coupled with the effects of whirling disease soon there after. The advent of Whirling Disease killed off the young fish before they could supplant many of the older larger ones .The Mo., at the time, had something like eight thousand fish per mile. The riffle was just loaded with big fish. Standing in 6” of water, acting as a current break, you had your own personal school of a dozen or so fish lined up a couple feet behind you. Impossible to catch, tho funny to watch fisherman trying literally to “ fish their feet” to hook one.
At the time I was “Nympher-Man”. Uncountable fish days were not uncommon. By then I had developed the ”magic” caddis pupa nymph; dynamite couldn't have been more effective. These fish were so big and strong that when hooked in the fast current would take line peeling runs and perform acrobatic leaps ripping line well into the backing. Sometimes you were forced to stumble thru the riffle, reel screaming, back to shore for a chase down the island to prevent being spooled. Those were glory days for sure; I was King of the Riffle and once in awhile had other fisherman ask me for an autograph after watching me hook fish after fish hour after hour thru long summer days.....The downside was a winter long case of tendonitis in my elbow which took a season to heal; tho it was certainly worth it !
When my friends, Mike & Lynn Cherba, come out for their annual summer visit on the Mo. we fish only dry flies. Under their tutelage, I discovered a new appreciation for this aspect of fishing. During the early days of Aug, we would get on top of the bar before the Trico spinner fall. They would then adeptly catch large trout dead drifting a tiny spinner in the braided currents. One would think it impossible but with lots of stealth, accurate casting and drift control it could be accomplished. It took me a season or so to “get it” but I finally did, at least some of the times.... As a now dedicated convert I doubt in the last 5 years I don t think I've nymphed more than a handful of times.
The Lower section was the last area of the Braids that I fished regularly. It is a dry fly only stretch, the water too slow and often too weedy to nymph. I initially regarded it as frog water until one evening, after a slow time on the bar, I walked down the island to fish the flat at other end when I noticed fish rising about 60 feet out from shore. I had walked this island many times during the day without seeing a fish rise but once the sun was off the water it was a different story entirely. The surface was alive with rising fish, spread out in in small groups of 3-5, no more than 60 feet out on the seam formed by the juncture of the slower off shore current and the faster one of the main river. By wading just far enough out to clear a back cast you had classic down and across presentation and a clear view of your fly; dry fly fishing at it s best. What a find that was!
Tonight I parked along the river road and viewed the upper and middle sections from the high bank. The sun was just going down behind the hills. I could see an occasional rise out in the river beyond the bar but nothing steady. Out of the corner of my ear I could hear some small gulps and glurps but couldn't locate them in all the the river talk. Finally I looked down, almost directly below me, and saw fish feeding at the end of a current break caused by a branch hanging in the water. That was enough evidence for me that something was going to happen. I returned to the car and struggled into my neoprene waders and boots; the water still only forty degrees!
I crossed thru the riffle to get to the bar wanting to get a little above the fish feeding near the bank an hoping I could work my way closer and reach them. Not ! Once off the bar, I was soon up to my chest and still 60 feet or so away from them. I got close a couple times but my slash and splash casting was spanking the water and scaring the fish. I realized sneaking up behind in shallower water would be a better plan of attack and put it in the back of my mind for later. Luckily, I could see some fish now working up the bar. Herein lies the problem with the upper section. The fish are concentrated on the bar as well as to the sides. There's no way to get up the bar without spooking fish as the only access is the bottom. You can cast upstream tho it rarely works as the intense swirling currents make line control near impossible. You may get ripping strikes but you wont catch fish.
Usually I just pick the side of the bar that has the least surface activity.I wade as deep as I can off to the side and plough my way up it. The other stratagem is to beat the hatch by a half hour or so. Take an easy walk up the middle of the bar, the hell with the fish, and just wait at the top end; eventually they come back when the hatch starts. This way you can fish down the bar and to either side of it, the best of all possible worlds.Tonite I was late and had to plow thru some fish. I did hook a nice brown fishing up the bar but as expected he got off. I know better but it's so tempting! Most of the fish were to my left, just off the bar and in the channel between it and the bank. I forged my way to the top without disturbing the fish to the left and immediately got to work. Using a size 16 griffiths gnat I immediately picked up another nice brown casting down and across. This one I held onto as I had good control of my line and the drift. There were fish rising directly to the side of me but I was as high up the bar as I could go before it disappeared into deep water. I tried throwing a bit of a curve in the cast so as to get a fly first presentation and on the second cast was able to do so and was rewarded with a nice rainbow in full spawning colors. Not a bad start.....
I continued fishing, slowly working my way down the bar. Picking up a fish or two and missing a couple others. By the time I got back down to the top of the riffle the rise had pretty much tapered off and I decided to walk down the island and check out the lower section. Standing on the low bank this time, I had the same problem as before. I could hear fish but couldn't find them. I kept looking out in the river for tell tale rings without seeing them. The light was making things difficult, more on that later. Once again I discovered the fish were feeding literally at my feet. I had to stand back on the bank to even cast to them. I've never seen them in so close. Good fortune was tempered by the intense refraction of light on the riffled water. I could't see my relatively large griffiths gnat when no more than 10 feet away. There are times in the summer when fishing caddis, the light of the setting sun turns the water liquid gold, backlighting the darker fly; making long casts for far off fish seem effortless. Tonight was a totally different story. I could see rings from steadily rising fish but had to guesstimate whether my fly had reached the rings and then lift. Luckily, I was right once in awhile and I started catching some really large fish. One, was a measured 21” rainbow in ankle deep water, followed by a twenty inch brown and then a 19” rainbow. I couldn't believe it ! I think if I could have seen my fly I could have caught every fish in the river, it was that good!
As darkness broached and the rises diminished, I walked up the island towards my car. I thought about the fish I first saw from the high bank and trying to reach them from below. From the tip of the island I stealthily waded out in very shallow water inching my way up about 50 feet from the still rising fish just off the bank. I think in brighter conditions I would have spooked them but in the low light I was able to walk up until I was almost parallel to them and close enough to cast. I looked for the fish that displaced the most water when rising and aimed for him. As fortune would have it, the cast was spot on and I was able to track my fly as it slowly came down his lane, closer, closer, until it was right over where I expected the fish to be. Then a small disturbance in the water as the behemoth came up and gently kissed the sky. I waited a full second and set the hook to one very surprised fish! In the still shallow water he couldn't get enough purchase to make a long run and I was able to corral him quickly, a large rainbow in full colors, certainly the biggest of the nite. As I released him I debated another cast. My rule of thumb with darkness is that if you have trouble seeing the fly in a caught fish's mouth it's time to go home. I honestly could see that last one well enough so I cast one more time.....
I didn't see exactly where the cast landed but after a few seconds of drift something rose in the near vicinity. With some trepidation, I set the hook and felt the solid embrace of another large rainbow now attached to my line. I played him quickly and was able to release him without incident, this incredible night was done and not to be forgotten !
It's taken me a couple days to get this account together. I've had time to think about what this all means to me. I see how fishing the Braids can be a metaphor for the stages of life. Riffle fishing comparable to a young person's initial phase of fast, exhilarating discovery. Moving on to the more serious technically challenging section once the “fun” stage has been mastered; spending time there stretching your boundaries and making most of your accomplishments. For me, this period of life was roughly between my thirties and early fifties, a time of building. Now approaching 60 I'm mostly content to fish the quieter water of the lower section, pleased with a well executed precise cast without the extra effort of mending line to unfurl in in turbulent waters. Most nights I have no desire to fight my way up the bar rather content to stroll the bank of the island or sit on high, waiting for the right time rather than seeking it.
While on high, most nights smoking a pipe, I marvel at where life has taken me. At first, my home was back East. I had family and friends in an area where I grew up and enjoyed living and fishing. Most of all, I felt a linear continuity of time. Change happened but it was in relatively small digestible amounts. Looking backwards in time from say the advanced age of 30, I could see all the small steps that lead me to that point. From my present vantage point I see that we are oblivious to the innate dangers of life. We establish our own secure sphere, we set about making it safe, impregnable; a necessary illusion. For life can change in a heart beat; natural catastrophe, accident, illness, divorce, and death . All our moorings suddenly cut and we drift......
I was fortunate to drift here when my time of separation occurred. While it took many days over many seasons; security & comfort were found, bonds established. A place that now looks, feels and smells like home waters again.