The Last Cast

My right eye lid blinked open a little before 7 AM yesterday morning. Grey clouds in the distance came into focus as I peered thru the slice of the open bedroom window. A quick glance at the clock, assured me that it wasn't just pre-dawn light. As my gaze sharpened I saw scattered pearls of raindrops clinging to the screen and my heart rate rose instantly filled with Great Expectations. A rare cloudy, sullen, and drizzly day in Wolf Creek, MT. It's Olive Time!

The next couple hours saw me thru my regular morning routine. First checking the weather, river levels, and wind speed all courtesy of various sites on the Internet. Breakfast at Frenchy's. Work in the shop took me to lunchtime, and that was all I could stand. The heavy, thick, grey clouds were inciting me to riot. After gulping a quick sandwich I was on my way to the river.

In fishing, as in most things, timing is everything. Being at the right place at the right time with the right stuff is critical. Miss one of those elements and you are Doomed. I knew I was getting out a little early, but with expectations of an incredible day I thought I could time the hatch. Get there early, get in position, and then ride it until the end. Hours and hours of good fishing! With this in mind I drove to one of my favorite flats near the Dearborn river. It's a wonderful wading spot maybe a quarter mile square of ankle to knee deep water. One of the few places you can almost wade across the river. By crossing an initial fast moving chest deep channel this broad watery expanse beckons the intrepid angler. While difficult to broach the potential rewards, lots of rising fish in a large area make it well worth it.

I saw early signs of the much expected Hatch. The boat launch fish were doing there thing a couple feet from shore. I saw a rise from the car window in the flat I was coming in. I was primed and pumped as I hurriedly stumbled along the shore, calling to the Geese to get out of the way. This is gosling season and the honkers are close to shore or hiding in the weeds. Startling one of them and having them burst out in your face is at best a one time experience and afterwards best avoided.

Flash back to a week ago: The last time I was here I remembered the incredible yet unusual time I had that day mostly due to the Trout Unlimited's equivalent of Earth Day, a river clean up, in late April. I'm not much of a civic duty kind of guy. I don't volunteer or join do-gooder groups. Tho TU was offering me an outstanding opportunity to get together with fellow Iconoclasts, drink fresh coffee, eat homemade muffins at Izzak's, and then do the one Civic Duty I get satisfaction from. Picking up garbage. They were even supplying the bags, and picking them up. Later, there was a barbecue (that I skipped) with the group of the people I most avoid, other fisherman.

The Blueberry muffins were excellent, the coffee strong; I was assigned a one mile stretch of road before the Wolf creek Bridge bordering the OX Bow Ranch. In my mind this was a prime stretch as I had to pass along it each day in order to get to the river from my house. The one species of criminal for whom I have no tolerance is the Litterbug. I can understand crimes of theft or murder; while reprehensible they are by their nature reasonable crimes. By this I mean they have a logic to them. Littering is certainly the most thoughtless and senseless of crimes; the penalties should demand immediate eradication from the human race. Sadly, Litterbugs are almost impossible to catch and I've found the only way to deal with the problem is to eradicate the evidence of their carelessness ie., picking up the garbage, and leave retribution to some divine karmic justice....

As this is a fishing story I shouldn't spend a whole lot of time on garbage pickup. The interesting assortment of old steel cans and thick green coke bottles should have been in a museum rather than buried on the steep road sides. The upshot of this was I found a brand new can of Coke with a label on it promising me a prize if I returned it to the Trout Shop. How exciting, this had turned into a veritable Easter Egg hunt! After finishing my stretch, I flew to the Trout Shop to claim my prize. I saw Jerry the owner and excitedly waved my can at him. I said, “Can I have the Green one in the back parking lot”?
 “ The green what”, he wanted to know.
“The green drift boat”, I said, as I handed him my can with the note on it. He laughed and told me I could have 6 flies. With feigned resignation, I went about my selection. Actually this was fun. Kid in the candy store kind of thing, as for the last few years I've tied my own flies and this was akin to having someone else make you a meal, it always tastes better. Knowing that the Blue Wing Olive hatch was just around the corner I selected, two emergers known as Sprouts, two cripples, which I never tie, and two cool looking soft hackles.Thanking Jerry, I put them in my fly box for a future time.

Well that time arrived last week on the Dearborn flat. The first perfect day of the olive hatch. There had been earlier Olive sitings but with a week of 30 mph winds they didn't exactly stick around very long. I was a little late getting out, fish were rising all around me as I crossed the channel and got onto the flat. I had just added some 4x tippet ( fairly heavy) as fish here have a habit of diving into the weeds when hooked and I felt I needed some extra strength to be able to pull them out. Putting on a size 16 dun, I cast and did a visibility check in the grey lite against steel blue water. I could see it well enough and added an emerger which I suspected would be most successful in picking up fish. I was right, on the first cast I hooked a nearby fish. As soon as he turned his head the line broke and my double fly rig was history. Bad knot I thought and tied on a single emerger. Another cast another fish another break off. I retied and the same thing happened again. Call me stupid but I did this one more time before realizing it wasn't something I was doing wrong, as is usually the case. I cut off the 4x tippet which I now suspected was the problem and retied on 5x, actually a lighter line.

As I was running out of my emergers I tied on one of the free Trout Shop Sprouts. I immediately hooked a spunky brown, around 16”, who dove thru weed beds went thru hill and dale and didn't break me off. I was a happy camper. He did slip off just as I was about to net him, all the better I thought. Even tho I had wasted a ton of time retying flies the hatch was going strong and fish were still rising all over the flat. I picked up another medium brown who self released a few feet from the net. Having caught some nice, tho medium size fish I decided hunt for larger ones. With my trusty Sprout, I hooked a large rainbow who ran like the devil was after him and slipped off just as I was about to net him. Damn, I would have liked to have gotten a better look at that one. I checked the fly for a bent hook. It looked fine. Another brown, another early release. Somewhat bemused, I decided to put on the second sprout which actually held a fish all the way to the net. But the next 3 or four slipped off, the last being no more than 8”. I realized I was fishing with the ultimate in “catch and release gear”. Hooks so cheap they weren't stiff enough to break or bend but rather yielded when enough pressure was applied and then sprang back to imitate a real hook. There truly is no free lunch in fly fishing .....
Back to the present: With visions of rainbows dancing on my line I returned to the Dearborn, albeit this time with good flies and tippet. I charged across the channel out onto the flat. Even tho there were no fish rising I was pleased to have beaten the hatch and knew at any moment it would begin; I was locked and loaded. The wind was calm, the sky overcast.All was good, all in readiness, all I had to do was wait.

 And that's what I did. I waited and waited peering down into the water for signs of the impending hatch, discarded husks from the nymph stage shed as they rise to the surface and complete their transition to adult mayflies. I moved down the flat, rod back against my shoulder like a soldier on sentry duty. Marching up and down looking for a rise, for bugs, for ANY sign of life in this fertile wasteland. After an hour of this I was gettingtired, cold and discouraged. Maybe a stint on the bank would help. Tho I knew in my heart I probably wouldn't bother fighting my way back across the channel again. I sat for a couple quiet minutes and thought to find greener pasture elsewhere.

Like Odysseus, Ibegan my seemingly endless migration up and down the river searching for the elusive Blue Wing Olive hatch.At three o'clock I found myself bored-hungry back in Craig. I went into the Trout Shop intent on consoling myself with a candy bar. I set out the days tale of woe for Jerry and headed for the candy section. He followed me back and said,”Here, save you money” and graciously extended a slightly burnt unsaleable yet delicious sugar cookie. I accepted it gratefully and reinvigorated headed out once more.

 I checked Cardinale's, nothing. I saw a couple rise on the other side of the river and drove around to a view overlooking that side and saw nothing. This was the pits; I decided to try one more spot before calling it quits. Hemmingway Flat has always been one of my favorites spots, tho it only fishes well on wind free days. Driving by the quiescent weather vane in Craig I knew I had at least a shot and I headed up the interstate to Hemmingway flat.

 I crossed a little channel to the island and low and behold I finally saw some of the elusive green bodied insects with beautiful translucent blue grey wings floating like an a fleet of tall ships down the water. Hooray! They're finally here. Now for some great action.......

 I waded out past the island and saw a fish moving lots of big water barely breaking the surface about 30 yards away. The water was very shallow and by the time I go near enough to cast he either quit rising or I spooked him. I waded up the flat all the while looking for fish. There were plenty of bugs but few rises and all of them one timers. They'll get going soon I thought to myself. Back on sentry duty, I waded up and down the flat seeing an occasional rise but nothing to cast at. Finally reaching the downstream limit of the bar I saw a small pod of fish steadily working. I stealthily waded down to them careful not to spook them as I had the first fish. I patiently watched for awhile, long enough to realize that they were just a bunch of dinks. This was just too much insult to my already injured expectations and I was done ! Without making a cast I headed back up the flat to the island where I could cross and head back to the car. If anything the hatch was intensifying. An armada was slowly advancing down the river, sitting ducks in the cold water and humid air unable to dry their wings and lift to the sky.

Maybe the fish had all gone to the TU barbecue the week before and were still full as they showed no interest in the natural food coming down the pike. Who knows the answer to the eternal ”Why” of trout fishing? I reached the island and was about to string up my rod when I saw a little dimple andthen another 30 seconds later among the carpet of bugs following the current line on the other side of the island . I thought, perhaps another dink, or maybe a really big one as they also tend to barely make a ripple when taking duns. What the hell, I thought I'd give it a shot.

 As I'm right handed I realized I'd have to make a difficult cast. I was behind the fish but off to the side, something like 7 o'clock to him. Moving any further up and over would but my back cast into the bushes on the island. The current line curved into him as he lay in almost dead water watching the carpet of olives float over him and eventually in front of me.

It was the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied, the bases loaded and I had a 3 and 2 count. I spent a couple moments planning the cast and let fly......While hardly an accomplished fly caster, this had to be one of my best. The fly line flew out about 50 feet and touched the water forming a nice “U” shape curve with the 15 feet of lighter tippet section laying below the main line, fly facing forwards about 3 feet above the fish. Just one of many, in a flotilla of advancing mayflies. Slowly inching its way down, step by step, slowly it turned, until it was right over the fish. I could see the water gently stir as he came up from below and low and behold took my fly. I waited a second until his head turned and set the hook. In a storybook ending I would have caught a monster trout nicknamed “Nessie” who ran half way to Holter Dam before I got him under control and landed him in a hail of trumpets and glory. Instead, he was a prime 15 or 16 inch rainbow who early on made the mistake of heading down rather than out and got himself momentarily tangled in a clump of weeds which obscured his vision and made him easy to land.

 I find the memories of easy and plentiful fish to shortly fade as do days of frustration and disappointment. However, whatremains is the memory of one well executed cast which caught a fine trout. For while we all want to catch a lot of fish, its not how many we catch but how we catch them that defines our experience. That rare moment when skill and perseverance combine. Imprinting the memory of the sailing line, the fly gently kissing the water, drifting towards the fish. The trout consummating the act, rising accepting the fly.....Once again exceeded my expectations for another fine day on the river

MT 5/14/10

PO Bx 13
Wolf Creek, MT.  59648