Late May, can be a difficult time to fish the Missouri River. The river is somewhat betwixt and between. The early season hatch of Baetis ( Blue Wing Olives) are gone, the next major hatch, Caddis Flies, may just be getting started though way down river. The rainbows have been spawning in the tribs. the last month or so and are just returning to the main river. Also, the flow can vary widely due to the amount of snowfall in the mountain drainages and how fast it is melting. Quite a few variables in this equation for a poor trout fisherman like myself to figure out ! Much to my surprise, the river, that night, fished like it does at its prime, in July !
I had tied up a couple new caddis nymph patterns that afternoon in expectation of trying them out in that evening. Around 6:00, I went to the " Braids " an area close to the dam and usually not active until early July as the water tends to be colder there and action starts a little later. Though, I start patrolling early in the Spring, to see if the fish have come that far up river as that is one of my favorite places to fish.
Before entering the river, I began the night with my evening ritual ; the lighting of my briar pipe. Tonight s initial selection was a very large full bent with deep rustication and thick walls to keep the pipe cool when smoking out doors. The pipe itself was ugliness incarnate; showing years of hard use and repeated dunkings in the river. Its color mottled , its finish worn & uneven . However, when properly packed with my favorite Navy Flake tobacco, it smokes dry and sweet in the teeth of the wind or in the face of adversity.
I saw an old acquaintance, Doug, about 30 yards from shore, in the riffles. He s been a fixture on the river the four years I ve been here and I suspect he s been coming to the Mo. a lot longer than that. I have affectionately nicknamed him "Skeleton Man" as he s a little old wizened guy with a brown weathered face from years in the sun. His skin is parchment thin, stretched very tightly over his face, making his features sharp and angular to appear mask-like.
This guy is a true trout bum; he lives to fish ! Doug arrives in April and camps along the river with his old white dog," Muskrat", for company. He stays through the Spring and then follows the summer around Montana fishing the various rivers at their best times.... He s got a unique style of fishing too and he catches almost as many fish as I do <G>.
After a chat with Doug, I began to fish. He told me he had been getting some rainbows and had three in the last hour, "Pretty good for this time of year" , he reckoned.
Much to my surprise , and while I didn t doubt Doug; the fish, were there in good numbers! Extremely unusual for this early in the season! While I m not a fish counter, having lost the ability to count on anything other than my one free hand while fishing or remember any incidents greater than three; I m still pretty sure that I was involved with maybe six fish encounters of the best kind, each hour for the few hours I was there. While I certainly didn t land many of them they were large fish, in the 18 " class. I was using size 18- 20 nymphs which have very small hooks and come out easy.
One fish was definitely worn out from spawning while the others were full of their normal vim and vigor ! I was even broken off on 5X tippet which is unusual as the water is still a little chilly and the fish don t fight as well when the water temperature is in the low 50 's. While most fisherman consider 5X to be light tippet, my friend Mike Cherba says," You can pull cars with that stuff." As I honor his opinions in all things fishing, 5x is hardly light stuff in my book either.
Things were slowing down, I was ready to leave ,thinking about dinner and work ,women and glasses of beer. You tend to think of a lot of things while fishing, one of it s beauties... It was 8 :15, the sun was going down. Doing a quick survey while standing in the riffle, I saw no fish rising , no bugs in the air, and it was getting breezy. A general consensus amongst my multiple personalities opted to eat as the fishing prognosis at this point looked poor. I walked back through the riffle to the bank and I climbed the last little hill to the road where the car was parked. When I reached this promontory and was putting my rod away in the car , I took a last look l downstream of the riffle. From this vantage point I could see a good cloud of midges swarming over the water. I climbed higher and this afforded me a better view of various clouds of midges all over the calm water, down river around the bend of where I had been fishing.
Momentarily casting aside imaginary visions of women and beer, I knew the situation deserved closer investigation. I went back to the car for a pipe, deciding it time for an evening smoke. My choice, a nice pleasant Virginia blend in a billiard my son had made for me. Now re-fortified, I hiked downstream to the slower water to see if there were some midging trout. I also took the opportunity to exchange my fast action Loomis GLX 4 weight nymphing rod for a slower more delicate dry fly rod, an IM 6 Winston 5 wt. Quietly and slowly, making my way down the bank, my eyes alert for subtle telltale disturbances in the water and listening for anything that sounded like a sip. Checking the shallows, little indentations in the shoreline looking for bank feeders, usually the largest and most difficult of fish to catch. I then heard a most unsubtle SLURP out in the middle of the river which left a nice tell tale ring.
In the air were tiny midges, commonly thought of as gnats and while small and inconsequential, they make up a large part of a trout s diet especially when there s nothing bigger to eat. As I m not dexterous enough to tie my own midge imitations, I was fortunate to have some patterns generously given to me last summer by Mike Cherba, when we were fishing on Armstrong Spring Creek, in Livingston, MT. Getting out my magnifying lenses I was able to tie on a size 24 midge , approx. half the size of your smallest finger nail, onto a piece of 6x tippet; the diameter of a fine thread of silk. As I was doing this I couldn't help but hear numerous sips and slurps and looking over the water many small rings beginning to appear and best of all, LARGE HEADS starting to pop ,Very cool !!
The sun was going down behind me and threw a beautiful golden glare on the water. While strictly from a neutral observers point of view it was a truly wondrous scene but from my point of view it made fishing difficult and seeing that tiny midge a hopeless cause. After a couple casts I plinked one, he was on and off. At least I seemed to have the distance down with out being able to see my fly. In these cases, while it s not necessary to see your fly exactly, you do need to have a pretty good general idea where it has landed and be able to judge from the flow where it will be during the 30 seconds it will drift down the river without dragging. You can certainly see your fly when begins to drag; this occurs when you you have no more slack line in your drift. Your fly will then be moving twice the speed of all the real flies on the river, caught in the current, swinging and weaving a wake behind it, most UN insect-like....
A few more plinks . A word on plinks... These occur when you re not sure if the fish has taken your fly. Rather than decisively striking, you do so half heartedly , slowly raising your rod tip. If there s no one home it s no loss, as by moving quietly you will not have tipped off the fish to your presence and can throw to him again. If the fish has taken your lure; using this cautious approach gives the fish time to feel the hook and then spit it. He s gone as you feel a little plink on your line, a taste of what might have been had you been of stouter heart.
Then a fish on ! A real strike, a couple jumps and he's off. I consoled myself that the fly was too small to hold a big fish like that. In retrospect, it sounds like a fisherman's version of sour grapes... Another few casts and there s a monster crash on the surface as a large trout discovered he was hooked and is now feeling the bit. He head walked a few yards down the river. All I could see was his big wide tail thrashing as he tried to get some traction for a long run but he then threw the hook, it was over before it really began... Needless to say I was having a ball through all this !!
Broke the next one off as he took the fly just as the line straightened. No slack, no time for the the rod to absorb the shock of the strike. Still just enough light to get one of the little buggers on as the hatch has reached it s crescendo. Fish slurping midges in front of me, behind me , now just off the banks. If I could just thread this last damn fly, Lord give me one more chance!!!!. With a little luck the line went through the tiny eye of the hook. A quick clinch knot and I m ready to rumble.
On the next one I got lucky. The fly got caught in the soft tissue in the roof of his mouth and managed to stick, this one I was able to land. Not as big as the ones I lost but a fish in hand... By the time I got him in and released, my fly dry and float-able it was really dark. I had little idea where any casts were landing. I couldn t even see the leader. I could still hear fish noisily inhaling flies off the water; a fly fisherman's siren call....... While I knew I should have stopped, I continued to fruitlessly cast as the nite breeze faltered and died .
The moon then sharply emerged from behind the cliffs overlooking the West side of the river; casting it s own sliver of reflected light on the water. The sight of this stopped me in my tracks , and I was caught in its spell . I reeled up, secured my fly in a guide, re- lit up my long forgotten pipe which I discovered still hanging between my teeth. Standing in the soft current, watching the light and the shadows move slowly, refracting in the ripples of the river; I thought of the season to come, of the many nights ahead. I stood still and for moments ceased...coming back to myself sometime later, slowly walking out of the water, hesitant to leave, not wanting to be just an occasional tourist in this enchanted land.