A Primitive Curiosity

A Primitive Curiosity

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fly Fishing the Missouri River

I have been travelling a lot for work, and when I found out that I would be visiting the Lewis and Clark NF and the Helena NF I know what was right in between those two cities. The Missouri River.

Checking the river level about a month before I left it looked looked high, somewhere in the area of 10,000 CFS. Way too high for any chance of wading. But, with the June came a dramatic change. From June 1 to June 7, the river went from 11000 CFS to 4800 CFS. Perfect for wading. I packed light on dress shirts for work and made room in my bag for my waders, boots and chest pack.

My co-worker was kind enough to drop me off on the river on the way from Great Falls to Helena on Saturday with the promise to pick me up at 5:00. On the way to the river, we stopped at The Trout Shop in Craig, MT. They gave me a couple of patterns for the day, and also clued me into a location to access some great wading just a couple miles from town.

After getting geared up, I hiked about a half mile down a well worn path in the ballast beside a set of railroad tracks. Obviously many people had come this way before. I was worried about crowds, as this is the second weekend in June and people might be on vacation. My hope was that the forecast of mostly cloudy and a 60% chance of rain and thunder storms would scare people off. Apparently it did, because as I got to the side channel I was going to wade, there were only a couple other people wading. Over the course of the day, I would see a half dozen drift boats but everyone was courteous and polite.

The patterns that the shop recommended were the Rainbow Czech nymph in size 14 and 16, and a very small size 20 mayfly nymph in a metallic yellow. I set up a size 16 Rainbow Czech 18" under a foam indicator and went to work. Nymphing is not my favorite way to fish. I prefer to take fish on the dry. I'm not very confident in my nymphing abilities, and my technique isn't very good. However, recently I have been trying to educate myself and practice fishing with a nymph, if nothing else to be a better rounded fly fisherman. It paid off.

It took about an hour to figure out what I was doing, but as soon as I did I got a tug that felt more like a small steelhead than a trout. Turns out, this rainbow was about the size of my first little hatchery steelhead. About 20" with thick shoulders and beautiful red stripe down the side. Nymphing was working! Over the course of the day I caught about a dozen nice rainbows, none smaller than 18". A couple of fish that acted very differently from the rainbows grabbed my fly and just took off. Both broke me off almost right away after a short and powerful run.

Near the end of the end of the day I was working my way downstream back to the point where I would get back to the tracks and hike out. I wanted to catch one last fish, and was secretly hoping that i could hook into one of those hot fish that had broken me off. I was fishing the small yellow mayfly pattern and had noticed there was a nice depression at the downstream end of the island that I was fishing next to.

I set up my drift, and my fly got absolutely nailed. This fish was hot, and I let it take a nice long run and waited until it wanted to slow down before I started to increase the pressure and turn the fish. I did my best to protect my 5x tippet and after a nice fight I landed a huge brown, my first ever.

It's really interesting how much of a different character different species of trout have. The rainbows I landed were acrobatic and didn't take long runs. The brown was different. They got hooked, and immediately took off the other direction.

Did I mention it was raining? Because it was pouring almost all day. I stayed warm by keeping moving and keeping my food intake pretty constant, but once I hiked back to wait for my ride it started raining even harder, and I got a lot colder. I saw a small cave about ten yards uphill from where I was waiting and scrambled up to get out of the rain. It was sheltered from the wind and rain, and ended up being a great place to hang out.

It was probably the best day of trout fishing in my life. I landed a bunch or really nice fish, and made great progress on my nymphing technique.

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