A Rookie in Big Sky Country

A Rookie in Big Sky Country

Sure, this region boasts some of the world's best fly-fishing. But you better come prepared...

  • By: Jim Reilly
If there were afly-fishing equivalent of seppuku--the Japanese ritual in which a disgraced samurai can regain his honor by plunging a dagger into his abdomen, drawing it across his stomach and up toward his sternum--I would have done it.

I'd just blown a gimme strike from what two guides told me was the biggest cutthroat either of them had seen all year on the Yellowstone River. This wasn't just a "Bad luck. Hey, get ready for the next one" type of miss from a drift boat. I sweat those off pretty easily. No, this was a "Let's pull the boat over and wade up to that side channel and get this giant cutt I saw. It'll be easy."

I got out of the drift boat, waded as close to the fish as the guides would allow and sent about six casts into the tiny eddy with no response. "You're dragging it out of there when you do that mend. Get it right on the first cast," one of the guides said. OK. My next cast bounced off an overhanging bush and landed right in the good water. I turned my head and asked the guides, "Hey, is this where you want it?"

The two guides stood there open-mouthed and looked at me as if they'd just seen the Challenger shuttle blow up, and I was to blame.

"Dude. He just came up on your fly," one of them said. I turned around and gave my line a tug, but it was too late. The fish was gone.

It was then that the accumulated shame and humiliation, amassed over six days of frustrating fishing, set in. I wished for an honorable way out, but I didn't have a dagger, only hemostats, and those looked like they'd hurt bad.

I climbed back into the boat and spent my final day in Big Sky Country fishing conservatively and contemplating other activities I could take up besides fly-fishing: golf, foosball, sailing on schooners…

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident--botching an opportunity for a big fish--but that'd be a lie. The truth is that my fishing almost completely fell apart on a six-day trip I took last summer to the big-name waters of southwest Montana--the Yellowstone, the Madison and the Gallatin rivers. I say almost, because I did catch fish--including some nice ones--but for the most part I got schooled. My fishing skills, honed over 10 years on the bass ponds and small trout streams of Missouri and Maine, amounted to about zilch out there. Sure, I'd been warned--the wind, the selective fish, the precise casting, but I ignored all that. I thought I'd be up to the task. I was wrong.

About the only excuse I have is that it was my first trip out to this part of the West--the fabled Big Sky region of Montana--and I was unprepared. Even if you've fly-fished for a decade, until you've fished out there you don't really know how good you are. This is the place to test your skills. Of course, as you would expect, I learned a lot and also had a hell of a lot of fun.

The wind in Montana can be relentless. In the morning the air might be cool and still, but by the afternoon, once things have had a chance to warm up, the wind can rip. Needless to say, this will affect your casting. What you need to fish through these windy days (and most days are windy) is a stout, fast-action rod (a 6-weight is a good choice) and good casting form.

All I had was a soft 5-weight and horrible form. This was a problem, and I found out exactly how big of a problem on my first float down the Yellowstone River.

This was the plan: Pound the banks with big, foamy dry flies for trout holding near the water's edge--the closer to the bank the better. It sounded simple enough, and for a while in the morning I picked up fish pretty easily. But once the wind began to blow things quickly fell apart.

Over the course of the afternoon the wind grew until it became a strong headwind that did not let up all day. My casts began going all over the place. The big, wind-resistant flies got knocked about by the wind and fell far off target. Even when I managed to get the fly near the bank, the wind blew the leader and fly upriver, causing a large, drag-inducing curve.

Brian Kimmel, my excellent (and patient) guide from Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, where I stayed during my week, told me my loops weren't tight enough and the forward loop wasn't unfurling completely before hitting the water. He had me try

casting while sitting and resting my casting elbow on my knee. This technique actually helped quite a bit and I was able to get my fly closer to the bank.

The wind continued to batter us throughout the day. My soft 5-weight began bending nearly to the grip as I tried to punch the fly through the wind, and my casts got worse. I told Brian it must be too windy to fish even by Montana standards.

He replied: "The only time it is too windy to fish is when we can't hear each other talk in the boat."

Oh.

I fought an urge to yell, "What did you say? I can't hear you." Instead I nodded my head and thought, It's going to be a long day.

Still, I was incredulous. I had never experienced such sustained winds. If I'd been fishing by myself, I'd likely have gone back to camp for some beer and waited till evening for the winds to die down. In response Brian pulled the boat onto a sandbar and gave me an impromptu casting seminar.

I sat in the boat eating my lunch as Brian expounded on the finer points of fly-casting. He said things like "The fly rod is a lever, and when we give it speed we get distance."(At least that is what I think he said; the wind was blowing hard.) I watched Brian make long casts that were powerful and tight in spite of the wind. The lesson: As long as your form is good, the direction and strength of the wind makes little difference.

As we got ready to shove off again for the rest of the float I asked Brian what he thought my problem was.

"Ten years of bad habits and bass fishing," he said.

Wonderful, I thought. I came all the way out to Montana to learn that I suck.

The first images of a spring creek I ever saw were in those coffee-table fly-fishing picture books that popped up in the mid-1990's. The spring creeks looked so clear, clean and perfect that I never got them out of my mind.

Although none of the Paradise Valley spring creeks--Armstrong's, DePuy's and Nelson's--were on my schedule, I did fish a small section of Nelson's that flows into the Yellowstone River. In Montana, public access is allowed up to the high-water mark, and on this particular stretch of the Yellowstone the high-water mark extends right to the tail end of Nelson's Spring Creek.

After the casting seminar, Brian and I floated down to where the creek trickled into the Yellowstone. The public part of the creek is only 40 yards long at most and shallow, with patches of moss here and there. Big masses of moss provided cover for the fish to hide under. Brian, something of a spring creek specialist, spotted fish holding in covers that were invisible to me. We worked our way up to the property line--which was marked by a sign and a barbed wire fence extending over the creek--and to the deepest pool in the stretch.

Brian spotted a small brown just upstream from us. The water was so clear that it looked as if the trout were simply hovering in mid-air. My heart pounded as I kept my eye on the fish and Brian tied on a small CDC Beatis emerger. My first couple casts were into the tall bushes that were tight behind us. I finally tossed one that landed on water close enough to the fish that he turned and bit it. I set the hook and had him on for a couple heartbeats before he threw the hook.

"Jim, you're killing me, man," Brian said with a laugh as I fell to my knees, crestfallen at my missed chance.

I didn't want to leave. I could have stayed there all day waiting for another fish to come up, but we had to go. We took our time on the walk out and stopped when we saw another, slightly larger, brown take an insect off the surface. Brian checked my fly and leader, then gave me a look that seemed to say, Don't mess up this one too.

Yeah.

I tossed the fly upstream of where the rise had been, and as it drifted down the brown came right up and grabbed it. I gave a solid hook set and had the fish.

Brian said something to the effect of, "You've got him. Just bring him in nice and easy," and with that I knew it wasn't going to happen. The brown ran my leader under a dense mass of moss and, unsurprisingly, the hook popped out of its mouth.

Brian and I both shook our heads as we walked back to the boat.

Big Sky, Montana, is surrounded by some of the best fly-fishing rivers and streams in North America. It's close enough for day trips to many of the waters that Eastern anglers like me spend years dreaming about--the Yellowstone, the Madison and the Missouri. In addition, the streams and lakes of Yellowstone National Park are an hour down the highway, and the Gallatin River and its tributaries are right outside of town.

With so many world-class rivers around, it's easy to overdo it.

My base of operations during my week-long trip was Lone Mountain Ranch, a 24-cabin operation located on 150 acres nestled below the Spanish Peaks and abutting the Gallatin National Forest. Originally homesteaded as a working ranch back in 1915, Lone Mountain Ranch has retained much of that rustic feel. Many of the log-constructed buildings and cabins at the Ranch were built in 1926 and are still in use. The cabin in which I stayed originally was the bath house.

Although fly-fishing is just one of the many activities Lone Mountain Ranch offers, head guide and outfitter Ennion Williams runs an excellent angling operation. The small fly shop has everything a visiting angler might need, and his guides are some of the best I have ever fished with.

A few months before my trip a representative from Lone Mountain Ranch called to see what activities I'd like to schedule for my stay. When I told her all I wanted to do was fish, she seemed surprised.

"No horseback riding?" she asked

No.

"No nature hikes?"

Um, no.

"You just want to fish every day for six days?"

Yes.

And that's exactly what I did. I'm a fisherman, after all. But in retrospect, I really should have taken advantage of at least one of those other activities, just for a change of pace. If I could do it again I'd schedule a non-fishing day midway through the week. The Ranch offers an awesome array of activities for their guests to choose from--including guided nature trips into Yellowstone Park (the Park boundary is only 18 miles down Highway 191), horseback riding through nearby meadows--or you could go for a hike on the extensive network of trails on Ranch property. All of this creates an ideal environment for fly-fishers on a family vacation, especially when one or more family members don't want to fish.

Several days into my stay, I was scheduled for an afternoon trip to the Madison River to catch the evening caddis hatch, which meant I had the morning to myself. I decided to hike up a trail that ran past my cabin. The Ranch property itself is beautiful, and that morning the air was still and the ground glistened with dew.

I followed the trail as it paralleled the North Fork of the Gallatin. Although small enough to jump across most of the way, the water was cold, clear and compelling enough to make me jog back to my cabin to grab my rod. I spent the rest of the morning moving from one tiny pool to another while casting a yellow Humpy. In the lower reaches of the creek I caught several palm-size browns and brookies.

So much for taking a break.

By the end of my trip I realized I'd gotten my butt handed to me. The wind and six long days of casting a fly rod incorrectly had taken its toll. In fact, although I didn't tell anyone, by the end of the week my casting hand had swollen up so badly that the bottom two fingers were practically immobile. I fished through the pain, of course.

Associate editor Jim Reilly has enrolled in the Techniques of Fly Casting course at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing. He will be attending the course this spring, prior to taking another tilt at that Montana windmill. Wish him luck. --Ed.