Category Archives: Fishing

Fall Fly Fishing on Montana’s Clark Fork River

I was chatting with another fly fisher in an area fly shop. He was visiting from another state in mid-summer and was looking for some local information. Our conversation turned to the best time of day to fish the nearby Clark Fork River.

I said with a smile, “Normally I’d say first light, but Clark Fork trout are respectable trout. You don’t have to be on the water at dawn. The trout here don’t get up early.”

After the fellow left the shop, owner and fishing guide Joe Cantrell said with a sigh of resignation, “The fish around here always get up early. It’s the fishermen who don’t get up early.”

Joe likes to get out early, and I don’t blame him. Although Montana’s Clark Fork River can put out fish any time of day, first light almost always yields the best fishing. Almost. But not always. Let us consider.

One of the best times for fly fishing the gentle waters of the Clark Fork River is right now. The cool morning temperatures of Indian Summer mean lethargic bugs, but as the chill of the mornings yield to the special warmth of Montana Fall afternoons the table is set, entomologically speaking. Bug activity blooms. There’s lot more busyness in the bug world.

This is a magical time, sandwiched between the nip of winter and the sizzle of summer. And if the bugs don’t get up early, why should a fly fisher? Now is the time of year for a little extra shut-eye and a leisurely brunch before bending a rod. A warm afternoon also means a little warmer water, which in turn means a hardy fly fisher can forgo waders.

And, ah, the scenery. The cottonwoods bordering the river’s banks stand tall and proud wearing suits of yellow-green in anticipation of winter. The needle-like leaves of Western Larch, that oddity among conifers, stand on Northern slopes like guardians of the mountains wearing burnished gold armor as their needles fade to gold.

There is yet another bonus to fall fly fishing on the Clark Fork: The crowds are gone. As a friend once commented, “This is when the real fly fishers go fishing.” I, for one, enjoy the solitude. It’s not that I don’t like people; I like ‘em just fine. I just like ‘em in smaller batches.

Before writing this article, I checked in with my friend Joe Cantrell to pick his brain a bit regarding the hot items bug-wise right now on the Clark Fork. As a fishing guide, Joe spends much more time on the river that I do, and consequently he’s got a superior feel for the daily whims and fancies of the trout that swim here. Old standbys to run down the conveyer belt include #8-12 Chernobyl Ants, #12-18 Purple Haze, and blood-red San Juan Worms in sizes #10-14, with or without the bead.

However, Joe’s favorites right now are #20 Tricos, tiny BWOs, and little #16-20 Adams. Don’t fear using a double-fly rig; a tiny Trico trailing a tiny Adams about 16” behind the Trico will help determine the location of these minuscule trout snacks. Just off the bottom, try a #10 or #12 Pat’s Rubber Legs in brown or black with a caboose of a #14-16 Prince about 16” back from the Pat’s.   

Now, then: How about a little fish story?

A few days ago Joe was guiding a fellow on the river, and the water was so clear Joe was able to easily see any fish that approached his fisherman’s dry fly. Joe watched as a typical Clark Fork trout of about 15” examined the fisherman’s offering. But this fish was acting really strange. It would approach the fly but instead of taking it, the fish would turn its’ head as if to take a more intimate look. It would then drift back just a bit. The fish repeated this 2-3 times then finally committed. When the fish was cradled in the net and just as Joe was getting ready to send it back home, he noticed that the trout only had one eye.  It was totally blind on one side, so as it approached the fly it would turn its’ head to its’ good side get a better look!

How about  you? Got any good stories about fall fishing?

When the Time Comes

“Time is Running Out” by zamboni.andrea is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It was a slow day in the fly shop, so I was glad to see a visitor. With deliberate care, he opened the door of the fly shop and softly closed it behind him. He was slightly stooped, and lines of many years etched his face. I guessed his age as the early 80s. After closing the door, he looked toward me and his face radiated a kind smile as his eyes caught mine. He walked slowly to where I stood behind the counter.

“I’ve never been able to drive by a fly shop without stopping,” he said. A visitor from out of state, he asked, “Fishing any good around here?”

“Fishing’s almost always good,” I said, “But the catching varies. However, the catching has been pretty good lately.” I motioned towards a couple of nearby padded chairs reserved for visitors. “Have a seat,” I said, “And we can chat. Unless you have to be some place. I don’t want to keep you off the river. There’s some pretty good wade fishing spots close by.”

He eased himself into a seat. A deep sigh of contentment followed. “Thanks,” he said. “No, I don’t have to be anywhere in particular. But I’m afraid I won’t be going fishing. My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I get tired in a hurry. I’ve had to give up fly fishing. But as I said, I just can’t drive by a fly shop without stopping.”

We burned an hour or so trading fish stories, and then my visitor rose to leave. “Thanks,” he said, “I appreciated your time. You’re a good listener.”

I held the door open for the man, and after closing it behind him I returned to my seat. I had much to think about. What would happen to me if I couldn’t fish any more? How would that be? Would I still hang around fly shops and explore the local rivers and still waters? Or will there come a day when I, too, will be slowed or even benched by physical limitations?

I smiled smugly. Well, that’s never gonna happen to me, I thought. As long as I can string a fly rod, I’ll keep fishing. I’ll never let anything stop me.

Then my thoughts took a sobering turn. When did I stop climbing stairs two at a time? When was the last time I was on my mountain bike? When did I start using a magnifier to tie on a fly? Not too long ago I could tie on a #22 trico without thinking about it. Now I can’t even see a #22 trico. I pride myself on being pretty healthy and in pretty good physical condition for a geezer. But the last time I went backpacking with a friend, a man 35 years my junior, I noticed that I had to stop and rest a lot more than he did. I once was strong, tough, and feared no man. Now I carry a concealed equalizer on my right hip.

No doubt about it, age catches up with all of us. We eventually slow down, no matter how much we strive against it.

How about you? Think about it. Share with us. If you’re an old fart like me (that’s Mr. Old Fart, if you please) how are you adapting? If you’re a young buck, what advice can you offer us old-timers?

In the Good Ol’ Summertime!

Copyright Mike L Raether, 7/2020

Suddenly the season is upon me. So what’s a guy to do? So many choices, so many options. Fly fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, huckleberry picking, shooting, reloading, cooling off in the Clark Fork River, or – forbid the thought – getting stuff down around the house so I can go fly fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, huckleberry picking, shooting, reloading, or cooling off in the river. Or I could do some work around the house – or not. I must first consider my Montana options one at a time –

  • Fly Fishing. This is probably my first choice, especially with the nearby Clark Fork River right at hand and producing lots of cooperative trout. Grasshopper season is just about to get into full swing (better known as “hopper/dropper” time). A big, fat, tan Chernobyl Ant might be hard for a fish to resist. If I need up-to-the-minute fishing info, I can call on my friends at Joe Cantrell Outfitting.  A float trip on the Clark Fork is the best way to fish this big river which drains most of Western Montana, but sometimes I prefer wade fishing. A while ago I composed a list of wade fishing areas for some of the local rivers and creeks, and if you shoot me an email I’ll send you a free copy (no spam, and your email address will never, ever be shared. Promise).
  • Hiking, Backpacking, and Camping. When I first relocated to this part of Montana, I was amazed at the myriad of alpine lakes in Northwest Montana that could be reached without wearing off too much boot leather. I even wrote a fly fishing guide book about the mountain lakes which was published in 2018 through Wilderness Adventures Press of Belgrade, Montana. I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the lakes I wrote about, and shooting some video this time around. Should you be interested in my book, you can find it here.
  • Huckleberry Picking. What we call huckleberries here are actually wild blueberries and they’re ripening as I write. Huckleberries are a thing in Western Montana. Huckleberry fiends can get huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry lattes, huckleberry candy, and of course, fresh-picked huckleberries. I see a huckleberry pie in my future.
  • Shooting and Reloading. I think I’ll save this for a rainy day project in my shop. If it ever rains again this summer. Been in the upper 90s the past few days. My wife Katherine asked me recently, “Which do you like more: shooting or reloading?” I thought for a minute and replied, “Reloading. I shoot so I can reload.”

    Copyright Mike L Raether 7/2020
  • Speaking of temps in the upper 90s, I can go cool off in the river. The flow of the lower Clark Fork is gentle for the most part, making it ideal for folks in drift boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards (float at your own risk, of course. And ALWAYS wear a life jacket!).

So what am I gonna do? Hmmm . . . What would YOU do?

Over the Mountains and Through the Woods

Some time ago I was watching some elk as they scampered up a 45 degree slope. They climbed that mountain as easy as I walk across my living room. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have 4WD like those elk?” Well, we can, or at least we can come close if we pick up a pair of trekking poles and learn to use them.

Copyright Mike L. Raether 2020

Trekking poles, for the uninitiated, are cousins to ski poles. Like ski poles, they’re used in tandem. And again like ski poles, they take strain off essential body parts like knees. I’ve used trekking poles for about 10 years, although I suppose I looked pretty silly in the beginning; back in the day very few people used them. A few of the other hikers I encountered at the time even smiled and asked about my use of “ski poles.” They can laugh if they want, but at 70 years of age I’m still tramping around the outback. And my knees are still holding up. Many are the problems that can afflict aging knees, but some of the relief I’ve experienced, I believe, can be attributed to my use of trekking poles.

I started using trekking poles when I reach The Big 6-0, and my knees were starting to complain. They stopped whining so much when I started using trekking poles. Although my primary purpose was to take some pressure off my aging knees, I’ve found lots of other benefits – 

  • They give me better balance.  I don’t have watch my feet all the time, which allows me to look around and enjoy the scenery (or spot more game if I am hunting).
  • They make ascending and descending slippery steep slopes safer and easier, especially when trekking off-trail. I look at trekking poles as preventative medicine.
  • If the brush is wet, a trekking pole makes a good bush whacker to knock off excess moisture before pressing through (another trick in this regard is to avoid being the first person in line when hiking with others. Let the other nimrod be the first to push through the brush and get soaked).
  • Trekking poles come in handy when crossing streams. When wade fishing, I remove the baskets and attach one of my trekking poles to a retractable tether and clip the tether to my wading belt. Bingo: a wading staff.
  • I’ve used mine on occasion as tent or tarp poles. Why pack extra weight? Comes back to the backpacker’s rallying cry: “Everything must have more than one use.”
  • My pair of carbon fiber trekking poles weighs in at less than 15 ounces. Accessories include rubber feet, mud, and snow baskets. I use the attached carbide tips for extra grip on the trail, but slip on the rubber feet for stealth when hunting. The mud baskets are good for, well, mud, and the snow baskets allow the use of trekking poles for snowshoeing.

At first the use of trekking poles might seem a little strange to some folks, but think about it: Hikers and backpackers have a long tradition of picking up a walking stick at a trailhead. In fact, I’ve often seen walking sticks stacked at trailheads as if to say, “Use me then return me here for someone else when you’re done.” Trekking poles are just the next step in the evolution of hiking, backpacking, and hunting aids. The final step is pack goats, but that’s another subject.

Interested? A good pair of carbon fiber trekking poles can be had for under $150. You can find trekking poles for sale online and at many outdoor recreation brick-and-mortar outlets. You can actually get into them pretty inexpensively, but like anything else you get what you pay for. Check out the standbys such as Amazon, Wally World, and REI. In my opinion you don’t need the kind with shock-absorbing springs that are designed to offer cushioning on downhill slopes. I think this feature is a nice touch, but in my view it just adds weight and another mechanical device that can fail.

Trekking poles? Try ‘em. You’ll might like ‘em. Mikey does.

Beating the Coronavirus Blues

“Not for Sale” copyright 2020 Mike L. Raether

I’m trying not to gloat.

As of yesterday, 38 states have issued stay-at-home orders. Montana is one of them. But I’m okay. The stay-at-home orders don’t bother introverts like me. Home is an introvert’s favorite place to be. As much as we love people, people wear us out. What I’m saying is that hermiting doesn’t bother us. Rather, it gives us the perfect excuse to stay home and veg.

However, some of the extroverts I know are having a tough time of it. Extroverts love parties, get-togethers, and other people-gathering events. Why? Because extroverts recharge by being around people. For example, I have a good friend who is an extrovert and married to an introverted wife. When I telephoned my friend a while ago, his wife picked up the call.

“Can I speak to Fred?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “He’s gone into town visiting to get his daily ‘people fix.’”

However, after a while even introverts get bored with just hanging around the homestead. There’s a big difference with staying home as a choice and being ordered to go home and stay there.

So I thought maybe I’d head to the river and practice some “social distancing.” The powers that be in nearby Washington State have closed all sports fishing until at least April 6. However, our governor Steve Bullock (of who I’m not normally a fan) issued a modified stay-at-home order for Montanans which allows people to leave their homes for “essential activities.” Essential activities are defined as those required for health, safety, and for purchasing necessary consumer items such as groceries (and TP if you can find it). But Bullock’s order allows people to leave their homes for other “essential activities,” which he defined as outdoor-oriented pursuits such as hiking, running, and biking. My interpretation is that fishing is also an essential activity. It is necessary to my health, life, and well-being. If questioned on the riverbank by some nosey snark as to why I’m not staying at home and thereby doing my part to curb the spread of coronavirus, I’ll claim I’m a government official testing the fish for COVID-19. Yeah, that’ll work.

Of course, a guy can’t fish all the time (darn!) so I decided what I really needed was some humor, if not a good belly-laugh, to freshen up my attitude when confined to my home. So I went to YouTube and found some good things with which to amuse myself, and I hope you as well. Here are my suggestions –

The first is, “How Rednecks Prepare for the CORONA VIRUS.” This guy has some really helpful (and unique) ideas about how to protect ourselves from becoming infected.

The second is, “Seems Like The World Is Out Of Toilet Paper.” This vid starts with about a 5-second ad, which you can skip (have you noticed how many ads have suddenly appeared advertising bidets?).

One more:  “A Message From Corona Beer.” No wonder health officials didn’t name it the “Budweiser Virus.”

Oh, I just thought of something else I can do while waiting for this thing to pass: Take a nap. Or naps. Lots of them.

To Tell the Truth

“Fingers Crossed” copyright 2020 Mike L. Raether

It’s called the game of One-Upmanship:

“I caught more fish than you.”

“So what? I caught the biggest fish.”

When I was writing The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes the pressure was on to catch fish. I even prayed to catch fish. After all, I was supposed to be the expert: what if I didn’t catch any fish?

I was asked this question by a campground host at a drive-in campground while researching the book. I’d chosen this campground as it was central to a few lakes in the area that I wanted to investigate, lakes with short day hikes. The idea was to car-camp while doing a few day hikes to check things out. While chatting with the campground host, I shared why I was there. That’s when the question came: “What if you don’t catch anything?Of course, the question comes in different forms depending on the outdoor activity – 

“Did you get your buck?”

“How was your turkey hunt last season?”

“How many geocaches did you find over the weekend?”

So when I was asked by the campground host what I’d do if I didn’t catch any fish, I paused for a moment, looked at my shoes, and said, “I’ll tell the truth.” Not that I’m bragging. I’ve succumbed to the game of One-Upmanship more often than I like to admit. Maybe I should join a support group where everyone sits in a circle and bares their soul: “Hello, my name is Mike and I’m a One-Upmanship-Aholic. My confession is I didn’t get my buck last season.”

Related to the game of One-Upmanship is the game of Making Excuses such as –

“I woulda got that monster wall hanger if my hunting partner hadn’t bumped my arm just as I shot.”

“I woulda got my gobbler but the hens kept getting in the way.”

“I woulda found a ton of ’caches but my GPS broke.”

What makes us throw in our chips to play the games of One-Upmanship and Making Excuses? Why are we tempted to exaggerate, lie, or justify? Why can’t we just enjoy the experience of _________? (You fill in the blanks).

So I’ve made a decision. I’m gonna tell the truth. Even if it hurts. By the way, speaking of truth, I didn’t get my buck last season. Or my elk. Or my bear. Or my gobbler. Of course, I have good excuses . . .

Fly Fishing and Life

Fly Fishing Fun on the Clark Fork. Copyright 2020 Mike L. Raether

You can tell a lot about a person by watching them fly fish. Are they patient or easily frustrated? Are they observant or heedless? Do they check their knots after changing flies, or do they recklessly hope for the best? Taking a look at our fly fishing habits will help us know ourselves better, and in the balance we’ll become better fly fishers.  Let me illustrate.

A while ago I was fly fishing the mainstem of the St. Joe River in Idaho, one of the best artificial-lures-only, catch-and-release  waters flowing there. I was fishing with a friend. This friend is not the most patient person in the world and is never really satisfied with the way things are: he is centered on change, and the more change the better.

As I concentrated on the pocket water in front of me, I lost track of my friend. After a few minutes I turned and looked downstream to see how he was doing. The last I saw of him, he was fishing about 50 yards below me.  I was surprised to see that my friend was now 100 yards downstream. I stopped fishing and watched him for a couple of minutes. He would make a couple of fruitless casts, then move a few yards downstream and try again. Soon he was another 30 yards downstream, and the only time his rod bent over was under the strain of a forward cast.

So we have to ask ourselves: Do I thoroughly work a piece of water or do I hurriedly move on if there’s no apparent fishy interest? Patience will put more fish in the net than hopscotching down the river.

How about this one: Do I carefully observe what’s happening in, on, and above the water or do I just fish my favorite fly and hope the fish corporate? Careful observers learn a bit about the local bugs, and consequently hook more fish.

One more: Are my knots snug and tested, or am I not really expecting to wet the net anyway? I’ve noticed that the size and strength of a hooked fish is directly related to how well my tackle is maintained. Big fish just seem to instinctively know if a knot is weak or a drag is set too tight. If I’m good to my stuff, my stuff will be good to me. Paying attention to the details will boost my confidence, confident fishers work harder, and–you guessed it–catch more fish.

Best of all, if I learn patience, practice observance, and form good good habits, I’ll not only be better served on the water, but these qualities will translate to other areas of my life where patience, observation, and good habits are called for.

Don’t you just love win-win scenarios?

 

 

If You Don’t, Who Will?

Copyright Mike L. Raether 2020

One of the things I really appreciate about Montana is that we don’t make laws to protect people from themselves. For example, if you want to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, it’s your business and perfectly legal. You’re free to spill your brains all over the highway if you like. After all, they’re YOUR brains. Where I live, as long as you have a sewer and electrical permit, your abode need be nothing more than a tarpaper shack.

The beauty of Montana is that you can do whatever you want. But that’s also the ugly thing about Montana: people do whatever they want. Which is fine, unless your neighbor has a dead car collection.

Here in Montana, you’re expected to police yourself which can have a huge negative impact on the environment if you’re a slob. For example, in Mineral County where I hang up my waders, there’s one game warden for all of the county. If I choose to hike into a mountain lake for some fishing, my odds of seeing that game warden are pretty slim. With nobody looking over my shoulder, the responsibility for being legal is mine. Should I decide to scoff the laws, I have to live with myself. As former basketball player and coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

I was reminded of this on a backpacking trip to an alpine lake. This lake offers a wonderful camping spot – or did, before it was trashed by some miscreants. The campfire ring contained some blackened tin cans. Someone had packed in a couple of cans of chili, then tried to burn the empty cans. Empty plastic water bottles defaced the place like pimples on a pretty girl’s face. Nearby I saw where a driftwood log had holes blasted in it by some firearm. I had to shake my head. Those empty cans of chili: Someone packed them in full; couldn’t they have packed them out empty? Same thing with those empty plastic water bottles: How much could they possibly weigh? A couple of grams each maybe? And then there was the piece of bullet-blasted driftwood. A gun range would have been a better choice for target practice, rather than explode the piece and quiet of this pristine place.

So it all comes down to the old adage: pack it in, pack it out, even if it means packing out someone else’s garbage. A little respect for the laws and environment doesn’t take away our pleasure; it adds to it. Let’s all do the right thing. Take home the garbage.

Good Medicine

Montana’s Clark Fork River in  winter copyright Mike Raether 2019

What’s a fisher to do? The chill of another Montana winter is upon us. The shortest day of the year, winter solstice, is just around the corner. The mountain lakes lie buried under deep blankets of snow, so hiking to stillwater is out. The nearby river is floating ice, but the ice on the lowland lakes isn’t yet thick enough for safe ice fishing. But I’ve got an itch to get outdoors, and I have to scratch that itch, even if there just isn’t much to do out there at the moment.

At this time of year, it’s easy for me to get frustrated, discouraged, or even depressed. But I found an answer, an answer that might work for you, too.

My solution for evaporating the winter gloom is found next to flowing water, even if that water is floating ice. I find a comfortable perch next to the river, but without fishing rod in hand. I’m not here to take; I’m here to receive. I’m here to let the sound of flowing water cleanse my mind.

And I think. I remember. I meditate. As Herman Melville wrote in his novel Moby Dick,  “…meditation and water are wedded forever.” I let memories flow through my mind as the river water flows on. I remember fish fought, caught, and released. I feast on the memories of laughing wildflowers, the warmth of summer past, the turning leaves of fall, and the chill of that first morning frost.

As I remember, I am refreshed. I am restored. I am healed.  Cares fade away and are replaced by memories of seasons past and fine times. The river flows, bringing peace. Water is life.

What about you? Do you remember the time… Think back. Replay the film. Get outside and you’ll feel better inside. It’s the best medicine.

Behold the Lowly Fly

Callibaetis Spinner copyright Mike L. Raether, 2019

As a fly fisher, I have a confession. I don’t tie my own flies. To some fly fishers this may seem blasphemous, but, there, I’ve said it. I’ve come out of the closet.

It’s not that I don’t want to learn to tie my own flies. It’s just that I have fumbly fingers. I have enough trouble managing an improved clinch knot, let alone even a humble San Juan Worm. Besides, I’m convinced that the fish aren’t as impressed with my $400 reel spooled with $100 line and attached to my $700 rod as they are with a well-tied munchie. Which brings up something I fail to understand: why do some fly fishers boast about having a $1,000 outfit, but kick about a $2 fly? When is comes right down to it, the fly is The Word. The Connection. The Doer of Business.

As a fly fisher, I have hundreds of flies even though I fall back on about the same dozen patterns. But like most fly fishers, I just can’t help adding to my collection. I rarely drive past a fly shop without stopping and checking the fly selection. I enjoy examining them, dreaming, supposing, hoping. If I don’t have a fly that fools fish, I might as well take up water polo.

So what makes a good fly? First off, it doesn’t need to be a dead ringer for the natural. There are flies such as the Royal Wulff that don’t imitate anything in the wild; they’re know as “attracter patterns” and sometimes outfish everything else. Then there are general patterns like the Hare’s Ear that imitate a broad range of nymphs and midge pupa. So again, what makes a good fly? Here we go –

  • Price. We all know the old saying, “You get what you pay for,” meaning that if you buy cheap, you’re gonna get cheap. Not always true when it comes to flies. It’s possible to pay $5 or more for incredibly perfect flies that are dead ringers for the naturals, but such flies are often better for framing than fly fishing. Flies don’t have to be pretty to work. Even the ugliest tie job can fool fish. Decently-tied flies are available on the Internet for less that $1 each. Price can be an indicator of quality, but not always.
  • Durability. Although they don’t have to be pretty, they do have to be tied well enough to withstand being whipped through the air, drug through water, and catch a few fish before they become bedraggled. If that little bit of fluff, fur, and feathers falls apart after a few casts and a fish or two, the money you paid for it would have been better living in your pocket.
  • Craftsmanship. Is the hook eye free of head cement? Sure, a fisher can use the pokie on the nipper to open the eye, but should you have to? Care in the application of head cement so it doesn’t clog the hook eye can be an indicator of quality and care on the part of the fly tier.  Is the dubbing tight and secure around the hook shank? If the fly features eyes, are they tied on straight and  well secured to the hook?

Well, there you have them: my three primary criteria for fly selection. What are yours? Do you have any tips for us? Leave us a comment to help us out!