Category Archives: Fly 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?

Ears to Hear

The story continues . . .

Copyright Mike Raether 2019

Last time I wrote about how to evaporate the gloom of winter. I suggested getting outside to be renewed inside. With January cold approaching, this may not be wise or even safe if you live in one of the northern tier states. Montana is no exception. If the weather here plays out as usual, 20 degrees below zero may usher in the Montana New Year.  With this in mind, but even if you live in sunny Florida, I suggest an indoor activity that will not only renews, but entertains and educates.

I’m speaking of exploring the diverse world of podcasts. Without too much effort, you can find podcasts on just about any subject that piques your interest. Just search online for “best podcasts about _______” (you fill in the blank). This is your ticket to some of the best entertainment and education available on the Web. Spend a few minutes poking about the Internet. Make a few notes to self, bookmark a few favs, and by the time the first birds of Spring raise  their voices you’ll be armed with an arsenal of tricks and tips. The Internet isn’t called, “The information superhighway” for nothing.

At the moment, I’m enjoying podcasts about fly fishing. In fact, I was interviewed recently for the Fly Fishing 97 Podcast. If you’re interested, here’s the link to my podcast interview. I’d be flattered if you listen, but please don’t stop there. There’s tons of righteous information on the Fly Fishing 97 podcast.

Now let’s share. Not about the good stuff we’ve learned, but about the podcast treasures we’ve discovered. Come back and share some of your fav URLs with us so we can jump on board!

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!

 

The Best Hunt Ever

My opening day hunt lasted only two hours but not because I scored. And yet, it was probably the best hunt I ever had.

Learning to Hunt – protege Jeremy Tjensfold about to “Git-R-Done!” Copyright Mike Raether 2019

A week or so before the opening of the Montana general hunting season on October 26, I got a phone call from Clint, my friend and good hunting buddy. He asked if I wanted to tag along as he introduced his 10-year-old grandson Braylin to hunting. It would be his first season, and thanks to Montana’s Apprentice Hunter Program, Braylin was eligible to hunt even though he’d not yet completed a hunter education event – as long as Clint kept the kid at his elbow.

So why did the hunt last only two hours? Was it because Braylin scored? Nope. Nobody scored. The kid got wet and cold so out of consideration for our novice hunter we called it quits. Still, I considered it a very special day because I got to go along on a kid’s first hunt.

Do you remember your first hunt? I don’t, but I do remember when I got bit by the hunting bug. As the hunting season approached, a fishing buddy asked me if I wanted to go hunting with him. I admitted I’d never been hunting before but I was sure willing to give it a try. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. He taught me how to walk in the woods and avoid snapping twigs and therefore alerting game. He taught me how to squeeze, not snap, the trigger on my rifle so I could make steady shots. He taught me how to hunt into the wind to avoid spooking game with my scent. Two season’s later I harvested my first buck.

Yep, I got bit by the hunting bug, but I also got bit by the mentoring bug. Over the  years I’ve introduced a number of people not only to hunting, but to many of the outdoor activities I enjoy. Recently I was blessed with the privilege of speaking at a meeting of the Wenatchee Valley Fly Fishers of Washington State about fly fishing Montana’s mountain lakes. I also spoke about the importance of mentoring. I was pleased when I discovered that the Wenatchee Valley Fly Fishers were way ahead of me in this area. I was impressed when I learned about the number of programs and mentoring activities they were planning or involved in.

..and Jeremy got-r-done! Copyright Mike Raether 2019

So it all comes down to this: I’d bet there’s someone in your area of influence who would be interested in sharing the outdoor things you enjoy. They might not know how to cast a rod, build a campfire, or shoot a firearm but you can teach them. If we don’t pass it on, who will?

A Montana Freebie You Don’t Want to Miss

I was  minding the store at Joe Cantrell’s Fly Shop one Friday afternoon when two fly fishers from out-of-state stopped in to purchase fishing licenses. I told them I couldn’t sell them licenses because they didn’t need them that weekend.

Kids Fishing” by Virginia State Parks Staff, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Every year Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offers free fishing on Father’s Day weekend – no license required as long as you abide by the regs. And the great news is you don’t have to be a father to take advantage of the upcoming free fishing weekend June 15-16. You can be a single mom with kids that just need some exposure to the Great Outdoors (better than any video game in my opinion) or just someone from in-state or out-of-state who wants to wet a line. And what a great way to relieve the stress of the high octane world in which we live.

On June 6 in the context of proposed access for sportsmen to more wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries for fishing and hunting, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said, “Hunting and fishing are more than just traditional pastimes . . . [the additional access will] provide incredible opportunities for sportsmen and women and their families across the country to pass on a fishing and hunting heritage to future generations and connect with wildlife.” Like I said, better than any video game.

Recently I had a routine doctor’s appointment. Before seeing the doc, I was chatting with the receptionist. Though the office was air conditioned, she had a small fan feeding fresh air to her. I asked her about it, and she told me the flow of air helped with her anxiety issues. I joked, “There’s a pill for that,”  but she told me she found something better. She said that a few days ago when she was feeling like the walls were closing in, she went and sat beside the river for a while. Her anxiety evaporated like morning mist on the mountains. Taking a outdoor breather won’t cure everything, but it can help.

Oh, and by the way, Montana can’t lay claim to being the only state that offers a free fishing promotion. If you don’t live in Montana, check with your state’s fish and wildlife commision, and see what they offer.

So go fish.

 

It Just Ain’t Natural

Poor wee man” by Froots is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I was descending a mountain after an unsuccessful elk hunt and on my way back to camp when I came upon another hunter’s camp. I stopped in to say hello to a young man who was hanging around the camp. We chatted about the hunting for a bit, and he confessed that no one in his group had yet been successful. He then looked around suspiciously as if someone might be hiding in the bushes and plotting against us. He lowered his voice to a hush, looked at me sideways under lowered lids and said, “It just ain’t natural. Three days in camp and no game! It just ain’t right.”

Yeah, well, life isn’t fair.

It’s just not fair that that trout snubbed the wonderful fly I just drifted down the conveyer belt, drag free and a brother to the other bugs it’d been eating. It just ain’t right! And so it goes in  many areas of life.

It’s not fair that someone just took the prime parking spot I’d spied right in front of the store. I’d just been aced out of rockstar parking! It just wasn’t right.

It’s not fair that traffic is slow and go, threatening to make me late for an appointment. It just ain’t right.

Recently I was reading the writings of the prophet Isaiah in the Bible. In chapter 40 and verse 27 the Hebrews were complaining about the unfairness of life: “‘. . . [Why is] my way hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God?’” (NASU).

Life isn’t fair. And even for those of us linked up with Jesus, sometimes it seems like even God is unfair! I guess the Hebrews forgot what the Lord had said earlier in chapter 40 and verse 10, that in the end it’ll all be worked out: “Behold, the Lord will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him.” (NASU). No more will be heard the words, “It’s not right! It isn’t fair!”

However, until the return of Christ, things probably won’t go my way. The longer I live, the more I understand that we’re really not in control of our lives, regardless of what we may think. Most of the time, all we do is react to what happens to us. But how we react is completely under our control. I was reminded of this recently when a personal project turned sour.

I live in the country, so I have a well. My well water is great, but as my well is a slow producer I recently installed a water storage tank in the mechanical room of my basement. Basically, the installation involved plumbing in the storage tank between the well and the pressure tank. Simple enough, even for a “mechanically challenged” person like me. The idea was that the water would be pumped into the storage tank until full, then shut off via the use of a float valve. But . . . the float valve malfunctioned (my fault) and the water ran over the top of the storage tank. Luckily, I caught the problem before no more than a couple of gallons spilled over. The problem was that the water partially flooded a guest room, forcing me to remove the carpet and dry it out. But it could have been much worse.

I thanked God that the problem was discovered before the water flooded my whole basement! It didn’t seem fair, and I didn’t much like it, but it turned out for the best. What if I’d been away for the weekend and returned home to find a lake in my basement? There’s not even enough room down there for a decent backcast.

What are your thoughts about dealing with life when it just ain’t fair? Share your thoughts and be an encouragement!

It’s Okay to Be Average

I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve not yet “arrived” as a fly caster. Although I can execute a pretty mean double haul and fling out a roll cast to a respectable distance, I still struggle tying a nail knot. And I’ve been known to slap down a size 22 dry with enough force to start a tsunami. I guess this pretty much makes me an average fly caster. 

The truth of is, whether in fly casting or life in general, most of us are a C or at best, B-average. There are a few Einsteins at one end of the spectrum and those with the intelligence of a floor lamp at the other end, but most of us are in the middle. Most of us are average. So is this messed up?

I vote no. It’s okay. Why do I say this? Because God chose mostly average people to populate His kingdom. As the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 1:26  “. . . consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;” (NASU). Therefore I maintain that if average is good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.

Still, I dream . . . I dream of catching trout that average five pounds each on every cast, dropping a monster bull elk every season, nailing a 10-pound walleye, or bagging a gobbler with a 10” beard. But I usually settle for foot-long trout, 16” walleyes, and just about any old turkey. Why? Because I’m average, and it is in these things that average people find contentment.

And I have a great time being average. If I ever caught two five-pound trout in a row, I’d have to change my pants. If I managed to harvest a monster bull, I’d have to try for a bigger one next season. Same with a 10-pound walleye, or a crafty old gobbler. But because I’m average, I don’t have to worry about such things. Because I’m average, I’m off the hook. I’m not a slave to the pressure of extreme achievement. 

Of course, I want to be the best average person I can be, so I’ll work on my knot tying. And I’ll practice my fly presentation until I can float that 22 dry down to barely kiss the water’s surface.

My question is, if most of us are average, why do we pretend we’re not? In the fly fishing world it’s okay to idolize greats such as Steve Rajeff or Lefty Kreh. If we’re bow hunters, it’s okay to droll over the success of Fred Bear or Eva Shockey. If big ‘eyes put us in a trance, we might look up to a champion professional walleye fisherman like Tommy Skarlis. But such folks aren’t average, poor souls. And so I wonder if they ever reach contentment. There are plenty of stories of high achievers who committed suicide when their arrival at success really didn’t satisfy and they asked themselves, “Is this it? Is this all there is?”

My point: Most of us are average, and that’s just the way it is. So next time you blow a cast, tag a jake instead of a granddaddy tom, or settle for meat in the freezer instead of a wall ornament, remember that it’s okay to be average.

So what do you think? Is it okay to be average? What other advantages do average people have? Leave a comment and let us know!