Tag 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?

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.

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.

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?

Life in Montana

Steve Shadley on Gold Peak – Copyright Mike Raether 2019

It’s not called The Last, Best Place for nothing. Fly fishing for trout in Montana is legendary, and with a population of just over a million people in the fourth largest state in the nation it’s not exactly crowded. In fact, some counties in Montana have so little population that the U.S. government classifies them as “frontier.” Sure, the blue ribbon trout streams of Montana such as the Madison, the Big Hole, and the Beaverhead attract quite a few folks, but visitors to Western Montana’s mountain lakes will often experience complete solitude combined with great fishing.

But compared to what it’s like to VISIT Montana, what’s it like to actually LIVE here? I’m glad you asked me that question –

  • First off, I live in Western Montana and—don’t tell anybody—the winters are not as bad here as some say. Rarely do we have snow on the ground all winter, although we might see -20 degrees Fahrenheit during a January cold snap.
  • Second, in many places the only building permits required for private residences are for sewer and electrical. If you want to live in a tarpaper shack, well, that’s your business. We don’t believe in making laws to protect people from themselves. For example, if you’re an adult helmets aren’t required for motor cyclists.
  • Third, one of the advantages of Montana is that you can pretty much do whatever you want—which is also one of the disadvantages of Montana: people here pretty much do whatever they want.
  • Fourth, concealed carry permits for firearms aren’t required except in incorporated cities, and deadly force is allowed if you feel your life is threatened—just make sure you’re right. Of course, like elsewhere, firearms are never allowed in places like banks, bars, and government buildings.
  • Fifth, if you like big reservoir lake fishing you might be interested in East Central Montana’s Fort Peck Lake, which has more shoreline than the state of California.

If this sounds like it might be your kind of place, first consider this story my wife told me recently—

A tourist stopped at the antique store where she works part time. The tourist needed a new fitting for his RV hose, and asked where he might find one in town. She answered, “You won’t.”

He asked, “Where would I need to go to get one?”

She told him, “The next town, which is 14 miles.”

“Round trip?” He asked.

”Nope. One way.”

 

 

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!

No Whining

Photo courtesy Todd Barnard, licensed under CC BY 4.0

Spring has finally sprung in the Rockies, and it happened all of a sudden: Within two weeks much of the snow melted, and the tree swallows, robins, and bluebirds returned. What a change from February and early March, when I was buried in snowstorm after snowstorm. One morning I got up and it was three degrees Fahrenheit. At least it was above zero. But then it got cold. Until recently I plowed snow off my 100 yard driveway an average of three times a week, sometimes every day. Not that I’m complaining about the weather. No way.

But I do have a complaint.

My complaint is that in winter and early spring there just isn’t much happening on the outdoor scene in my remote corner of Montana (except for plowing snow). So I was busy whining to myself, until I got to thinking of all the things available to me this time of year that get ignored at other times of year because I’m too busy fishing, camping, hiking, and hunting to make time for them. But what was once pushed aside, this season now brings to the front of the line. Here’s my list of things I can do right now. All I have to do is get off my butt. 

  • Study animal tracks,
  • Go snowshoeing,
  • Hunt rabbits (open year ‘round here, and no bag limit),
  • Hunt coyotes (also open year ‘round, no bag limit),
  • Practice photography skills,
  • Take inventory of my outdoor stuff, 
  • Study outdoor catalogs (following inventory of outdoor stuff),
  • Practice fly casting,
  • Apply for tags and permits for the upcoming year,
  • Feed the birds. Maybe. That old phrase, “Eat like a bird” is bilge water. Those little suckers can really chow. They once got into me for 25 pounds of seed per month. And once you start winter feeding, you have to keep it up. The little suckers come to depend on you. Too bad there’s no meat on tweeties. 

One more: Now is also the time to study my state’s fish and game regulations. Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MFWP) has an abundance of resources on its Website, and I’d bet your state does, too, and a lot more than just rules and regs. On the MFWP website I can find information about Hunter Education programs, Montana’s WILD educational program, Montana State Park’s Visitor Centers,  a Montana wildlife field guide, things related to recreational activities such as outdoor ethics and safety, even links to free downloadable resources such as posters featuring Montana wildlife.  

But what about you? Let’s share. What do you do along outdoor lines to redeem this time of year? Just don’t tell me about fishing in your shirt sleeves for reds in the tidal creeks of Florida’s Gulf Coast. I might have to WHINE!