Normally my blog posts are a little longer than this, but I thought you might be interested in listening to a recent podcast featuring yours truly speaking about using goats to pack into the backcountry. You can check it out at https://fishuntamed.com/episode-22/.
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 . . .
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.
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.”
Great fishing prospects sometimes overshadow great fishing prospects. For example, to experience the exceptional fishing for westslope cutthroat trout in northwest Montana’s Upper Boulder Lake (aka Boulder Lake #1), you first have to ignore the Kootenai River’s tempting rainbows as you drive north from Libby, then refrain from rubbernecking the many enticing bays and inlets of Lake Koocanusa. But your rewards for staying the course are Boulder Lake’s high-mountains solitude and cooperative cutthroat that come at the modest price of an easy 2-mile backcountry hike.
I backpacked into Boulder Lake last September with my friend Jeff Talbert, right after a hard frost had made flying trout food scarce. After launching my backpack boat, I hooked, netted, and released fish after fish up to 16 inches long, using a size 12 Royal Wulff, my mountain lake dry fly of choice unless I catch a hatch. Talbert, new to the sport, had packed his new fly rod, and the fast fishing provided the perfect opportunity to get him hooked on fly fishing. I encouraged him to take a turn in the boat and fling a dry fly. He soon found himself attached to trout after trout. Another convert to fly fishing. For variety, we also tried subsurface fishing and enjoyed excellent results using Bigg’s Sheep Creek Specials and brown Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymphs, both in size 12.
I encouraged Talbert to fish to his heart’s content. But I actually started feeling a little guilty about all the trout I’d caught, even though I’d released them. How many fish does a guy need to catch? With a mortality rate of close to 5 percent for trout caught and released, I figured I’d killed two trout. I once met a fly fisher at a mountain lake and asked him about the fishing. He said it was pretty good and smiled as he told me how many trout he’d caught. I asked if he’d kept any to eat. “No,” he said. “I made my peace with trout a long time ago.” So have I, I thought. I’m at peace with eating a couple from a lake so richly populated, and they are a treat, especially cooked over a campground grill.
Given the ease of the hike into Boulder Lake, I expected company. However, only one other fisher made the trek, and he didn’t stay long. It’s a good thing I didn’t run into him later, though, or he might have gotten a snootful of bear spray. Accidentally, of course. While poking along the shoreline, I saw where he’d cleaned his catch and left the guts lying on a fallen log. There are few better ways to attract bears to your camp than leaving fish guts lying around. Northwest Montana is grizzly country, so Talbert and I bagged our food and hung it at night. Maybe I’m just cranky, but I’d rather not have a furry midnight visitor in my camp.
Fly fishing from shore is challenging at Boulder Lake. The shoreline is brushy, which makes anything but a roll cast difficult. In addition, the lake is mesotrophic, which translates to a soft bottom and substantial weed growth far out into the lake. A two-handed 5-weight rod would be an asset here. A better option is to pack in some type of floating device. Once out on the lake in my backpack boat, I found my 3-weight to be ideal.
To reach Boulder Lake #1, follow State Route 37 north from Libby. Continue 54 miles, and cross the bridge spanning Lake Koocanusa. After crossing the bridge, turn north onto Yaak Valley–Libby Dam Road (named Forest Service Road 228 on the USDA Rexford and Fortine Ranger District map) and continue about 3 miles. Turn south on Forest Service Road 337 and drive about 11 miles, then continue about a mile on Forest Service Road 7183 to the trailhead on the right. Forest Service Road 7229 is gated at the trailhead, and is actually part of the trail.
Now: Go do it with a fly!
(This article appeared in the May/June, 2018 issue of Northwest Fly Fishing magazine. If you’re interested in learning more about mountain lake fishing in Montana, you might consider my new book, Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes. The book is also available from Wilderness Adventures Press, Amazon, and Google Play)
The Big Hole. The Madison. The Gallatin. The Jefferson. The lower Clark Fork. Their names fall from a trout fisherman’s lips with awe and reverence. But wait – the lower Clark Fork? What’s THAT name doing in the company of this short list of the exalted “blue ribbon” trout streams of Montana? I’m glad you asked me that question!
At first glance, the section of the lower Clark Fork from the about the town of Superior to the Ferry Landing boat launch about 12 miles downstream from St. Regis on MT 135 can be intimidating. The river is big and broad, draining as it does most of Western Montana. But when you take a closer look, you’ll notice the typical back eddies, seams, riffles, and pocket water that make trout fishermen drool. Combine these with trout that will stretch a tape from 12- to 18-inches on the average, and you have the stuff that legendary trout rivers are made of.
But the trout here aren’t pushovers. A seam that looks promising may not host any fish, but the next seam might be alive with rises. This is what makes this section of the Clark Fork not only challenging, but downright fun. It’s more like hunting than fishing, as the fish tend to hang out in pods rather than swim more or less evenly distributed throughout the river.
This portion of the Lower Clark Fork is a drift-boater’s dream, as there are no rapids to speak of. A little faster water, but no rapids. Shore access is good from about Mile Post 3 on Montana’s scenic Highway 135 most of the way to the Ferry Landing boat launch and even beyond.
Best of all (I think) the lower Clark Fork is a river where flies out-fish hardware and bait many times over (see my post Do it on the Fly). Recommendation dries start with March Browns early in the season, Green Drakes, Blue Wing Olives, caddis, Adams, then hoppers (!), and finishing off the season with Mahogany Duns. If nothing’s happening on top, hang on an indicator and go below with nymphs such as the Prince and Pheasent Tail.
If you decide to give the lower Clark Fork a chance, you might want to stop by Joe Cantrell Outfitting for the latest fishing info or to schedule a guided float trip or shuttle. From the town of Superior on down, boat launches with concrete ramps include Big Eddy, Dry Creek, St. Regis, and Ferry Landing. For detailed info regarding these launches, log onto Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. If you’d rather try the area’s mountain lakes, you might be interested in my book, The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes.
Now go do the fly thing.
How about taking your fly rod on a hike into Montana’s backcountry and catching wild mountain trout? Or maybe you’d prefer reading about it while relaxing in your recliner? Maybe you want to both read up and plan that self-guided fly fishing trip into the remote mountainous areas of the Last, Best Place?
If you find yourself in one of the above groups, (or somewhere between) you might enjoy my new book, The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes soon to be released in print by Wilderness Adventures Press. The first 40 or so pages contain valuable information for fly fishers from beginners to experts, including tackle info, backcountry navigation, guidance on how to rig up for backpacking, tips for camping in bear country, information about using goats as pack stock, and much more. The remainder of the book is dedicated to individual reports on some of the best mountain lakes of Northwest Montana, including driving directions, trail info, GPS coordinates, and best-in-class maps by Wilderness Adventures Press. You can sample it as an e-book online at Amazon and Google Play, and purchase it there if you like. Or you can buy a signed print copy here.
The online samples will give you a peek at the first 40 or so pages, but I thought you also might want to see a sample lake report from the book. So with permission from the publisher, here ya go –
Trailhead: 47.00634, -115.01147
Lake: 47.00603, -115.04137
Summary: Probably the best eastern brook mountain lake in Mineral County, Trail Lake covers about 12 fishy acres.
Location: 17 miles south-southwest of the town of Superior
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle Illinois Peak (for reference only—trail to Trail Lake not shown on topo map). USDA Forest Service map Lolo National Forest, Superior Ranger District; DeLorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer, page 52; Benchmark Montana Road and Recreation Atlas, page 61
Trailhead: 4,723 feet
Lake: 5,740 feet
Round-Trip Hike: 4.4 miles
Hike Difficulty: Moderate
Sometimes you just hit the jackpot, and the jackpot in this case was fat, feisty, eastern brook averaging 10 to 12 inches.
Knowing that mountain trout don’t usually get up early, I didn’t arrive at the trailhead and start my hike on a bright and lovely July morning until 11 a.m. The forecast was for light and variable winds and a sunny afternoon in the low 80s. Nice.
I took my time hiking in, enjoying my time on the trail just as much as the prospect of sampling a new lake. It was two p.m. by the time I arrived at Trail Lake, unpacked, and inflated my little boat. My hiking partner for the day had arrived at the lake before me and was already out on the lake fishing and catching fish. He kept hollering, “Got another one, Mike! Got another one! Hurry up and get out here!”
But I’m never in a hurry when I’m in the mountains. I want to savor every moment. So with my friend still hollering, “Got another one!” I found a comfortable perch on a log, shared a PBJ with my poodle, and had a cool drink.
After lunch, I rigged up double flies on my 3-weight with a size 16 green foam beetle and a size 14 Royal Wulff as the caboose. I walked my boat down to the lake shore and eased it into the lake. Just then a mayfly hatch exploded.
Suddenly there were mayflies everywhere: in the air, on the water, landing on my boat, my shirt, and my dog. I pulled out a fly box and searched for something to imitate the hatch. I found a size 16 Callibaetis (mayfly) spinner with a green thorax. The color wasn’t a match to the hatch, but the size was right on. Remembering that size is more important than color, I hurriedly clipped off the Royal Wulff, replaced it with the mayfly spinner, and shoved off.
My first two casts didn’t produce, but after that it was cheesecake. I had two takes in a row on the mayfly spinner, but I foul-hooked both fish. Thus began a lesson in flyfishing adaptability.
I removed the beetle, replaced it with the spinner for a one-fly setup, and settled my offering a few feet from shore. Trout were rising all around the fly, but they ignored the spinner. Try something different, I thought. I gave the fly line a little tug to sink the fly and started a slow, stripping retrieve. Fish on.
I landed and released the fish and figuring the fly was too slimed up to float, I decided to send it back to work. But after I double-hauled the line back out, the darn bug dried out and floated. No takers. Once again I tugged the line to sink the fly and repeated the slow retrieve. Bam. Fish on.
Okay, you idiots, I thought, you want it wet, I’ll give it to you wet. I retrieved the fly and clipped off the white spinner wings which were drying out and causing the fly to float. I sealed the deal by dousing the fly in sinkum.
I sent the fly back on the job with a smug smile. This time it sank. I repeated the retrieve. This time no fish. Another cast. No fish. Hmmm. I retrieved the line.
I sat in the boat thinking for a moment as a gentle breeze nudged me along the shore. What had I learned so far?
1. They want it wet.
2. They want the white.
I had one of those “light-bulb-over-the-head” moments.
I clipped off the mutilated fly and tied on another identical to the first. After a good soak in sinkum, I sent the fly on mission. Bam. Fish. Bam. Fish. Bam. Fish. And so it went as long as the mayfly hatch lasted. Ahh…. Sometimes you just hit the jackpot.
From Interstate 90 at the town of Superior, take Exit 47, travel east on FR 250, which is also named Diamond Match Road and later becomes Trout Creek Road. Continue about 17 miles from Superior to FR 7813 and turn right (north). At 1.9 miles, turn south (left) on FR 388. Follow FR 388 about 1 mile to the trailhead for Trail 256. The trailhead is not signed, but it starts just before you cross the bridge over the North Fork of Trout Creek.
Caution: That last mile on FR 388 is kind of nasty. You won’t need four-wheel drive, but forget it if you’re driving a Corvette.
For the most part, the trail follows the course of an old mining road. In fact, as I started the hike I asked myself, What’s a nice trail like you doing in a place like this? The trail ascended gradually until it crossed the North Fork of Trout Creek and then the switchbacks began. When I came to the switchbacks I asked myself, What’s a nice fisherman like you doing on a trail like this? However, the switchbacks marked the final ascent and only climbed about 0.25 mile to the lake.
There are a few very nice but primitive campsites at the lake.
Mention fly fishing to most anglers and a picture comes to mind of a fly fisher standing knee deep in a sparking river while casting a fly line, or perhaps of a fly fisher sitting in a drift boat and working a fly rod while happily sliding downstream on a gentle current. But this is only half of the story. The other half of the story unfolds on still water.
Lake fly fishing has some great advantages over moving water fly fishing —
- You don’t have to mend line to maintain a drag-free drift,
- Flies can spend more time on or in the water, rather than flying above it (most fish can’t jump high enough to grab a fly whizzing by on false casts 8′ above the water). Flies that spend more time on or in the water than above it equal more fish on the end of the line,
- The particular piece of water can be worked thoroughly, rather than rue the hole you just missed as you drifted by, and
- You don’t have to be concerned about spring runoff. Most still water remains fishable throughout the season.
The one big disadvantage with still water fly fishing is that you have to provide the movement; there’s no river current to stimulate action when wanted. But neither is there a current to fight. Provide fish-enticing movement of wet flies and nymphs via stripping, hand twists, or a combination. Vary retrieve type and speed until you find the sweet spot.
A first look at a lake can be puzzling: Where are the fish? On a flowing water you have seams, back eddies, and pools to prospect for trout. But a lake can be a daunting; at least on the surface the water all looks the same. Don’t you believe it. Before you make a cast, study the shoreline topography. A gently-sloping shore usually indicates a gently-sloping bottom. A steep shoreline often means deep water offshore. Also note inlets as they float fresh food to trout, often offering the fish a virtual bug buffet. Of course, you’ll also want to watch for rising fish. One more tip: Research your choice of still water in advance of your adventure. Try You Tube, Google Earth, and if you’re considering Montana where I live check out Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks FishMT for info. Another good resource is Wilderness Adventures Press.
However, whether they live in flowing water or still water, all trout need the same things: Chow, cover, and comfort. Paying attention to these three will lead you to the fish. Here’s a quick summary of each:
Chow. Just like you and me, fish like to eat. But fish diets include things we’d rather not have for supper, such as bugs, minnows, worms, leeches and the like. You can learn a ton about the food in a lake by dredging an aquarium net along the shore especially in weedy areas and emptying the contents into a clear plastic bottle containing a few inches of lake water. Check out your “catch” and you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to fly selection.
Cover. Fish have enemies, both the finny kind that swims under the surface and feathery kind that flies above it. They need shelter. This could take the form of a weed bed, a drop-off, or other underwater structure such as logs, boulders, and brush.
Comfort. Just like you and me, trout need certain conditions to be cozy. Water temperature is especially important; trout like their water at 50-60 degrees. Research the lake temp by lowering a stream thermometer down through the depths on a line marked at one-foot intervals to find the right level.
Now go do it, and tell us how you like fishing still water. Perhaps you have some tips to pass along? Maybe you’d like to say something about flowing water fly fishing?
You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog.
“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.” This comment usually comes to me with a smile, but he/she has no clue. When you turn your hobby into your job, suddenly your hobby becomes work.
A couple of years ago, I entered into a contract with Wilderness Adventures Press to write a fly fishing guide to the mountain lakes of Northwest Montana. Basically this boils down to visiting some of our mountain lakes, fishing, and writing about it. Sounds great, right? Hah!
Recently I sat down and took inventory of all the mountain lakes I need to visit this summer and scratched my head. I’d compiled a list of about 60 lakes. Whoa! I thought. I think I might need some company. And maybe a little help.
Maybe this is where you come in. I have a poodle and a pack goat and they’re good listeners but lousy conversationalists. And they’re not much for sharing camp chores. Wanna go? You could even bring a friend if you want.
Most of the mountain lakes on my list are reached via backpacking, although many of the hikes are under five miles. I usually camp overnight. This gives me an evening and a morning in order to get to know each lake. Then it’s on to the next one. I have trips planned for each week beginning in June, so you could plug in for a couple of days, a week, or a month or more. I need someone who can handle a camera and/or wouldn’t mind having his picture in the book. I have all the camera equipment.
Oh, and for the record this isn’t a job offer. But it is an offer to be a backpacking trout bum this summer. As the saying goes, the pay is lousy but the benefits are out of this world.
Send me an e-mail if you’re interested and I’ll share more. Of course, we don’t know each other so if it looks like we click I’d need references from you. And you’d need references from me. Fair’s fair.
Shall we do this?
It didn’t come from under a Christmas tree. It didn’t come wrapped in colorful paper. It wasn’t even a tangible gift, although it was just as real and wonderful and exciting as the dawn of a new day. The gift was given to me by my father, back in the carefree days of my youth. His gift was a love of the outdoors.
Some of my best childhood memories are of times spent camping with my family next to a whispering stream, and waking up on crisp mountain mornings to the smell of frying bacon rising from a cast iron pan strategically placed over a cheerful campfire. And then there were those times Dad would wake my little brother and me in the middle of the night for a long drive in the dark to arrive at first light at a trout lake. There we would slide a homemade rowboat from the top of the family bus and into the lake, and push off into the morning mist just as the sun winked above the tops of clean-scented evergreens. Most mornings we would fill stringers with pan-sized trout, gleaming trophies for a kid to take home and proudly share with the rest of the family.
The gift of the love of the outdoors is not something meant to be kept to yourself. It’s meant to be passed on, and it isn’t reduced by the sharing; it multiplies and brings joy to others. I’ve passed the gift along to my children, and they in turn are passing it on to theirs. In all of this the gift has come full circle and returned to me, bringing fresh joy to my life, like wildflowers suddenly encountered along a mountain trail.
As Priscilla Wayne once noted, “…appreciation is the food of the soul.” What is it about the outdoors you appreciate?
You can comment here, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe.