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bitterroot river guidesIt’s been a while since I’ve been involved in a catch and release of this magnitude, and just being near this fish is an honor.  Our good man Jim hooked onto this hen brown trout at the end of an excellent long day of streamer fishing with Chris rowing him as a single on day two of the trip.  Steve and I were sipping beers downstream in the same run, content with our good fortune of fishing for the day.  We heard some shouts and figured something good, or really bad, had occurred.  Stroking quickly downstream with Jim hunched over the bow holding the net, they pulled up mumbling with excitement and dropped anchor.  Chris finally spatted out, Leviathan!, and I understood immediately.

Merle Big BrownThese fish are once in a lifetime to many, and some of us guides are lucky enough to see a few in a career.  Springtime and early summer on good water years gives someone the best shot at a fish like this, covering many miles throwing the junk or rolling big stoneflies under a bobber.  My biggest client fish was a couple inches less than this girl, and amazingly ate a salmon fly dry during late June.  That’s been over five years now, and I’ve personally witnessed only one other fish of this caliber, caught on a san juan a few years back by a fellow guide’s client.  No camera on that one sad to say.:((

bitterroot river guidesOur springtime fishing has been excellent this season, with lots of little dinkers like this one.  Just kidding, this fish taped 19″ but after Jim’s legit 28 incher the scale got a bit screwed up.  The rest of our prior fishing for two days was grand, albeit big water and lots of cast with the big rods.  Little dry fly activity was happening, though when your catching solid fish every few runs underneath and having a blast why bother?  Keep that elbow in, power up the backcast, and let that puppy fly!  This is the time of year to suit up for bear, and get out on the big water with us.

Spring Squalls, Skwalas, and March Browns

bitterroot river guidesThe easy days of pre-runoff are long gone, and with them go the predictable water flows and insect cycles we’ve grown accustomed to.   March Browns and Skwalas are still hatching every day, but that sure doesn’t mean anyone with fins is actually looking at them.  When the water starts to spike in the spring, things can get a bit dicey out there on the river.  Bugs will still hatch for the most part if the weather is conducive, but the added river flows charging down the valley keep the fish busy finding new homes and lies, virtually eliminating any rising activity until things stabilize.

bitterroot river guidesNow is when your fishing guide is worth their weight in gold.  Those easy single dry fly days are history, and plugging along with such rig will lead to a long beautiful day making casts, but that’s about it. With our feet in the river daily,  a good guide can make a tough river fish spectacular with the right setup and instruction.  What may look like a turbulent, flooded river basin to many, is actually an oasis to the fish, filled with food and hiding spots not usually available at lower flows.  Big trout move to feed in this kind of water, coming out of their deep winter holes to lie in ambush positions throughout the river.  Gravel bars littered with tree stumps become flooded and then attract fish to their refuge, more than doubling the available hideouts throughout the basin.

bitterroot river guidesSo some days you have to say screw the dry fly, at least until things really get cooking, and bust out the junk.  Being a good fly fishermen means dealing with adversity and finding success whenever and wherever you may find yourself.  If the dry and the five weight ain’t gonna do it, bump up to the six and the bobber, or grab the seven and the biggest ugliest thing in your box and start ripping casts.  One way or another we’ll figure them out, and we’re having a blast in the process.

Bitterroot River Skwala Hatch

bitterroot river skwala hatchI’d have to say it’s here full swing, or at least enough to have some great consistent fishing throughout the main part of the day. Skwalas were hatching well a couple days ago, with just a few Baetis and possibly a March Brown or two on our float trip.  Lots and lots of skwala nymphs are staged near the shoreline ready to pop when the weather smiles.  We started early enough in the day things were quiet, and a simple nymph rig brought up lots of mighty whiteys for the little guy in the front, while Dad threw a dry and found a couple willing fish.

bitterroot river skwala hatchAfter a great morning and river bank lunch, we set out full dry fly for the remainder of our long float.  Quite a few fish rose to our bugs, the little guy putting the wood to ’em and Dad missing most, but having a great time and seeing lots of great eats.  Most water with the right habitat for trout was holding a willing fish, and some banks several.  Eventually the window closes for the day, and as evening approaches the fish settle down and the bite turns off.  Time to head for the corral after a fine day.

Missouri River Early Spring

missouri river montanaIt’s been a long winter around here, it’s snowing now.  My mountain bike just got knocked over on the front porch by the latest snow squall that ripped through the valley, and now it’s sunny.  All in about twenty minutes.  I can see the next one brewing up Sawtooth and Roaring Lion canyons across the valley from my house.  It should be here in the next hour.  And so it goes, Montana in the spring.

missouri river montanaThe Missouri river is a place that will haunt your memories all winter long, and you might even get a whacky idea mid December or January to go freeze your ass off there and watch your guides ice up. You’ll catch fish, but freeze you will.  So once the bugs stir for the first time and the nights are no longer freezing deep, it’s time to go see what we can find on the big river.

missouri river montanaNymphs dominate the scene this time of year on the Mo.  Until the caddis and baetis get their groove on, really midges are the only thing happening on top, and unless it’s epic, you really will only see a couple random rises throughout the day.  Streamers have their moments, as well, and both fish I’m holding ate a conehead bugger  while ripping it across flats on a sink tipped number seven Loomis. I love the streamer game when it plays, and once a mile is considered playing by my standards.

missouri river montanaSo get with us on an early Mo trip, unless you are here chasing the Skwalas around on the Bitterroot with us.  The Mo offers the utmost challenge in fly fishing with rewards of rainbows in the trophy class. These fish are big and healthy and do not screw around once hooked: jumps, runs, and more runs until you can finally bring them to hand if you play them correctly.  Bring your ‘A’ game and get ready for one of the finest trout rivers in North America.

Bighorn River Annual

fishing over lost trailLate in a long Montana winter we start thinking about spring and the moment we can finally put the skis up for fly rods again.  Actually though, junkies such as ourselves never take the rods off the dash to begin with, except those damn speys don’t fit up there, or anywhere for that matter, as we swing for steelhead all winter.  So as late February turns to March and I’m already fielding Skwala Q and A’s, trout it is once again and away with the speys as our guide season approaches.

pug mahones pcsAs with the last two years, after a ceremonial stop for the world’s finest pork chop sandwich at Pug Mahon’s in Billings on the road trip there, we kicked our season opener off with bang on the Bighorn River in south central Montana, famous for its high trout numbers and solid fishing.  Good friend Trent organized our crew of miscreants, setting us up in a sweet little ranch house just up from the Bighorn access this year, rather than the quadra-wide at Cottonwood Camp from last year.  Evening tunes, ribeyes, a few cribbage battles, and lots of laughs and BS greeted us every night we rolled off the river: great times!

bighorn countryWe fished three days on the Horn, covering every mile from Three Mile access down to Two Leggins, nearly thirty miles of river.  Day one is the let’s not get our asses kicked and go where we know it’s good day, so Three Mile to Bighorn was the play.  It’s a lovely sight to see only a few boat trailers in the 3 mile lot at 9am, and we essentially had that section to ourselves, plenty of water to go around.  Right away the fish were happy, rising steadily to a midge hatch rolling off and eating the dry fly quite well.  bighorn riverNothing big but what the hell, dry flies in February is music to anyone’s ears. Eventually G-gnat dries gave way to sow bugs and san juans on the bobber, and we found fish in all the right places.  The streamer game played well in the morning and decent throughout the day, but often after watching fly rod rookie Dan put on a nymphing clinic up front with Chris rowing him, I switched out to the orange orb as well to get in on the action.  Lots and lots of fish in this river if one knows where to look and what they like eat!

bighorn countryDay two, different story.  Bighorn down to Mallards is another beast altogether with water types a little flatter than the upper glory water and not as many definite fish holding runs.  We found enough fish to occupy us in beteween our water thrashing, searching for the thousands of fish you know live in that river, but definitely got spoiled on day one finding fish everywhere.  But that’s what you get for a bright and beautiful almost 60 degree bluebird day in February, your ass kicked.  Dan even got to bust out the sparkle shirt.  Funny how it works that way with fishing.  Pray for the worst possible stuff you can handle, minus the lightning.

bighorn countryWe definitely got the weather on Day three, dark low clouds rolling into the area and rain predicted, so our group split up on river sections.  Not wanting a repeat of yesterday, one boat went back to the holy waters up top, and I don’t blame them a bit, and the rest of us went Lewis and Clarking down to Two Leggins from Mallards. Armed with streamer rods and plenty of provisions, mostly beer, we set out hopeful with the good cloud cover and dark skies.  And we were rewarded for our gamble right away, hooking up in the first couple of runs on good sized fish.  As the day progressed, the bite got better with fish absolutely crushing our bugs.  I had one fish Jackie Chan my streamer, coming a foot out of the water in a brown trout kung fu move, then come back to eat it hard on the return cast and hooking up.  Nothing like a good streamer brown trout attack!

bighorn riverRemember that part about pray for the worst possible stuff you can handle?  I forgot to mention it gets a bit windy sometimes on the Horn.  As all good things must come to an end, our perfect fishing weather finally did as well, changing from a gentle breeze down river to a howling gale coming upstream in our faces.  Thankfully we had a smoking good day with lots of good fish, so we knew we deserved some penance for our glories, plus we kinda knew where we were in the float, nearing the takeout.  Gotta take those lumps out there every now and again.  Hoods up and sterns downstream we battled it out til we finally arrived at the ramp with light to spare.

bighorn ribeyesAfter one last night of cocktails and camaraderie, our group packed up and said goodbye to each other and Bighorn country.  New and old friendships were kindled on this trip, as many of us were strangers to one another three days ago.  Half of our group headed for the hills from whence they came, while the other half decided to squeeze in a quick run on the Yellowstone on the way back.  If your gonna drive over a hundred miles paralleling world famous trout water on the interstate, salivating on the steering wheel and swerving with the fish eyes going on, might as well check it out, eh? And yeah, it was good!  I’ll keep that story to myself, no kiss and tell on freestones!  Hope to see all of you again next time.  JFbighorn country


Late Fall Steelhead: BC

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-22Every Montana fishing guide worth his weight in IPA dreams up some sort adventure after the season; call it a closure to the rigors and pains, glories, and utter defeats of a long season on the water.  All of us need that something to keep us smiling and hanging in there through the final days, knowing adventure waits.  Well, my group dreams big.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_54-96Steelhead enter the coastal rivers during mid to late summer, slowly making their way upstream to their spawning grounds.  Some rivers are hundreds of miles upstream of the main arteries, such as the Salmon river in Idaho, and this journey takes months for these fish to make it into these waters.  From the Columbia to the Snake confluence, then up the Snake to the Salmon, and up that long canyon of No Return to the upper reaches where we target them throughout the winter, my local steelies run somewhere near 900 miles inland to their final destinations.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_54-16So back to the adventure.  Chris, Alex, and myself decided this would be the year to visit the North country, the land of endless rivers and mountains: steelhead country…BC.  I’ve been there twice, some 15 years ago earning my stripes as a young fishing guide.  I traveled with seasoned veterans, swinging old school shooting heads on mono running lines with single handed 8 and 9 weights.  Nowadays we throw the spey primarily with various tips, but the single hands still have their moments.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-4-3On November 2nd, thirty hours north and west of the Bitterroot, we struck our first camp on the bottom of the Morice river near Houston, British Columbia at about three o’clock.  We’d traveled over fifteen hundred miles through the previous day and night, traversing most of Montana and BC, including the Banff and Jasper Provincial Parks and Jasper Ice fields Parkway in the dead of night with a foot of snow covering the roadway.  We set up a 15×16 foot wall tent for cooking and partying, as well as personal tents to sleep in so as not to be hearing your neighbor snore, or be mauled by the local black bears breaking into the wall tent for our food.

bc shuttle bikeWith my nephew’s little motorbike as our shuttle, we toured the wild Morice for a few days up from camp.  Only knowing point A and point B, everything in between was a mystery.  Oh what amazing steelhead water!  It was hard to pinpoint anything particular as everything looked and felt beautiful on the swing.  We connected on fish, me striking first and Alex next, with Chris hooking more but landing none, stuck in the shithole.  We could have spent weeks exploring the Morice and expecially the Bulkley, flowing some 90 kilos north of our camp into the Skeena, but we have only so much time.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-45Kispiox. That was the final destination on this journey.  I have old time connections to friends in that country, and sure enough, that phone number from over fifteen years ago still worked.  With a point to start and some old memories, we found my old stomping grounds on the Kispiox and began a day of fishing the classic runs.  We found fish and decided the rest of our time would be spent there, knowing world record steel come to that drainage.  A long drive back to the Morice and a last camp night, breakdown at dawn, and on to the next adventure.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_54-33So another week we spent in an epic camp on an epic beach on an epic steelhead river, throwing down in a wall tent with propane heater, cook stove, lantern, tables, two fly tying vises occupied at all times, the other guy(me), filling beer orders and heating dinner in the pot, prepared and vacuum sealed back in Montana.  Swing runs were out the door, which we’d start or end on sometimes at dawn and dusk, one last effort to find the tug you hadn’t had in days.  We found fish, but suffered mightily as well.  I went many days without a tug, beating myself into a madness: skip food, water, definitely have beer, swing, step, pile into boat, repeat on next run.  Repeat for days.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-46-2As our trip drew towards a close and the BC late fall weather started to crank up, we started thinking of heading south.  Our last couple days of swinging were our best, finally figuring out the runs and feeling like fresh fish had come into the river.  Classic runs that had kicked our asses for days started to produce beautiful chrome fish, hot and wild and eager for the swing.  We stayed as long as we could, but he time had come.  Two weeks in the wilds of BC was all I could ask for from my real life, and I’m damn thankful for that, so we rolled up the tent and packed er up for the land of milk and honey, Montana, 2200 miles and 30 hours away.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-15-2I, we, will be back.  Other destinations are already in the mix for next year, we’ll see what shakes of them.  Skeena country is magical if you are of the steelhead type, endless tribs as big as our Missouri in places, and most easily the size of the Clark’s Fork or Bitterroot.  Wild steelhead are all that roam there, no supplemental hatchery fish, so every basin is as it was and how it shall be forever and amen.(Minus the occasional gigantic Canadian mine/pipeline…don’t get me started.)  Give a nod to British Columbia and their efforts at preserving wild steelhead runs and the habitat that supports them, many and most rivers untracked and roadless to their headwaters.  So many options, from helicopter drops on uncharted waters to DIY dirtbagging at the K’San campground,  steelhead will take you there.

End of a Long Road

bitterroot river fallOur days are short and the nights are getting longer.  Rifle season for elk and deer is in full swing, and the winter snowpack is forming in the high country and slowly migrating down into the valleys.  Our guide season is in its final throes, those rugged souls who fish with us well into October and brave the unknown conditions.  The Bitterroot will fish as long into the season as one is willing, provided you are prepared for cold conditions and short windows of opportunity on the surface.  When you do find them feeding, though, it can be an amazing experience: alone on a Montana trout river and fish like these spread out rising river-wide.  See you next season. JF

Missouri River Fall

missouri river brown troutFinally the time has come that all us river rats beg for all season: fall in Montana.  It’s been a tough summer since the snow burned off and the heat kicked up in July, but a few well timed weather systems saved our asses, keeping water flowing in the rivers and quenching the fires that inevitably come with the dry conditions.  Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel: the nights are cold, days are shorter, and the Missouri is fishing like we know it can.

missouri riverWe spend a lot of time on the Mo during the fall months.  Anyone who has experienced a decent day here–not to mention those lucky souls that have hit it perfect– is essentially hooked for life.  She’s got you.  Guides included.  Fish start to stack up in all the right places to feed heavy on the fall bugs, Baetis and Pseudos primarily.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_52-22This fall fished well for us, though the summer moss hung on longer than we’d like and dry fly opportunities were limited.  Once the daily rig was determined, nymphs more often than not, the fishing was consistent and down right smoking hot at times.  Look for moving riffles and drop offs with the right depth, and fish were all over the place.  The dry or die mentality had to be kept in check, though, as most fish just weren’t coming to the surface reliably enough to target them.


Hot and Low

Our winter of 2014-15 turned out to be pretty dismal, with warm dry weather dominating the bulk of the winter season.  Snowpack was barely above 50 percent in some valleys and not much rain ever came to help out.  So, we knew it was coming at some point; low, warm water conditions and river closures.

The Bitterroot has closures on the main river starting at 2 o’clock to fishing, so we fish early and run scenic floats in the afternoon.  We are still fishing in the mornings until the heat cranks up and the river goes quiet around 2, then hang out and grill up a big riverside picnic on the nearest gravel bar.  Brats, burgers, and a cold one isn’t such a bad way to go during the heat of the day.  With the rods put away and everyone kicking back, we head on home.  Full days can still be run on the West Fork, and soon enough the main river will have restrictions lifted with the coming of fall.

July on the Mo

Missouri RiverAs a Western Montana fishing guide, we all get the willies when we are  headed to the big river, the Mo.  We’re super stoked to get a chance at the big rainbows and killer dry fly possibilities, but we are also nervous as hell that we’re gonna get our asses kicked!  This river can be brutal sometimes, challenging everything you have to make good casts and see the fly, let alone landing the heavy duty fish the Mo puts out consistently.

Missouri RIver

Fortunately for Chris and I, our group of four were up to the task and the Missouri river smiled upon our efforts.  Caddis, PMDs, and a smattering of little mayflies peeled off the water from early morning to late evening, providing lots of visual targets for our fishermen. Many years guiding the Bitterroot and Big Hole with these guys, we wanted to show them what Montana dry fly fishing can really be like: huge rainbows sipping sub16 dries in shin deep riffles with finger burning runs after the set!

Missouri RIver

So thanks to our diligent fishermen and to the spirits of the mighty Missouri for giving us a great trip.  Everyone stuck a few great fish and held in there when the going got rough, something one must power through on every Missouri trip.  See you all next time!