January and February are the toughest months of the year for me. All of the hunting seasons have closed and it is generally too cold and icy to fly fish around Missoula. Too many gloomy days spent indoors makes me a little stir crazy so it was nice to get a mid-winter fly fishing break this past week. All of the streamflow and weather conditions came together for a quick trip over to Idaho to chase big Clearwater steelhead with a fly rod. Steelhead fishing requires a different mindset than trout angling. It is not a numbers game and the conditions can play a huge factor. Still, it is worth the time in the hopes of coming tight to such an incredible fish. At worst it is a great excuse to escape town for a couple of days and spend some hours outdoors in a river. We found the river levels dropping, which is a good thing, and the air temps above freezing for the most part. We jumped into one of my favorite runs first and I was a little worried after fishing it twice without a strike. The anticipation of that first strike is huge with steelhead. It is the moment of validation, that the fish are there, your technique is working, and you have the right fly. Without that first strike, fly fishing for steelhead becomes a punishing mind game. The questions can crush your spirit. Am I deep enough? Do I have the right fly? Am I in the right water? Are the fish here yet?……. Fortunately on this trip those questions only lingered until our second run when I connected with a fiesty buck in the first few minutes. With that first fish under our belt we cruised through the next two days and hooked steelhead in every run we fished except the final run of the trip. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, good company, and a bent rod left me refreshed and ready to endure a few more weeks of the Missoula winter.
The end of the fishing season is a time I have come to love because I get to go fly fishing with friends. Yes, they are clients and fortunately they are all excellent anglers, but over the years we have become great friends. The best part is that they view the sport of fly fishing the same way I do. All season I feel the pressure of putting as many fish in the boat as possible, serving a top notch lunch, and mainting a clean boat and truck. Clients have come to expect that and I actually thrive on it, it pushes me to be the best guide possible. But it is nice to just relax in the late fall with friends. Throw the dog in the boat, meet late, pick up lunch on the way and simply go fishing. It brings me back to the essence of the sport. Fly fishing is not always about catching them from start to finish. I relish the moments of brilliance, and fall fishing is full of such moments. I had an angler last week who absolutely loves streamer fishing. He will throw junk all day even if other techniques would be more productive. One of those days last week was especially tough streamer fishing. He only landed three all day, but one was a nice brown trout living tight to a bank. He saw the fish chase and eat his bug before coming tight. When we netted that fish he said, “That’s what I live for right there!” And that’s what I live for too, a precious moment in time when everything comes together and you find yourself connected to a wild creature if only for a short time. In the late fall the window of opportunity starts to shrink as the temps drop and the season fades. The hatch may only last a couple hours or a couple runs. You learn to appreciate those opportunities even more because they are limited. When the hatch quits we are all disappointed, but this time of year there is no pressure to try to manufacture fish. We don’t start pounding runs with nymphs or recycling the best water. More often than not we kick back and tell stories, poke around looking for stray risers, and if they don’t show I can start pushing for the take out without a word. The end of the season if for fly fishing with friends and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I absolutely love my life guiding trout fishing in Missoula, Montana but I try to take at least one destination flyfishing trip each year. It’s a unique experience for me because for a short time I go from guide to client, and the view from the front of the boat is awful nice. It challenges me to become a better fly fisherman and it usually takes me to beautiful locations chasing gorgeous fish. This year my long-time fly fishing buddy, Rich and I chose Baja hoping for shots at Roosterfish among other species. My true passion outside of Montana is tarpon, but I’ve been fascinated by Roosters since I saw my first video and we needed a change of pace. Rich and I have been spanked on our last several destination flyfishing trips and we thought our safest bet for weather and fish was the desert of Baja.
The first few days of the trip left us pretty desperate. There weren’t many fish around and the bait and weather were definitely not working in our favor. There were 10 anglers on the trip and everyone did their best to stay positive, but few Roosterfish were seen and not a one was hooked after 4 days on the water. Rich and I were feeling cursed, but the beer was cold, the food was unbelievable, and day 5 brought a change for the better. We didn’t find the Roosters we were looking for although we stumbled into a huge school of Dorado that kept us entertained all afternoon.
Our last day we worked extremely hard for a Rooster and had several shots but no joy. The Dorado were plentiful again, to the point we were tired of landing them, and we loaded the boat at the end of the day a couple of satisfied anglers. It ended up being one our best trips in the last few years and we are already planning to return.
The point is you never know what to expect on a destination flyfishing trip. Whether it’s Montana, South America, or Baja you hope for the best, prepare yourself to deal with the worst, and the trip usually ends up somewhere in between. Years down the line there will be some memorable fish, but most of the best memories come not from the fishing but something else along the way.
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