It’s on like donkey kong

Big Brown Trout

The angling around SW Montana and Eastern Idaho is pretty damn good.   Things have been so busy lately with guiding, that I have needed to neglect almost everything else.   Tis’ the season, I guess, but it stills feels like we are a month behind with Mother Nature.  It’s just starting to feel like summer and my mind keeps telling me it’s more like early June than early July.  We had a 38 degree morning a few days ago. 

Fat and Healthy. Fooled by a dry fly.

After a day of guiding, a few of us drove back to the river for an evening float on the Henry’s Fork south of Ashton.  Trav (above) stuck this one on a Golden.  This river is so impresive right now.  Bugs, bugs and more bugs.  Fat trout too.   At this rate, the Fork around Ashton will continue to fish for awhile.  Harriman Ranch has been super good as well on Flavs, early and late are key for rising trout.  The Ranch is quite good these days and  I would have to say that the Henry’s Fork is fishing like it used to.  Hand’s down some of the best dry fly activity anywhere right now. 

This one at a Grey Drake Spinner.

Waiting for the hatch. H. Fork.

The Madison River has dropped significantly the past few days and is fishing really well sub surface.  It is not quite green enough for fish to rise, but that is coming soon enough.  There are lots of nice fish eating stoneflies, caddis, and may fly imitations.  Short rigs – 4 to 5 feet in total length – fished to the bank, out of the boat proved to be very deadly today for us.  We had four rubber legs for most of the day.  All those little trout from last summer have grown up and are fiesty.  There are salmonflies on the river, but the fish are not looking up that well at all.  I heard only one report of someone landing a few trout on the Big Bug and we tried it for awhile this afternoon from the Swallow’s Cliffs to Mac.  Only one smal trout took a look.  I saw decent number of salmonflies upstream of Ruby Creek, but not that many.  Any day now….maybe 5,  for dry fly angling.   Beaver Creek, Pappose Creek and Indian Creek are still blowing mud.  I have’t been below Mac yet……when the guides from Ennis are floating high, that means something. 

Floating the Madison. Hooked up.

 The Madison is still pretty big and floaters need to be aware of their skills before drifting this river.  Getting under the bridges is a piece of cake, but Wolf Creek Bridge is still a bit sketchy for novice oarsmen.  Letting go of the oars right now is not a good idea.  Dropping anchor in the middle of the river is ALWAYS a stupid idea.  Especially right now.  I am always amazed when I see boaters drop their hook in the middle of the Madison and bounce along trying to net a fish or re-rig.  Wake up people, sinking a boat sucks…

These are so nice. My favorite.

 Here at Big Sky Anglers we are super jazzed up about the season’s angling possibilities.  Dry fly fishing is just around the corner, with the exception of the Missouri and the Yellowstone, and we are very busy.  August is going to be fabulous on the Madison and the waters of YNP.    This is going to be one of those summers around SW Montana.  Are you coming?  You should.  I would.

Henry’s Fork on the 4th….of July

J. Kelly and a 22 incher. Well done.

During the season, it’s almost next to impossible to field phone calls from your guide buddies working on other rivers.  On the other hand, when photos like thses show up on your phone, a call back is mandatory.  Especially when it involves dry fly angling.  While on the Missouri last week,  Jonathon Heames (a Trouthunter Guide and fellow outfitter in Montana) and I traded river reports every few days.  The Missouri was stable at 21K and nymphing well and The Fork had been on the drop…… then the bugs exploded.  It has been as good as it gets down there, but things are gettting a little tricky.   There has been quite a bit of pressure on the Henry’s Fork but the fish are still eating.  Drag it once.  Done.  Change flies, try again.  Drag it again. Done.  Change flies, keep your cool and do it right this time.  If you do, fish like this will eat your flies. 


Jonathon holding one of Jim's big ones. 24 in.

 Happy Birthday America.  Thanks to all who keep us safe and sound in this great country.  

Back and Forth

Double. Lisa & Jerry on the Missouri.

I arrived home from the Missouri yesterday afternoon to excited dogs and a plethera of mosquitoes.  The warm temps have cranked up the biting flies and rivers have risen slightly as well.  The Missouri is stable at 21,800 out of Holter Dam.  Some folks think it will get even bigger.  HUGE is about the only word for it.  Notice the willows sticking out to the left of Jerry’s trout in the photo above.  That willow is normally about 8 feets tall.  The island it lives on is completely under water……but the trout don’t care.  On my last two days of guiding, we fished 10 ft and change to the split shot.  While casting this rig was difficult, it worked rather well.  The afternoon bite went to shit about 3 pm as the sunshine was pounding down on us.  We could have lengthened the leader and added one more BB split shot – to the 3 already on the rig- but that would have been extremely tough to cast let alone land a fish on.  The Missouri is fishing well – in spots – and not that well on the run.    Hooking fish with this rig is difficult to say the least.  “Was that bottom or did a fish eat my fly?” was a common question the past week on the Missouri.  My answer – ” hit’em all and hit’em hard…..strip line….get it tight….let’em run.”   At the Dam, I was fishing double sow bugs – 1 pink and 1 grey and doing pretty darn well.  Otherwise the worm and crayfish patterns were king throughout the entire river.  

Flooded....Craig Campground.

There are three closures on the Missouri as of yesterday.  Camping in Craig is now closed until the water recedes.  Prewett Creek Boat Ramp and Campground are closed as is Spite Hill Boat Ramp.   The river is dangerous in some sections and experience behind the oars is a necessity if venturing through Lone Pine Rapids – formally known as Half Breed Rapids.    Stay right above the Hwy Bridge and take the first right channel below Sheep Creek……a much safer bet.  The roller below the zig-zag is pretty big too, but not that scary.  Be careful, the Missouri at these flows is very powerful.

Windy Point Boat Ramp.

Upon crossing the river in Ennis, I witnessed the Madison completely blown out.  At Windy Point, river right is still fishable.  Guides are getting their boats under Shelton’s Bridge, but one needs to be very careful when doing this.  The wade stretch is greening up, but still off color.  Can you catch fish down there?  Of course, but it will be in just a few spots where the water is slow enough to hold a fish.  The West Fork is pumping mud and might be for awhile.  Cabin and Beaver Creeks are muddy and this recent warm weather has them ragging.  Quake Lake is going to get a little dirtier before it greens up and we all hope this happens in the next week.  There are a few big bugs below Beartrap Canyon, but the river down there is also flowing rather big.  Your guess is as good as mine for salmonflies above Ennis lake. We are alteast 10 days from seeing salmonflies above Ennis.  If they come off before, it will be in the mud.  Cross your fingers and your toes for big bugs and a green Madison……it could happen. 

Catching up with the boys. HCR Style.

West Yellowstone is busy with tourists and YNP visitors.  Lots of strollers and poor driving skills……..but it feels good to be back home as this season has me on the road more than usual.  Back to the Mo I go, in early July and then again in mid July. 


The Chubby Lady Big Bug

 One of the first salmonfly hatches we will see, is just about 10 days away…..maybe a bit later depending on the temperatures of the Henry’s Fork.  Life in the high country is behind every where else once again this spring.  Yesterday there was about 2.5 feet of visibility from Warm River to Ashton, today is probably a different story.  Pteronarys Californica stirs up the dryfly angler from within.  As a tyer, I love tying these big flies.  The Chubby Lady Big Bug  is just a variation on the Chubby Lady .  Adapting a pattern to fit another species, was simple – change the color of the thread, hackle,rubber legs, and foam and add an egg sack.   I have never fished this fly, but they’ll eat it, no doubt. 

The Chubby Lady Big Bug

 Big trout, 20 plus inchers, will move in to feeding positions that they normally might not sit in, just to eat salmonflies.  This kind of oppportuntiy is overwhelming for fly anglers.  Once the hatch begins, there are spots that I check regularly which have produced big fish over the years.  Slipping into these holes late in the day is much anticipated, even after rowing all day long.   Most of the local fishermen have their favorite patterns and won’t fish anything else.   Jacklins’s Gaint Salmon Fly is by far one of the deadliest  true local patterns and I never go to the river without them.  The Razorback is another solid pattern – casts well, floats all day.  In my opinoin, fishing these big bugs single, is the only way.  If you have traveled somewher to fish this hatch and your MO is catching trout on salmonflies, well then, fish it alone.  Over the years I have dropped off an X-Caddis or a nymph of some kind while experimenting.  Towards the end of the hatch, I will use the Big Bug for an indicator fly and then tie off a #16 Royal Wulff about 2 feet below, when fishing off the bank and in the trench.   Once the hatch is in full swing, I prefer to fish a single fly.  Especially from the boat.   Single flies drifted on a fast river will yield better results.  Picking up the big fly and putting it back in at the bank – with precision and accuracy- is just easier with one fly.  Poking those flies into tight spots is a must on certain stretches of the Madison.  With 2X Maxima on the end, one will rarely lose a fly when gettting “lose your fly” close to that willow lined bank where large browns live.   I have witnessed a trout taking a natural that was resting on the upstream side of  a willow branch.  That same fish ate  my fly about a minute later and was 22 inches, a brown.


Last Chance

JJ Heames

 After watching the weather and making a few calls down to the Trouthunter in Last Chance, Jonathon Heames and myself hopped in the truck and went for it.  It was cold, windy and not quite the conditions we were looking for, but none the less, we needed to get out of the house.   We met up with Tom and Zac who have been fishing this river all winter long.  They too were looking for Blue Winged Olives.  Yes, the Henry’s Fork has been open all year, except for the Harriman Ranch section below the Log Jam – that is still closed.   The hatch was somewhat weak, but a few rainbows rose to eat the little duns which rolled down the river.   Refreshing it was to see mayflies hatching, even in the small numbers we observed.  A few good trout rose, but nothing consistent.  I chose not to fish as the knee is still healing  and wade fishing isn’t in the cards just yet.  Instead, we fished together and I acted as the watchman, looking for other trout to rise while Jonathon watched one particular rainbow who was eating mayflies every five to eight minutes.  Jonathon has been testing a prototype fly rod, that neither of us can talk about at this time.  Said rod is sweet and should be on the market this summer.  More on that later.

Jonathon about to release a rainbow.


Looking West to Montana

“There are four lines which twist and turn their way through this part of the country mirroring each other along the way.   From this little spot in the world, one can see all four at the same time.”  
–  E. Tips on Howard Creek Ranch
 An old friend of mine pointed this out to me around the campfire, late one evening at this very place in October of 1999.  After my Missouri River years, college and a short stint guiding in Utah; I found myself back in Montana working for a flyshop again.   It was getting on into Fall and I had lived out of the shell of my pick-up all summer long, only paying for a storage unit and gasoline.   Pretty damn cheap way to live and since my rig was my home, I wandered around SW Montana and Eastern Idaho spending the night at boat ramps, flyshop parking lots, the A Bar, the Burnt Hole, $3 and various other locales.  The cold weather had already arrived and the truck bed was getting a little nippy at 6600 feet.  Joel B and I had been fishing the park all day and since he was living at HCR and we worked together, I was offered the couch by the wood stove for night…..which ended up being a week.  This place was hard to leave, as I was made to feel at home right away.

Centennial Field


The Ranch had to close down for the winter before it froze up, so I headed into West Yellowstone to spend the next few weeks couch surfing in a buddy’s trailer and swinging flies on the Madison in YNP.   Trailer life is a requirement which all fishing guides fulfill at some point in their career, especailly in this neck of the woods.   It took 6 seasons  in West Yellowstone to get trailer life out of my system.   The big brown doublewide above is where I laid my head  at Howard Creek.   Wiffle ball is still a past time at the ranch.  Yep, hit it over that brown wall and ya got a dinger.  That old wooden spool was the strike zone and the hole was filled with two empty beer cans, which if rattled while at bat, meant you were out….for good….back to shaggin’ balls or sitting on the fence drinking beers.

The old Cruiser and Lavro. Great rigs.

Over the years, Howard Creek Ranch became more of a Home for Wayward Fishing Guides.   If you know someone who lived at the ranch at anypoint in the last 20 years, then the door is always open.  The ranch is 15 miles from the Madison, 15 from the Henry’s Fork, 15 to Hebgen, 13 from West Yellowtone, 16 from Last Chance and 2 miles from Henry’s.  The perfect distance from everything.   Every flyshop in the area has at least two employees who did their time here…..some more than others.   There isn’t one night during the summer months that a beer isn’t cracked open, horse shoes aren’t thrown, flies aren’t tied and stories aren’t told.   The daily fishing reports coming out of the horse shoe pit are something to be in the presence of, especially of you are trying to make a living from the rower’s seat of a driftboat.  I planned many a guide trip on the advice spewed out while throwing shoes, comparing notes and drinking beers. 


Summer colors on the ranch.

 There was always something going on, some kind of project, something to learn while at the ranch.   We have redone the White House, raised chickens, fashioned a potato launcher, buried bird dogs and helped keep the place looking clean and loved.  The only thing that might top all the projects would be a wedding on the ranch.  Big ideas of flyshops and lodges have been dreamed up, but never fully hatched.  Most of my business was created while living here and those plans have worked out thus far.   The lessons learned around this place run deep and most likely molded all who spent time here, whether they knew it or not.   After my departure from living on the ranch, there isn’t day I drive by that place without stopping in for a beer or staying on for dinnner and horseshoes.  Life has changed very little around Howard Creek.  Maybe that is why is still feel like home… us all.

Ready for the day. Madison River.