Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Evening Rise

It's unfortunate really that the South Fork of the Flathead River is Montana's last best westslope cutthroat trout stream. A trip along it's corridor is like going back in time to when Montana's waters & landscape were untouched by the hand of man. The river is a decent sized river by wilderness standards and hatches of mayflies & stoneflies here are about as regular as I've ever seen them in the backcountry. Small western green drakes, pale morning & pale evening duns and one of the best emergence's of large golden stoneflies in the state. Thanks to special regulations that were put in place back in the early 80's that limit angler harvest to 3 fish/day under 12" some sections of the river now support over 1,ooo westslopes per mile. River flows during this first week in August started off at around 900 CFS and gradually dropped to 700 CFS by the the end of the week. What little rain we had was hardly worth mentioning as it only lasted for about 15 minutes on our next to the last day.

The history of the westslope cutthroat pretty much parallels that of the eastern brook trout. Populations of both have been disseminated by habitat degradation and over harvesting due in no small part to their willingness to take a fly. Down in Yellowstone one can expect to take a number of beautiful fish in the 17"-20" range in a days fishing while up here the cutts typically range from 15"-18" albeit a little stockier and they are terrific fighters. Lighter in coloration than they're Yellowstone brethren they almost appear bright, like a fresh run steelhead. Just try to pick one out in the transparent water against a backdrop of multicolored river cobble -even with the aid of polarized glasses you'll have to look long and hard.

On our second day at the Forks, John was working the water downstream of camp when he hooked a large 18" cutthroat. While enjoying the fight of a lifetime on lightweight tackle a leviathan of a bull trout rose up out of the depths and attempted to eat the large cutthroat on the end of his line. For 10 or 15 seconds John was now playing two fish (over 42" worth) on the end of his line. The huge bull trout eventually let go and he successfully landed the westslope complete with fresh teeth marks on it. Dang, our loss, those bull trout sure are delicious and it would have been nice to have one back at camp to grill over the fire! That epic battle took place in the pool in the above photo.

As if the non-stop action to our big gaudy attractor flies during the middle of the day wasn't enough, none of us was expecting what awaited us on the river after supper was finished and the sun was off the water. Pale evening duns in size #16, heptagenia genus I believe, started trickling off as soon as the last bite of peach cobbler desert was finished and slowly increased in intensity as the days light waned. A half hour later spinners joined the mix and a full blown hatch & spinner fall rivaling the sulphers back home on Spring Creek could be counted on each and every night for the duration of our week long stay. The evening fishing was challenging for a freestone stream but the catching was nothing short of spectacular with Pro Staffers racking up double digit numbers as long as they got they're presentation right and used a reasonable artifice. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Matt in particular enjoyed the fine and far off fishing on the calm waters of our Home Pool next to camp. He was pitching #18 sparkle duns on 3X tippet to those silvery cutthroats. When he wasn't busy spotting the orbiting space station and multiple shooting stars during the Perseid meteor shower (avg. rate 60/hr) at night in camp, Matt was splainin' to me the difference between a grass, a sedge and a forb and how to properly analyze the histogram on my camera. Matt's a scientist and one of the smartest people I know (high praise indeed, I know!). I didn't understand a word he said about the histogram stuff but I appreciated the effort. Better dummy it down for me next time, Matt.

Unlike the easier fishing we encountered during the afternoon, in the evening when the pale evening duns were on the water you really had to bring your "A" game with you if you expected anything more than just casual success. And bring their "A" game with them those Pennsylvania Boys did! Schooled on the limestone spring creeks of the central, south central and, to a lessor extent, the eastern parts of the state, the Pro Staffers made short work of figuring out what was going on. They then proceeded to tune their terminal tackle and settled into a groove of casting, hooking, reeling and releasing deep bodied, hunchback cutthroats until the proverbial "white man's elk" came home. Even our hosts for the week, Mark & Janis Moss remarked on what a bucolic scene it was out there on the river after dinner with the Pro Staffers brightly colored fly lines arcing back and forth in unison over the Home Pool in the gathering twilight while ungodly numbers of fish were brought to hand. I truly wish I could have snagged smore shots of this event but I was honestly way too busy catching fish myself.

Who said there's no technical fishing when fishing for unpressured, gullible cutthroats? In the above photo Matt had to resort to a downstream reach cast with a 10' in-the-air-mend to deliver his #18 sparkle dun drag free on 3X tippet into the waiting maw of a 16" wild westslope.

The astute reader might notice from the dark line on Matt's wet wading pants that Matt had waded in pretty much right up to the family jewels to reach this fish. That had to be a little bracing considering the falling water & air temperatures as that big orange orb sank slowly over the Swan Range to the west.

And so the sun sets on yet another fruitful day of westslope cutthroat fishing along Montana's last best wild westslope cutthroat stream. My last fish of the week was thick bodied 17" cutthroat that fell victim to my #16 rusty spinner and then walked me halfway down the enormous Home Pool before I beached it in the gloaming light. Time pretty much stopped right there for me and I couldn't thing of a better way to conclude our visit to the Bob. It was now time to head back to camp, kick back and check out the Milky Way and that Perseid meteor shower of August. It had been quite a week in the wilds of Montana and I've never been more honored and proud to be associated with a such a fine bunch of guys as the RBF Pro Staffers.

Next up: Craig, Montana & head hunting on the Missouri River.