Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chasing Rainbows in Paradise

Livingston, Montana (aka Deadrock) has, over the years, become like a second home to me. I enjoy the laid back small town atmosphere, the fine fishing, friendly folk and the eye-catching views of the Absarokas & Crazies right from Main Street in town. It offers easy access to the Yellowstone, Sheilds & Boulder Rivers, two world famous spring creek systems, Yellowstone National Park's northern range, a petrified forest and even the fertile Gallatin Valley is just a short ride over the historic Bozeman Pass. And anytime I'm in town you'll find me hunkered down in one of the comfortable and tastefully appointed rooms in the Murray Hotel. A local landmark that still features claw foot bathtubs and huge soft pillows and is even on the National Register of Historic Buildings. For me, staying at the Murray, or the Grand Hotel over in Big Timber, is part of the total package when fishing the lower Yellowstone River Valley. It sure beats a lonely sheepherders wagon up in the Trail Creek drainage. Long may it run.

Our goal on this trip was to spend a few days fishing the pale morning duns and summer baetis hatches on Armstrong Spring Creek as it flows through the Depuy's and O'Hair's Ranches on the west side of the Yellowstone River around Pine Creek. These rare gems have been in the same respective families for generations on down. Let's hope that it stays this way for the foreseeable future as both families have turned down several generous offers over the years to sell their land to individuals like Ted Turner or other groups of individuals for astronomical prices in the many of millions of dollars. Turner paid over $20 million dollars for a piece of Sixteenmile Creek up by Maudlow. How much do you think Armstrong's or Nelson's Spring Creek is worth? Why would these families turn down such ungodly amounts of money? Because selling the land & water that has been in their family for generations would cut right through the heart & soul of their lives. They are true champions of the American spirit in every sense of the phrase.

Reservations were made almost a year in advance, proper artifices were cranked out at the tying bench, the PMD's had been reliably hatching for almost two weeks now, the heavy rains of June had passed and the region was settling into it's pattern of delightful summer weather. What could possibly go wrong?

Rainbow Bridge
Welp, for starters, my first day on Depuys I was greeted by a dry low pressure system that moved in overnight and ushered in sustained winds of 25-30 mph with gusts up to 60mph. One of those gusts almost knocked me off my feet at one point. Compounding that issue was a confounding lack of PMD's pouring out of the riffles at their usual appointed hatching time or at anytime for that matter. It was mystifying at best and unleashed a string of expletives at it's worst.

What's an angler to do? Thankfully, I had my box of terrestrials and another box of small spring creek nymphs with me. I spent the day plying the fast water along the grassy banks with black Letort crickets and the various riffles with small beadhead nymphs. Both of these techniques turned out to be fairly productive and salvaged for me what otherwise could have been a very difficult day on a very technical spring creek.

Paradise Valley Rainbow
There was even a light caddis hatch still coming off some of the riffly sections and a CDC & elk hair caddis was good for a couple of fish that weren't interested in anything else I had in my box.

Dick's riffle is almost always good for a fish or two by deep running some small nymphs through the obvious channels and lenses and this trip was no exception.

While it's certainly true that my catch rate was down from previous years on the same creek, I took particular satisfaction in noting that none of the fish I brought to net were under 15". The following day on the Depuy's section also presented a dearth of PMD's but at least the wind had layed down. In fact, during these first two days on Depuy's I counted a total of less than six (6) pale morning duns on the water. There were clouds of PMD spinners swarming over the streamside grasses (of all places) in the morning and evening but they never hit the water.

The evening Baetis tricaudatus emergence up at Betty's Riffle and the Ph.D Pool was pretty much more of the same however, but at least we had a few rising fish to work over although not nearly as many as in years past. The pool right below Betty's Riffle gave up a 19" Yellowstone cutthroat on this evening while I had the entire pool & riffle to myself for a couple of hours. Even Buzz's Fly Shop was closed. This hatch may have been just cranking up because it seemed to get a little thicker each night.

Dick's Pond
The Smiths (owners of the Depuy's Ranch) are currently working on narrowing Dick's Pond and building a small diversion channel around it so anglers who aren't packing float tubes don't have to risk their lives wading through waist deep muck to try and reach those free risers that are always just a little out of range in the pond. The diversion channel will help to moderate downstream temperatures in this important spawning ground for Yellowstone cutthroats who come here from out in the main river.

So it was with mixed emotions that I said goodbye to the Depuy's Ranch and the very next day I headed up to the O'Hair's. Maybe things would be a little better upstream I thought...

And it was, sort of. The following morning dawned cool and clear in the low 50's but warmed up very quickly into the upper 80's. Finally, good numbers of pale morning duns appeared right on schedule around 10 am and the fish were up and on them in a hurry. It was some very fine fishing and rarely was their another angler in sight, and even then always at some distance. I know it sounds strange but the fish definitely seemed to show a preference for PMD cripples on this morning.

PMD's literally poured out of the above riffle on O'Hair's which is located at the upper tip of the large island by the corrals and just downstream of the main spring which is out of sight and just around the bend and to the right in the above photo. The density of large resident fish in this section has to be seen to be believed.

The following morning we were right back where we started with another lackluster PMD emergence. The only saving grace was that the late afternoon baetis hatch was getting a little stronger each evening.

On a normal summer morning this flat would be alive with large trout sipping pale morning dun emergers, cripples and duns.

It's almost time for those afternoon baetis to start hatching in earnest.

The summer baetis hatch on the Paradise Valley spring creeks has always been a challenging hatch for dedicated hatch matchers to successfully fish. When it's on, huge trout are boiling all around you to size #20 mayflies and 80-90 percent of them are taking emergers just under the surface. I've always been a "one fly on the terminal end of my tackle" kind of guy but this time I finally embraced a tandem setup of a #20 CDC & biot baetis dun with a small flashback pheasant tail nymph on a short dropper and experienced a surprising amount of success. I have to admit that it was quite a thrill to see the CDC dun suddenly dip underneath the surface and then set the hook into a fat slab of a trout.

She's a Rainbow
She comes in colors...

Early Summer
Blanket hatches or not, I honestly can't imagine a better way to spend a delightful summer day in Montana.

I flunked out of the Ph.D Pool this year -a pool which I've always done well on in the past. I'll have to take some extra summer school classes again next year, I guess.

Coming up next: The Gallatin Divide.