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Snow job on Western trout
William Hjortsberg
December 11, 1972
When I first moved to Montana and saw the Chamber of Commerce billboards outside Livingston boasting of Calamity Jane's home and "365 days of fine trout fishing," I was dubious. For one thing, I knew that Jane's residency had been limited to an occasional binge and ended when she was escorted to the railway depot by a crowd of indignant matrons and the sheriff of the town which now so proudly claims her. Also, I was raised back East and learned to fly-fish in the mountain tributaries of the Esopus in upstate New York, where the dates of the trout season were as rigidly fixed as those of the school year, its inverse time span. There was plenty to do in New York through the winter—tobogganing, snowball wars, skiing—but it was no time for trout.
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December 11, 1972

Snow Job On Western Trout

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On the whole it is best to fish during the nice days, but trout can be caught on flies even in the foulest weather, as I discovered on a trip to Meagher County in February. A friend, who is a local guide, knew of an artificial lake on private land near the north fork of the Musselshell reputedly teeming with giant cutthroat and four-pound brookies. Its official name is Flagstaff Lake, but it is popularly known as Holiday Lake because for various obscure reasons the owner allows his friends to fish it only from New Year's Day until the end of February. This was the epitome of winter trout fishing.

A lake that is closed 10 months of the year is always an exciting prospect no matter what the weather. So, ignoring storm warnings, three of us set out before dawn one Sunday morning. Two hours later when we reached White Sulfur Springs we were driving in a blizzard. Passing a pair of snowplows at work on the highway made us doubt our original intentions and we sat out the worst of the storm over breakfast at a nearby truck stop. It was no longer snowing when we reached the turnoff, but even so there was a walk of two miles or more from the highway into the lake, and the wind was blowing so fiercely that ground squalls made visibility next to nothing. It was a day that even the most devout snowmobiler would have avoided.

Yet, we hadn't come this far to turn back and soon were trudging forward, bent into the wind, using our rod tubes as alpenstocks and looking more like Sherpa than trout fishermen. There were the usual witticisms concerning our sanity. At one point we came upon a herd of miserable ice-coated cows that stared at us in disbelief.

Holiday Lake was almost completely frozen except for about an acre of open water at the upper end at the mouth of a small stream. We fished in the lee of a high bank, casting our weighted Woolly Worms out among the bleached stems of several dead willows showing above the surface. Naturally, we hung up a lot; the high wind made casting accuracy impossible and quantities of flies were lost. There was the annoyance of numb fingers and frozen guides. But we built a fire and heated a pot of venison chili. Any outdoorsman knows the delights of a tincupful of hot stew on a cold day, so I'll save the campfire clich�s.

By afternoon my friends had caught three cutthroats, all over two pounds. I was skunked. But you don't need to catch trout for a fishing trip to be successful. Just being out with fly rod on a day that ordinarily would have served only for tying-bench reveries of caddis hatches in the golden afternoons of summer is reward enough.

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