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.
And so I have
always thought of trout fishing in terms of open and closed seasons. It seemed
the most a trout fisherman could do in winter was work at his tying bench,
stockpiling favorite patterns for spring while dreaming of catching giant
browns half a world away in Argentina, where it was summer. No wonder the
billboard made me skeptical. Winter trout fishing might be legal, but it
certainly wouldn't be possible.
It didn't take
long to check on the legality of the situation. Almost all lakes and reservoirs
in Montana, as well as the major waterways, are open to fishing all year.
Certainly, many of the blue ribbon trout streams have 365-day seasons for one
kind of fishing or another: sections of the Big Hole, the Missouri, the Madison
and the Yellowstone. There is plenty of water to fish in the winter, but after
experiencing my first September blizzard the entire notion began to seem a mite
It turned out to
be a matter of timing. I had things to learn about Rocky Mountain weather.
Accustomed to those Eastern winters, when the snow is crusty with ice and the
bare trees and bleak skies bring out the Ethan Frome in all of us, I was not
prepared for crisp, dry, windless weather between storms when a temperature
reading in the teens seems comfortable. When the mercury hits 30� it is balmy
enough to leave your coat at home. I also did not know about the Chinook, the
warm southwestern wind that can change sub-zero weather into midwinter
springtime overnight. When a chinook is blowing the thermometer can climb from
20� below on a Monday to over 50� above by Wednesday. But it can also work the
other way, as I found out last Christmas afternoon.
The sun was
shining and the temperature was about 35�; it seemed like a good time to go
fishing. I bundled my gear into the pickup and drove to a favorite spot less
than five miles distant. By the time I had rigged up and waded into the
current, the sky was overcast, the north wind was wailing and the temperature
had dropped 20 degrees. I had to take off my gloves to cast, and after working
out 40 feet of line false-casting, my hand turned the color of an eggplant and
the wind drove my fly into the back of my knitted cap like a feathered bullet.
Not wanting to lose an ear, much less the use of a hand, I sloshed back to the
truck, thinking of eggnog and the colorful litter of gift wrappings under the
tree. It was soon snowing.
midwinter trout fishing is a specialized form of art. Although on sunny days a
tiny black midge known locally as a snow fly will hatch on the river, dry flies
are not recommended. About the only thing rising will be white-fish. The big
trout are in the deeper pools, and sinking lines, short leaders and weighted
wet flies are needed. Many fishermen prefer to use 30-foot shooting heads
backed with monofilament, as a delicate approach is of absolutely no help. You
can splash the surface all you want: the fish are too deep to care.
A trip made to
the Big Hole on another day best illustrates the high points and hazards of
winter fly-fishing. The temperature was no more than 20� but the day was still
and clear, the sky as blue and cloudless as a scene from an airline calendar.
On warmer afternoons the rivers are often full of slush ice, broken loose from
the shore; too much of this can make fishing impossible. I fished downstream,
using a big Muddler Minnow, and every third cast the guides on my rod would ice
up so solidly that the line would not move. Stopping to free your line by
carefully breaking the accumulated ice out of the rod guides becomes a major
part of winter trout fishing.
In spite of its
name, the Big Hole is not a very large stream; the available water can be
covered with short, easy casts. But it is perhaps one of the most picturesque
trout streams in the country. It brings to memory all those glossy photos in
sporting magazines, and suddenly you realize that in reality it is infinitely
better. I mention this to explain why I fished for almost four hours, having to
stop every five or six minutes to warm my hands in my pockets and clear the
ice-clogged guides, without having a single strike.
Then, as the sun
was setting, I caught a handsome brown between two and three pounds. I admired
him for a moment held against the sky, wishing that I carried a camera in my
tackle vest like my more resourceful friends. Then I released the fish, keeping
him upright in the icy current with my hands while he regained his strength.
This is good for the soul but very hard on fingers.
catch to be a proper conclusion to the day, I started back toward the truck,
not paying particular attention as I waded the knee-deep river. The bottom was
covered with round stones, slick with moss, and in an instant I lost my balance
and was sitting down in the stream. The top of my head was all that remained
dry. I drained my waders on reaching the shore but I had almost a mile to walk,
and with the sun down it was getting very cold. By the time I arrived at the
pickup, my clothes were frozen solid. I felt like a man encased in a suit of
armor; I could hardly bend my elbows or knees. The fact that I had a change of
clothing in the truck involved no particular prescience on my part; I had
planned on spending the night, not falling in the river.