31 October, 2012

Big Sky Country 2.0 - Day 4

Houston, we have a problem. One of my goals was to land a trout over 20" on this trip. I flirted with it last year with an 18.5" brown and a 19" rainbow, but I never got there. And as we head out on Tuesday morning, I haven't even had a contender on yet.

But today we'll be on the Big Hole river with Stonefly Inn guide Garey Avis. From the get-go, it's clear that this guy knows this river (and guiding) in a way that only decades of experience can deliver. Today we're getting in on pre-spawn browns that are looking to fatten up. Garey's got a few secret spots to show us, so after a beautiful drive over the mountains, we're off.

Our first stop is literally a stone's throw from the launch. While Reid nails one right off the bat, I'm off to a slow start. No worries, that will change soon enough. The second spot is one I'd fished last Fall and cleaned up in. Within an hour we'd caught so many 14-18" fish we stopped counting. But I never found the hawg. This spot was really where I figured out my drift, got my casts working, and all the other little kinks you need to work out at the start of a day on the water. Once again, this spot yields a nice collection (mostly browns) of mid-sized fish. Fun fights and plenty of them. Just before we're ready to roll on to the next spot, BAM! and I've got a hawg on. Unfortunately, I couldn't get his head turned and he pops off. Dammit -- Garey agrees this one would have easily made my goal. No problem. Lots more fish in the Big Hole!

The next spot is one I'd have probably rolled right past. Interesting because on this trip I feel like my angling skills have improved considerably over last year. I've got much better mechanics for casting, hookset, and reading water. Lesson learned -- you can ALWAYS learn from a good guide, even when you think you're da' bomb.

Pretty quickly I stick a nice brown. As we examine it in the net, Garey says, "Welllll, you could call that your 20...". Reid quickly agrees. Nuh-uh boys, that's not what I came for. I want the fish that's an easy, no-doubt, slam-dunk 20+ incher. A half hour later, I've got it! A hard take-down, followed by a solid fight, and I've got my 20" brown trout.

After this, the fishing is just plain relaxing. I stuck some very nice fish, including at least a dozen at the last hole above the take-out, but now that I've hit my goal, I'm just chillin'.

Kudos to Garey and fishing partner Reid for helping support me in making my goal -- my first legit, native (non-lake run) brown over 20"!


30 October, 2012

Product Review - Arc'teryx Hardfleece

First, a confession. I've become hopelessly addicted to high-end outdoor clothing. Yeah, Columbia gear is pretty good, and The North Face even a bit better. What I'm talking about are brands like Patagonia, Arc'teryx, and Simms. I find that this is a category where you really do get what you pay for - this top-notch gear is usually warmer, drier, and/or better fitting. I think it started with my Simms G4 Pro jacket, a birthday gift a few years back. I've worn this jacket in day long downpours, 40+ mph wind days, and freezing cold and it never fails me. And, it delivers incredible functionality with pockets in the right places and all the adjustability one could ever ask for. This was followed by a Simms Windstopper Hoody - my go-to in a broad range of fairly shitty conditions. Then last year I added a Patagonia Retro X jacket. Warm, perfect fit, and windproof beyond expectations. When you like to play outdoors, a small investment in the best clothing really pays off.

I've always liked the Canadian brand Arc'teryx. Great styling, bulletproof construction, and some really innovative features (the Sidewinder zipper that keeps the nasty frozen zipper off your chin is sweeet!). But, the prices always put me off. This stuff is pricey. As in make-Patagonia-look-cheap expensive. This Summer I found myself in the Arc'teryx store while in Montreal on business. All the cold weather gear was 50% off and they had some cool items. Fueled by a few-too-many tasty Canadian beers (Molson Ex, anyone?) I decided I definitely needed an Arc'teryx hardshell fleece.

In brief, this thing ROCKS! It's hard to truly describe -- it's kind of like a soft shell meets a fleece. But it's not really either. It's a bit more bulky than my Simms Windstopper Hoody, but not much. Yet, it's considerably warmer. When you slip it on it's clear this was designed by Canadians who spend a lot of time outside. Roomy where it needs to be, fitting where it doesn't. One of the best tests of a jacket is the hood. Does it fit close (but not TOO close) to your head so it follows as you look side-to-side? Or is it simply a bulk tent that stay put while your melon swivels inside like a puppet show? The Arc'teryx is clearly the former (as an aside -- so are both of the previously mentioned Simms pieces).

Our last day in Montana the temps dropped 40 degrees overnight, the wind came up, and a little blowing snow was in the forecast. As one of my travel companions had forgotten his jacket, I lent him my Simms hoody. This put me on a trial run with the Arc'teryx. Throughout the day we enjoyed temps in the 30's, with wind over 20mph, and intermittent snow squalls. Me? Nice and toasty, thank you very much! And the softshell fit kept it from interfering with my casting stroke.

Last night, dealing with the distant effects of Frankenstorm Sandy we had chilly temps and high winds (a top gust of 78mph was recorded here). My black lab mix pooch fears no weather, so come 10pm she wants her customary walk. Hello Arc'teryx! Warm and happy we strolled to her content.

I only have two complaints. First, the outer jacket is a sage green. But the inner fleece is a bright kelly green. Strange. But somehow it sorta' works. And second, I don't actually know what model it is (as I mentioned, alcohol consumption may have been a factor in the purchase). As such, I can't tell you what to go buy. But if you're considering such a garment, I'd take a serious look at Arc'teryx.


29 October, 2012

Big Sky Country 2.0 - Day Three

Day Three marked our first day with the crew at The Stonefly Inn & Outfitters. It is possible that we were overserved on Sunday night, so our start was somewhat delayed. Fortunately, we were fishing with the unflappable Joe Willauer. Once we had lunches packed, gear gathered, and found out butts, we were off to the Jefferson river. Reid's luck on the Jeff in prior visits wasn't good. While I'd fished it twice last year with solid results.

But bluebird skies and low water add some complexity to the equation. We quickly learned today we'd be on the bobber with egg and San Juan worm flies. Last year, this rig was a good learning exercise. Let's just say my skills with it were less than stellar. Surprisingly, I was all over it this time. Within site of the launch ramp, both Reid and I had scored fish. Shortly after Reid boated a nice brown.

I think my favorite part of fishing the Jefferson is the true beautiful scenery of the Ruby Valley. It reminds you that the name "Big Sky Country" is well-deserved. the vistas are truly stunning. If you haven't fished Montana yet, stop reading my silly blog and go book a trip now!

But, I'm hear to fish, not sightsee (well, OK, maybe some of both...). And the fishing on this day is startlingly good. And, the coolest part for me is that it's 90% rainbows! Don't get me wrong, I love catching browns, especially big ones however they're not known for their fight. Rainbows are another story entirely - I was treated to some spectacular acrobatics, some powerful runs, and even a nice tail walk down the river!

Perhaps the highlight of the day was floating with Joe. His low-key demeanor fits perfectly with his other gig -- substitute teacher and HS basketball coach. Screw ups were met with a calm, "No, your OTHER left...". Plus, as both a Montana trout guide, and an eastern Washington steelhead guide, he's got plenty of experiences. When you're spending a full day in a guide's boat, getting a guy who's a genuine pleasure to chat with is just icing on the cake. Joe's that guy. He also runs a pretty cool blog that's full of solid writing and great photos.

All great days on the water must have an end. This one ended with some unbelievable Alaska wild caught salmon steak off the grill back at the Stonefly and a Moscow Mule or two to wash 'em down. Niiiiice.


16 October, 2012

Big Sky Country 2.0 - Day 2

Our second day in found us headed toward Yellowstone National Park and more of the Madison river. After a beautiful drive from Ennis up to West Yellowstone we found a hearty breakfast and some good input from the helpful guys at Blue Ribbon

Schultzy gettin' it done on the Madison below Yellowstone!

First stop was just outside the Park (to avoid paying for an additional fishing license). This location was unlike the Madison we'd experienced the first day - broad, fairly slow, and a bottom of sand and gravel. Super easy wading! After rigging up for streamer pitching, we headed downstream. A sudden Blue Winged Olive hatch sent us scrambling back to the truck for dry flies. Unfortunately despite some great looking water and a solid hatch, this was not to be a hot spot. Schultzy stuck a few dinks, while Reid and I got skunked. 

Time to move on downstream toward Quake Lake. If you're never visited this area, Quake Lake is pretty amazing! Formed as a result of a 1959 earthquake that actually re-routed the river after 80 million tons of rock fell into the valley, the lake is 6 miles long and 190 feet deep!

The Madison above Quake Lake; pretty, but tricky wading.
This segment of the Madison was especially beautiful. But with this beauty came some tough wading. Some seriously FAST water, combined with basketball-sized ankle-breaker boulders, and slick algae growth was the recipe for scary. Early on I made the mistake of deciding the fishing would be better on the far back. Mid-crossing I realized I was wading in a spot that was above my skill level. Unfortunately, when you find yourself in these spots, turning back is often worse than completing the crossing. After a few tense moments of slick footing, fast current, and heart-racing adrenaline, I made it across. 

Though beautiful, this stretch left us all fishless. And it helped me address an important gear issue. Rocking Simms HardBite star cleats is the only thing the kept me upright in the fast-flowing Madison. Later in the week I also found them tremendously helpful wading some of the algae-slick portions of the Big Hole river. Previously I'd only used cleats in Ohio. The issue with cleats comes into play when fishing from a boat. A good way to be unwelcome quickly is to clamber aboard in your cleated boots, scratching the crap out of your host's boat. After this trip, I've decided it's time to add a second pair of boots sans cleats for boat-based fishing. I love my Simms Riversheds, so I think a second pair will be on-order shortly. While I like the idea of Korkers interchangeable soles, I have serious doubts that they'll hold up like my Simms have.

Back at the truck, I found that not only had I gone fishless, so had Reid and Schultzy. But we did get the pleasure of meeting a true Montana bullshitter who claimed to take 90 yard bow shots on whitetails, and hunt grouse with his bow. Uh huh, sure you do. Of course. And your 11-year-old daughter will kill her first elk with a bow at 60 yards...

A quick drive over to Twin Bridges got us to The Stonefly Inn - our home base for the next few days. A fine dinner of Rooster's coffee steaks followed by a few Moscow Mules had us all happy and energized for some great fishing starting on the next day...


15 October, 2012

Big Sky 2.0 - Day 1

A bit tardy in posting, but wow was Montana an excellent trip! This was my second visit to the Big Sky, and I enjoyed it even more than the first visit. A bit part, I believe, was the increase in my skills. I felt 100% more confident with new skills, and more time on the water. 

After landing in Bozeman, we grabbed our rental and beat it for Ennis and the Madison river. My buddy Schultzy had done a little research and found that just below Ennis lake was a hot spot just then. We hit a fly shop or two, grabbed a cheap motel room that all three of us could pile into, and geared up for the river. 

While walking in from the parking lot, Schultzy throws a streamer into the undercut bank. Bang! We have our first fish of the trip - in about 30 seconds! At this point, the Madison braids, so we had lots of water to fish among the three of us. Schultzy and Reid have a much more high-speed style than mine, so I let them roll down the river ahead of me. 

Within 3 casts I had a nice little rainbow. And pretty quickly I had another half dozen 8-12" fish. A nice confidence builder and fun way to get into the groove. A little while later a mid-teens rainbow grabs my streamer and makes a run for it. But I got the better of him and scored my first "real" fish of the trip.

Before long, I catch up to Schultzy, who's just stuck a 23" brown that's in full pre-spawn colors. Beautiful fish. Not ten minutes later, Reid grabs a nice 20".

As the sun begins to set, we realize we're a good bit downstream from the truck! Time for the death march back. We easily had a two mile hike back to the truck - most of it tromping through cover, across streams, through muck. But beer never tasted quite so good as after that afternoon fishing and evening hiking back!

Following a quick stop at the motel, we wandered of to find food and drink. If you're ever in Ennis, I highly recommend the Gravel Bar - cool environment, very good food, and a nice beer selection!


08 October, 2012

Big Sky Preview

Last week's return trip to the Big Sky Country was epic. In fact, I think the second time was even better. This time I was better equipped, a more skilled angler, and had even set some goals for myself. Travelling with my buddy Mike Schultz, and Reid from last year's trip, we had a blast! Good guys, outstanding anglers, and excellent travel companions.

Despite extremely low water, we found fish. A lot of them. Many quite large. At first on our own, but later with the help of the crew at the Stonefly Inn.

More photos, anecdotes, insights, and more coming soon!


P.S. Reid and I had the good fortune of spending a day on the water with the Stonefly's head guide, Joe Willauer. A great guide and a fun companion for a day on the river. I've added Joe's blog Evo Anglers to the Blogroll here.