Sunday, August 29, 2010

FFF Conclave 2010

I was fortunate enough to find myself attending this years FFF Conclave in West Yellowstone, MT. I was helping to staff the booth of Montana Sporting Journal during the event. I was also able to sell my Montana Native T-shirts as well. Having attended and participated in industry shows in the past, I can honestly say that this show was one of the most educational. Fly tyers from around the nation and world converged on this small Montana town to demonstrate tying many unique patterns. I wish I would have been able to sit down and learn from each one.

I did manage to sit in on a few lessons and meet some fly fishing personalities. One tyer I met was Whiting Pro Staff member "Rusty" Dunn. He was an exceptionally friendly guy, and I learned a great new small streamer pattern that he calls "No Name Minnow." Not a real creative name, but I really like the looks of the pattern and can't wait to try it out. Rusty and his friends had just recently completed the Wyoming Cutt-Slam and were on a mission to locate a native Montana grayling. I couldn't help but to point him in the right direction. Another pattern that caught my attention is a classic fly named the "Tellico Nymph" that has been around for ages, but is not used much anymore. I have to confess that I am intrigued by this fly and the potential of several color variations. Hopefully this old pattern is still effective. I was really impressed with the patterns and tying demonstration given by Nate Brumley of Dry Fly Innovations. He very clearly and effectively showed how to do an extremely difficult skill in tying. This is the single upright quill wing for mayfly patterns. This is a very realistic and dynamic fly, but learning to tye the wing correctly is tough.

Perhaps the highlight of the show for me, however, was being able to sit and watch Montana legend Craig Mathews demonstrate tying some of his effective patterns. Craig is the owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, and the creator of some legendary patterns such as the Iris Caddis, Sparkle Dun, and the Zelon Midge. Today he was tying his Improved Sparkle Dun and watching him really helped simplify the fly. Overall, the show was outstanding and had many outstanding fisherman and tyers in attendance. I know I saw Rene Harrop, Tom Morgan, Craig Mathews, Scott Sanchez, Bob Jacklin, Kelly Galloup, and I also met many others. Just the small amount of time I had to sit and learn from some of these masters was enough to put my brain into overload. A guy would have to bring a large notebook, camera, and the mental preparation to learn the equivalent of a doctorate in fly tying in 3 days. I hope the conclave is nearby next year, and that I am able to be there again.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Remember the Little Guys

I have been talking a lot lately about our native trout species, so I wanted to switch it up and talk about something different. Part of my quest to catch all of these native fish includes catching some of the little guys. Although I omitted the tiny minnow species from the list, there are still some that just never get large. Like the Stonecat (Noturus flavus), which happens to be the smallest catfish species in Montana.

Here are a couple of interesting notes about the Stonecat in Montana. The fish is widespread through out the Missouri River drainage even into the upper reaches as far as the headwaters of the Ruby River. The mystery is "how did it manage to get over the great falls?" This natural barrier has blocked all other species from working up the Missouri, but not the Stonecat. Also, I found a mention that the first Stonecat to be caught in the state (and recorded) was at Craig in the summer of night.

For many anglers in Montana, the stonecat is called a variety of names such as bait-robber, bait-pecker, and a mix of others with the same theme. These obviously reference the ability and frequency with which these fish can find your bait. I admit, having experienced it, that these fish can turn into pests. I remember fishing on the Missouri this spring at a great looking spot, and catching nothing but Stonecats which seemed to find my bait the second it hit the bottom. I just had to move on, as I couldn't catch anything else. I find it amazing that these little fish can swallow such a large hook. You would think that they would realize that something was wrong, but they don't seem to mind large metal objects in their food. The other fact about these fish that tends to annoy fisherman is that they have venomous spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. These spines are capable of inflicting a painful sting about like a bee's. Handled carefully, however, the odds of feeling this is very small. Just be sure to hold the fish behind its fins.

It is important to remember that many of our native species are rather small, but that doesn't make them unimportant. Stonecats are food for other species in the Sauger and even Freshwater Drum. I remember catching a nice sauger that had a large stonecat in it's stomach and still had the tail sticking out. So, if you happen to catch one of these little guys remember to handle with care (for your sake) and throw 'em back. You might consider throwing 'em back with a hook as might catch a big sauger.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Praise of the Golden Stone...

Few items in any trout's diet is as big and meaty as a stonefly. Most of the attention, however, is given to the undisputed heavyweight...the Salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica). This insect is huge with nymphs and adults commonly over 2 inches long. The large black nymphs represent an important food source, and almost every angler's fly box has an imitation or two.

Yet as common and important as the salmonfly is, there is also another stonefly around that is truly important to anglers...the Golden Stonefly. What we refer to as Golden Stoneflies, are actually comprised of two different species. The largest of these is Hesperoperla pacifica while there is another smaller species Calineuria californica. Most fisherman are acutely aware of the golden stone hatch each year. These large insects flutter around the river like b-52 bombers, and the trout can really key in on them. Not as many anglers, however, use the nymph imitations of a golden stone, choosing instead to go with the large black nymphs of the salmonfly. What they don't realize is that golden stone nymphs are significantly more abundant and widespread in many freestone rivers. Don't believe me? Well, then start turning over rocks in the river and count stonefly nymphs. I predict that you will find more golden stones to salmonflies by a ratio of at least 6:1.

With this in mind, I set out this summer to try and capitalize on this knowledge. I have tried many stonefly nymph patterns, but I have come up with one that I have found to be consistently more effective than most. I call it the "Black & Tan" and it is an easy fly to tie. I attribute it's effectiveness to the the black/tan color and matching hackle and to the inherent action of a soft-hackle fly. Tie up a couple and try them...and then let me know what you think.

Tail and Antennae: Brown Biots
Body: Black/Tan Variegated Chenille w/Gold Wire
Thorax: Black/Tan Chenille
Soft Hackle: Matching black/tan feather from flank of Ruffed Grouse wrapped in wide wraps over chenille thorax.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wilderness Cutthroats

Perhaps no other native fish species gets as much attention in Montana as cutthroat trout. I guess the reasons are fairly obvious...fisherman, especially fly fisherman, love trout. This has really been illustrated when I sell my "Native Fish" t-shirts. I offer four species, and the two cutthroat trout shirts are by far the most popular. I have an arctic grayling shirt available, but many times customers have never heard of them. I'm not complaining, as I love cutthroats as much as anyone and I believe that any attention given to native species is a good thing. I even saw a show on Montana PBS recently about cutthroat trout called "Rising From the Shadows." Which was a great program by the way.

With large cutthroats and other trout on my mind, I set out last Friday to explore a wilderness stretch of river north of Yellowstone Park. We left Bozeman early, and after a quick stop at Dan Bailey's in Livingston, we made great time to the trailhead. After strapping on our backpacks and bear spray we hoofed it several miles to our target destination. Weather in Montana is always volatile and unpredictable. I have seen it snow just about every month of the year, and temperatures can quickly drop when cold Canadian air works it's way down the continental divide. Unfortunately for us, this was exactly the situation we found ourselves in. Here it was early August, and it was cold, wet, and raining continuously. Not to be deterred and with our hoods up, we stubbornly fished our hopper patterns and were rewarded with several nice brown trout early on. The browns later switched to caddis emergers, and my friend was having a field day sight fishing with a Lafontaine sparkle pupa. While he was working the risers, I headed up river in search of yellowstone cutthroats. I probably hiked up another mile before I found some great looking pools for fishing. I was soon rewarded, as a beautiful cutt hit my fly on the first drift. The fish was gorgeous and it's belly was a fiery red. I continued fishing and landed another half-dozen beautiful cutts and two rainbow trout.

This is not a big river, in fact it could probably be referred to as a creek. However, this river is really an amazing fishery, producing an average size of fish that is greater than many other waters. I saw five different species of fish on my trip...Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Mountain Whitefish, and some Longnose Suckers. On an interesting side note, on a trip to this river two years ago I landed a large cutthroat that had every appearance of being a westslope. (see photo)

The fish are distributed in a classic pattern with the brown trout further down river and in slower water and the cutthroats further upriver. I am always saddened to see rainbow trout mixed in with the cutts, and I definitely caught some obvious hybrids. (See Photo) This river does have a natural barrier falls, but I know that there are currently rainbows above these falls. Since this barrier already exists, however, I believe that this river would be an outstanding candidate for restoration work.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Incidental Catches

One of the greatest feelings in fishing is that moment when you set the hook and get that first sensation of a fish at the end of your line. In that moment, we begin to mentally assess many things...most notably the size and the species. In areas with a rich diversity of fish species, we may never figure out just what we have on until we manage to bring it to the surface. This unknown is one allure of fishing...we just don't know what may be down there, and what we might catch.

Around my homewaters, however, there just really isn't a rich diversity of species. If I go out fly fishing on the Gallatin River, I can pretty much be assured of catching a brown trout, a rainbow trout, and a mountain whitefish. On rare occasions, I might pick up an errant cutthroat or brook trout. I feel that I can differentiate between the three major species just by the feel on the line. A rainbow gives a frantic, jerky fight and frequently jumps, a brown gives a more determined battle frequently with long runs. A whitefish, well they tend to be spastic and irregular...but they all have this twitching problem.

The other day, I was nymphing a run on the lower Gallatin that I have fished many, many times before. The evening was already going well, and I had landed several nice trout. As I watched, my indicator dipped and I set the hook into a large, heavy fish. I noticed right of the bat that this fight felt really different. The fish was very strong, but it made slow and determined pulls trying to stay put on the bottom. The fish only showed me a couple of flashes, but instead of silver there was a strange bluish hue that seemed almost luminescent. I landed the fish and it turned out to be a longnose first on a fly rod, and the first I have ever seen or heard of being caught in the Gallatin River.

Catching something new in my homewaters was a thrill for me, as I love catching a variety of species. For many, however, incidental catches such as this are viewed with disgust. Who wants to catch a sucker? (Besides me) Suckers and whitefish have both been historically labeled as trash fish, and this legacy persists today. As my friend pointed out, "That sucker is sure lucky that you were the one who caught it." He was right, as another fisherman probably would have ignorantly thrown this native fish up on the bank to die. Incidental catches will always happen...whether it is a bull trout out of the Blackfoot, or a sucker out of the Gallatin. It is just part of fishing, and I believe that it is our responsibility as anglers to correctly identify and safely release native species. This simple, ethical act goes a long ways towards conservation.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Right Under My Nose

My small stream adventure last week only served to whet my appetite. I love to explore new water, and while I can't always travel to big name rivers there seems to be an endless supply of little creeks nearer to home to check out. The night before, I looked at a map and selected two likely streams that I had never fished before. They were both close to home, and close to each other.

The first creek was really a pretty stream...flowing through relatively flat and open terrain. There was plenty of instream structure and undercut banks for the fish to hide in. The day began well, as my first cast quickly brought a rainbow to the surface. I continued up the creek for about a mile, until it entered some heavy timber. Along the way I probably picked up dozen rainbows to 8 inches, and one cut-bow hybrid that was pushing 10". As I walked back towards my car, I wondered how I could have missed fishing this creek that was in my home area. Here it was, the middle of summer in the very busy Gallatin Canyon and I was fishing a meadow stretch of water with not another soul around. Perfect...I'm sure you'll understand if I don't name the creek.

The next stream really surprised me. As I worked my way down the canyon to the water, I could readily see that this was a larger creek. The volume of water was substantial and what's more, I could see some glittering blue pools mixed in. The next even bigger surprise was the fish. Not only was it loaded with eager fish, but they were westslope cutts of a decent size! How could this be? This creek has no barrier falls and links up with larger waters full of rainbows. I continued fishing and I did end up catching a couple of rainbows (one fairly large) which showed that these cutts are probably hybridized to some degree. After returning home, and doing some research, I came across some genetic tests they did on the creek, showing that the cutts are 90-99% pure. Not bad, it would seem like this stream would be a good candidate for constructing a barrier somewhere downstream. One of the fish I caught looked to me like a pure cutt, at least the best I have ever seen in the area. I can't wait to get back and explore more of this water. As I put my rod away, I realized I had survived fishing two streams and still had on the same fly that I began with. Sometimes I impress myself.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Headwater Refuges

I set out last Sunday on a different type of fishing excursion. I wanted to leave the weekend crowds behind and look for a 100% pure westslope cutthroat. A local biologist had mentioned a very, small headwater stream that had pure cutts in it...and it was close to home. So I packed up my 6' 3wt, a lunch, and my camera and hit the trail.

It took some bushwhacking to finally locate the tiny stream, and when I did I have to admit that I was skeptical. The stream had a steep gradient with lots of woody debris, and not much water. It was set into a relatively steep ravine that made walking difficult, not to mention fishing. I wasn't about to turn around though, and started up the brushy ravine trying my best to drop my fly into all the pockets I could. I had on my trusty foam beetle...a pattern that rarely fails to produce on small creeks. On this day, however, the beetle was not the ticket and after not getting any action out of one of the deeper spots I switched it up to a small stimulator. The next cast into the pool instantly produced a small fish, and I was excited to meet this little cutthroat. As I bent down to unhook the fish, though, I could see something was wrong. This little fish didn't have the distinctive slashes of a cutthroat and was much too spotted. It was a rainbow trout that had managed to swim upstream through the obstacle course...and now threatened to compromise the genetic integrity of the cutts. I was momentarily stunned, and the fish sensing my current state expertly flopped itself out of my hands and back into the water before I could execute it.

I continued on upstream, and came upon a short level stretch with a couple of better looking pools. I fished these and was pleased to see some fish attempting to hit my fly...I guess this tiny creek has some life in it. A thunderstorm suddenly broke, and I as I watched the rain pour down I realized how hard the fish must have it in this stream. Just this quick little storm was rapidly affecting the level of the stream, as well as the clarity. I could only imagine what a raging torrent it must be in the spring. It is a testament to the tenacity of these little fish, that they can survive in these conditions...and at the same time, it is sad that this habitat is all they have left. As the storm passed, I began walking downstream towards the confluence with a larger stream full of rainbows and brook trout. I flicked my fly a few more times into a good looking pocket, and a tiny flash of silver hooked itself. Here it was, in my hand, a little cutthroat trout with its colorful slashes looking like small jewels. As I fumbled for my camera, the little fish (with an impeccable sense of timing) flipped up in the air and went nose first back in to the creek. It's least I know he's there.