Our most recent Montana trip was simply awesome. It’s not often that you get a leave-pass for three and a bit weeks of fishing in another country with two of your closest friends. Relationships can be a total drag when you’re involved with the wrong person, but I am one of the lucky ones with a wife who encourages me to do the things that make me happy.
And travelling to Montana in July makes me deliriously happy.
Thanks Maree. Love you. You’re a gem.
And so it came to pass that I found myself with Bo seated in an exit row on QF 93; winging our way across the Pacific with a plan to meet a friend, Sasha, just outside of Customs and Immigration in Los Angeles.
The worst part of any USA trip is without a doubt the arrival at LAX. While it has improved out of sight in recent years; there is always that little seed of doubt that you might be singled out and made an example of. For what exactly – I don’t know. All I’m sure of is this.
I don’t want to be that guy.
This time however, I cleared immigration in record time; even talking fishing with the TSA agent while Bo got the third degree for having a ‘guide’s beard’.
The next hour was spent searching for our luggage on carousels so large, they could double for an Olympic running track. By the time Bo had caught up with me, I had managed to locate our bags, and we hit the ground running.
Sasha was on time, as you would expect from a project manager in charge of some of Westfield’s biggest projects; and he rushed us to the car that he keeps handy in LA for trips such as this, and we hit the road for the long drive north.
I’m never going to write for Lonely Planet and I’m pretty sure the Lakers aren’t going to draft me and put me on the roster. Hence I feel safe in saying this. Los Angeles is a complete shit-hole. There’s no way to be polite about it. It’s dirty. People are often just focused on surviving the traffic, and so the friendliness of the average local sits somewhere between Russell Crowe and your average Taliban member.
Did I mention that we got out of there as soon as we could?
Heading out of the maze of freeways and overpasses that criss-cross this urban hell, I was glad that Sasha was at the helm; someone who has previously lived in L.A. and who therefore was not flustered by the sea of traffic scooting along at 75 mph.
Soon we were on the open road and heading north for our first stop in Vegas.
But let’s get one thing straight here. Vegas isn’t Vegas when you’re coming off a 16 hour flight and nearly 72 hours without sleep. As it stands, we ended up having a very early night with the plan to be up and on the road before the heat of the day became unbearable (it was 51 degrees that day). Pretty sad really, and to illustrate this point, the highlight of our stay in Las Vegas was a schvitz.
No tigers in bathrooms or Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins. Just a straight razor and a hot towel.
Yes it’s official. We are getting older.
I hit a wall not long after leaving the bright lights of Vegas in the rear-view, and crashed in the back seat of the car until we were just about coming into Salt Lake City. I only woke because Sasha had tuned into The Howard Stern Show and once I started listening; that was it. I don’t know if it was jet-lag or what, but Stern kept doing this ridiculous and I’m sure unflattering impersonation of someone, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Forging on through the desert heat we arrived at Hyde Drift Boats. It was early evening on a Saturday night and fortunately for us Matt Hyde was willing to come down to the factory after-hours and give us a boat that we could use for our trip. That was nice enough, but when he pulled out a shiny, new white one; to say we were appreciative was an understatement. After signing some paperwork in the office that amounted to ‘you break it, you bought it’; we hit the road with the small town of Driggs Idaho as our first destination of the trip.
The next hour and a bit dragged on, but as the shadows lengthened and the twilight loomed, we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no fishing today. Crossing the South Fork in all it’s splendor didn’t help the situation either. Damn. The Teton looked perfect as well. Lots of bugs and a ton of rising fish. Just too little light left for tired eyes.
Still. No big deal. The local Thai restaurant was open and we managed to score a table just before closing. Pad Thai and a few pale ales. A good start to the trip in anyone’s book.
Welcome back aussies was the theme of the night and everyone made us feel like we were long lost cousins at Thanksgiving. It’s great to find a place other than home where you just fit in. Australians have yet to overstay their welcome in Idaho and Montana because….well because they don’t see many of us over there, and it only takes a day or two for all of us to attain near-celebrity status in some of these small towns; with the guys offering us the use of their drift boats, and the girls………..
……also offering us the use of their drift boats!!
Yes, this is the USA, 330+ million people and there are a ton of women who fly fish. Every single day on the river, you see plenty of women rowing, guiding and catching.
God bless America! And hopefully a trend that continues to the point where we see a lot of female fly fishers on our rivers and enjoying this wonderful pastime.
The next day we were up early and rigging rods before heading to see the guys at Worldcast Anglers and Gary Beebe from Mountain Drift Boats. Even when you are desperate to get fishing, the chance to catch up with old friends, always trumps having an extra hour on the water.
With fishing licences in hand and a claw full of big, rubber legged monstrosities, we pulled out of the car park with the South Fork on our minds. We always catch the tail-end of the salmonfly or just miss it; our arrival more attuned to the the PMD hatches on the SF and the peak of the dry fly action on the smaller streams. But even if this annual hatch has recently finished, the fish still have big bugs on the brain, with the memory of this immense emergence still fresh.
Hence the catching is always good.
Going up to the top, or South Fork 1 as it’s known, sets you up for a drift that has almost no slow water. It’s run and gun style all the way; smashing banks and mending. He who dares wins, and so it is on SF1. The person getting closer to the bank consistently, is the person who will catch the better fish; and the most fish. But there’s also a calculated gamble involved, that needs to be explored here.
You must always have one eye on what’s coming up next as you float down river on the SF as you are moving at a clip and closing distances very quickly. As such, casting forward of the boat is must. While I can hit a target all day, even in the wind and over the wrong shoulder, it comes down to keeping your fly in the best water for the longest possible amount of time. And part of this means sometimes leaving some bits of water untouched, in order to better fish the best water properly.
Don’t get me wrong. Ego can grab a hold of me as much as anyone. I love being able to put the fly where the guide wants it before he has even thought to say ‘put it there’. Having a guide that does 175+ days a season go back to the lodge and tell all the other guides that his client was a ‘stick’; is pretty good for the old ego. But sometimes you have to be a little more cunning than just impressing the guy rowing.
Some of the bushes that line this section of the South Fork are pretty brutal for catching flies. I kid you not. If you could collect every fly that you see in the overhanging foliage on a typical day’s drift; you could start your own fly shop! Some branches could have up to seven or eight, rubber-legged, foam flies hanging from them. It’s brutal because the boat is moving so quickly and there’s no way to retrieve anything that doesn’t immediately pop back out.
Getting back to the point that I was trying to make, sometimes it’s best to leave 20 metres of brush choked bank to ensure that you get the fly into that perfect bubble line that disappears into that shady log jam. I guess you could argue that you’d have also caught fish in that heavy stuff if you fished it, but you might just pop off your fly, and then that perfect spot that only happens every few hundred yards or so is left to the next boat. Or even worse; to your fishing partner!
The thing with the SF is that you are not just in competition with the other guy in your boat; you’re in competition with every other fly fisher in all the other boats as well. The game is get the fly tighter and drag-free. And it’s the only game in town.
He who risks the most, often wins the biggest when fishing this section of river. But there’s also a case for selectively keeping your powder dry and picking your moments.
But it doesn’t have to be an extreme endurance sport of aggressive casting and mending all day. At least half of the boats we see are simply drifting down the centre of the river with novice fly fishers sporting a thingamabobber and two nymphs. And they are all still catching plenty of fish. Others prefer to anchor up on the vast and shallow gravel bars or flats and wade fish to pods of rising fish eating hatching PMDs.
It really is an amazing river.
Bo rowed on this first day and wouldn’t give up the oars, which allowed me plenty of time to fish, something I don’t have the pleasure of doing much of these days. The trick on these sorts of rivers is keeping the boat a certain distance from the bank, so that the anglers get in the zone with their casting, to the point that they are essentially just picking up and putting down the same length of line each time.
Bo did this well and as a result, in under ten minutes the flies were going into the bank in an almost robotic fashion with each cast.
Deep in under overhanging bushes and skipped into the dark recesses were the giants of my mind’s eye lurk.
It’s something special to behold when two good casters are working a bank over and the flies are constantly drifting free of drag in all the right spots. It’s also a lot of fun to be one of them and pushing each other all day. Which leads me to my most famous drift boat moves.
The en garde and touché. I’ll explain.
When I am in the back of the boat; and I nearly always am; if I see a fish that the guy in the front should have seen first, I don’t alert him to the fact, with a quick shout of ’21 incher at 11 o’clock – six rod lengths’.
No. Not me.
I simply pick up and cast right over his line for the perfect drift to the fish and I yell, ‘en garde’.
I. Love. Doing. This.
Call me petty, or egotistical. But when you’re in the back of the boat all day, every day; you take your fun, when and where you find it.
Nothing is better than seeing the fish before your fishing partner, and then casting across their fly line, and forcing him to watch your fly get eaten while they are ‘in effect’, locked into the drift they were in, unable to recast.
En garde, bitch!
Touché is meaner than en garde. Touché is when someone does en garde over your line, but you lift and wreck both drifts.
Mutually assured destruction between fishing mates, is where this whole debacle ends.
Anyway, now I’m way off topic.
The fishing was a lot harder than usual but we still caught about thirty fish for the first session. We pulled out below the South Fork lodge and stopped in at the bar for a cold brew while watching the guides drift by, nearly at the end of their day, and then we went back up to the dam, and did it all over again.
I love how you can do this in the USA. You simply leave your keys in the gas cap, leave the cash for the shuttle e.g. $30 in the glove box, and then phone the shuttle folk and tell them where you launched / parked you car and where you want it dropped.
Hard to imagine, but the guys running shuttles make a small fortune at these peak times, with some rivers hosting 300+ boats a day.
That night we all slept like dead men and awoke to the sun cresting the mountain range across the valley. The choice of fishing spot for the day was a difficult one that was taken over breakfast.
South Fork or Teton? With no way to decide, it went to a coin toss. Tails it was. The Teton was the verdict.
Instead of staying up high in the meadow, we decided to skip down to the bottom section at the site of the failed dam. The water was lower than we had anticipated and so I took over on the oars to avoid putting any dents in LaMoyne Hyde’s new boat!
A few gravel bars down and we realised that the water was much lower than last time. We christened one run, ‘pinball alley’; as no matter what pro-active choices I made to avoid boulders, I just kept hitting them. Not much fun for me on the sticks, but the fishing more than made up for the technical rowing in the summer heat.
About half way down the float we pulled into a huge gravel bar complex, where we ate lunch, had a swim and caught a stack of cutties. A huge beaver took exception to our presence and swam across and swatted at us. This actually worked out quite well because a little later on, both Bo and Sahsa waded off off to fish over the far side of the gravel island, just out of sight of the boat and me. Immediately realising the opportunity that had presented itself to me I quietly sneaked up to within 15 feet of them and slapped the water with my size 12 flip-flop.
I’ve never seen two guys move as quickly as that.
The week that followed was an amazing mix of bouncing between the sedate Teton in the meadow and the brawling South Fork. You lose track of the days in Idaho, simply because, how many fish can you be bothered counting and photographing? It all just melds in the mind into one solid mass of fishing.
But there were a few little standouts worth mentioning.
On this trip we couldn’t afford to get guides and do the luxurious South Fork Hilton trip, so we went and purchased an inexpensive four-man tent, grabbed some cured meats, some cheese and bread and loaded the drift boat with guitars, rods and gear for our own make-shift overnighter.
We drifted the entire day through the famed South Fork Canyon, fished some amazing water and then pulled into a campground with some flat grass. It was a little disconcerting though, as this small area was at the bottom of significant gulch that had a very obvious, and well trafficked game trail to the water.
We slept out in the open under the stars with no tent fly and salami sticks hanging from the tent poles, like corks on a bushies hat.
There’s not meant to be bears in there. At least not grizzlies. But the mind does funny things when sleeping in unfamiliar places. Especially when the prevailing breeze sent wafts of Hungarian Salami back up the trail and into the wilderness.
I didn’t sleep much that night courtesy of a large and immovable pointed rock sticking into my thermarest. That and the thought that this is a dry year and who really knows how far a grizzly might roam outside of their known range in search of kielbasa.
The next day we were up early and drifting before the guys from the other outfitters were on the water. We passed their guides who were tending to the boats and still gearing up; sans clients.
Obviously their coffee was better than ours and their camp just a tad comfier; but for us it was about the fishing, and it was already firing at first light. Fortunately the guides and their pampered clients were not even close to being on the water yet and so we had the entire river to ourselves.
We caught countless fish that day and after lunch sometime, I began rowing out to the car. By that I mean that I rowed as as hard as I could, in reverse to row as quickly as possible, and even without stopping to fish, it took four hours of non-stop, back-breaking effort.
This is one huge piece of water.
With much relief we reached the take-out point. A quick swim was followed by a drive to the bar at South Fork Lodge, where some boutique beers were downed and plans made for the next leg of the trip into south-west Montana.
That night we drove on to Bozeman and found a base for a few nights at the Lark Hotel on Main St. Simply the best hotel in town. And our first exploratory day trip was out to the Beaverhead; and boy was it fishing well.
I’ve fished a lot of places over there, but this was my first time on this particular stream. It was very different to the bigger western rivers that we were used to. It was so small that to pass one of the dozen or so other boats we encountered, our oars would have to be shipped. We always went by on the side they were not fishing on, and this saw us hugging the trees.
Our greeting of ‘hey mate, just sneaking past’ was often met with surprise that anyone would go around that way; when it was so difficult to do.
Nearly every guide yelled back ‘just go over the fish, you can’t put them down’.
Amazing. A shallow river, barely as wide as the upper yarra and the guides don’t care if you run over their fish.
On this river our big advantage was that we weren’t on a guide’s clock. The guides do 9-5, and so we hit the river around 10 a.m., blew past the guides, and fished run and gun style with large dries as they painstakingly fished their tiny nymphs. We were done by 3 p.m., but we then just organised a second shuttle and did it all over again. By this stage ALL the other boats were long-gone and the hatch was on. The dry fly fishing was technical, but so much fun. And the fish? All very solid browns.
We kept doing day trips out to the Beaverhead and some of the smaller streams in the nearby mountains. Bo and Sasha came across a recent grizzly kill and the ranger warned them that there was a bear in the vicinity. I saw photos of the stream and I’ll say it – you couldn’t pay me enough money to fish it. It was fast and loud, and meandered through vast thickets of willows. You couldn’t see 20 feet. You wouldn’t be able to hear anything above the roar of the cascading water.
That river was a bear encounter waiting to happen.
The fishing was so good in this area that we found an inexpensive hotel in Dillon and relocated from Bozeman. Long days of double drifts, dry flies and late nights at the local BBQ joint ensued, and it was with some sadness that our time there drew to an end.
Dillon is an oddity of a town. It is small, but it is home to a college, a good flyshop and a great taco bus. There’s also some pretty cool bars and places to eat. Definitely one to return to at some point in the future.
After fishing here we drove back down to Idaho Falls and dropped off the drift boat.
I was quietly anxious about this as Bo had done some serious damage to it on the Beaverhead.
It all happened so quickly as we came around a blind corner on this narrow, meandering river. Actually you can see it on google maps as the first road bridge downriver from the spillway. Bo came flying around the corner into a standing wave that drew a strong course from right to left into huge boulders on the left bank after a significant drop. I heard the rapid before we could see it and tried to switch out on the oars with him; but it was too late.
We hit like a freight train.
The noise was awful and people more than a hundred metres away turned to see what happened. I was sure the boat would sink and after pulling over, it was fairly obvious that the damage was extensive.
Nightmares of having to buy the boat surfaced and it was with much concern that we returned the ‘new’ boat to the guys at Hyde.
Of course we gave it a substantial clean at the local car wash, not just common courtesy but also to demonstrate ‘just how well we looked after it’. Upon arrival at the lot, LaMoyne himself came out to say hello and inquire as to how we found the boat. I then broke the news of the bingle and he came over to inspect it.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to write in such a way as to copy his broad western accent. I’ll leave that to your imagination. But it was the words that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
‘Just a little bump. Seventy five bucks should do it’.
In Australia I guarantee it would have cost $1,000 to repair.
So after dropping off the boat we snuck back into the Teton valley for a night of goodbyes to friends, and then it was the big, drive back around through West Yellowstone and then across the park, to the gateway town of Gardiner.
Gardiner is a town that has long been stuck in a time warp, but is now rapidly expanding in a way similar to West Yellowstone. In short, it’s becoming crass and kitschy. Suffice it to say that I am not a fan. The food is mostly poor, the accommodation scarce and over-priced; but – it’s the nearest place one can find accommodation within early morning striking distance of the rivers in the N.E. corner of Yellowstone National Park. At least the nearest accommodation that doesn’t involve sleeping ensconced in 1mm nylon in grizzly country.
Like a bear-sized enchilada.
We fished the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone on the first morning, after taking advice from a guide friend of mine who lives in Bozeman. He gave us precise directions to get into a piece of water that no one fishes and that he said had such easy access that he even takes his oldest clients there.
Bullshit. If they were elderly on the way in; then they were dead by the time they got air-lifted out. Or perhaps he meant that they went in young, but left elderly. Either way; that walk nearly killed us. Bo is a deer stalker and spends many weeks each year in the scrub. I am a long-distance runner.
And that the walk nearly killed us.
Dropping into the canyon was easy, but it still took time. Walking in, downhill; took well over an hour and a half. Each time we thought we could see the edge of the canyon proper or we thought we could hear the water, we would walk on and realise that it was even further down.
There was not track per se, as we bombed in off the road on a make-shift pull-out. Game trails criss-crossed the area, and the bones and antlers of a hundred deceased beasts littered the ground. This was prime grizzly country and perhaps the worst area in which to bump into one. The walk out being so difficult.
But eventually we made it to the river and it was incredible. (see four photos below). We caught seven fish in the first reverse eddy! They were completely stupid. Giddy. Like kids at a party sucking helium from balloons. But as good as the fishing was, all I could think of was how bad the walk in and downhill was and what the walk out would be like. After maybe two hours fishing we decided, that as we may never make it out, perhaps we should get going and not risk being caught out there after dark.
Well to summarise; it was hell. Parts of it were near vertical and saw us hanging from tree roots and pulling ourselves up. We had a GPS bearing on the car and we made a bee-line for it. It was literally only 1.8kms away. So we made a pledge to only stop every 100 metres. That’s 18 short stretches. But the going was so rough and the terrain so steep, and the weather was so hot; that we couldn’t do more than 20 metres without a short stop. And we were at about 6500 feet elevation.
Just how long would this end up taking?
Near to the end I decided to not wait for anyone anymore. To keep my eyes to the front and just go for it. I scrambled for 30 minutes and just left the others in my dust. I fell. Cursed. Scraped myself. Dropped things. It was very tough going. When I finally crested what appeared to be the final ridge; there was yet another one, even further and higher up again.
A storm was brewing and at least the breeze that was gaining momentum was slightly cooler. I waited for about 25 minutes as lightning began to crack and flash on the surrounding peaks. Eventually the guys caught up and that’s when I saw the saddest thing.
On reaching the top of the aforementioned ridge, Bo’s hat got blown off his head and carried up in the wind and thrown to the bottom of the mountain. After much swearing in his native tongue, Sasha said ‘eff it, I’ll buy you another one’; and we forged on. It was another 40 minutes or so before we hit the road.
There was no water in the car and the it was terribly hot. We high-tailed it into Tower Junction and I can still remember Bo drinking three American Gatorades before we got to the register.
American Gatorades are massive. Three of them containing enough liquid to fill a small, sized bath.
That night was a late one and the boys fell in a heap around 1am. Once again though, me being Captain Insomnia before a surfing or fishing trip, I just couldn’t fall asleep. And so with no other options in a small town like Gardiner, I watched the clock tick over until it said 4am before rousing the others from their REM sleep for a first-light sortie.
Slough Creek’s cutties were calling.
The early morning drive through the park is test of both concentration and will. It always is. Animals are all over the road and bleary eyes do not make great assistants when playing slalom with 400kg beasts. Elk, deer, buffalo. Not things you want to hit. Especially if you own the car.
This caused a pre-dawn traffic jam and what I saw next I still cannot believe. There were easily 75 cars in this line, all doing 20 mph, half the official speed limit in the park. I watched this car begin to overtake from about 100m behind us and he stayed in that left lane for the next mile. Around blind corners, seemingly oblivious of the fatalities he was about to cause. This driver clearly had a death wish and it was only dumb luck that he didn’t kill someone.
We arrived at the Slough Creek turn off in the first light before dawn. Already 30-40 photographers were lined up along this short road, 600mm and 800mm lenses trained on the mama bear and her cubs just across the creek. We continued on and started out at the trailhead in the semi-darkness.
I had a bear encounter here a few years ago on my birthday. I still remember thinking at the time, ‘well at least my family will save on my headstone inscribing’. My birth and death being on the same day and all. And so it was with a fair degree of caution that I took the lead and yelled ‘hey bear’ every minute or so while holding my spray in my hand, ready to rock and roll at a moment’s notice.
Nothing happened of course, and we decided to settle on the first meadow up the trail approximately 45 mins walk from the car. The logic being that most people go up to the second or third meadows and so we might get a lot of water to ourselves.
We got some amazing photos, as the light stayed soft until noon courtesy of a forest fire somewhere way off to the east. A herd of about 90 bison were grazing on the far side of the valley, and they eventually wandered over for a drink in the creek and to play the obligatory game of head-butting each other. Typical males. SIGH. I managed to get a few photos of Bo wading/casting with some of them in the background.
The quintessential Yellowstone fly fishing photo if there ever was one.
But we were on the last leg of our trip and so we walked out not long after1pm and headed for Bozeman for a couple of nights out on the town.
Think pale ales, tacos and open mic night. Great fun and a fitting end to the trip.
Little did we know but Sasha had secretly organised a sauna and remedial massage session for each of us. Just what the doctor ordered to help us recover from that crazy walk out of the canyon. We also got to catch up with some Montanan guide friends, which is always a memorable experience as they consume whisky like it’s water.
Eventually though it was time to pack up and bid farewell to Montana. It’s always difficult to leave the Rockies; particularly when you are heading back to winter at home.
But then home and family beckon. And there’s always next year.
Goulburn Valley Fly Fishing run trips to Idaho and Montana every June-July-August and September.