Looking back at when I first started guiding I almost cringe as to how naive I was when it came to what my role was as a guide. My perception was far removed from the reality and challenges of what was actually involved, and as I soon learned, there’s a lot more to it than just getting someone onto a fish! Move forward seven solid seasons with the help and support of some of the best mentors in the country, and I’m ready to try and define what it is that we do and how we do it.
Ego is a Dirty Word!!!
The first lesson I learned as a guide was that ego only gets in the way of learning. Before you go out and spend thousands of your ‘hard-earned’ on gear, you need to take a moment or two to round up any ego you have and put that trip into an old footy sock and stuff it away somewhere that you’ll forget about it, for the weekend anyway. The spirit and harmony that I search for on a river is so far removed from trophies and championship accolades as you can possibly get. A day on the river shouldn’t be driven by a desire to be competitive, quite the contrary. It’s a chance to get away from that sort of life pressure, while you absorb yourself in nature and become as insignificant as possible.
We’re All Individuals!!!
Who would have thought that all those hours spent bored out of my mind in endless corporate training modules while selling my soul to big Telco’s would have come in handy as a fly fishing guide? Now it’s the first hat I put on in my role when I meet my clients. It’s almost like a sales pitch where the sale has already been closed. It’s important now to do an exploration of the person’s individual needs, and manage any unrealistic expectations. There is no ‘one size fits all’ way to guide and this is an ultra-important part of the role. If I was to put every client I’ve ever worked with into the same room, I couldn’t imagine a more diverse audience of people. The river is a great leveller and this diversity is where the true rewards are in guiding. Delivering a tailor made unique experience to everyone I take onto a river is what I aim for as a guide, with the goal being to make that person love their fishing a little bit, or a whole lot more, at the end of the day.
Getting a fish or five is just the bonus plan.
We’re Absolute Beginners!!!
The biggest mistake I can make as a guide is to assume that the new client I’m working with, who has been fly fishing for 20 years is going to be an easy day. I’ve done it twice and without going into detail, apart from the headache I created for myself, there is a good five minutes of stand-up in it too. Never Again!!!
The beauty with absolute beginners is that you know the process to make it easy, but people can build up an array of nasty habits if left unchecked for 20 years. It really doesn’t matter what level an angler is perceived to be at; a simple check of how a client’s gear is set up can immediately provide me with a clue or two, on how to improve things on the water for that person.
I’ve been lucky enough to learn from many clients at GVFFC who have had varying degrees of disability and learning difficulties that the simpler we keep it, the easier it is and the better it gets. Refocusing on those key basic elements and taking the effort out of it can often be all that is needed to really help someone become a lot more confident (and proficient) on the river.
I See You’ve Been Practising!
As clichéd as it sounds, practice does make perfect! Anyone who wants to be better at fly fishing should make time to at least practice casting on a regular basis, once they have learned the basic skills. Picking up the rod 2-3 times a season isn’t going to advance your skills a hell of a lot. Some people are happy to hack it out and don’t really care whether or not they catch a fish, that’s cool too. But from a guide’s perspective you’re wasting your time and money if you aren’t prepared to do at least some modicum of homework on the back of a guided session.
It usually augers for a great days guiding when a ‘beginner’ returns for a follow up 1-1 guide and it quickly becomes apparent that they have put in some hours behind the wheel of the rod they bought, at the onset of this disease we call fly fishing. It’s all about confidence now and helping them to exploit that 9 foot piece of graphite in their claw to the max. This doesn’t mean unloading the entire fly line, its more about using the energy you can throw out its tip in ways that benefit you on the river and how that 9 foot of extra arm length can give you the reach you need to get at a fish without spooking it.
What’s really important to me is that at the end of the day my client walks away feeling really positive and confident with their fishing. Not in a big headed way, but in a way where they aren’t afraid to experiment, and to make mistakes. There is that breakthrough moment when you just know you’re seeing the birth of a competent angler, as evidenced by their self-diagnosis of a particular error and what is causing it.
Once you reach this point with someone you are not far from finding that sense of freedom that the river affords us in our pursuit of happiness.
So You Think You Can Fish!!
Please forgive the angry ‘Kraut’ in me but I want to put this out there…. there is no such thing as a genius when it comes to fly fishing. There are a few blokes out there that might think otherwise, but my best advice for them is to put a plug in it and give their other mouth a go! There have been times in the last 7-8 years where what I do has been put to question, and even attacked by people who don’t have the faintest fricking idea of what a professional guide does or why people would need one. This was very apparent when I was working above the lake and was highlighted by a confrontation I had with a bloke during what I had planned as a quiet ‘day off’ fish on the Delatite.
Apparently, my guiding a handful of clients on this particular section of river was going to destroy it, and that people shouldn’t be taught to fish, rather they should learn themselves and take a lifetime to just reach a level called mediocre! I was berated like a child by this bloke who banged on about how knowledgeable and experienced he was, how well he fishes and how much he respects the environment. All this after marching in a straight line for 200 metres with a fairly aggressive posture; just to spout all this crap at me.
It was pretty full on, and to be honest, it rattled me quite a bit at the time. As a result, I probably tuned into the anti-guide radar while getting my head around it and what I reconciled, is that the negative crap comes from a sense of fear or intimidation, and this particular incident went entirely against the grain of why we started fishing in the first place. To chill out, relax and get away from angry arseholes.
I’m pretty much an old Hippy at heart and what I’m selling is more about peace and love and nature and all that good stuff. The river should bring out people’s best; not misguided agro.
There is a real sense of harmony when on a river and I’m anti anything that upsets that.
Bottom line is, I have never had a client rock up and teach me something new or show me how to do something better. There’s a lot of people out there that can cast really well, yet they can’t fish very well. When it comes to catching a trout in a river, casting is about 20% of the entire equation. 50% of it is what you do with your rod tip and line from the time it hits the water and the other 30% are literally one percenters and the ability to learn and adapt quickly to the ever-changing environment of the trout.
The Passion of the Guide.
The work related comment I never get sick of hearing goes along the lines of “geez, you guys are passionate”. I know it’s different for all of us guides, but at times we do feed off each-other, in that we do get excited and quite animated at times during the course of our work. It’s hard not to smile thinking about in Bo in full flight during a beginner’s workshop.
Imagine if Steve Irwin was a Serbian Trout hunter with a fly rod in his hand, that’s Bo in full flight, or when thinking about David False casting, while doing commando rolls to make a point to a beginner. That also brings a smile to my face. Or then there’s Antony scrubbing his Drift Boat at 10 pm in readiness for his morning drift clients after finishing up after dark with today’s job. That’s just our passion and dedication being demonstrated and although I don’t see it myself, there have been plenty of times when my exuberance has captured the attention of others, whilst banging on about something pretty basic like a leaders or the virtuosity of catch and release.
We all bring something to the table and try to make it as entertaining as possible for all of our clients, but it’s the passion for the work that we all share which bonds us together as a group.
We all have different roles to play at GVFFC and things work well because of the wonderful dynamic we have between the guides and the operation as a whole. We all have different teaching styles that complement each other and we are continually looking at what we do to try and make it even better. Even Jackie, our cleaning lady, who does a wonderful job of looking after our guests by ensuring the cleanliness and maintenance of the accommodation, adds great value to our overall customer experience.
My best Analogy for what we do is this. When we choose to embark on this fly fishing journey, it’s like opening a box containing a 50,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Regardless of whether you have just opened the box or have been working on that puzzle for 50 years, I’m certain we can help fast track your quest.
That being said, the puzzle will never be complete, there will always be hundreds of missing pieces, they’re the ones that we search for every-day we spend on the river. The advantage of a day out with a guide, is that we have enough of the puzzle in place to give you a good look at the big picture.
The evening air has a definite edge and this morning’s mists were slow to lift. Like me, the valley seems reluctant to rouse itself from slumber and awakens in slow incremental stages. In the cycle of nature’s rhythms, this is a tranquil and measured time of year, there is an air of unhurried deliberation, a savoring of the moment. Autumn has about it an air of civility and a meandering gentle pace that tends to set the mind to rumination.
The leaves of the willows and poplars in the valley have already turned, decorating the river banks and backwaters with their fallen leaves. These heralds of the approaching close of season float bravely out in the currents, delineating the bubble lines and eddies that meander down between banks swathed in green and gold. Their colours are heightened by the soft afternoon light that baths the valley at this end of the season. It bathes the valley with gentle warmth and imbues the surrounding hills with a golden glow.
The aerial ballet of the swallows and swifts seems less frenetic than usual, as they sweep, glide and pirouette above the water. Occasionally one makes a swooping pass at my fly as it drifts, but is never fooled by my clumsy imitation. Lucky for me my quarry often possesses a less discerning and critical eye than these feathered acrobats.
The rains are late this season and the tributaries and smaller streams are low and slow, tantalizing and tough. Their usually boisterous flow has ebbed to a sedate trickle and the glass smooth pools have become testing and somewhat unforgiving arenas. It’s a time of long leaders, fine tippets and tiny flies. Engrossing and exasperating all at once. Perhaps it’s a form of masochism, but it’s at times like this and in places like these that an angler’s skill is truly tested and it’s through this testing that we all continue to learn and develop.
For myself it’s the ones that get away, the fish that kick your butt and scorn your best efforts, these are the fish that keep bringing me back. Amongst the sharpest memories from any season are those that come from encounters where my spotted adversary has been victorious. As the years have gone by I’ve come to accept these defeats with a semblance of grace, I don’t rant, fume and throw rocks anywhere near as often as I used to. Doubt not that I have sworn and plotted bloody vengeance on many occasions. But I must confess that on those occasions where the return engagement has gone my way, the elation is tinged with a disquieting feeling of something important lost.
It must be autumn that sets the mind to wander down paths such as this; its pace allows ample time for reflection on the season past. A review of fish caught and lost, new waters explored and old haunts revisited. Mental notes to return and explore that creek, stream or stretch of water that time didn’t allow this season. It’s an extensive list, that last one. A list that would probably take at least three lifetimes to exhaust as it now stands. Strangely this stark fact never seems to stop me from regularly adding to its number.
We anglers are an optimistic breed by nature. Neither logic, nor even a growing awareness of the limits of ones mortal span can seriously diminish this rampart optimism which is the identifying characteristic of all true anglers.
There are few bugs about on the water today so I reluctantly remove the dry and start search with a nymph. Waiting for the hatches that I just know will start any minute now. Truth is it’s still a bit early for the Olives and Sulphurs, the headline hatches of this time of year. But then, when has anything as mundane as truth swayed the mind of an angler on the water?
On queue a fish rises in the bubble line. It’s a splashy energetic affair, most probably the work of one of the many fat little rainbows that dash and dart about this stream. These belligerent bundles of pure energy are normally the first to get onto an insect hatch, but they are just as likely to rise once or twice then vanish without a trace. Today it appears to be the latter, but hope springs eternal and there are still many miles of river before me.
The gravel crunches softly beneath my feet and the crisp air has an earthy autumn river smell. It’s a very different scent to the heady perfume of spring, with all its vibrancy, promise and vitality. This autumn smell is tinged with elements of sadness and finality. For just as surely as the cycle of the seasons shall return again next year, this season is already on its way to becoming memory.
Last year’s Montana trip was just 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 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 makes me deliriously happy.
Thanks Maree. Love you. You’re a gem.
And so it came to pass that I found myself with Bo 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.
The worst part of arriving in the USA is without a doubt 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 hammered for having a ‘guide’s beard’. While the black humorist in me wanted to make a crack that he’s a serb and therefore the polar-opposite of a potential islamist; I bit my tongue and let Bo to get acquainted with his new suitor.
I spent the next hour looking for bags on carousels so large they could double for an Olympic running track, and by the time all of Bo’s body cavities had been thoroughly searched, I had managed to locate our luggage 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 his ‘USA car’ that he leaves there for the rare occasions that he goes fishing or skiing stateside. A top of the range Land Rover with a hawks sticker on the rear window. After the shock of him having such a nice car just sitting around collecting dust; we hit the road for the long drive north.
Los Angeles is a shit-hole. There’s no way to be polite about it. It’s dirty. People are often just focused on surviving, and so the friendliness of the average local sits somewhere between Russell Crowe and your average Taliban member.
Did I mention we got out of there as soon as we could?
Heading out of the maze of freeways and overpasses, I was glad that Sasha was at the helm, someone that has lived in LA for many years. Soon we were on the open road and heading 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. 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, not surprising as I didn’t sleep the night before we left back in Oz; and so I crashed in the back seat 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 impersonation of someone, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Continuing on we arrived at Hyde Drift Boats. It was early evening on a Saturday. Fortunately Matt Hyde was willing to come down to the factory 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 final destination.
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.
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 any man’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, 300+ 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!
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 it 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. To the victor belong the spoils 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 a calculated gamble involved that needs to be explored here.
You must always have one eye on what’s coming up next down river as you are moving at a clip and closing distances 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 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 that.
Some of the bushes that line this section of the South Fork are pretty brutal for catching flies. I shit you not. If you could collect every fly that you see in the overhanging foliage on a typical day; you could fill a fly shop. Some branches could have seven or eight rubber legged, foam flies hanging from it. It’s brutal because the boat is moving so, 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 a case for keeping your powder dry and picking your fights.
Still, many boats drift down the centre of the river, with two first time fly fishers sporting a thingamabobber and two nymphs and catching plenty of fish. It’s doesn’t have to be an extreme endurance sport of aggressive casting and mending. Still others anchor up on the vast and shallow gravel bars or flats and wade fish to pods of rising fish eating hatching PMDs.
This 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 move.
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 first, casting across the line of the guy in front, and forcing him to watch your fly get eaten while he is in effect, locked into the drift he was originally in.
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, I’m now off topic.
The fishing was a lot harder than usual but we still probably 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 and tell the shuttle folk where you left the 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 having 300+ boats a day on them.
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 days 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 won. 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 heat.
About half way down the float we pulled into a huge gravel bar complex. 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 the guys then went to fish over the far side of the gravel island, just out of sight of the boat and me, and I took the opportunity to quietly sneak 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, 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.
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 the 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.
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, and even without stopping to fish, it took four hours of non-stop, back-breaking effort.
This is one huge piece of water.
With some relief we reached the take-out point. A quick swim was followed by a drive to the South Fork Lodge bar, 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. 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 river. 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 10am, blew past the guides, and fished run and gun style with dries as they painstakingly fished their nymphs. We were done by 3pm, 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 where the bear was.
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 a close.
Dillon is a strange 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 smashed drew a strong course from right to left into huge boulders. I heard the rapid before we could see it and tried to switch out 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 pretty bad.
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 speak about 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 forget 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 through the park, to the gateway town of Gardiner.
Gardiner is a town in a time warp that has lost all sense of who or what it is. I am not a fan. The food is average, 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 NE corner of Yellowstone National Park. At least the nearest one 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 where he said he would take his elderly clients.
Bullshit. If they were really elderly on the way in; then they were dead by the time they got out.
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.
Did I mention that the walk nearly killed us?
Dropping into the canyon was easy but still took time. This didn’t look good. 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; but game trails littered the area, as did the bones and antlers of a hundred deceased beasts. This was definitely not a good place to run into a grizzly.
Eventually we made it to the river and we caught seven fish in the first reverse eddy. They were stupid. Giddy. Like kids at a party sucking helium from balloons. But as good as the fishing was, all I could think of was that walk out. 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 in the wilderness in the dark.
The walk was hell. Parts were near vertical and saw us hanging from 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 I made a pledge to only stop every 100 metres. But it was so steep, hot and difficult that we couldn’t do more than 20 metres without a break. And we were at about 6500 feet in 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 highest ridge; there was another one, even further and higher up again.
A storm was brewing and at least the breeze was cool. I waited for 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 were 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 to 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.
And so it came to pass. No one else showed up to fish and we stayed until 1pm. We caught scores of fish on terrestrial patterns and while the fish were picky; they were not spooky.
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 western side of the valley, and they eventually wandered over for a drink in the creek and 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 after 1pm 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.
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.
Between the embers of summer and the close of the season, there occasionally appears a window of exquisite blue-sky clarity. Some seasons it doesn’t happen, a cause for some sadness. In other years it’s missed due to work commitments, a tragedy. But sometimes, ah yes sometimes, these crystal bright days line up like a jewel necklace. Still, bright and clear days. Illuminated days, like childhood memories of summers past.
The early morning fog glides through the hollows, a ghost river tracing a memory of its ancient course, over the season’s first fields of silver dew. The willows and poplars that line the riverbank have changed their livery, heralding the shortening of the days and the imminent arrival of winter. All of these are signs and portents, that remind those who take time to study them, that its olive time.
Expectation starts to build when the air and water temperature have dropped, signalling that the larger Mayfly and Caddis hatches are mostly over. When the swashbuckling exuberance of Summer Hopper fishing has become a fond memory……
But all is not lost; the season still has a few cards left up its sleeve for students of its patterns and moods.
The bright, still and clear days of low clear water set the stage for what some consider to be the highlight of the season. With the addition of the last key ingredient, diminutive duns, you have a recipe for what is euphemistically referred too as “technical fishing”. Translated that means exasperating, challenging and totally absorbing. Those who “know” it, savour it, like fine wine or good single malt, its flavour lingering in memory down through the years. These memories, of great days and exceptional hatches, are afforded the status of holy relics, recalled from the vault on those occasions when acolytes gather to compare notes, beseech the weather gods, and make plans.
Bit players throughout most of the season (often masked by more showy Caddis hatches) these exquisite little duns come into their own as they take centre stage in this autumn drama. It’s a performance appreciated by the dedicated and the obsessed with spooky fish and long fine leaders. The tiny flies, coupled with the need for precise presentation mean far more refusals than takes. Just tying the little duns, 18’s through to 24’s, requires a dedication and determination bordering on obsessive.
The fine wire hooks demand very fine tippets. No bullying tactics here, too much pressure or an over exuberant strike (an embarrassing personal affliction) and the day becomes one of what might have been. It’s a dilemma, caught between the needs of finesse and utility. But if, like me, you’d rather loose a fish than kill it, you fish as heavy as you possibly can and accept defeat as a consequence of fair play. Such fish that “assist” in their own release, become the stuff of myth, legend and the basis of most good fishing yarns.
This time of year has its own rhythm; a stately and dignified economy of movement seems to pervade everything, including the river currents. Being able to tune in and adapt to this gentle rhythm can make all the difference between joy and exasperation.
The fish hang in the seams and glides, drifting languidly, feeding apparently at random. But hold still and watch; slowly a routine begins to emerge. I have no doubt that the phrase “learn to be still” was coined with this sort of fishing in mind.
The rise forms are subtle, gentle dimples as the fish dine in a steady and refined manner. In this sort of fishing the fly must not only be in the right place, but must arrive at the right time. Too early and the fish isn’t looking, too late and the fish has already selected another target. Patience, persistence and precision are all required in abundance and the reserves of all are tested. It isn’t called “technical fishing” by virtue of being easy.
Perhaps because of these trials, success, when it comes, is doubly sweet and belies measurement in mere numbers. It belongs to that class of mysterious intangibles, instinctively understood by all dedicated practitioners of the art, yet unintelligible to all those outside of it. It is a simple, childlike joy that defies any rational explanation.
The fish at olive time have begun to take on the hues of spawning. Rich burnt gold flanks and arteriole red spots, with butter and cream fins. It’s a dress code in keeping with the gentle, muted tones of this time of year. These are the colours of “the” brown trout that swims down through the seasons of memory, a part of the magic of this time of year that seeps into your bones.
James came in a while ago. He’d caught a few small fish but wanted to improve his skills. James is young, he is still at uni, first year I think. I took him to the Goulburn to show him how to find fish, how to see them, how to confine his casting to a known fish rather than casting randomly and hoping for the best.
We had a great day. The great man-god in the sky was really kind to us. Each time I explained about how fish take up station or how fish boil to emergers or cruise a beat around a backwater, one would turn up right on cue and perform perfectly. James was gob smacked. I was being cute, playing the perfect guide, predicting, instructing and demonstrating. James stepped up to the plate and started hitting homers.
The first exercise was upstream nymphing under an indicator fly, a sliding stimulator. No joy. I pushed him hard making him cast longer for longer drifts and line mend to prevent drag. We worked over a delicious patch on a big slow corner. The water was knee deep, rippling over the freestone bottom. He had never fished this way before and I am in his ear, bossing him around, making him do everything right to ensure that he would pick up a fish. Twenty minutes on and we had not drawn a scale, not a sausage, nought, nil, nothing!
Moving upstream and leaving the glide behind I decided the best thing to do was look for classic positions, and sit and wait until a fish revealed itself. ‘Five minutes’ I said and on four minutes fifty the fish rose! Right on the current seam in a strong reverse. We only had to wait for him. James cast as the fish settled into rising several times. He rose and took the fly but James struck too soon, just rolling him over as he came off.
The next bank was the same. We stood and watched and sure enough a riser moved beside a weed entangled snag. ‘Wait’ I said. He will come to us. Soon he rose again, closer and then again right under us. He swung around and propped right on station.
‘I can see him!’ said James. Sure enough a fish of about a pound rose right under his rod tip. We could count the spots on his back as he slid to the top to take an emerger in the film. To attempt to cast now would surely spook him, even the slightest movement would. Soon he rose further up, and taking a chance, James got his fly in position on the water. Sure enough the fish returned on his beat sliding up and scoffing a tiny dun right beside his fly. James was blown away by this intimate encounter and seconds later the fish was back gulping down his size 16 Klinkhammer emerger.
The look on his face was enough. Triumph. A fat pounder was admired and released. “Just before we leave, put one up by the weed draped snag”. Up went the Klinkhammer a few inches short. Up it went again to be greeted by a nice, dark snout. James struck tight into a 2 pounder that carted him downstream peeling line off the reel. Soon he was to learn the awful truth of what happens when a fish gets downstream and starts to thrash. They parted company.
James was in danger of dragging his bottom jaw through the mud, it had fallen so far. I was trying to contain myself. I couldn’t have scripted the last hour better if I had tried. This beats a few small fish in the Murrindndi. Walking back to the car I suggested that we revisit the first fish he rolled over. He didn’t need encouragement. This time I sat back. It was all James. He walked up and waited, screening himself in the trees at the reverse end of the backwater. The timing was perfect.
Within a few minutes the fish rose against the bank in the bubble line. James covered him with his first cast unfazed by the high bank and willow tree obstructing his back cast. Down the bubble line came the Klinkhammer. He rose to take the semi-submerged emerger with the tiniest of dimples. When James struck he lifted high and held the fish out of the snags. Blood red spots with white halos adorned his golden flank. The mottled brown spots giving way to the dark olive of his back, as James held him face into the current to allow him to recover.
He didn’t need much, flicking his tail rapidly as he slid into the depths.
This beats uni lectures any day. Been there done that. Who wants to be an accountant? Bugger the business studies, James was on fire. Rolling down the road we dissected each encounter. I hammered home the lessons; I took each point and set it in stone. I sounded like I knew it all, its best to keep this illusion, James will learn the hard way soon enough.
Slipping in behind the island we set up for the evening rise. As the sun’s rays lengthened across the water, the first few duns arrived. James was a keen observer; no doubt I had a firm grasp by now. Leading him would be no trouble. A size 14 Bushy’s Emerger in grey was the perfect match.
No casting was allowed while we waited for the first fish to rise. It didn’t take long. In the middle of the run we saw a head and back appear just ahead of the reflection of a tree trunk in the water. This fix gave him the bearing to aim his fly. Two casts later the head and back emerged to gulp the fly down and a chunky pound and a half rainbow cartwheeled all over the run. This time when he got downstream and started to thrash the rod came over to the side to turn his head and angle him back into the current. Twice he had to do this before the fish came to heel, and after being quickly released, regained his freedom. I am sure the quick release was hurried on by the second fish that was chomping away at duns with a loud splashy whack of a rise.
Yes he landed that one too.
It was black dark as we stumbled back across the paddock to the car. James was back. He called in at the shop. He revisited the scene of his success and caught another one off the high bank again. This time all by himself. More lectures skipped.
Mick met James out on the river last night. They struck up a conversation. James asked if he could tag along and watch, no problem, he watched Mick take a couple of small risers. “There’s one!” said Mick “Have a go at him”. James stepped up and took him nicely, only small but taken with confidence and consummate ease.
“These were the good ole days” James will say in ten years time. “I remember when I first started fly fishing I met these two old timers who showed me how to fish the Goulburn. There were fish everywhere. We used to get five or six a day”. By this time James will be married with two kids, a mortgage and a partnership in an accounting firm. I should also mention the family Labrador that tends to slobber.
James will look up from his computer and gaze out the window. A small nostalgic pain will grip him, “I remember that old bastard warned me, he told me these are the good old days”.
I saw him off the bridge, he sat in an eddy behind a rock in shallow water. He was easy to see, dark in colour against the stones on the bottom. Scuttling low I clambered off the bridge and waded out to get a good cast at him. Carefully I put the fly down, casting a metre upstream of him, approaching on an angle so as not to line or drop a shadow across.
The Knobby hopper bobbed its way down the ripple and passed clear over his head. Unperturbed, he continued to fin on the current. Somewhat perplexed I waited until the leader had traveled clear of him and picked up. This time shortening up, I put the Knobby in a bit closer so he would see and hear it fall on the edge of his cone of vision. This time it went down with a gentle plop and spreading rings mingled with the broken rippling wavelets. He didn’t budge. Only a little flick of his tail indicated that he was aware of its presence.
Mild confusion was aroused, earlier in the day every fish I covered had fallen to this technique. I retreated to the bank and sat in the shade to give him a rest and consider an alternative. A small emerger pattern might do the trick, so off came the hopper and on went the blue winged olive paradun. Five minutes later I was back on the bank. Several faultless passes had not evoked even a twitch, so rather than frighten him, I retreated to nurse my bruised ego and reconsider. Here was a good sized fish fully visible, sitting in a likely run and totally disinterested in anything I had offered. With my confidence dented I resorted to an unweighted nymph that drifted past his nose in full view without an eyebrow flicker. Now I had my back up.
I changed to a bead head and plonked it nearby and retrieved hand-over in such a delicious way I could have bitten it myself. I edged closer, rattling a few stones as I waded; but still he lay on the glide. I could see him clearly now and despite the broken surface and refraction I could see his mouth open and close in the way that fish take nymphs. Frustration began to gnaw away causing careless and reckless abandon.
Once the leader had been dumped on him, further good presentation didn’t seem to matter. Now I was about a rod’s length away, and despite him twitching now and then, he refused to bolt out into the current and the safety of the deep green depths of the pool. I touched him on the back with my rod and he moved to one side. I touched him again and he re-positioned himself again. He objected, but didn’t leave. I slid my hand under him, easing him gently out of the water, before he gave a kick and a splash and returned to his station. I could see his eyes. They were both grown white with cataracts. I left him there, still finning away in his pocket, unprepared to swim away from his little patch that he could sense. He was a slab, slowly starving away, a victim of the eel-worm parasite. Eye fluke or eel-worm are always present in the water as parasites, but only when a fish becomes old or weak or stressed with high temperatures do the eye fluke migrate from the gut to the rear of the eye causing blindness to develop.
Only a fairly low percentage of fish are ever caught by trout fishers, many of them die from old age or natural causes.
It was almost a year later that we returned to fish the Swampy again and this time Dennis and Anthony were desperate to come. Anthony is a young blood, the zeal and enthusiasm of youth barely able to be contained. Dennis on the other hand had come to fly fishing with maturity and experience but the glint in his eye burnt fiercely. The river had risen overnight and the fish weren’t cooperating and a long fish-less session that had been punctuated with some monsters sighted but spooked and lost, meant any fish would be welcome. Anthony had soloed on ahead and managed to find a big one in an impossible tangle of branches that defied capture. Soon he called to me from the bridge, “I’ve got one! Come and look at this. I have thrown everything at him but he won’t take. You have a go at him!”
I waded under the bridge and Anthony acted as spotter, calling the shots as the fly covered the fish in the run. “Yes! You are right over him…. He has to take it…. The fly is right on his nose. Give him another one… a bit to the left this time….”I could make out the fish vaguely in the distance but soon the recollections began to filter through. He was dark, burnt black as his pigment reacted to the constant sunlight of the shallow run.
“I know this fish Anthony….It’s blind Freddy!” “Aw..Bulldust!…How?”
Anthony fishes with us every chance he gets because each time he learns something, it is a revelation, a constant journey of discovery of techniques, and usually an adventure to some wilderness of nature or the mind.
Down he came off the bridge and we walked up to blind Freddy. He eased off his lie and slid to the left to hold in the current. When we had taken some photos we had to leave and beat our way aback to the plane as the light would soon fade. As we crossed the bridge we could see him easing back, little by little towards his favourite position. He was still thin but over twenty inches long at a guess. He had survived the winter and Anthony was incredulous at his story. We saw Dave and Dennis on the other bank, and to much raucous laughter we recounted how Anthony had met blind Freddy.