Saturday was the perfect October day... 65 degrees, sunny and dead calm. So perfect that I was in a t-shirt and and an old ratty pair of shorts. Although it seemed like a long way off on a day like this, I was getting things ready for winter. I pulled the water pump from the irrigation ditch and attached the snowplow to the 4-wheeler as I muttered to myself how I was wasting this beautiful day with chores. I gained some solace knowing that I had made a very adult, if not stupid, choice. I promised myself I would fish tomorrow and not mire myself in such useless behavior. Now don’t get me wrong, I am hardly Mr. Responsible. I had fished twice last week on local ranches with great success. I just wanted to go do it again! After all, we had a once-in-a-millennium grasshopper plague this summer and the trout have been big, eager and unbelievably fat. Last Sunday, I had caught quite a few fish and two browns over 22 inches. One had a girth of 13.5 and the other 14.5 inches. Now those are very big trout for a small ranch stream... and catching them on hoppers is an addicting activity.
As I slogged through my chores, I thought about getting another crack at this one ranch and maybe repeating my success. I knew I couldn’t surpass last week’s experience, but one more big fish before winter set in would be great.
I decided I would go tomorrow. I now worked with greater diligence and finally finished my work in the late afternoon. I then threw some gear together for tomorrow. This wasn’t difficult... waders, 4 wt., reel and most important, the HOPPER BOX! I didn’t even bother with nymphs, or a baetis box, or any of the myriad of other dry fly boxes I usually shove into every available pocket when I leave the car to head to the river. If I didn’t make it with hoppers tomorrow, I would come home. I knew this was more bravado than any risky leap of faith. But it felt edgy and cool so I stuck with it. After loading my gear in the car, I decided to check the weather for tomorrow. I opened “The Weather Channel” website and there in big letters:
A WINTER STORM WARNING FOR HEAVY SNOW WILL BE IN EFFECT FROM NOON SUNDAY UNTIL MIDNIGHT MDT MONDAY NIGHT. TRAVEL WILL BE HAZARDOUS TODAY AS SNOW CONTINUES TO FALL ACROSS THE AREA. THE HEAVY EARLY SEASON SNOW MAY ALSO CAUSE DOWNED TREE LIMBS AND POWER LINES... RESULTING IN WIDESPREAD POWER OUTAGES. THE SNOW WILL TAPER OFF MONDAY EVENING WITH TOTAL ACCUMULATIONS OF 15 INCHES AND LOCALLY HIGHER AMOUNTS.
GREAT! I burned this beautiful day doing chores and now tomorrow would be snowy and cold. I was pissed! It was October 5th and I knew the hopper fishing was just about over. This storm would seal the deal. Frustrated, I looked at the hour-by-hour report to see when the storm would actually roll in tomorrow. The precipitation potential went from 20% to 50% at 12:00 noon. In the morning, the potential remained at 20% from 8 until 11:00 AM, but then the temps would drop progressively until it reached the lower 30’s. Hmmmm... maybe, just maybe, if I was fishing by 9:00 AM, I could catch a fish before the storm shut everything down. Maybe, the fish would be eager to eat before the storm. Maybe they wouldn’t need the heat of the day to become active as they always do this time of year. Maybe the memory of tasty hoppers would be enough to overcome the cold and drive them to the surface. Maybe, I was an idiot and I should just go unpack the car. Maybe because you want to do something doesn’t mean it will happen. Maybe, maybe... Maybe, I’ll just wait and see how the weather is in the morning.
At 8:00 AM, under sooty skies and 34 degree temps, I found myself in the car on the way to the river. Talk about wishful thinking... the ceiling was dropping along with my attitude. I consoled myself by noting at least it was calm. By 9:00 AM, as it started to spit sleet, I was “wadered up” and walking to the river. I promised myself I would fish for two hours so I could make sure I could get home. I knew we had a buster of a storm on the way. You could literally smell it in the air and I didn’t want to spend the night weathered in at a local motel because of my idiotic need to catch one more fish.
Once at river’s edge, I sat down on the still green summer grass and quietly skooched down the bank until I could step into the flat run. Last Sunday, under clear skies and warm temps, I had caught a 22” brown here and since this day was all about trying to recapture past glory, I decided to start here again. It is a beautiful spot. The willows were a bright yellow and red chokecherry bushes, their branches laden with ripe berries, sagged reaching out over the stream. Two rooster pheasants sat in one bush, munching contentedly, no doubt stocking up for the storm. I ignored them and they ignored me as I worked the bank with a big foam hopper. On my two previous outings, I had my best luck either under the willows or along floating weed beds where browns could safely lie unexposed and wait for hoppers to be blown into the river. I tried river left, then cast to the other bank drifting my fly along an edge where some branches had collected moss and leaves forming a 10 foot long island. I watched my fly until I felt resistance. I looked down to see a loop of line wrapped around my hemostats. I fumbled with cold fingers to unhook the line. I then blew briefly in my hands as I brought my eyes back to the weed bed. Now I couldn’t find my big hopper! I saw no disturbance and assumed that I had lost my fly in the flat light. Just in case, I struck halfheartedly. My line came firm and a big fished rolled provocatively, then raced upstream. My day was made! If I didn’t get another look, I could go home happy. It hadn't taken long!
With frozen fingers, I got the fish on the reel and let the drag work to slow her down. Soon, I was measuring a 20” brown. I slid her back into the steely blue water. The temperature had seemingly dropped 10 degrees while I was landing this fish and big fluffy snowflakes now started to fall! Suddenly, I was really cold! I fished the rest of the run then got out and walked upstream to fish the next run.... then the next. A cold wind picked up and drove hard at me out of the northwest. I stopped to add another layer and pulled on a wool cap. I hate gloves so I decided to tough it out. The wind ruffled the water’s surface except on the upwind side underneath the willows. I concentrated my efforts there.
In one riffle, I had another take and again didn’t realize it until it was too late. The low light and strong wind made for tough visibility and that combined with the penetrating cold slowed my reaction time. When it finally dawned on me I had a take, I only grazed the fish with the hook point. I watched numbly as a boil developed where the fish had finned away. The thing about being really cold is that you can tell yourself to concentrate and do better, but the body just doesn’t follow. It has a mind of its own. I decided I had better cherry-pick the best spots and get the hell out of here before I was either hypothermic or weathered in. I fished a long slick that last week had produced two 22” fish and one 23” monster. I waded slowly up to a willow that overhung what I knew to be deeper holding water. I was eager to see what this sexy spot held today.
I cast my hopper across the stream and luckily tucked the fly under the willows only inches from shore. It drifted about 4 feet before it was pinched between the jaws of something big. With muscles not taking orders too well, I clumsily pulled up on the rod tip. I saw a flash of yellow and red and knew a big buck brown in spawning regalia was on the line. He came quickly to my side and I, in my cold-addled state, thought he was cold like me and was not up to the fight. As I reached down to unhook him, he exploded. He porpoised and then ripped upstream, obviously not effected one bit by the cold. He made two spectacular jumps, then turned toward the bank and some brush. I couldn’t keep up with the slack and he burrowed through two brush piles before the pressure suddenly went off my line. I waded over to untangle the mess knowing he was off and I would now have to reach my hand into the frigid water to get my fly back. I then felt the line pulse! With increased urgency, I kicked at the first brush pile lifting the mess with my foot. I grabbed my line and pulled it free of the bundle. I tried the same thing with the second jumble of branches, but I couldn’t lift the tangle very high off the bottom so I rolled up my sleeves and grabbed the highest branch. I pulled the whole mess to the surface. My hands were now numb. I got the line free and realized the fish had burrowed into some weeds next to shore. I jammed my arm in the water and pulled the line through the weeds and again he took off like a rocket. This time he didn’t make it as far. I soon landed him. He seemed a bit odd and when I held him out of the water, I could see his spine was badly deformed where a large wound had healed on his left side.
His spine looked like 3 inches had been excised from his back then the two ends put back together. He must have lived this way a long time. Maybe an otter or an osprey had grabbed him when he was just a parr-marked youngster. This guy had the head of a 26” fish, yet his body measured only 23 inches. I admired this survivor and wanted to get him quickly back in the gene pool. So after measuring him, I took a photo and slid him back into the stream. As he finned away, I encouraged him to spawn well. I caught a few more fish, but the cold and swiftly deteriorating conditions soon drove me off the river. It took the drive home to get feeling back in my hands. Just as I pulled in my driveway the snow from what would soon become a full scale blizzard began to fall harder. As I watched the storm build, I completed a few “indoor chores”. My fingertips tingled all day, I’m sure this was because they were just itching to get just one more chance at those big browns on hoppers this fall.