Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Story Continues: River X

In my last post, we were just pushing off onto a river somewhere in central Wyoming that is rarely, if ever, floated. As we slid out into the swift current, we had no idea what to expect. Could we make our way through the logjams and sweepers we had heard about from the ranchers? Would we find any fish? And most importantly, did we have enough for lunch?… It was time to find out…

The river started out fast and shallow. We wove though small cutbacks and over stacked gravel bars. The gradient was obvious. Looking downstream you could see the river fall away as it slid into a tailout or rounded the next bend. We knew we had to stay on our toes… sometimes quite literally! Chad and I would stand up on tip toe to see what that next rapid held then discuss the best line. "River right… River left… center sleeper… it's just a big wave." Chad and I repeatedly and often gave our opinion on the read of the water to each other. This would not be a good place to flip a raft and comparing notes greatly increases your odds!

Once underway after a scout, Scott and I cast to any holding water: the shelves, seams, eddies and foam pockets went by in a flash. While Chad was busy on the oars, Scott and I were busy shotgunning likely spots as they flew by. We tried to cast well ahead of the raft, but often the speed of the current caused us to overrun our flies before we could establish a proper drift. Consistent rapids were linked by swift gravel bars which continued mile after mile. Sometimes the Class II-III water came from the pinches at gravel bars, while at other times standing waves and recirculating holes developed adjacent to small cliffs or where the river ran over polished bedrock shelves.

By lunchtime, we had tallied only a few small fish. We had raised nothing very large or noteworthy at all. We knew that often cutthroat rivers don't start producing until the afternoon so we remained optimistic.

The morning run had been beautiful and engaging… and a bit nervous. In particular we had one incident while negotiating a riverwide sweeper. Scott and I had walked around the obstacle to make the boat lighter and easier for Chad to row. He was going to try to row under it. All went well until he hooked a seat on a strong branch which pulled one side of the raft down. In the swift current, Chad had to quickly high-side the raft to prevent it from flipping. His quick thinking saved the day and he emerged in the eddie below a bit shaken, but unscathed. We stopped for lunch soon thereafter and that's when our day took a dramatic turn for the good…

While preparing lunch, we saw a quick rise. After a series of 5 or 6 drifts over a shelf, a big cutty hit Scott's foam hopper. This fish took a good while to land in the swift current, but eventually he was netted and measured at 18 inches. It was a good start!

From that moment on every foam eddie held a big fish. The likely looking spots like grassy deep banks and gravel bar eddies were almost aways unproductive, but foam eddies, foam lines and foam seams often held big fish. We caught numerous 17-19 inch fish with our best fish reaching nearly 20 inches. This fish had an amazing girth for its size. A true fatty! 

We suspected the fish density was not high, but those fish that managed to survive in this river were obviously big! It was a great day: we saw some new water, we caught some big trout and most importantly, we survived. What more could you ask for?!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Wyoming Trout Tours: Day One and a New Game Plan Needed for Day Two!

Last weekend, I met Scott Sawtelle and Chad Olsen in Cody on Sunday night. We were hoping to float the North Fork of the Shoshone for two days then drive down to Thermopolis to fish the Wind River for a couple more days.

So far this summer, the North Fork had been consistently blown out by a landslide in Yellowstone Park. Each time it rained, the river became a chocolate brown mess which lasted until the next time it rained, usually only a few days later. We had heard reports that it had just begun to clear up again. We had heard the river was still a bit cloudy, but it had started to fish well.

When Monday dawned bright and clear, we decided to see if the reports were true. As we headed up the valley, we could see the river looked clear enough to fish, so we shuttled vehicles and put in about 12 miles above Buffalo Bill Reservoir.

We had a great day! Lots of cuts and cuttbows in the 12-16 inch range and a few up to 19 inches. The scenery was magnificent and we never saw another boat on the river all day… simply amazing for one of the best trout rivers in the west. The North Fork was so good we decided to try it again on Tuesday.

As they say, "the best laid plans"... On Tuesday, as we were driving to the put-in and crossing the first bridge, we could clearly see that the North Fork was once again a chocolate mess. We immediately flashed our lights at each other and pulled over to then side of the road. We got out and huddled on the berm with the Yellowstone tourist traffic whizzing by. We obviously needed a new game plan! 

We decided to go exploring! There are a few small rivers in this part of Wyoming we have always talked about floating, so it was a good time as any to give them a try. We got out our maps and searched for workable access points.

Scott and Chad rig up….

We drove to a few spots where we thought we could drag out a raft, then knocked on the appropriate ranch house doors. We were eventually able to line up a seemingly doable put-in and take-out. At one ranch house, we were told a couple Wyoming Game and Fish guys tried to float the river a few years ago. They had heard they had found a lot of logjams and sweepers, but had no idea if they had made it or more importantly, had found any fish! We thought we had bitten off about 12 river miles, but we really didn't know. We basically had no idea what to expect. Could we navigate thru logjams, avoid sweepers and not get bled into waterless braids?

There was only one way to find out… we backed up to a steep cutback, dropped the raft in and slid out into the swift current. It was time to find what this river held… 
Next up: The results of our explorations

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The High Country is Coming into Shape

Most of the alpine streams are now gin clear and the bugs are popping out into the clear mountain air! Grey and green drakes, small baetis, tan caddis and midges are emerging from the cold snowmelt to dance above the water or cling to the willows at streamside. The bright rainbows, cutthroats and brook trout are hungry and better yet, very naive.

My advice: do what you have to do... play hooky, call in sick, lie to your spouse. Summer in the mountains is brief, what are you waiting for?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Four Days, Three Rivers

Some great days in late June with Chad Olsen and Anna Riggs. We floated the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers in Montana and then spent two days on the Wind River in Wyoming. We went from two of Montana's most iconic freestones to one of the best tailwater fisheries in the U.S.
We started our tour in the quintessential Montana town of Big Timber. We met at the Grand Hotel, had a great meal and retired early, eager to get on the river in the morning.

You gotta love small towns in Wyoning and Montana

In the morning, we managed to put-in at a nondescript highway bridge on the Boulder. With no fishing access sites nearby, we decided to dismantle our raft to get it between the jagged guard rails and the landowner's barb wire. But, it was well worth the effort! We were to see no other fishermen on the 16 beautiful miles we floated!

...off comes the frame

...on goes the frame

The Boulder River is bouncy with lots of Class II rapids and even more 12-16 inch 'bows and browns. Lots of fun with a hopper/dropper. Busy, shotgun-style casting…. hit that eddy there, flip your fly to that seam there. In the swift waters, it all goes by in a blur.

The next morning, we headed to the Stillwater River. The Stillwater is quite similar to the Boulder meaning there are lots of fish and plenty of boulder strewn rapids. Previously, I had kayaked this stream dozens of times, but I had NEVER fished it. I was thrilled to finally see what the river held! 

The trees held many clues as to what flies to use!

After the Stillwater, we drove to Cody, Wyoming for dinner, then continued on to Thermopolis to get some rest before floating the Wind River the following day. Flows were high, but the fishing was great. Plenty of 16-20 inch bows and browns. As you can see, lots of doubles! 

All too soon, it was over. Four days, three rivers. I would start over and do the whole trip again in a second! Thanks Anna and Chad, time to plan another "tour"!