The bugs didn’t get the memo about this quarantine and many rivers are fishing exceptionally well. Unfortunately the logistics of traveling are a little unnerving if you’re trying to maintain social distancing. With this in mind my parents and I set off on a fish-about trip to eastern Idaho and Montana with no schedule set in stone and no scheduled return date. We packed enough provisions and clothes for two weeks of glamping in my dad’s Sprinter van and I had tied more flies than we would possibly need. With my raft trailing behind my Cherokee and a quiver of fly rods riding shotgun we set off for Ashton. The big bugs were calling and we had to go.
Salmon flies are incredible. They live in the river as nymphs for three to four years until they are ready to crawl out onto the bank and become flying adults. They are the largest stoneflies in the world and they kind of fly like drunk helicopter pilots. When the females fly over the river to drop their eggs they often crash into the river and are met by the jaws of fat trout that have been gorging on this abundant biomass. During a big flight it almost looks like the trout are shamelessly crushing hummingbirds off the river’s surface. However a big flight of stoneflies can be largely weather dependent. If a cold front comes in when they hatch they will lazily crawl around and try to fly as little as possible. Unfortunately this was the case on the Henry’s Fork this year.
We floated Ora to Vernon, Warm River to Ashton and Box Canyon for 5 days hoping to experience this legendary hatch but it was a little underwhelming. Every time we set off we carried two dry fly rods and two nymphing sticks rigged with a modified version of a drop shot rig to tight-line nymph from the boat. It’s nontraditional but it’s deadly. It lets you constantly adjust the depth of your presentation as you move through different types of water. In the Henry’s Fork we were running a big rubber leg nymph, a small leech streamer, and an attractor nymph on our nymph rigs. Surprisingly our top producing fly on the nymph rig was a black Simi-seal leech with a maribou tail. We caught a handful of fish on salmon fly dries (including a brook trout that must have been lost) and it was a great experience, just not exactly what we had been hoping for. With the salmon flies leaving something to be desired we decided to head to the South Fork of the Snake where we spent two days camping on public lands and we got into some spectacular rainbows, browns, and cutthroat. The river was high, cold, and dirty and there wasn’t a mayfly in sight but the squirmy wormy bite was on!
Our next destination was the Madison River. This was our first time fishing in Montana and we couldn’t have been more excited. For years i had heard stories about this fishery and I was on a mission to catch a brown trout on a streamer. On our way up Highway 20 we decided to spend the night on Henry’s Lake to get in a little cutthroat fishing. When my mom and I walked down to the shore there was a storm rolling in and when static electricity started crackling in the grass and jumping from our fingers and toes we quickly retreated to the insulated van with our fly rods held low to the ground. It felt like the beginning of a “how I got struck by lightning” story and luckily for us we escaped unscathed. The next morning we stopped at the Slide Inn to BS with Kelly for a bit before heading down to Lyons Bridge to fish. The water was absolute chocolate milk and drifting nymphs 6 inches off the bank led to hooking 6 fish in maybe 10 minutes but none of them were willing to stay on and play. I thought that was very rude. We decided to head down below Ennis Lake, put the boat in and do an evening float.
For me this was game time. I strung up my 7-weight with a sink tip line and was prepared to throw yellow and black streamers to get some contrast against the muddy water. We were half way down the float and I was on my third fly change when I hooked into a slab of a brown trout on a yellow boogieman. She was around 24” long and one of the most memorable trout that I’ve ever caught. I volunteered to row after that and coached my dad on how to cast a sink tip. He moved another nice fish off the bank following the fly but didn’t quite sell it. I could have stayed on the Madison and thrown streamers for a week but since my folks aren’t streamer fishers and the fish weren’t feeding too heavily on nymphs in this section we decided to move on. After a day of sightseeing and exploring in Montana only to find more muddy water, we set course for Silver Creek. On the way back we couldn’t pass by the Henry’s Fork after hearing rumors of PMDs on the lower river drawing lots of fish to the surface. It turns out the rumors were true. On a float from Ora to Vernon we had some of the best dry fly fishing of the trip on some size 16 PMDs. This is also the float where while nymphing a deep slot with a split case PMD I hooked into a fish that haunts my dreams. We never got to see it but when I hooked up it railroaded me straight upstream, and with the boat floating down it took 70 feet of line before I broke the 4X tippet trying to turn its head….
Silver Creek is always an amazing place to be but the brown drake hatch is another legendary hatch that draws in about as many anglers as there are fish. We arrived after the peak of the hatch but the Point of Rocks Campground was packed full of campers and tents regardless. The evening we arrived I couldn’t resist the urge to tie on a mouse and go for some of the big-boys. A couple times I saw a wake charge at my fly only to turn away at the last second and leave me shaking. Sometimes that’s all you get when you’re mousing but it’s still incredibly fun. The next morning my dad and I set off before dawn to stake out a place to fish, settling on a sharp bend in the creek where the current pushed into some willows creating a deep bucket with overhead cover on the back half (classic big fish holding water.) As the morning progressed and the drakes made their appearance we saw those big fish happily sip in the colossal mayflies and settle into feeding lies. Armed with some bugs that I had traded some nymphs for that morning we got a few of the bigger fish to eat our offerings, but every time they did our excitement got the better of us and a quick hook set resulted in pulling the fly out of the trouts mouth and into the brush behind us. I think we landed one fish that morning but it was still a great experience.