Fly Fishing’s Wilder Side

The wild places are not a kind and gentle world where Bambi lives in perfect harmony with nature. One reason I love fishing in the America West is that I often come face to face with fly fishing’s wild side.

I grew up on the windy and barren plains of the Dakotas, lived in the West during much of my twenties, and then settled in the Chicago suburbs to raise a family.

So much of how my suburb is organized paints over the harsher reality of the true nature of life. Fly fishing gets me into the outdoors where I encounter a different reality.

In the suburbs, my 15-year-old can’t shoot his bow or pellet gun in our backyard. He can’t take out the raccoon in our attic or the skunk under our deck. The neighbors might see him and call the police.

Instead, we must call “wildlife control” and pay $200 to solve our wildlife problem. I love fly fishing because it takes me back to what I remember growing up in the wilder places of America. A recent fly fishing trip reminded me how the cycle of life actually works.

Mama’s Not Happy

Last summer, Steve, another friend, and I were fly fishing on a remote Montana stream. We divided up among us about a half mile of the creek: Steve went upstream, and the other friend and I headed downstream.

A half hour into the day, while I was kneeling on the bank to tie on a fly, a duck burst out of the brush beside me, complaining loudly as she flew away. I thought the duck was mad at me. I suspected she had a nest nearby. After swallowing hard to get my heart back into my chest, I went back to the tedious task at hand. I wasn’t catching anything on a hopper. I decided to switch to nymphs.

A minute or so later, I heard some rustling behind me. I turned to see a mink dragging a baby duck backwards into the brush. The duck looked to be a couple months old and almost the same size as the mink. The mink had the little one by the neck, the duckling’s wings still flapping as it died.

The mink had raided the nest. I wondered if my sudden presence on the stream a few moments earlier had distracted Mama Duck, and the mink took advantage by stealing her young one.

Mother’s Darker Side

The picture above is up close with the mink and the duck. I wish the photo had turned out better. I was a bit rattled. I should have tried the video, but didn’t think to do so. The lighting against the bush was poor, and the mink kept backing up farther and farther into the brush.

The mink was less than five feet away when I first turned around.

It appeared unafraid, fiercely determined not to let go of brunch.

I fumbled to click a picture, followed the mink as it backed up into the brush behind me, slowly. Belligerent, it refused to let go of the baby duck and escape, even though I had an iPhone in its face.

It was one of the great moments of fly fishing in one of the most gorgeous remote valleys of Montana. The enounter was a bracing reminder that Mother Nature is not at all benevolent, not all love and cuddles, something I can easily forget living the good life in my Chicago suburb. Mother Nature is no a protector of wildlife. In fact Mother Nature is not really like a mother at all.

At least not like my mother.

I love the offbeat lessons of life from fly fishing. The sport adds color to my white-picket-fence view of the world.

Have Fly Rod, Will Time Travel

I fly fish for one reason: to catch fish. Of course, I love the opportunity to be outdoors and experience nature. But I could accomplish that without fly fishing. I could simply hike or camp or take up outdoor photography.

I fly fish because I love the thrill of catching trout.

However, this does not mean that I’m unappreciative of the side benefits that come with fly fishing. One of them is the opportunity to do some time travel. Yes, the fly rod in your hand also serves as a time machine, transporting you to some places in the past.

Brookies on the Au Sable

Recently, my son, Luke, and I drove to Grayling, Michigan, to fish for trout on the Au Sable River. We spent a day on the North Branch of the Au Sable and caught our share of brookies.

What stands out to me most, though, was the opportunity to drift the river in an Au Sauble River boat. These beauties look and feel much different than the drift boats from which I’ve fished the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in Montana. They typically run 23- or 24-feet long and only two-and-a-half feet wide, resembling the shape of a dugout canoe.

The Au Sable River boat has been used on the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers in northern Michigan since the early 1870s. Lumber companies used this flat-bottomed craft to move tools and supplies to their logging camps. Loggers used them to maneuver between the logs as they floated down the rivers and to separate the inevitable log jams.

In the early 1880s, someone got the idea to modify the design a bit to use this craft for fishing.

Drifting the North Branch of the Au Sable with my son, Luke (pictured above to the left), and our guide, Justin, took me back in time to the days when the Grayling thrived in these rivers and the camp cooks used these boats to shuttle staples to their camps to feed hungry lumberjacks.

Fly Rod under the Trestle

I had a similar feeling of nostalgia last summer when I fished 16 Mile Creek in the north reaches of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. I caught a couple of nice browns under a railroad trestle on an old railroad grade used by the Ringling Brothers. Every off-season, they used to ship their circus equipment to their ranch.

More recently, a scene from A River Runs Through It was filmed on the same trestle—the scene where Jessie Burns drives wide-eyed Norman Maclean onto the tracks, over the trestle, and into a tunnel. What struck me was how this remote mountain valley had remained untouched and undeveloped. There were no power lines, roads, or highway sounds to remind me that I was fishing in the twenty-first century.

More than a decade ago, I remember the chill I felt when fishing the East Gallatin River about a mile from my where my house. I had read enough of Lewis and Clark’s journals to know that Captain William Clark and his Indian guide, Sacagawea, walked somewhere nearby the spot where I fished as they traveled east from the Three Forks of the Missouri to meet up with the Yellowstone River.

More recently, local resident Jim Doig was killed when thrown from his saddle horse in a pasture adjacent to the stretch of the East Gallatin I fished. His nephew, Ivan, tells the story in his memoir, This House of Sky.

Something stirs me about the history that swirls around the places I fish. To be sure, it cannot make up for a lack of catching fish. But when the fish are sipping my flies off the surface, the historical dimension of the waters I fly fish enriches my experience.

So what happened a hundred years ago in and around the rivers you are fly fishing?

Knowing the history may not make a bad day on the river good. But it is sure to make a good day even more meaningful.

Episode 46: One Magical Day on the River

fly fishing guides

Ever have a magical day on the river? Of course you have. But such days tend to be less common than we imagine. In this episode, we recount a magical day on the river that we know will never be repeated. Three of us fly fished a stretch of water on a warm August day when the trout feasted on hoppers and the runs seemed endless. May the memory never dim.

Listen to Episode 46: One Magical Day on the River

We’ve recently introduced a feature to our podcast – “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.”

At the end of each episode, we read a few of the comments from the blog or from Facebook. We appreciate your advice, wisdom, and experience. Please add your ideas to the creative mix.

Do you have a day on the river to remember? We’d love to hear your stories.

Also, don’t forget to visit Casting Across, a blog we mention in the podcast.

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6 Tips for Planning a Memorable Fly Fishing Trip

Many of us do not live within an hour of pristine trout waters. Steve and I live in the Chicago suburbs, and while the Driftless in southwestern Wisconsin and the streams of Michigan are in striking distance, we can’t simply hop in the truck for an afternoon of fly fishing and be back an hour after dark. We need to plan our trips and make the most of our time away from our families.

With some simple preparation and forethought, you can create a memorable fly fishing trip. Here are just six tips to make 2016 your best fly fishing year ever:

    1. Try some new waters.

    Steve and I often feel pressure to make the most of every moment on a trip. We often think “We have only a few days. We don’t want to waste an afternoon or evening trying something that is a long shot.”

    Last summer, we took an afternoon off from fishing our standbys (the Yellowstone in the Park, for example) and fished Fan Creek, which is also in Yellowstone National Park. We had heard of it before but had never took the time to fish it. This time we did.

    For the most part, it was a bust, if you measure success purely by the number you catch. I caught a couple smaller West Slope cutthroats (12 to 13 inches), but that was about it.

    Would we do it again? Absolutely. The stream was gorgeous, and we could have fished for days, jumping from run to run and losing ourselves in the back country of Yellowstone Park.

    We now have another place to go at another time. We will be back.

    2. Avoid the Two Worst Seasons.

    If you are fishing in the American West, and fishing the freestone rivers, you’ll want to keep in mind two seasons to avoid: Blown Out Season and the Tourist Season.

    The Blown Out Season runs from late April to July (or earlier or later). This is when the rivers swell and bloat from all the snow melt. You won’t want to risk the trip, unless you like worm fishing.

    Tourist Season runs from late July into the third week of August, some of the best days for hoppers. Steve and I often take a trip in mid August to the Bozeman, MT, area – we love floating the big bugs. But we never fish the Gallatin in July or early August. It is always elbow to elbow with fly fishers, all decked out with their latest gear and $1,000 fly rods purchased for the two or three days in Montana. And often the Lower Madison is too low (as well as packed with folks on float tubes, a whole ‘nuther kind of late summer “hatch”).

    3. Fish the Spawning Season.

    You’ll need to be extra careful catching and releasing the fish, but two great times in the West are spring rainbows before the rivers blow out and the big browns in October. There are no tourists, and hotel rates tend to be a bit less.

    4. Stay Long Enough for a Banner Day.

    Through the years, Steve and I have generally fished for three or four days at a shot. That’s a long time to be away from family, and since my wife and I hover over four kids, the trip puts stress on the family system.

    But we often find that one out of the three or four days ends up being a banner day – a 15 (or more) fish day. The other two or three days tend to be more typical – three or four, if that.

    5. Hire a Guide for One of the Days.

    Just budget it for it – and do it. You’ll improve your skills, perhaps discover new water, and look back at the day as one of the highlights of the trip.

    6. Build Flexibility into Your Plan.

    There’s is nothing like a best laid fly fishing plan that goes sideways with the weather. Especially if you are fishing in early spring or mid to late fall. If the river colors overnight or a foot of snow makes your 2-mile hike impossible or the wind gusts make all kind of casts an Olympic feat – you’ll want options.

    Several years ago, after a dump of overnight snow, Steve and I spent much of the next day hitting the coffee shops and restaurants, waiting for a break in the weather. We should have had another option – maybe a river 50 or more miles away, outside of the snow zone. Maybe have two options for each day on the trip.

There are a thousand other ideas for planning for a memorable fly fishing trip. What are yours?

Episode 11: Five Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip

A River Runs Through It

In this episode, we tease out five lessons from one of our great trips fishing the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Listen to Episode 11: Five Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip.

Listen to Episode 43: 5 Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip

What lessons have you recently learned? Do you have any great stories to tell? We’d love to hear from you.

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

View some of our most recent podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.