December’s Fly Fishing Miracle on the Bear Trap

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. From our picture window I could see a dozen or more houses decorated with Christmas lights. Our house was perched on a hill overlooking the north floor of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. The valley floor was dusted with an inch of snow.

Inside our house, the tree was decorated, and the sound of Karen Carpenter singing, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” filled our living room. Christmas was seven days away.

Shiver Me Timbers

But all I wanted to do was to go fly fishing.

It had been two months since the last time I had cast a fly on the water, and I was itching to spend some time on the river. Tomorrow was going to be in the high thirties, and I could take off work a couple hours early.

So away from the window I flew like a flash, tore open my duffel bag where my fly gear was stashed. I got everything ready for the next day. When I retired for the night and nestled all snug in my bed, visions of rainbow trout danced in my head.

The next afternoon, I left work early at two o’clock and arrived at the mouth of the Bear Trap Canyon an hour later. My plan was to park at the Warm Springs fishing access and walk up the Madison River about three-quarters of a mile to a run where some decent sized trout always seemed to lurk.

But the visions that danced in my head the night before had not included the gale force wind that I felt as I opened up my door. No wonder mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Every other fly fisher had the sense to stay home and tie flies. I was angry at the wind, but I was too stubborn to give in.

Fly Fishing Miracle

After I lost my zest for hiking three quarters of a mile, it occurred to me that I could fish the elbow of a bend in the river that jutted up against the parking lot.

I had never fished it before. That, too, was due to stubbornness. I refuse to fish water that is so accessible. But with the howling wind whipping around the falling snowflakes, I was in no mood to be true to my mantra: “Always walk at least a mile before you start fishing.” Besides no one in their right mind would have fished this elbow during the last few days of blustery weather.

I tied on a beadhead prince nymph and dropped a little copper behind it. For the next few minutes, I got into a consistent rhythm: cast, shiver, mend, shiver, retrieve, shiver, complain. Then, suddenly, I saw a happy sight for tear-stained eyes (from the cold wind).

My strike indicator disappeared.

For the next minute, I felt that old familiar feeling of a fish on the end of the line. It turned out to be a 14-inch rainbow, which looked surprisingly plump for the time of year. I wouldn’t call that catch a true Christmas miracle. But I would call it a small (and cold) fly fishing miracle on the Bear Trap a few days before Christmas.

After I released it the fish, my shivering increased.

It was bone-cold, the sun now below the mountain. I began the long walk back to my truck — all fifteen steps. When I returned home an hour later, I stood at our picture window and looked out over the Gallatin Valley. Beyond the houses dotted with Christmas lights, I could see faintly the gap in the distant hills where the Madison River emerged from the Bear Trap Canyon. It was almost dark, and I was thankful for the light and warmth of home.

But I was also thankful for those fifteen minutes on the river that lifted my spirits. Now I was ready for Christmas.

Keeping Monster Trout on the Line

I’ve lost my share of big trout. There, I admitted it. I’m weeping as I write this. Okay, not really. But I remember feeling sick a few times when I let a monster trout get away. There was the day when my sixth-grade son hooked a monster brown on a size #18 red brassie. I urged him not to panic, but apparently I did. I hurried towards the fish with my net, and it made its escape by wrapping the leader around my leg and snapping off the fly from the tippet.

Thankfully, I have not let all the big ones get away. I’ve landed my share of large trout, too. Here are four tips for keeping monster trout on the line:

1. Moisturize the knot you are tying.

That’s a nice way saying, wet the knot with your spit. Saliva will not weaken your leader material. It will prevent it from losing its strength.

When you pull monofilament tight, the friction creates heat that can weaken the knot or the line around it. So put the knot it your mouth to moisten it before you pull it tight.

2. Keep your line tight.

A fly fishing friends signs off on his emails with “Tight lines.”

It took me a while to figure out why that’s such good advice. Slack in your line makes it easier for a hook to slip out of a trout’s mouth or for the trout to shake it free — whether you have a 22-inch rainbow or an eight-inch brookie.

The most vulnerable time, perhaps, is right after you hook a fish.

You want to reel in the extra line, and that’s important. But keep the line tight while you’re reeling in the extra line. Once you’ve done that, the fish will be working against your rod, and you can adjust the drag setting on your reel to allow for more or less tension.

So how do you keep the line tight while you are reeling in the excess? It’s not that difficult to do when you try it, but it’s maddening to try to explain with words!

So practice while someone is holding your line. Or tie it to your leader to a porch railing or your child’s tricycle (but not to your black lab’s collar unless you have a lot of backing!). You can figure it out from there.

3. Practice “home field advantage.”

Your home field is the run in which you’re fishing or the shallow water near the shore. The trout’s home field is an undercut bank, particularly if there is a log nearby. So don’t let the trout head to its lair. Pull it sideways to keep it in the area where you can handle it. If you can get it into the shallow water near the shore, that’s all the better.

4. Guide the trout into your net.

An old adage says that most accidents happen at or near home. That’s true for landing trout. It’s when you get the trout near your net that the danger of losing it increases. So don’t go stabbing at it with your net! Lift your rod and pull it into the net. Don’t bother swiping at the trout with your net.

Also, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. If the trout suddenly darts away from the net, just keep it in front of you and bring it in for another attempt at landing it.