There’s a river I fish on a fairly regular basis that’s less than a 10 minute drive from my front door.
While it’s relatively large — at least for a Montana trout stream — it runs warmer than our other local waters because it flows into, and then out of, a natural, un-dammed lake. Except for the cooling influence of the occasion spring or seep, the river water below the outflow is approximately the same temperature as the lake’s sun-baked surface — which means things warm up quickly in the spring and stay that way into October.
There are any number of homes along the river’s banks, many of which feature massive shade trees and manicured lawns, and there’s a faint suburban aura to the river corridor that can seem a little odd here in the northern Rockies. Still, a ten year old boy could jump on his bike and peddle the mile or two from the river’s edge to the edge of the mountains — the start of a vast, uninterrupted wilderness — in almost no time at all.
When I’m fishing one particular stretch with nice homes spaced here and there along the far bank, I keep in mind there’s a decent chance a grizzly bear is wandering through the surrounding forest. I haven’t seen a bear on the river recently but we live in Grizzly Central and there’s almost always one or two around.
Then, of course, there’s the fishing. The water is gorgeous, with a mix of wide flats and quick riffles interspersed with a handful of deep, alluring runs. You can’t help but look at the river and think “trout.”
Most of the time, though, you’d be disappointed.
There are places here in Montana where the local landscapes infuse our waterways with an ideal mix of minerals and nutrients, guaranteeing tons of insects and lots of fish. Rivers like the Madison and the Big Hole are known for their hatches and their rising trout — and rightly so. They’re considered bug factories and the fishing, as you’re no doubt aware, can be absolutely tremendous.
I’m not sure whether it’s our geology, or whether more than a century of intensive human activities have degraded the biotic capacity of the watershed, but there are far fewer aquatic insects in evidence in our local river. (With the exception of mosquitoes. Those we have in abundance.) And as you might imagine, fewer bugs means fewer fish.
Except, of course, for our piscatorial predators. The ten mile long lake which bisects the river holds both introduced lake trout and introduced pike, and both of those voracious species have chowed down on our native cutthroat as well as our non-native rainbows. I don’t know the river’s exact local fish count per mile at the moment, but after more than 15 years of living here I can tell you it’s not nearly what you’d expect.
Still, I fish the river. It’s what I do, and I could no more ignore the siren’s call of cold clear water minutes from my home than I could ignore a hamburger sizzling on the grill or a cold brew on a hot summer afternoon.
I headed over this past Friday after work, hoping for decent conditions, and was pleasantly surprised. There was no one else around and the river was lower and clearer than I had any right to expect during run-off season in mid-May. There were stone fly shucks on the bank, too — fresh ones — and while I didn’t see a single bug in the air or on the water, I was convinced that I could fish a big dry and pull a trout up to the surface.
I covered a ton of great looking water — covered it reasonably well, in fact — and never moved a fish. I wish I could tell you that I was surprised, but that’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect. Trout are scarce here and even ideal conditions do not guarantee success; especially when there are no bugs.
I fished elsewhere on Saturday — I’m neither a masochist nor a glutton for punishment — and then, when Sunday afternoon turned out to be absolutely gorgeous, I traded a handful of half-finished chores for the short ride back to the same spot I’d hit on Friday.
Once again the river looked perfect. Once again there were no bugs on the water.
As I pulled on my waders I couldn’t help but think back to the last thing I told my wife before I left the house: “I’m not going to catch any fish, but it’s a beautiful afternoon to go stand in the river and wave a stick.”
There are days when it feels like I’m Charlie Brown and the river is Lucy, just begging me to kick the football.
There are days when it feels like I’m a sucker for a river that’s little more than a pretty face.
And then there are days like this past Sunday.
I’m not going to talk about it. There’s no need to kiss and tell. But sometimes things work out far, far better than we could ever expect.