Montana offered another beautiful day in late winter, and once again, I was not going to pass up a wonderful day of fly fishing the Missouri River. This time, a co-worker Dave and I would team up and hit the Missouri hard. We ended up in Craig at Headhunters Fly Shop around 11 am. After getting some great tips in the Headhunter blog earlier that week, I knew the exact flies I was going to pick out for my arsenal that day. I asked where a good place to go for some dry fly action, and was directed towards the Rhoda Island area. This area is full of small braided side channels and islands, and has the structure and feel of smaller creek fishing which I hold near and dear as my preference of fly fishing water. With a guarantee to catch 4 0r 5 fish from the dudes in Headhunters around that area, Dave and I made our purchases, including my renewed fishing license, and hit the frontage road with visions of rising brutes.
As we rigged our lines, Dave noticed a surface feeding fish just at the tail out of a nice run near the bank. The setup I decided to use was a size 20 Midge Modger hung about 8 inches from a size 10 Wilcox JC Special dry fly.
Funny as it is, the JC Special is an attractor dry of sorts and resembles no insect of any sort, especially for the chilly winter months. Apparently it has been a hit the past week on the Missouri so I thought what the heck! Large attractor dry fly fishing in early March, hell yes, count me in! I was the first to get my rod ready with the tandem flies, Dave followed suit. Like a predator creeping upon its prey, I slowly made my way to the edge of the bank in position to cast to the progressive rising fish in the tail out. I false cast out enough line to place the flies about 10 feet above the fish so they would drift directly over the unsuspecting trouts head. Dave and I watched patiently as the flies approached, they drew closer, nearer, right on top of him now... BAM! The little rainbow had made a pass at the top water dry, but a last second change of mind put the Midge pattern directly into his lip! It's been a long time since my first cast of the day yielded a catch. I stripped my line in, netted the 12 inch rainbow, and gave a little whoop! Dave was impressed with the reward of the trout from a single cast, and applauded my victory as I released the little guy back to his home. With the adrenaline rushing through my veins, it was a great start to the day indeed.
Just out and across from the bank where I had just landed the rainbow was a nice riffle created by the end of an island. Dave decided to attack it from river right as I waded across to mid river to work it from river left. Eager to get on the water, Dave had just realized that he had his sink tip line on and not his floating line. Not an ideal setup for a dry fly dropper rig. As he changed spools and re-tied his flies to the leader, I drifted, and re-drifted the riffle seam hoping to bump into another unsuspecting trout. As soon as Dave was ready to fish again, I gave him the run and told him I was going to explore the other bank and side channel for risers.
I made my way down a shallow side channel searching the banks for rising and porpoising trout. The water was quite low and figured I'd have to find some deeper water that would be perfect for fish to hold in. I came to a V shape point at the end of an island where another side channel met the one I was scouring, and immediately stumbled upon a deep, slow hole and began counting the surface breaks. 1, 2, 3, 4.... "Bingo!", I thought. I crouched and crept closer, ensuring a prime position for make my back cast. With a few flicks of the wrist, I made my presentation about 3 feet above the center of the 4 rises I had seen only moments ago. The flies moved into position. The suspense was killing me, seconds seemed like hours as I waited for any notion a fish would take the phony meal presented to him in a delicate fashion. The endless wait my anxious mind had ensued was abruptly interrupted by the heavy tug at the end my fly line. She had taken the midge dropper. I began stripping in my line as if it were a lifeline and my life depended on not letting go of it. As the mystery at the end of my line drew near, it immediately made a bolt for it and danced across the small pool with grace. A gorgeous brown had been duped by my fly and was now victim to the battle that was now to commence! I let her run a bit, but not too far. She was mine, and I was not going to lose her! I put her on the reel after her first run, wrangled her in closer and again, she ran, and again. Finally, after what seemed like the Hundred Years War, I had the large brown in my net and then into my grips. A stunning brown, the likes of which countless other anglers before me on the Missouri have accomplished, I felt like I had toppled Troy at that moment! All the hard work, countless fish less days on the Missouri and I had staked my claim, a 19 inch golden nugget of a fish in my hands, worth more to me than its weight in gold! To some, and most who fish the Missouri, this fish would just be another catch, an average size for this river. But for me, the biggest trout on the Mighty Mo' and it came righteously deserved after a solid year of fishing it. I was victorious!
After studying the beauty for a minute, I gently released her back to the water. I regained my composure and cast right back out to the same deep, slow moving water to the fish rising madly to the midge hatch. A cast or two later and another fish had rapidly inhaled the midge again. This was another heavy fish and he was ready to fight. He rose to the surface ferociously and danced wildly with passion across the surface. Rainbow I thought, but as I tugged him up to the bank, it was a plump whitefish, and a brute he was! A solid 18 inches and a chubby pot belly on him. I was blown away at the size of these fish!
The whole setup I was fishing with was actually working just as I had hoped. A simple yet ingenious and powerful solution. Attract 'em to the surface, and hook 'em on the emerger pattern below. I released the rocky mountain bone, and another half dozen or casts later and I finally had a brown snatch the dry fly! He was about 15 inches, but a tough little guy. I was ecstatic he had taken the large fly on the surface. It's a great feeling to accomplish in winter!
The hatch was beginning to die down as the rise forms on the surface began to dissipate and become very few and far between. About 40 minutes had passed during all this and Dave had just reached the area I was in. As I was explaining to him what had just happened, I felt another tug at the end of my drifting flies. Another medium sized brown was the culprit as I brought him to the net just in time to show Dave. I quickly released him and moved aside in order for Dave to have a shot a the end of the frenzy. It was bad luck, and just plain ole' bad timing on Dave's part as not a single rise or bite occurred since the moment of his arrival. The "window" had completely closed. Matter of fact, it had slammed shut! We fished most of the area for another couple of hours without seeing a single rise or hatch. It's funny how fishing can turn on and off at the flick of a switch.
We headed back to the truck, ate some lunch and decided to head over to the Jackson Rock area. We noticed 2 or 3 drift boats anchored in the area, hoping it was a sign that the fishing was good. To change it up, we decided to chuck some streamers against the banks, and through the deep runs. I chose to use a bright white and red sculpzilla pattern and Dave went with an olive wooly bugger. Another good hour passed of chucking and ducking, stripping and swinging with no hits, it was time to pack it up and head out.
The day was very exciting early on and I caught the most fish I ever have on the Missouri River. I felt like I was on Belt Creek on a nice Spring/Summer day casting to risers with attractors! It was a blast! I had hoped Dave would have hooked into a few, but for him, he was just happy to have gotten out on such a beautiful day.
The Missouri River, for me, is a tough fishery, and I'm sure I will spend most of my life trying to figure out how to catch fish from it. For a moment in time that day, she opened herself to me, giving me the satisfaction I yearn for and the fuel to keep me coming back over and over again. As it usually goes, I'll fall into a fish-less slump for awhile, but this experience has only fired me up to work harder to catch more and more fish, and ultimately has given me hope to land the fish made of dreams!
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