Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Cresting Bozeman Pass, the Absaroka Range comes into view
Cresting Bozeman Pass, the Absaroka Range comes into view

It’s March 6th, 2015. I am in my 68th year. My last cast was sometime in late November 2014. I missed the opportunity to fish some extremely warm and pleasant February days because my waders were at Simms for repair. Last week Simms graciously replaced my tattered 4 year old waders with a new pair free. My angst of not having a pair of waders ready to go was assuaged. Two weeks of extremely cold weather and snow had dampened any initiative to get out on the water. New waders and warmer weather sparked the lust for time on the water. It’s Friday. I don’t have any commitments and the daytime temps are going to hit the low 50s. I wake up and commit to a trip to the Yellowstone.

Early starts provide no rewards in March. It was 20 degrees at dawn on March 6th, but I was committed. I left the house around noon, taking most of the morning assembling the various pieces of gear I’d use that day. It’s tragic how one forgets where things are over the course of winter. I loaded up the kayak and the rods I would need. I put at least 6 fly boxes in the dry bag knowing I’d only use a few. We live west of downtown Bozeman, so a stop at the favorite fly shop was on the way. Justin hadn’t heard anything about the Yellowstone for several weeks. I was on my own.

Late winter in SW Montana is spectacular. The snow covered mountains and subtle browns and golds of the valleys make for dynamic views no matter where you drive. As I headed East over Bozeman Pass, I cranked up the blue tooth speaker with my favorite big movie themes, especially those that impart a sense of grandeur and excitement. As I was passing Trail Creek, the early route to the Yellowstone, I was listening to John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach Theme, seminal music that established the sounds of the 100s of western movies that followed. As you crest Bozeman Pass, crossing the divide between the Gallatin and Bridger mountain ranges, the Absaroka’s and Crazy mountain ranges come into view. They will be part of the rest of my day. As I drive up the Paradise Valley, 100s of deer, elk, mountain sheep and antelope dot the valley. Cattle are calving and tiny calves almost outnumber adults.

Number 1 of the 2015 season
Number 1 of the 2015 season

I reach my destination at Emigrant, about halfway up the Paradise Valley. The river is low, about as low as it gets during any given season. Just under 1000 CFS, the low water exposes mid-stream gravel bars and allows access to some great shoreline water inaccessible (except by floaters) during normal flows. I crossed the river from the put in and started fishing some stone fly nymphs along a deep woody bank. A somewhat skinny 12” brown became the first fish of the 2015 season. Over the next 6 weeks this bank will become too deep and fast to wade as the flows slowly rise. However for as long as the flows stay under 1500, this little honey hole will produce fish.

Ice is still about in early March
Ice is still about in early March

As I work my way up river, through   several shallow riffle corners I connect with a couple of whitefish and miss another trout. Midges are everywhere, but few fish are rising to them. Although it’s now in the low 50s, the sun is warm and my exertion makes me wonder if I had over dressed for the occasion. The water is still pretty cold, and there’s still a fair amount of shore ice and occasional slush mid-river. My feet are holding on so wading out into the deeper currents to find fish isn’t that uncomfortable.

Emigrant Peak
Emigrant Peak

I won’t go too far upstream today as the low water creates plenty of good spots close to the put in, especially those mid-river gravel bars. After fishing the seams and gravel bars on the west side of the river, I float back to the start of the big rip rap wall on the east side. This is another bank that is only wade-able during low water. I connect with three more browns and several whitefish as I work my way up this bank. The clock is approaching 4 PM and the sun is sliding behind clouds and the Gallatin Range. It’s cooling off and as the wind picks up a bit, I decide I didn’t overdress. For three great hours I fished in surroundings that are to say the least, impressive. I was a bit stiff getting in and out of the kayak, my casting was a bit rusty and my knot tying suffered in the cold, but I had broken the ice. The 2015 fishing season was underway. I will visit this stretch of river many times before winter shuts things down again next November. Emigrant Peak, named for the nearby Emigrant Gulch, an 1863-66 gold camp, will always be there. The peak hovers over the river changing subtlety through the season as snow comes and goes; and daily as the sun and clouds bath its slopes. Framed by willows and cottonwoods that change from brown to green to gold as the season progresses, the peak is a landmark that can’t be ignored, no matter how good the fishing it. Today’s fish tally was 400% better than my first day last year. Whether that bodes well for the season remains to be seen. Numbers don’t really matter with scenery like this. Whatever the season holds, the first day this year was memorable.

South end of Paradise Valley in February 2015 - Crazy Mountains in the distance (upper left), Emigrant Peak (center top).
South end of Paradise Valley, February 2015 – Crazy Mountains in the distance (upper left), Emigrant Peak (center top).

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