Yellowstone River - Emigrant - February 2016
Yellowstone River – Emigrant – February 2016

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

It is mid-February, February 11th, 2016 to be exact. Here in SW Montana we’ve had five straight days of 40+ degree mild weather. Many of our overnight lows stayed above the freezing mark. When Bozeman’s February daily mean temperature is 25° and the average lows around 15°, a week in the 40s is a heat wave. Heat waves in mid-February have consequences, good and bad. The fly shops and outfitters are seeing renewed interest. A few are actually running guide trips on the Madison River. Of course the rivers are free of ice and in most places the shelf ice along the shoreline is gone or inconsequential. The waters are low and clear, albeit still very cold.

In the field of horticulture, the term “False Spring” has negative connotations. Although it rarely affects native plants, if the weather warms too much, too early, it can trick some garden plants into believing spring has sprung. They sprout early, only to be severely damaged by the inevitable cold and frost to follow. Just to check the theory out, in my garden, the warmer weather, plus to proximately to the south side of the house has several Iceland poppies behaving as if it was late March not mid-February. Brave souls they are.

Although the days are still short, this week of warm, mild weather was very comfortable. So comfortable in fact, that I decided to go fishing. This was not an idle decision. Forty degrees is still cold and water that’s barely above the freezing level isn’t the most comfortable of environments to stand in for any length of time. I decided to head over to one of my favorite spots on the Yellowstone near Emigrant, MT. There’s lots of braided water and for the most part easy wading/paddling with the kayak and nothing really difficult to navigate. With low, clear water, about 900CFS, there would be a lot of riffle buckets easily accessible on foot with the kayak at hand. Had this been early April, it might have taken me 15-30 minutes to get ready, load up and go, but no so in mid-February. The last opportunity I had to fish in SW Montana was late September (September 20th to be exact). Work commitments pretty much eliminated any opportunity to get a lot of fishing done in October (I did make it into the park twice in October so all was not lost). As hard as I might try, it never seems like I get everything organized and put away (where I can find it) at the end of the season. So the start of the new season brings along some challenges. I encountered a number of those on this mid-February “False Spring”.

I am somewhat a realist, so my expectations for this short day of fishing were limited. Catching trout in freezing water is not like the glory days of summer. You really have to work for them. But this trip did offer me the opportunity to do I couple of things I really wanted and needed to do. One, I really wanted to get on the water and practice some of the switch/Spey casting I had learned last year. You really need moving water to do it justice, so the spot I chose on the Yellowstone was ideal. I had only had my 11’ 6 weight switch rod on the water once before and I needed to get comfortable with it using the kayak before summer. Two, my recent adventure into tying tube flies needed some on-the-water testing. I had accumulated a sufficient stock of nymphs and streamers on tubes that it was time I started using them.

Brooks Stone on Tube with TMC306BL Hook
Brooks Stone on Tube with TMC306BL Hook

My goal was to get out of the house about 9:30 AM and on the river by 10:15 or so. So after waking up and getting a bit of business out of the way, I started what I thought was going to be the easy stuff—the flies, fly rods and assorted other small gear. I’d been tying flies all winter and they still lacked some organization for the coming season. But overall, gathering enough flies for a winter day wasn’t difficult. All that went reasonably well until I started hunting for some fly reels. I was taking along my 5 weight XP and quickly located two reels ready to go with a nymph line and a sink tip. Once they were in the dry bag, I needed to pack up the reel and extra spool that held the switch rod lines. I knew (well I thought I knew) exactly what I was looking for—a #4 Ross Evolution LT Green and a #4 spare spool. They both should have been in their blue Ross neoprene cases. Of course in my mind, that’s where I last remembered them. They weren’t where they were supposed to be and I couldn’t find them anywhere in my gear room and garage. Having searched everywhere, in every bag, shelf and box a number of times; I experienced a bit of panic as to their whereabouts. Without them, I could not practice my switch casting and more importantly we were talking about $600+ of fly reels and line. For whatever reason after searching everywhere at least trice, my attention was drawn to the 20 or so fly line boxes that sit high on a shelf. Most are new unused lines, but some are used as I switch out lines on some reels occasionally. I had found the switch lines. At some time, last year (a moment that did not find any residence in my brain), I had removed the switch lines from the Ross Evolution LT reel and spare spool and replaced it with something else. Mystery solved, I had lost neither line nor reel, but unfortunately they weren’t quite ready to go. It took me about 15 minutes to get one of the switch lines spooled up ready to fish (after losing 30 minutes just looking for it).

Easy wading up the deep west bank
Easy wading up the deep west bank

Finally, I had all the inside stuff organized, so now it was time to load up the kayak, PFD, waders and such. Not much trouble, they are all usually handy in the garage. Well not all this time. I had taken my waders to Simms for a small repair at the end of the season. Of course I got them back quickly in good order in the nice Simms box they come in. But where was that box. Another search ate up a few minutes and of course I had to round up and attach the zingers, clippers and forceps I use before I could load up the waders. Well, to make a long story short, by the time I had got the cold weather clothes on, all the gear loaded up and out the door it was near 10:45 AM. I was on the water about 11:45 well beyond what I had planned.

I found the river low and clear. The skies were partly cloudy and there was (as is normal) a manageable but brisk downriver wind. I was glad I had dressed warmly. I made my way up the edge of the first big pool, tied on a tube streamer and started with the switch casting. Competent, but I still needed a lot of practice and more lessons. I worked the pool from head to tail out without a bite. I had no great expectation of one, but I suspect my tip was not heavy enough as the swinging fly rarely touched bottom. In my haste (or confusion) in gearing up, I had forgot to bring along alternative tips. The tube fly worked fine with the exception that my junction tubes need some work to match up with my hook choices—good lesson learned. I then made my way across the river in the kayak to the deeper side of the pool and what I knew to be some good year round holding water. With the 5 weight rigged with a nymph indicator line, a copper john trailing a large tube Brooks stone I worked my way up the edge of the pool. At the head in the riffle bucket, four whitefish came to hand on the Brooks stone. To my delight, tube flies work.

Mid-river gravel bar - deep channel on east side (left)
Mid-river gravel bar – deep channel on east side (left)

As I worked my way up to the next big pool, the sun came out and the wind stopped. A few midges started to appear on the surface. I was now overdressed and needed to shed some outwear to stay comfortable. At the head of the pool is a mid-river bar, rarely exposed except during the low water of winter. The channel on the east side of the bar has the most flow, is deep and is great place for streamers. I practiced a bit more switch casting without any hookups but did manage a fat 14” brown at the head of the pool on the Brooks stone. By 3:30PM, the sun was dropping fast in the southern sky and the clouds echoing the on-coming drop in temperature and poorer visibility. Fishing days are short during a “False Spring”.

The few fish I caught were a bonus and an earlier than normal entry into my Montana fishing log. It was just good to get out on the water and fish again. But this was a “False Spring”. It is unlikely to continue and it will be at least a month before anything like a normal season can start. But it did, like the horticulturalists observe, trick me into preparing for the season early. My gear is a bit more organized and I know where my switch lines are. I learned that a least one of my tube fly patterns work and that I need some work on my streamer junction tubes. All good in the scheme of things. Maybe the next time I hit the river, it won’t be a “False Spring” but the real thing. I’ll be ready whenever it comes.

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