It is indeed possible to find solitude and willing native rainbows on dries within an hour of Portland. There are worse ways to kill time on a Saturday evening.
Well, this is where the “beyond” part of my tagline comes in. This post is a couple of weeks overdue. My significant other and I had the pleasure of visiting the Missoula area during the last week of June. While fishing was not the sole purpose of the trip, I had several opportunities to get on the water.
The common theme for water levels everywhere was “high.” Like Oregon, Montana was blessed with a strong snowpack, which had all of the area drainages swollen, but dropping. Based on some internet research prior to leaving, I came packed lean and mean with three fly boxes: A nymph box with some San Juan worms, Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails, Stonefly nymphs, a streamer box with assorted colors of Zonkers/Muddlers, and a box containing my entire arsenal of dry flies. Epic dry fly fishing seems to be something that is pushed by the local fly shops. I did not find that to be the case, but I’m sure a lot of that had to do with water conditions.
Nevertheless, I have a lot of experience fishing high, off-color water for steelhead and during my Crooked River guiding days. Channeling my old guide strategies turned out to be key on two of the three streams I fished.
The first water I fished was the “Big” Blackfoot. The river of The Book and The Movie, you know what I’m talking about (yes, I’m aware the movie was actually filmed on the Gallatin). After a day of sightseeing and accidentally traveling up roads that took my little Toyota Corolla to the limit, we found a fishing access site on the way back to Missoula. It was perfect timing as all the rafters were taking out and the canyon was slowly becoming enveloped in shadows.
I didn’t have much time to fish on this evening, perhaps an hour or so. The water was up in the streamside bushes and a tad off-color, maybe 25% less brown than the Crooked but similar visibility overall. There was a cacophony of insects fluttering about, including mayflies, caddis, and a few golden stones. Nonetheless, I did not see any fish rising. I set to work nymphing a Prince/San Juan combo in the soft riffles near the bank, wading shallow, anywhere from the soles of my shoes up to my ankles. I was soon rewarded with some nice rainbows:
The golden stones fluttering around finally got the best of me, and I tied on a small Chubby Chernobyl to see if I could entice anybody to rise. In 15-20 mins or so I had several fish rise to it, but couldn’t get any to stick. Oh well. That was the extent of my dry fly action in Montana.
The next fishing opportunity I had was on Kootenai Creek, just south of Missoula. This is a tributary of the Bitterroot and a key spawning/rearing trib for Westslope Cutthroat. The goal of this adventure was not fishing, but a day hike in a scenic canyon. Perhaps 30-45 mins of total fishing was done as we worked our way down the trail. We went early in hopes of beating the heat, this was during the heat wave that beat down the entire west coast. Things didn’t get quite as hot in Montana, but did reach into the mid-low 90s for several straight days during our visit.
The creek was raging with snowmelt:
Being a swollen stream in a canyon, access points were few and far between along the trail. When there was access, it was often on water too raging to hold fish. The key was to find backeddies off to the side of the whitewater. A beadhead Pheasant tail under an indicator, allowed to swirl around and around in the eddy indefinitely until the indicator went under, was the trick on this day. Several beautiful little cutthroats came to hand during my limited fishing time.
My third and final fishing stop was Rock Creek, east of Missoula and regarded as one of Montana’s finest trout streams. Continuing the theme, Rock Creek was high, but running clear and quite beautiful.
Reading the online literature and local fishing reports, I was led to believe that Rock Creek was packed full of large, hungry browns and rainbows. Once I returned home, I read that many of these fish tend to occupy deep pools and slots around the many boulder fields in the creek. I fished some of this water to no avail, then started hooking many feisty 8-12″ rainbows by again wading in up to my ankles at the deepest and focusing on soft riffles near the bank. None of them wanted to pose for a photograph, all choosing to wiggle off as I was trying to unhook them, which is fine by me.
Perhaps I was missing out on the bigger fish by fishing shallower and not putting more effort into plying the depths. Or perhaps the average Rock Creek trout is exaggerated. Maybe a combination. Regardless, I had an enjoyable day in a beautiful setting. Same goes for the entire trip, and not just the fishing.
After spending all of 2017 thus far unsuccessfully chasing steelhead, this past weekend I decided to dust off the float tube and head out to Henry Hagg Lake in hopes of finding some stocked rainbows and smallmouth bass.
I wound up catching several recently-stocked rainbows…and a small but scrappy bass (pics below). There was a bass tournament on the lake and it sounds like the action was glacial slow, so I feel accomplished to even catch the one. Last year, on this same day, I had outstanding bass fishing in this same area. However, the water temp last year was 61F, today was 8 degrees cooler at 53. Ideal trout temp but we could use a few warm days strung together to get the bass moving.
It was one of those days where any fly I tied on drew a strike here or there, but I couldn’t find anything that got consistent action. Bank anglers were doing better than me for the most part. Looked like power bait off the bottom was the meal of the day.
Great day to be on this earth however, got the skunk off and avoided getting rained on!
To warmer days and tighter lines in the near future…
In 2014 I moved to Portland from Corvallis. Corvallis is centrally-located and 45 mins from the coast, making for an easy trip to countless winter steelhead rivers. The past two winters I essentially went on indefinite hiatus from steelhead, while I adjusted to a new job, city, and living situation. Successful steelheading requires dedication that I just didn’t have at the time. This is doubly-true when you move and have to learn new water. Trout and bass are more plentiful and easier to catch when time is short.
This winter I felt the pull of the “dark side” too great to ignore. I’m still primarily limited to being a weekend warrior, but I was able to get out on the water quite a bit despite season-long high-water conditions. I have been striving to learn the steelhead water in close proximity to the metro area, and have found one particular stretch that looks too fishy to not keep coming back.
Unfortunately, high water, low water temps, and low fish counts were a huge disadvantage this year. Also, while I’m not above breaking out a bobber rod and some beads in order to catch steelhead, the water I’ve been fishing just screams to swing flies.
While I’m fishless (so far…some winters around and summers on the way), I was gradually able to shake off a large accumulation of rust. Earlier this season, it was like I had forgotten how to spey cast. Through a combination of making some gear tweaks/upgrades and simply getting back into the casting groove, by my last trip I felt like I was covering water more efficiently than ever before.
Adjustments I made this season:
1.) Switched to mono running line (Berkley Big Game 40lb, Solar Green). I’ve tried many different kinds of running lines. Ridge line. Gripshooter. E.L.F. Amnesia. I’ve had gripes with all of them. The nylon/PVC lines twist and tangle too much, and drag on the water. The Gripshooter was too thin to handle well, and the “grip” portion was unnecessary for my casting style. I love the way the mono Amnesia shoots, but for its name it sure has a lot of memory, even after a good stretch. I found a lot of people online talking about Berkley Big Game 40lb, in the bright solar green color. You can get a 350 yard spool at Wal-Mart for $6, enough to spool my two spey reels multiple times over. So I figured why not? This stuff is the best running line I’ve ever used. Shoots great, practically glows so you can track your swing, and has little/no memory right off the spool, I haven’t even bothered to stretch it. You can see it in action in my video.
One downside about mono running lines is the loop/loop connection with your head, you can’t weld a smooth connection like PVC lines. I made a loop using 2x double-surgeon’s knots to attach my head. The connection seems strong, and it does slide through the guides pretty well even if it’s a bit noisy.
I know there are companies selling spey-specific mono running lines as well. Those may be even better, but for the price I would recommend trying the Big Game first.
2.) Switched both my rods to short skagit heads. I built both my two-handed rods using inexpensive blanks that were well-regarded in the spey community. The first rod I built was back in 2007, a Forecast 11’6″ 6/7 weight spey, known on the internet as the “Blue Boy.” The second rod I built two years later is a 10’8″ Rainshadow switch rod, which is rated as a 7 weight using single-hand parameters.
I’ve heard a saying among spey fishermen that there are no bad rods, only bad lines. I’ve definitely come to know that properly lining a two-handed rod to one’s taste involves a good deal of trial and error.
I built these rods back in the day not long ago when your average spey rod was 13-15 feet, and skagit lines had just burst on the scene. My first line for the Blue Boy was an Airflo Northwest Skagit head (475 grains, 32 feet) with their ridge running line. While I caught a lot of fish on this setup, I could just never get my casting consistent enough for my liking. I tried several other lines subsequently and still never found the perfect fit. I’ve also tried several lines on the Rainshadow switch, which I originally intended to be a nymphing stick. I tried overlining with a salmon-steelhead taper line, and a custom nymphing line similar in concept to the Speydicator and other similar switch lines. Again, I could catch fish with them, but I felt I could do better. This rod is very soft and slow, and I started to wonder if it might be better served being used as a trout and summer steelhead swinging rod.
I first tried the 350 grain Rio skagit max short (20 feet) on the switch rod and couldn’t believe how easy it was to cast. After a day this winter hacking away with my Blue Boy and that old NW skagit head, I decided to upgrade that setup as well. I found a great deal on a 500 grain skagit max short, and paired with the Berkley Big Game running line, the Blue Boy is casting better than ever. Now just need to find a willing steelhead…
3.) Marabou tube intruders. I came of age swinging for steelhead when rabbit flies were all the rage: articulated leeches, string leeches, MOALS, and the like. While effective, those flies cast like a wet dish rag and I never felt right fishing what seemed like an entire dead rabbit at the end of my line. I became interested in tube flies because I’m constantly nicking bottom and having to sharpen hooks. I like the idea of being able to switch out for a fresh hook at will. I first tried tying rabbit leeches on tubes, which are effective, but this year been tying and fishing simple marabou intruder patterns. As you can see in the video, they have a similar profile to rabbit flies and I think even more movement.
Hopefully my next report includes fish 🙂
Thank you for checking out my rebooted blog, “Fly Fishing with Doctor Dan”! This site is still a work in progress, and I encourage you to check back often for new developments.
Allow me to re-introduce myself: My name is Dan Coleman, I currently reside in Portland, Oregon. By day I work as a scientist in a prostate cancer research laboratory. I grew up in the Bend, Oregon area and have lived in several different parts of the state over the past 15 years. I have 25 years of fly fishing experience, ranging from catching bluegill in small ponds to battling mighty salmon and steelhead in our coastal waters.
I originally launched this blog a year ago as “The Stillwater Fly Fishing Journal.” I initially wanted to carve out a niche on the internet by focusing on fly fishing lakes and ponds, which is one of my favorite pastimes. However, I realized in the past year that there’s many other types of fly fishing I like to do. I love small stream fishing in the mountains during hot summer days, and have been a steelhead and spey fishing junkie for a decade. I figured why limit myself? From now on I plan to share all of my adventures, as well as my various tinkerings with tackle and fly tying when I’m not on the water. When I was a poor grad student I became quite adept at identifying ways to be budget-friendly in what can be a very pricey hobby. That’s a habit I’ve kept up and I hope to share with you how to have fun with far less than an $800 Sage rod (i.e. you can find some amazing $20 rods out there!!!). By not focusing on one facet of my fishing activity, I hope this will result in more posts and broader appeal to the fly fishing community.
A year after my initial launch, I’m still learning how to navigate WordPress and plan to add new features. Computer savvy is something I’m not, so please be patient as I continue to build my blog.
I hope you will follow along in my adventures, share some of your own, and perhaps pick up a thing or two that will make you a better fly angler.
In lieu of fishing the past couple of weeks I’ve had to make due by spending some time at the vise. This all-black Craft Fur Clouser is big, dark, and mysterious with a lot of motion and a little sparkle. Wonder what some big browns or smallmouth will think of it? Can’t wait to try it out!
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve checked in. Busy times at work, unfavorable weather, and the crowded Memorial Day weekend have made it difficult to make it back out on the water. I hope to beat this heat wave we’re having in Portland and explore some water up near Mt. Hood tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’ve finally got around to playing around with WordPress and adding features to the site. At the top of this page I’ve added a link to my “About Me” page, and have created a page (also linked at the top of this page) to share some of my favorite stillwater fly patterns. Hope everyone out there has been catching some fish!