Above The Reservoir

I woke to wind buffeting the camper. At least it would help keep the skeeters at bay, despite adding another layer of challenge to the fishing. I drank tea sitting on a bluff overlooking the river, flowing fast and turbid through a narrow canyon below.

Slowly the others stirred to life and joined me.

“I think we should go above the reservoir,” she said. “If anything, it looks murkier down here than yesterday.”

We nodded agreement. I’d fished above the reservoir once before, ten or more years ago. A return would be welcome.

“I think I’ll wet wade,” I said, preferring to tackle the trail in hiking garb rather than waders, and wanting to keep the weight in my pack to a minimum.

Dust devils swirled across the gravel as we drove higher into the mountains. We stopped to drag a fresh deadfall from the road. We slowed for several bike riders heading the opposite direction, looks of grim determination on their faces. After a half hour we gained our first glimpse of the reservoir, studded with white caps, rollers breaking against the dam wall. Snow-capped peaks framed the skyline to the west. I pulled into a turn out and grabbed my phone to take a photo and a surge in the wind caught me off balance, almost setting me on my chuff.

“If nothing else, it’ll be a pleasant walk out and back,” opined the Optimist among us. Spending a good portion of his days on a fishing boat off the Alaskan coast, he came well qualified as a judge of gales and rollers.

The road terminated and we took to the trail leading toward the snow capped peaks. Feeder streams still ran high, necessitating seeking out places to cross where deadfall provided a bridge. The first mile kept to the trees before the trail emerged into more open country where we looked down upon a meadow a half-mile across that tapered toward the mountains.

The river snaked at speed through the meadow, willow and alder growing along its banks. From our vantage point, gentle holding water for fish appeared sparse. While the others elected to fish streamers, taking the need for a dead drift out of the equation I, ever the tragic, elected to attempt to fish with a dry fly.

Despite the wind I managed multiple good drifts close to undercut banks, to no avail. The first time I set foot into the water I regretted not having waders, my lower extremities getting an instant ice-cream headache for my troubles. Standing in one place for longer than thirty seconds invited loosing feeling in one’s feet.

For several hours we leap-frogged upstream, one fish hooked but not landed the sum total of our combined efforts. We sat on a bluff and took a late lunch. Across the far side of the valley a waterfall cascaded out of a rock fissure like a giant white veil. Elsewhere, a second waterfall remained frozen in a shaded crevice high in a granite buttress. Closer to where we sat, movement in a patch of alder along the riverbank betrayed a bull moose, ambling and feeding with the insouciance of one who knows size does in fact matter. Overhead, a juvenile bald eagle battled the updrafts, wings clumsy and uncoordinated, like a teenager struggling with a growth spurt.

By now the lure of the beer cooler back at camp began to outweigh the draw of what lay further upstream. I recalled a place I’d fished earlier, where my inattention had spooked a nice fish from it’s lie.

“I’m going to give that place one more shot on the way down,” I said. “Maybe the fish has come back.”

This time I approached the lie from upstream, wading thigh-deep across a narrow channel to the head of a gravel bar with a few inches of water flowing across its surface. At the bottom end of the gravel bar two flows co-joined, and in that seam the fish had earlier sat.

As I made my first cast, landing the streamer off to one side and letting the current swing it into the lie, I realized my walking across the gravel bar had stirred up muddy sediment that drifted inexorably toward the lie. I had time for three or four more casts before any surprise would be ruined.

Two casts later the rod jumped in my hand in response to an aggressive take. Tip high, I stripped line hard, not wanting to let the fish get into the cut bank or any further downstream. Soon, I held a chunky brown in one hand and slipped the hook from its mouth, to the applause of the peanut gallery.

An hour later, back on the bluff at camp, we sat with cold beer replacing morning’s caffeine.

“Told you it was a great day for a stroll in the high country,” reminded the Optimist.

In that I could brook no argument.


Run Coyote, Run

I climbed the small knoll to get a better view of the land ahead. The meadow in front of me was a patchwork of yellow, rust and green. No longer than a mile, a quarter-mile wide, it appeared shaped like a teardrop. A thin line of willows zigzagged across it, growing where the stream flowed its course. Several small beaver ponds reflected the brooding grey of the sky overhead. Thunder rolled once more, this time closer still.

Before the storm….

The storm that had been threatening on the far side of the Divide now spilled over into the valley. Low-slung clouds fingered down toward tree line, ghosting through the tops of the Engelmann. A single cloud detached from the mass and sagged ground-ward, shrouding the upper end of the meadow from view. The air temperature dropped noticeably. I turned to descend the knoll and seek out shelter when from the corner of my eye a blur of movement caught my attention.

A large coyote broke cover from the trees at the meadow’s edge and trotted leisurely across the grass with a distracted, sideways gait. I stood still, hoping my position downwind would keep me from being detected. Suddenly it stopped and turned in my general direction, nose high, sniffing the breeze, searching for the source of its discomfort. From a hundred yards, our eyes locked and we both stood motionless, eyeing each across the distance. After thirty seconds, the coyote turned and loped with urgency back to where it had first appeared, looking over its shoulder from time to time as it went before disappearing into the gloom of the spruce.

Fat raindrops were now spattering the hood of my jacket and thudding into the soft earth around me. A little way ahead a solitary spruce angled out over the stream. By the time I crawled under the umbrella-like shelter of its branches, the rain had turned to hail, pounding the surface of the stream a milky grey and accumulating in mushy clumps in the crevices and hollows of the meadow’s grasses. I unbuckled my pack and leaned back against the trunk while thunder rolled and my breath misted the cold fall air.

I broke a chunk of summer sausage, the same some cheese, and chewed in silence, feet dangling over the stream. On all sides of the meadow, the ground rose steeply like a giant amphitheater, the spruce its audience, packed close, silent and watchful. Standing atop the knoll before the hail came, I had been trying to imagine what it would have felt like to have been the first person to stand and take in that view, the little valley and its meadow so perfect and vulnerable, sheltered by the steepness and immensity of the mountains surrounding it.

What thoughts went through that person’s head, what motivation to be there in the first place? Somewhere to hide, to commune, a place to die, a place to make a stand or stake a claim? Did he or she marvel at its beauty, as I had, or was their intent more calculating — a place to unearth riches or harvest beaver or board feet of lumber? Or did they simply groan “Dammit, not more ****** mountains!”

And what of the first coyote? Had it known instinctively to turn and run, like its counterpart just had, sensing a shift in the balance of power, sensing that its world had irrevocably changed, that a new and dangerous serpent had entered the Garden? I wondered how many creatures in the past, two legs or four, had sheltered under this same spruce, how many other eyes had watched them, indeed were watching me, from the darkness of the surrounding forest.

After half an hour, the storm showed signs of lessening. The clouds still glowered over the mountain tops, rumbling their warning, but the hail had lightened to rain. I stuffed the remainder of my lunch in my pack. Deciding against continuing upstream, I crawled out from under the spruce and turned downstream away from the storm, leaving the coyote to its peace.


Struggle and survival on the Big Hole

Even from a distance of one hundred and fifty yards, it was evident the bird was large. Off on a shallow side channel away from the main flow, it appeared to be struggling with something unwieldy, lying half-concealed in the water. Several times the bird attempted to lift off, grasping whatever it was between its talons, with no success. From the far bank, concealed by a stand of cottonwoods along the river, came the cry of a second bird.
“That sounds like a bald eagle,” said Caveman. “The one downriver looks like a golden.”

October sunset on the Big Hole River, Montana.

We floated closer, silently hoping to get a better view of what it was the golden was struggling with. Upon our approach, the bird lifted off the water in a flurry of enormous wings, retreating to the outstretched limb of a bare cottonwood, where it alighted next to a second golden, stark against a flawless Montana sky.

From upstream came another cry, and we looked to see a bald eagle perched on the branch of another cottonwood fifty yards distant, facing the two goldens. More trash talking ensued between the two adversaries, squaring off like a couple of Wild West gunslingers at the opposite ends of Main Street, high noon.

The stand off continued for another thirty seconds before the bald, followed a second later by the golden, swooped down off their respective branches, the distance between them closing in a matter of seconds. It seemed the extra time the bald eagle had to prepare gave it the advantage of height and position in the initial contact. Suddenly, all was a whirl of extended talons, contorting bodies and flapping wings as they engaged in aerial combat. As quickly as it began, they disengaged, the golden swooping low then turning and retreating to its branch while the bald uttered a cry of apparent victory and flew off toward the spoils of war. A lone magpie, having taken advantage of the larger birds’ distraction, and pecking at whatever it was in the water, beat a hasty retreat as the bald settled on its prize.

“Do you want eddy out and go see what it was they were fighting over?”

I shook my head. “No, let them be.”

For the rest of the afternoon, as we cast dry flies to grassy banks and languid bubble lines, drifting toward a take out where my truck awaited with coolers of food and beer and warm sleeping bags, I thought of the struggle for survival we had just been privileged to witness, one of thousands of such dramas playing out daily in the natural world around us, and of the ties that bind us all, wings, fins, two legs or four.


The Rainbow, the Grasshopper and the Moose

Brian scratched his chin. “Well, we’ve got a couple of options. We could go down river, float below town. There’s probably some big browns moving up from the Yellowstone. Or, we could go up above the bridge. There’s a ranch up there, supposedly owned by Nationally Famous Person. If he’s there, he won’t be happy. I know a couple of guys who did it once. Had some guys waving shotguns, yelling at them.”

The Rainbow, the Grasshopper, and the Moose from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

Cave and I looked at each other. On the one hand, confrontation defeats the purpose. On the other, the rich and famous should never be allowed to intimidate the proletariat from pursuing their state sanctioned pleasures. We nodded. “Let’s go up river.”

“OK,” said Brian, “but I gotta warn you. The take out is a bitch. We’ll have to dismantle and drag our stuff up a cliff then haul it out on a game cart.”

The road upriver turned from blacktop to gravel, the meadows through which it ran festooned with barbed wire and No Trespassing signs. We turned down a narrow two track, the only side road without a gate across it, and bounced slowly down to the river. We slid the boat off the trailer into beautiful water, gin clear, its banks festooned with foliage in the throes of fall.

The fish lay invisible against the cobbles, or where they held in deeper water, it was the shadows they cast on the river bed that gave away their position, rather than the fish themselves. Long casts were the order of the day, and it felt right that, so late in October, we dressed in shirt sleeves and the rainbows rose to hoppers.

I was pleased to see that there was no sign of Nationally Famous Person attempting to impose his ego on the river itself – no feeders, no artificial structure designed to corral the fish, no oversized couch potatoes conditioned to rise mindlessly to anything landing on the surface, just wild fish in their element. And best of all, no shotguns, or cuss words, save those we served up ourselves during the normal course of a day spent angling.


What Happened To Summer?

It comes as a shock to realize that in a few short weeks, the mountainsides will be speckled with orange and gold. A subtle shift will have taken place in the tilt of the earth and in the tint of blue in the sky, and we will suddenly realize that summer, once again, has snuck by while we were busy making plans about how to spend it.

What Happened to Summer from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

To date it has been a great summer for the river and those who make their living from it, be they rafters, ranchers or fishing guides. For the latter, the season has not been without its challenges, particularly playing dodge ball with the pockets of discoloration that are the by-product of the frequent, intense rainfall we’ve been experiencing. Fortunately, with a hundred miles of river and multiple launch and take out options available, finding water sufficiently clear to fish has been relatively easy.

My take on murky water has always been that if you can see the rocks below the surface along the edges, then the fish too can see your fly if you place it there. A bit of murk means the luxury of fishing with heavier tippet, and being able to get away with less- than-textbook presentation. And the higher flows, while a challenge for shore based anglers, have been a blessing for those of us on the oars, with few rocks to dodge and lots of shore bank to fish to.

So even though summer seems to be rapidly vanishing over the horizon toward fall, there is still plenty of time, and good reason, to get out on the river and enjoy while the fun lasts.