A tiny wire, a few feathers and a helping hand

fly fishing

A few years back, I took some time to explore the Gallatin River near Bozeman, Montana in the hopes of doing a little fly fishing. It was mid-season and the pressure was surprisingly non-existent.

Born in the high-country of Yellowstone, the Gallatin flows over one hundred miles to join the Jefferson and Madison Rivers to form the Missouri Headwaters. As you would expect, the scenery is breathtaking and the air as crisp as autumn’s first apples.

I was alone on the banks and scouting the shoreline. I kept a watch on the surroundings because the area is also known to be inhabited by big animals, the kind that don’t like to be surprised by interlopers. While they generally aren’t looking for a fight, they’re also not the type to run if they feel their young are threatened.

That heightened awareness is exhilarating. The senses sharpen, making nature’s movements more noticeable, the azure sky more brilliant while the river magically transforms into a flickering blanket of jewels with even more beautiful secrets gliding just beneath the shimmer.

As I approached the bank, the first thing I saw was the dimpled water of trout surfacing to feed. Not two, or six but dozens of little rippling ringlets where browns and rainbows kissed the surface as they sipped in another floating bug. “This should be fun,” I thought, or maybe I said it aloud.

Waders pulled up, I stood at the bank for a few minutes as I watched the plot unfold. Even a novice like me could see how nature had prepared the trout’s meal. Swarms of caddisflies were hovering over the water, landing on my rod and the brim of my Ohio State hat. The obvious answer was to tie on an elk wing caddis dry fly and begin catching fish.

Before going, Dick Sicliano, a well-seasoned fly caster who lived near Burton, Ohio, had told me three things to expect when on a western stream that were becoming all too evident. “First, there will be more trout within casting distance than you will see all day in Michigan. Second, those fish can prove to be more elusive than a last-minute prom date.”

And so, it began: cast upstream of a rising fish and watch as the fly drifts through the disappearing rings, then it continues its travel past other rippled dimples. I mend the line to extend the drift then pick-up and recast upstream to another feeding fish. My caddis gets no interest while one of the live bugs lands on my hand. I carefully examine it.

The color of my elk winged imitation seemed almost perfect but maybe a little too big. I change to a different size and begin the exercise again. Cast, drift, mend, re-cast. Nothing. Change of color. Nothing. Change size again. Nothing.

I’d never fly fished a western river and it was nothing like the magazines and books had described. It was better, and it was somehow worse. Being more accustomed to tossing to eager Ohio bass, and apparently less picky Michigan and Pennsylvania trout, this water was different. To me, it had somehow transformed into a beautiful vault dedicated to guarding its treasures.

I saw movement above the bank across from me. A waddling shape in the weeded edge evolved into a chubby beaver who slipped into the Gallatin and swam downstream with little regard for my building bewilderment. That’s when I spotted a lone angler some distance away.

I hadn’t noticed him before and I watched as he landed a leaping trout. “Lucky,” I thought. I recast and was following the drift when I glanced back and watched another jumper at the end of the lone angler’s line. Two hours had evaporated and I’d still not interested one fish. The lone angler had netted two in less than fifteen minutes… make that three.

I stopped fishing and began watching the rings of the rise and the flitting insects for additional evidence. There were a few spent flies floating on the surface so I changed patterns but the results remained the same. A glance up catches the lone fisherman’s rod bent as he connects with another. An hour seemed to quickly crawl, it was around my watch dial.

I was looking into my fly box which had turned into an indecipherable puzzle when someone said behind me, “How are you doing?” I stumbled on hidden stones as I turned and felt like the novice I was. The lone angler stood above me and he wasn’t what I’d imagined. While too many fly fishers look like they should be posing for an Orvis poster, this guy was far from that.

Likely in his seventies, he sported patched waders and a faded, green fishing vest. His rod bore a well-worn Akron, Ohio made Phlueger Medalist reel. Of all the hats in the world, he was wearing the big yellow M on the blue background of the University of Michigan. “A couple of maybes but no takers,” I exaggerated.

“Mind if I watch a bit?” he asked. I nodded as I pulled up my line. A few minutes and as many empty casts and disinterested fish later, I was once again exploring my fly collection. He asked “What do you see on the water?”

A little puzzled by the question. “Lots of rising fish and lots of caddis but I just can’t get them to hit,” I confessed with some embarrassment. He’d been fiddling with a briar pipe and stuck it between his teeth. He got up and reached down to me.

“You aren’t seeing fish sipping the bugs off the surface. You’re seeing their tails breaking as they stand on their heads to feed on emerging nymphs,” he explained. I reached up and he handed me a half-dozen nymph patterns. “Zug Bugs. I added the beads and they’re weighted. Cast them upstream and let them drift while picking up your rod tip now and then.” First cast, first fish.

He sat back and watched as I caught two more fish with four casts. He slowly rose, picked up his rod and told me to have fun and that he had to get back. With that he smiled and said, “Go Bucks.”

I looked back with a kid’s grin and replied, “Go Blue.” Oh… and the third thing that my old friend Dick had told me prior to that journey west, “You will never forget a minute.”

“Never underestimate the difference you can make in the lives of others. Step forward, reach out and help. This week reach to someone that might need a lift.”

– Pablo

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Jim Abrams was raised in rural Columbiana County, earning a wildlife management degree from Hocking College. He spent nearly 36 years with the Department of Natural Resources, most of which was as a wildlife officer. He enjoys hunting, fly fishing, training his dogs, managing his property for wildlife and spending time with his wife Colleen. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via e-mail at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com.



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