Ah, mid-August and the dog days of summer. Early mornings in Montana's upper Yellowstone valley are touched with a slight chill of autumn cold as August begins to ripen under the summer's sun. The sun sleeps in a bit longer than it did in July and seems to tire out sooner, retiring behind the western horizon well before 9 o'clock. Each day it rises a bit later and goes to rest a few minutes earlier. It seems like it's burnt out for the year and needs to head south for some R&R.
August, September and October are some of my favorite months of the year in Montana. The days are characteristically clear and the sky is Montana blue. The daytime temperatures, especially by mid-September, are rarely too hot, the bugs that bite are gone, and the nights are refreshingly cool. The streams are low and clear; and the cooler weather puts the trout in a feeding mood as they prepare for what lies ahead.
Thus, on a recent August morning I fired up the old angling wagon, kissed my wife good-bye, and set out to pursue a morning of fishing on one of my favorite nearby streams. Unlike the days of yore I rarely fish from dawn to dusk. I prefer to believe that comes from the wisdom acquired by age but I suspect it comes from simply getting older. I have become to accustomed to afternoon naps.
I had planned to slip across the main channel of the Yellowstone River in my pontoon boat and fish a small side channel that I know rarely gets any attention this time of the year since you cannot float into it from the upper end. I have watched boat after boat float passed it and I have not seen a single one stop and explore the water on foot. The river frontage along the side channel is private and access by land is not an option.
Unfortunately, when I arrived the main river was the color of chocolate milk; the result of thunderstorms further down the valley that had turned some of the smaller creeks into brownish colored torrents. Forest fires have denuded many of the mountains and foothills along the upper Yellowstone drainage and streams that previously would never have carried mud now do so routinely whenever we get a good shot of moisture. Although I could see that the water in the side channel was clear, since it does not draw it's flow directly from the main river this time of year, I had forgotten to bring a life preserver and when you float in Montana, even with a pontoon boat or float tube, you are required to have a life preserver for each person. So it was time to go to plan B.
I have been blessed to enjoy unlimited access to some of our local spring creeks but I rarely exercise that privilege during the day when paying clients are fishing the streams. However, I have observed what I consider a unique phenomenon, when fishing these streams anglers tend to become herd animals. They all gravitate to a couple places on the stream and the bulk of the water rarely sees a single angler. Thus I am able, when I'm so inclined, to slip into one of those unfished places without competing with the paying customers.
Interestingly there are several sections of the creek that seldom see any anglers, even though they have just as many fish and are just as easy to wade as the sections that attract all the anglers. It was into one of these unfished sections that I chose to spend a couple hours on a beautiful mid-August day.
The water that I chose to fish consists of a short riffle at the top and a long medium depth pool opening up into a flat filled with narrow channels between the weed beds. This section of the creek flows through an open meadow with hay fields on both sides. In August this is an ideal place to ply a terrestrial pattern, especially when there are few aquatic insects hatching. Except for a few very small Baetis mayfly spinners that were dancing over the streamside grass there were no apparent aquatic insects to attract the attention of the trout.
Only an occasional rise was noted when I entered the water about halfway down the flat, and my initial fly of choice was a small Baetis spinner on the outside chance that the occasional riser was taking one of the spinners that I saw over the grass. I was ignored.
I noticed a very occasional light yellow mayfly dun emerging, perhaps a PMD or a sulphur dun, so I tried a small yellow dun pattern. Again, I was ignored.
A black flying ant pattern and a smaller red one were also ignored and I was beginning to think that this pleasant August morning was going to prove to be an exercise in casting. I scoured the water surface for any sign of life, but alas to no avail.
Since it was relatively calm and the air temperature was not very warm yet I did not see any grasshopper activity and the rises that I had noted did not lead me to believe that hoppers were the answer to my dilemma. I picked out a medium sized black beetle pattern and decided to see if that might prove of interest to the occasional risers. After a couple casts over a place where I had notice a rise I hooked and landed a small brown trout of about 12 inches in length. At least I was not going to be skunked. Several more casts failed to produce any more rises.
I had been wading slowly upstream casting to various spots when I noticed a tiny dimple right next to the left bank as I faced upstream. By mid-August the streamside grass hangs out over the stream and the banks are slightly undercut, providing a favorite place for trout to find security from overhead attacks from fish eating birds. It also affords the trout a steady supply of small terrestrial insects that fall from the overhanging vegetation. From this vantage point a trout can feed without attracting any attention.
To get a cast to this location I needed to drop the fly in an open pocket of water about the size of a small saucer. I shot my cast high above the bank and gave a sharp jerk on the line causing the leader to recoil and drop the fly right in the pocket. The beetle disappeared in a tiny dimple and when I lifted the rod I was hooked up with a solid fish. After a few runs and an attempt to take refuge in the weeds I slid the fish across the surface and into the net. It was a nice cutthroat which was about 14 inches long. It was my first cutthroat of the season.
After I released the cutthroat I fished my way on up to the base of the riffle but I did not move anymore fish. It was approaching noon and time to get back home. It had been a fun morning of doing what I enjoy in a place where I enjoy doing it. It doesn't get any better than that.