November 15th, 1999

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories. . .


By Bruce Ball

Madison River When I speak of rivers I don't mean big, flat featureless rivers like the lower Clark Fork or the lower Madison. Those waters have never fascinated me the way smaller water does. Sure, I'd like to know their secrets, but they intimidate me far too much to be fun.

When I pray to rivers I'm addressing the St. Joe or the upper Kings or even the Yakima, rivers I can wade, rivers I can feel. All rivers are mysterious, but those big flat bank-to-bank sheets of water are just too mysterious for me. I like a mystery I can solve.

I like creeks, too, but some of them are so small they're obvious, even too easy for the unimaginative. Those little trickles as wide as my bed don't hold my interest for long. The fish are too easy to find and they're usually pretty stupid, which means I catch a lot. That's not the point.

Some creeks and rivers are misnamed, like Montana's Rock Creek. Sure, there are parts of Rock Creek that deserve the title, but there are plenty more stretches that should be Rock River. I like Rock Creek for that reason. Many rivers deserve to be called creeks, of course, so map names don't mean a hell of a lot. I think anyone who has put in hours on moving water knows the difference between a creek and a river, and most of us don't have to figure out what we're on until someone asks us where we were. You better know what the maps say, then, or you'll look like a fool.

I suppose it's that mix of water types, a river I can hear when I'm in my tent at night, a swish of white washing oxygen out of the sharp black air. I can hear it above the cackle and sigh of the campfire or the floomph and drumbeats of the tent when the wind is up. White noise, they call it, an amalgam of all the frequencies available to us humans. I like that phrase. White Noise. When I wake in the morning and walk stiff-jointed to the water I can see the White Noise.

It helps, too, that the smaller rivers have few boats on them. A boat or raft sliding through the run reminds me of my limited options. I also resent those that can reach places I can't. Then, of course, there are slobs that drift unconcerned over the lie I'm fishing and then ask if I'm doing any good. I don't wear a sidearm; I don't trust myself to answer with the low civility I feel at times like those.

Smaller water is easier to read and, therefore, easier to fish. I know; the guys that fish the bigger waters talk about breaking large rivers down into smaller segments. I've been on some large rivers and found that advice less than useless. Put me on the Columbia or the Snake and I don't know where to start. Its like fishing a new lake. Where? When? How? Without features and current seams I'm lost, and my record shows it.

So I stick to the things I know. This has always been an excellent strategy for me. Given a choice between the Big Hole and the Wise, I'll pick the Wise every time. I know I can't expect the Wise River to produce seven-pound browns but I also know that a couple of half-pound rainbows on the Wise beats a fat zero on the Big Hole. A pair beats a high card, every time.

Having said all that and admitted my prejudices, I can offer the following:

    1. Small water is better dry fly water. Maybe that is because small water has more fast-water holding and feeding lies, so the fish have less time to make up their minds. Whatever.

    2. Small water is easier to wade. I have rarely had the use of a boat. Wade fishing is more fun, I tell myself; more immediate and more intimate. The truth is I have seldom had the nerve or the money to pay somebody $250+ to row a boat for me. Ergo; I wade. I tend to work a spot too long and too hard, I wade with far less courage than I did years ago and I don't have the skills or gear to throw a hundred-foot cast across a river. So I work the nearby water I can reach with my limited talent and curse the drifting anglers that pick up fish as they glide by, waving their hellos and holding their fish - my fish - for me to admire. Bastards.

    3. Small water generally has less fish per mile but more fish per gallon than the big stuff. Therefore, there are more fish available to me. A river that is one-hundred-and-fifty-feet wide may have two thousand fish per mile, but they are all holding twelve feet off the far bank. My side of the river invariably has three fish per mile. Rock Creek, however, has sections that are only forty-five feet wide in which there are five hundred fish per mile. I can reach every one of them.

    4. There may be less fish per mile, but there are generally less fishermen per mile on smaller waters. The Bitterroot, an hour from Rock Creek, looks like a major RV sale in the summer. Rock Creek, on the other hand, is so sparsely populated during the 'in' season that it seems deserted, by contrast. I heard from a local who said he had avoids Rock Creek because of the crowds. Why, he wrote, there were a few weeks the last time he visited the river that he counted at least fifty cars along the river, and this on a week day. There are over forty miles of accessible water on Rock Creek. That's a lot of free water.

    5. The upper reaches of many famous big rivers are seldom visited by the trophy hunters. Remember, however, that all those big fish run up the river to spawn in those more hospitable stretches. There are some real surprises awaiting the adventurous fisherman far beyond the last put-in.

Rock Creek
That's enough. I know there are more arguments I can make, but those are sufficient for me. Leave me to my shorter casts, my smaller fish and my solitude. I'll envy you your guided floats and trophy fish, the cover picture of you and that eleven-pound brown. I'll applaud your success and good fortune and send another little Harrop emerger into a seam of the North Fork of the No-Name River for my twelfth cutthroat of the morning. ~ Bruce Ball

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