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It had been a hot day by Montana standards with the temperature rising to the mid-90's during the heat of the day. After dinner I poked around outside in the garden debating whether or not to take a drive out to my favorite water to see if, perchance, there might be some rising trout as evening descended upon Paradise Valley. The air temperature was still hovering in the upper 70's as it was approaching 7:30 pm but I decided that, even if there was no fishing at least it would be cooler near the water. I fired up the old fishing car and drove the short distance from home out to the creek.
I drove along the lower reaches of the creek without seeing much activity. When there are spinners or caddis ready to mate and return to the water they usually appear in clouds over the surrounding meadows, but tonight the air was devoid of anything but a few stray insects. A lone angler, a diehard from the daily throng of paying guests, was fishing just above the house pond as I drove by, but otherwise the creek was bereft of anglers. Given the apparent lack of aerial action I was not surprised.
I poked my way along admiring the green of the surrounding mountains but somewhat disturbed by the plume of smoke rising from our first forest fire of the summer season. A lighting storm a week ago had sparked a fire high up on the slopes of Emigrant Peak and the fire was slowly making its way through beetle-killed timber and the remnants of an old burn that occurred back in 1999.
The alfalfa fields along the bench were filled with small groups of white-tailed deer. There were many does with young fawns in tow and several respectable buck sporting racks still clothed in velvet. Flocks of birds, starlings and common grackles, were wheeling over the fields; a poignant reminder that, despite the fact that it was only the third week of July, the reality of the coming fall and winter season was already evident.
I dropped down off the bench into the stream bottom. Twin white-tail fawns, their first year spots still quite evident, were eating some of the grain that had fallen from the bird feeder next to the parking area. Several red-winged blackbirds that were also eating the grain protested my appearance with raucous calls. As entertaining as those things might have been my attention was riveted on the mayfly spinners that were dancing over the streamside vegetation. Perhaps I would find some fish rising on the long flat below Betty's riffle.
One of the advantages of having a vehicle that is designated as primarily a fishing car is that you can leave all of your fishing paraphernalia in one spot and you can keep your rod rigged and ready for action. It only took me a matter of a couple minutes to slip into my waders, check my vest for the required fly boxes and slip my rod from the overhead rack. Within five minutes of my arrival I was standing on the edge of the water.
The upper part of the flat below Betty's riffle
I stood watching the water for several minutes and there were a few sporadic rises up and down the length of the flat. I decided to concentrate on the top half of the flat hoping that as the twilight deepened that the bigger fish would move up out of the deeper water and feed in the shallower water nearer the riffle. The lower part of the flat is deep and the bottom is soft making wading a challenge. I prefer not to wade in that type of water when I am alone. [I like to think that I have become wiser but perhaps it's just because I'm old.]
Hoping that the spinners that I saw dancing over the meadow would begin to fall on the stream I tied on a size 18 rusty spinner; my favorite pattern during the evening spinner falls during the summer months on this water. There were a couple fish rising near where I entered the water and after a few casts I hooked a small brown trout. I missed a large fish but mostly my offering was ignored. Most of the rises were very sporadic and I suspected that they may have been feeding on subsurface fare rather than on floating flies.
I continued to check the surface of the water for floating insects without success. As the twilight continued to darken I was afraid that the spinners would not fall until after it was too dark to see but I continued to see an occasional rising fish. I glanced at my watch and noticed that it was 9 o'clock and I knew that, even here in Montana, I had about 30 or 40 more minutes of fishing before the approaching darkness would force me from the stream. I moved slowly upstream, closer to the tail of the riffle. There was one fish that seemed to be steadier than the other risers and when I dropped my spinner pattern just slightly upstream from his last rise I was rewarded with a solid take. The fish didn't show but slugged it out in a spirited and determined fight. When he finally rolled up and slid across the surface from the pressure of my rod I saw that it was a cutthroat, and what a cutthroat it was. The fish was thick and solid across the shoulders and I could not reach around him with my hand. The slash mark under his gills was fluorescent orange and as bright as any such mark as I ever remember witnessing. His back was dark brown and his body was covered with black spots. Although only about 14 or 15 inches long [I did not measure him] he was a very solid fish. I quickly slipped the hook from his jaw and, holding him upright in the current by his tail; he quickly recovered and shot away.
I dried and redressed my fly and, looking upstream, I could see the noses of several good fish that had started to rise. I worked into position to make a cast to the nearest riser and was almost immediately rewarded with a satisfying rise. When I raised my rod the fish exploded throwing itself out of the water and then shooting across the top of the flat and immediately jumping again parallel to where I was standing. I frantically stripped in line trying to regain control over the surging fish but when he jumped again I did not have time to drop the rod tip and he snapped the tippet.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. It was approaching 9:30, I did not have a light, and I needed to tie on a new tippet and a fly. I have old eyes to go with my old body and sometimes in low light situations that can be a problem. However, by putting on my glasses, getting out my clip on magnifiers and holding everything up toward the fading light of the sun I was able to tie an acceptable double overhand surgeons knot, get the tippet through the eye of the size 18 fly and secure it with a clinch knot. A drop of fly dressing and I was back in business.
In the fading light it was obvious that several more fish had started to feed. Although I did not see any spinners on the water I suspect that they were falling in the riffle and floating down to the waiting trout. I picked another riser, made a couple more casts, and by crouching down so that I could reduce the glare I could see my leader and the approximate location of my fly. Almost immediately I had another take, a solid fish but unlike the last one it did not jump. Although the fish felt heavy the fight was short but as I slipped the net under it I discovered it was a very respectable male brown trout in the 15 to 17 inch category. He had a long hooked jaw and a mouthful of teeth and somewhere in that mouth was my fly. Unable to see where it was I simply clipped the tippet and released the fish. Once again I was back to holding up a new fly and trying to get enough light to see the eye of the hook.
Finally back in business I knew that I had time to try for one more fish before I had to get out of the water. I made a couple casts and hooked another fish. It was another jumper but this time I managed to keep him under control and landed a fat rainbow that was nearly a twin to the brown that I had just released. He was hooked in the corner of the jaw and I quickly slipped the hook out of the gristle and slipped him back into the water. Despite the fact that I could still see other fish rising I knew that it was time for me to get out of the stream. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
As I scrambled out of the stream the July full moon appeared over the Absaroka Mountains. As I sat on the picnic table removing my waders I was reminded that once again I had experienced the magic of a summer evening on a Montana trout stream. The recipe requires clean water, aquatic insects, feeding trout, a modicum of skill and a special something that defies description. I like to think its magic.