A Quickening of Waters by Don Kelly
The time for renewal has returned to the land where rivers change direction. The grim and lifeless currents of winter are beginning to yield to the fecund waters of spring. A brief window of stable flows between the valley thaw and mountain runoff has once again come to south-western Montana. This is an ephemeral time when one fishes with the full knowledge that the edge of the tranquil pool where you stand knee deep today may be a torrent of frightening strength before the week is out. This year's bitter winter, with it's mounds of hand shoveled snow still on exhibit in the front yard, has left me charged for a reunion with the water. Over the last couple days, a self imposed respite from the responsibilities of life provided the opportunity to merge anew with the entrancing liquor of the Big Hole. Driving over the Continental Divide, the views seem even more beautiful than usual. Snow has receded to the point that the elk have vacated the fields around Divide, and have started their annual trek back towards summer range. The high country is not yet ready to accept them, but they no longer lay beside the interstate highway for all to see. Newborn Hereford calves celebrate in the sun; oblivious to the corpses of kin who died in last Friday's blizzard. They prance ineptly on tottering legs. Two geese shamble around a slough. The mallards are pairing off. A swarm of blackbirds rises from a clearing unsettled by the appearance of a plump doe. Signs of unfolding abundance are unmistakable. The river is low and clear. Rim ice still clings to an embankment bordered by slow current. Word is that the early stones have awakened to once again to pursue the continuation of their kind. I knot a suitable nymph to my tippet, adding a small beadhead to an in-line dropper as an afterthought, and begin the hike up river to locate some good early season holding water. At this time of year, trout in local freestone rivers are concentrated in relatively few spots. Developing the ability to recognize this holding water is crucial to success. Casting to the runs that held fish last August is not likely to be productive. Slow to all but slack currents combined with depths of 4 to 6 feet seem to be favored lies. Deep eddies can be particularly prolific areas. A few large rocks strewn about the bottom of these hideaways adds to their allure. A quarter mile upstream from my parking spot I encounter a long slow pool with the deepest water located at about the midway point between riffles. On the third cast I detect a subtle take but fail to hook up. It is an encouraging sign and serves to focus my attention. A few casts later the line twitches again and I lift the hook into the mouth of a large mountain whitefish. I am not too disappointed. Whiteys are a fine fish in their own right and give a good account of themselves in cold water. Progressing up the pool, the fish continue to cooperate. A small brown, followed shortly by a fat 17 inch rainbow accept my offering and are landed then quickly sent home. As I approach the head of the pool, I notice a fairly large and slowly swirling eddy along the right bank. It lays parallel to the last 20 yards of swift water upstream. Large rocks are visible within its depths. Anticipation is high as the first cast unfurls. The curling water is full of fish and for the next thirty minutes the rod is bent more often than not. A gaunt winter weary nineteen inch brown is the finale and I head towards the next likely pool. The fishing is grand all along the river. Numerous bows, browns, and whitefish are brought to hand. The pattern of the day is a size 8, 3x long, seal fur bodied, golden stonefly nymph. It sports goose biot split tails, brown plastic ribbing, and a simple turkey wing case. A size 18 beadhead pheasant tail runs a close second. As the afternoon ripens, I spot a fish or two rising and succumb to the temptation to try an old Skwala dry give to me by a freind from past springs on the Bitterroot. Repeated casts over the last place a protruding nose was sighted are fruitless. Back to the nymphs and an indicator. The classic down and across wet fly/nymph drift is nearly useless this time of year. The most effective presentation is accomplished by thinking of your strike indicator as a dry fly; casting upstream and drifting down totally drag free. Early spring fish are damn near as cold as you are and are in no mood to chase their food. Hitting them head-on and right in the snout may well results in more than enough hook sets to make for an interesting day. Using strike indicators is frowned upon by some of our fly flinging brethren. For the first 20 years of my career as a long rodder I was in complete agreement and thought that only sissies used "bobbers". I finally came to the conclusion that standing like a heron poised to strike, with all muscles as taut as piano string trying to detect takes was not that much fun. The visual aspect of upstream nymphing with an indicator is very enjoyable and more relaxing than the old tight line method. As the day wares on, the trout persist in mistaking my flies for edibles. The afternoon wanes. I stand in the quickening life-stream of water and raise my voice to honor the day. I am the only human being on the river. My legs are numb from the knees down and I don't care.