Missoula Fly Fishing Report

Missoula Fishing Report 8/7

Fly Fishing Report Brought To You By Our Missoula Fly Fishing Guides And Fly Shop Staff.

Enjoy and Good Luck!

Bitterroot River

Hoot Owl restrictions are in place along the entire Bitterroot, from the confluence of the East and West Forks to the confluence at the Clark Fork. Hoot Owl hours do not allow fishing from 2:00 PM to midnight, so get out early if you’re heading to the Bitterroot.
The tricos have definitely established along the Bitterroot, and there are still some straggling PMD’s that will move fish, so have them with you. A CDC Thorax Trico or a Don King Trico have been working on the Bitterroot, as has the Gould’s Sunken Trico. If you use a Sunken Trico, drop it off a size 18 Royal Wulff (you’ll be surprised how many risers take the Royal Wulff) so you can locate the dropper. Use anywhere from 3-6 inches of dropper to control the depth.
The golden stones are almost gone, but are being replaced by the Hopper. A tan hopper, like the Morrish or the Tan Henneberry will work as both a Golden or a hopper. The Pink Thunder Thighs and the Juicy Hopper are also moving fish, and those two will also float a decent sized dropper. Don’t focus exclusively on Hoppers- other terrestrials are also working very well. The Micro Chubby in Tan and Gold are working well as a beetle, and the Ant Acid in Purple is taking fish as well.
When you go subsurface, try a Copper Top Duracell, a G Kes or a Tungsten Jig Pheasant Tail, all in a 14-16. Make sure your dropper is long enough to get the fly to the bottom, because wit the warmer water, the fish are hugging the bottom. When you hook a fish on a nymph, play it hard and fast, to get it back to the bottom quickly. If you’re wading, move out of the warmer water along the edges and release the trout in the cooler water away from the bank. Work the riffles hard with a nymph- lots more fish there than you think due to oxygenation.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips for each hatch

Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot is fishing well along its length, having benefitted from the extended run-off, though getting a bit low for hard boats. Remember it’s inner tube season, so if you’re thinking of fishing the lower sections, get on at dawn and be ready to be off by 11:00, when the inner tube hatch begins.
Tricos are hatching on the Blackfoot, the trick is to find a place where bigger fish are rising. If you do, the Female Trico Spinner or the Hi-Viz are very effective. Sporadic Spruce Moths are being seen, so have those with you. If you don’t have any, a simple Tan Caddis will do the trick. The Goldens are still working, but they’re waning, so use what you have. Make sure to have a few Hoppers as well, including the Morrish Hopper in Purple, as well as the Tan Thunder Thighs and the Juicy Hopper.
Don’t sleep on the Attractor Fly fishing up here as well. It’s a great time to run the Hippie Stomper, Stubby Chubbies and the good old Royal Wulff. The fish are hungry and food is scarce, so a well placed dry will definitely spur on the interest.
If you plan to run a smaller dropper, it’s just as important to lengthen the dropper length as it is to get the right fly. A simple Tungsten Jig Pheasant Tail, Caramel Jig or a Hare’s Ear Jig are working well. Truthfully, since most of the nymphs have hatched out, almost any well drifted nymph at the correct depth will work. If you want to throw a bigger nymph, like a Tungsten Zirdle or a TJ Hooker, you’re going to want to use an indicator. 6 feet is not too deep to set the indicator- the fish are belly hugging the bottom in the deeper pools. Fight the fish hard, and fight them fast to get them back to their homes quickly.
We’ve also had some decent action on streamers in the last week. A White Sculpzilla and the White Mini Dungeon have been moving fish, as has the Skiddish Smolt and the Tungsten Found Ya Bugger.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Clark Fork River

There are Hoot Owl restrictions on the Clark Fork River, specifically from the confluence of the Bitterroot to the confluence of the Flathead, and from Warm Springs to the confluence of Flint Creek. When Hoot Owl hours are in effect, there is no fishing from 2:00 PM to midnight, to avoid stressing the fish in the heat of the day.
With that said, the Clark Fork has been fishing well in the middle and lower sections. The tricos are now consistent in the morning, and there are still a few pods of fish taking the last of the PMD’s. The Hi-Viz Trico spinner is always a good choice for finding your fly, and drop a Female Trico Spinner or a CDC Thorax Trico behind it. Clark Fork fish can get a bit fussy about the Hi-Viz, especially the big ones, but you can use it to sight in the floating dropper.
Hoppers are starting to be eaten as well, and they are blending in with the almost done Golden Stones. The fish are still looking up for a big floater, so have a Morrish Hopper Tan or a Henneberry Tan to do double duty. The Tan Parachute Hopper has stayed hot from last year, as has the Sweetwater Hopper. Don’t forget the other terrestrials! The Ant Acid in Brown and Purple are working well, as is the Stubby Chubby in Cinnamon and Purple. It’s terrestrial time, so take advantage.
Subsurface, a smaller jig nymph like the Yellow Spot Jig, the G Kes or the Bullet Quill is working. Since most of the nymphs have just hatched out, there’s not a lot of food available to the trout. Just as important as the fly selection is the length of your dropper. That 2’ dropper that’s so easy to cast should be lengthened to about 3.5-4 feet. The fly needs to get the fish that are hugging the bottom. The annoyance of casting the long dropper will be balanced by more fish. Fluorocarbon leader is preferred at this point, since the water is so clear.
On the lower Clark Fork, a Brown Pat’s Rubberlegs or a TJ Hooker will work very well as the point on a double nymph rig. Those flies work best deep, so set your indicator about 7 feet from the fly. Drop a smaller fly off the bottom of the Pat’s to double your chances.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Rock Creek

Rock Creek is fishing very well along the length, mostly due to the high gradient and good oxygenation. You should still fight the fish quickly to minimize stress in the heat, but that’s a strategy that should be employed at all times, not just in the heat of the summer.
There are still a few straggling PMD’s, and the Tricos are also appearing. As always, the trick on Rock creek is to find a place where the fish are eating Tricos. If you know of a place (and don’t tell anyone!) a simple Hi-Viz Spinner or CDC Thorax will get the fish moving. Nothing fancy in flies- it’s finding them that takes the time.
Still a few straggling Golden Stones, and those will meld into hopper fishing. A Tan Morrish Hopper or Sweetwater Hopper have been working up here, doing a bit of double duty in the imitation department. If you’re looking for a more specific hopper pattern, the Tan Parachute or Tan Henneberry have been producing. Don’t forget the other terrestrials as well. The Black or Purple Ant Acid have been great along the edges, and the Stubby Chubby is proving to be an excellent beetle imitation under the trees. A few random Spruce Moths are being seen, so have your Tan Caddis. Have them anyways, because the caddis are still coming out at dusk.
It’s also fun to run Attractor dries at this time of year. A big Royal Wulff, Yellow Stimulator or a big foamie will pull fish up to eat. If you run a big foamie, drop a smaller Hare’s Ear jig or a Yellow Spot Jig underneath for more action. Make sure your dropper is a bit longer than you want it to make sure you’re getting where the fish are. If you deciode to run a bigger nymph, like a Pat’s Rubberlegs or a Black Double Bead Stone, use an indicator to make sure the fly gets deep enough.
A well placed streamer is also producing in the deeper pools. A Gold/Silver Kreelix has been quite successful, and of course the Sparkle Minnow is still money on Rock Creek. And if big flies are on your mind, step out after dark with a mouse and see what some of the bigger fish are doing. This is the time for mousing, and Rock Creek has a lot of fish that are active at night.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Missoula Fly Fishing Report

Missoula Fishing Report 7/21

Fly Fishing Report Brought To You By Our Missoula Fly Fishing Guides And Fly Shop Staff.

Enjoy and Good Luck!

Bitterroot River

The Bitterroot is dropping like a stone, which is excellent news for the wading angler. Still enough water for the floaters, but now waders can really get into the game as well. Water temps are holding decently, due to the cooler nights, and we expect that to hold for the season.
The Golden Stones are still coming out in numbers, as are the Yellow Sallies. This late in the season, go with the lower floating, more natural colored imitations like the Henry’s Fork Golden, Rogue Stone or the Demoe’s Mill Creek. The PMD’s and PED’s are strong as well, so have some Keller’s Rocky Mountain PMD’s and Parachute PMD’s for the adults, backed up with the PMD Film Critic for the emerger/cripple. Those bugs will work for the PED’s as well. If you’re out at dawn or dusk, make sure to have your Rusty Spinners with you to cover the spinner fall.
Caddis are being seen in the evening, so carry your caddis as well. Hoppers, ants and beetles are being taken as the hatches ebb and flow during the day. Keep your hoppers small and golden golden stone colored to do double duty on the water.
Sub-surface the basics are working extremely well. Smaller TJ Hookers, the G Kes, Jioggy Yellow Sally and the Orange Spot PT Jig are all very effective right now. Early and late in the day, a smaller, light weight streamer will move the larger fish. The Bitterroot is fishing very well right now.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips for each hatch

Blackfoot River

There are still remnants of the Salmon Flies hatch on the upper, upper stretches, so if you’re going high, make sure to have them. It’s still the Golden Stones that are the hottest fly. Make sure to have low floating flies in subdues colors. The Henry’s Fork Stone, Rasta Golden and the Emma’s Stone are great low floaters that will float a smaller dropper. The Yellow Sallies are also out in force, and a double dry with a Rolling Stone Yellow Sally will pay dividends. The PMD’s are still very active, as are the PED’s and Tan Caddis. Make sure to have some PMD Film Critics and the D&D Cripple, as well as some Parachutes for the adults. The X- Caddis and the basic Brown Elk Hair are working when the caddis are out.
The TJ Hooker and Natural Tungsten Zirdle are very good subsurface right now, as is the Jiggy Yellow Sally, the Tungsten Jig Assassin and the PT Jig. Use as long a dropper as you can stand, or to be more effective, go double nymph with a large and small fly. Streamers are still viable all day, especially from the boat, but smaller and more accurately placed my be better than a big streamer just close to the target.
The wading is starting to come around on the Blackfoot, with more spots becoming available as the water drops. Still better to go higher up the river, but the wading is getting better. If you plan on floating low, do it early in the day- the innertube hatch is getting strong as well!
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Clark Fork River

The Clark Fork is rounding into shape very nicely, with pods of fish setting up for the PMD and PED hatches. Make sure to have some D&D or Flash Cripples and the PMD Film Critic to supplement the basic PMD Parachute, as the fish can get snooty quickly. If those don’t work quickly, switch to a Rusty Spinner to bring up the fish count.
The Golden Stones are still very important, and if you don’t have pods, put on a subtle Golden like the Henry’s Fork or the Rogue Golden and search with those. Drop a Yellow Sally off the rear to increase your chances, and so you have an idea where that little fly might be.
Subsurface, the Brown Pat’s Rubberlegs as deep as you can drop it has been very strong, as has a TJ Hooker. The Orange Spot PT Jig, the G Kes and the Silverman Red Tag Yellow Sally Jig have also been very effective. Not many people throwing streamers, which shouldn’t deter you if you want to throw them. Get them deep and the fish are taking them.
The Clark Fork is dropping, but the wading opportunities are still not as easily found. The upper Clark Fork is where to head if you’re on your feet.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Rock Creek

Yellow Sallies and Golden Stones are still the top producers on Rock Creek right now, with PMD’s and PED’s also coming off with regularity. Again, subdued colors in smaller sizes are the more effective right now. The Rogue Stone, Henry’s Fork Golden and the Rasta are consistently effective up here. The Yellow Sally Rolling Stone and the Chubby Silvey Sally (with some brown marker on the body to dull the color) have been making excellent droppers on a double dry rig.
The Kellers Rocky Mountain PMD and the Tiltwing PMD have been strong during the PMD and PED hatch, as have the D&D Cripple. If you’re going to be out late or early, make sure to have your Rusty Spinners in a size 16. They’ve also been most effective.
The Tan caddis has been very effective all day on Rock Creek, not just during the hatch. Use a Brown Elk Hair caddis as a searching pattern all day, and an X-Caddis when the hatch is on. You can also search with terrestrials, which have been effective as well. If you choose to search with a hopper, stick to a tan hopper so it does double duty as a stonefly as well.
The size 12 Tungsten Natural Zirdle and the Tan/Brown TJ Hooker have been producing sub-surface, as has the Orange Spot Jig, the G Kes and the PT Jig. Streamers have been moving fish early and late, with a couple anglers reporting good streamer fishing during the day, but they were using sinking leaders. The water is still big on rock Creek, so the farther upstream you go, the easier the wading will be, though the river is dropping quickly along the length.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Missoula Fly Fishing Report

Missoula Fishing Report 6/20

Fly Fishing Report Brought To You By Our Missoula Fly Fishing Guides And Fly Shop Staff.

Enjoy and Good Luck!

Bitterroot River

The bitterroot bumped with the recent rain and is slowly coming back down. The water is still big up here. Not a bad idea to give this one some time to come back down a little more. We’ve had some reports on the upper stretches that fished good before the bump but the lower end will take some time to calm down. The Salmonfly hatch has been inconsistent over the last few weeks on the upper, they’ve been out heavy in the sun but are starting to wane. Be ready for the Golden Stone hatch on the upper soon.
We’re still doing our best to scout some of these stretches but with the fluctuating water the river is constantly changing, we’re waiting for it to drop back down after the recent rain event. Be careful if you decide to float. Might be a better idea to get out the tying vise, hit your favorite lake or wade smaller streams.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips for each hatch

Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot river bumped in flows with the recent rain and is leveling off as of this morning. The Blackfoot has been the most consistent for us this last week with the dropping flows and warming temps. We started to get some Salmonfly dry fly action on the lower end but nothing to really write home about. The nymphing was consistent and the streamer fishing was also productive. We’re hoping the water continues to drop throughout this week. The forecast isn’t calling for much more rain after today, the warmer temps should bring a little more consistency to our flows opposed to the rain which can cause big spikes.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Clark Fork River

The Clark Fork is on it’s way up and not a great choice right now. The stretches above town should come back down quickly this week after the rain but the lower should be high and murky for a while. Much better options than the Clark Fork this week.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Rock Creek

We’ve had some awesome reports over the last week with warmer temps and dropping flows. The Salmonflies have been out and the fish are eating them. The last few days the water has bumped in flows but we expect that to come down in the coming days. If you’ve been paying attention to the flows, you’ve seen how quickly flows can drop this time of year after rain even through the warmer temps. They’re up now but should drop again this week.
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Blackfoot River Salmonflies

Yellowstone Flooding – Missoula Rivers Coming Into Shape

It’s all over the news- Yellowstone Park Closed! It looks like they’re having a 100 year flood down south, and we feel for them. Missoula had a 100 year flood event in 2018, and the town had issues for about 2 weeks. And then, except for the people whose houses took on water, we went back to a normal year. Better, in fact, because the water was high and cold throughout the summer and fall. Freestone rivers are at the mercy of the weather, and when the weather makes the national news, it has a definite affect on the rest of the season.

Right now in Missoula, the rivers are dropping. The cool spring has our flows where we want them, falling, and water temps staying cold. We have some heat coming in the next few days, but we don’t expect as dramatic of a bump like last week with the rain, followed by more mild temperatures. Last year at this time we were already talking about when hoot owl hours would come into play, and at the end of June we needed them. That won’t be the case this year. We have the makings of a good end of June fly fishing in western Montana and great fishing for the rest of the season. Water is what we need in the drought plagued west.

It’s a 4 hour drive to Yellowstone Park from Missoula, the intense flood we see on the Yellowstone river is much different than the bump in flows we saw last week around Missoula. We’ve had some people call and email the shop today concerned with what they’re seeing on national news. It’s important to note that Yellowstone river is almost 300 miles away from us. That’s multiple states away for some areas of the country! The Yellowstone river fly fishing will be affected by these floods for a while, Missoula rivers are in better shape and the rivers are dropping and the fishing is going to slowly picking up. Should be a decent salmonfly hatch starting by next week, although we don’t expect the rivers to keep dropping as quickly with the warm weather on tap for the next few days. Most likely another bump that should be smaller than last week and flows should continue to drop after that.

It’s the cycle of nature- the snow will melt and spring rains will come. Sometimes it happens early, and takes a while. Sometimes it happens late and occurs all at once. This year in Yellowstone Park, it’s happening late and a lot at once. In Missoula, it’s taking a while to occur. Both are normal, though we sympathize with the people whose lives and travel have been impacted by the extreme weather down south. It’s normal for the rivers to be high and off color.

But in a time, the roads will be cleared and the rivers will be back in play in Yellowstone. In the long run, it’s just a blip on the radar. Just as last year’s low, warm water was a blip on the radar to Missoula. Each year brings its own challenges, and its own set of conditions. But it takes a crazy year to really foul up the fishing beyond June 22 in this area and we don’t expect that to happen in Missoula. We expect our late spring fishing to be decent in Missoula, and the summer/fall fishing is going to be spectacular across the western half of Montana. Of course these are all speculations at this point but we are optimistic about the last week of June and the rest of summer

It’s all about the water, and in both places, we’re getting it. It might not be the way they want it in West, but it will be there. We’re having an easier time of it, and for that we’re thankful. But in the end, this too will pass, as Spring goes into Summer and then Fall. Then we see how next year shapes up, we see how nature treats us. It’s an endless cycle that anglers and other travelers have been dealing with for centuries. It seems like a lot right now, but in the long run, the trout, the rivers and the anglers will be doing what they always do- handling the conditions as they find them.

Right now, despite the news, it’s looking pretty darn good in the Missoula area for at least the last week of June and the rest of summer. Yellowstone will be out of commission for a while and we expect there to be an extended road closure for the summer months over there. We realize that many people are changing their plans to come fish the western side of the state at least for the next few weeks as we don’t have near the amount of issues like many other places in the state. Just remember those small businesses on the Yellowstone will have a tough summer. We’re happy to accommodate the lost fisherman for the time being but those small businesses will hopefully be ready when the damage is repaired. Might not be a bad idea to give them some business later this year or next, whenever they open back up.

Missoula Fly Fishing Report

Missoula Fishing Report 6/14

Fly Fishing Report Brought To You By Our Missoula Fly Fishing Guides And Fly Shop Staff.

Enjoy and Good Luck!

Bitterroot River

The Bitterroot spiked along the length of the river the last few days. High, brown and blown. The river should continue to drop and clear in the next few days. Not a great option as of now but focusing on side channels and softer edges on the upper end is your best bet. Maybe some back sloughs will hold trout, and definitely pike, but getting to a slough is the major issue. Best to leave this one alone for a few days. Should drop into more fishable conditions in the next week or two.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips for each hatch

Blackfoot River

The rain, warm temperatures and great snowpack have finally caught up to us. We’ve been squeezing some decent fishing over the last week, but the river spiked big time. Lots of brown, high water at this point, but the weather patterns should start to bring the river down within the next few days. So right now, not so much, but we’re expecting the Blackfoot to be fishable within the week. Salmonfly hatch should show up within in the next few weeks if the weather holds true. It’s shaping up to be a good second half of June around Missoula.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Clark Fork River

The middle and lower sections of the Clark Fork is high, brown and pretty much unfishable. The river has been climbing for the last few days and starting to drop slowly. The Clark Fork bumped in flows over the last week. So far it doesn’t look like it’s dropping as quick as the rest of the rivers in the area. Lots of great smaller streams to hit this time of year in the area that are much better options. Expect the mid to lower Clark Fork river to be out of commission for the next week or two while the upper should shape up a lot quicker.
Scroll to the bottom of this page for additional fly patterns and tips!

Rock Creek

Rock Creek is holding its little visibility as well as any river in the area. It’s still, big and off-color, but the salmonfly hatch has started and that’s all it takes to bring these fish to the top even during high flows. The top section will be better than the bottom for clarity. You can get it done here at the moment and should improve throughout next week. Any way you slice it, it’s going to be a bit of work on the water in the next few days. Warm weather mid next week should really get the salmonfly hatch popping!
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The Tale of the Fly Rod Handle

This is so nerdy you won’t be able to stand it!

One of the more enjoyable things I get to do in a fly shop is look at rod handles. We see more broken rods than we care to, and with rod carriers allowing the reel to be stored on the rod, we get the handle on a few anglers when we spool up a new line, or shift lines from reel to reel.

Very few items of tackle can tell the tale that a cork rod handle can tell.

Not a fly box. They essentially look the same through their lifetime. They might acquire a scratch or two, but don’t really carry any depth.

Same with zingers, nippers, forceps.

Maybe an anglers boots, maybe. But sun-drying in the back of a pickup will prematurely age the best of equipment.

Or an old school vest, but so few use that conveyance, including me. They’re clutter traps, too hot and too heavy. Well, mine’s heavy. I can load a vest down with irrelevant gear, flies and gadgets faster than anyone. Unlike some anglers, I take no joy in being a minimalist. Try as I might, I can’t understand limiting yourself to one fly, or using a Tenkara rod with the classic tiny tackle box. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. I’ve accumulated some crap. By the slime on George Harvey’s boots, I’m going to carry it with me, needed or not.

Parenthetical Insertion. As a teenager and young adult, I idolized George Harvey. He was kind, generous, pompous and opinionated. He was the first college accredited professor in fly fishing, and I’m proud to say I’ve taught fly fishing on the university level. Not at George Harvey’s level, but at a university level. He designed the leader style I use 80% of my time on the water, and convinced Buck Metz to go into the dry fly hackle business. When I say By the Slime On George Harvey’s boots, I’m invoking the spirit of a Dry Fly Fisherman. There is no higher calling. His vest was crammed full with flies that he was always very generous with. When I’m wearing a vest, I’m not comfortable till it bulges.

Which is why I don’t wear a vest.

But I digress.

You can’t fake the rod handle.

Look at the handle of your favorite rod. If you’re lucky, it’s got a nice patina of dirt, with some spots of grime rubbed in. Probably some wayward Aquel, or the residue from a quick grab and grin. You recognize the unique color of the mud bank you slipped and fell down, using both hands to keep you from entering the river. I don’t miss felt soles when I think of how many times I entered the river on my ass.

That’s the first five years.

You start to learn about the quality of the cork after the first five years or so. Good cork is hard to come by, and even the best of cork may reveal flaws as it’s being shaped. Rod builders use filler to cover up the minor blemishes that naturally occur. This is when the filler begins to fall out, after 5-7 years of hard use. Some rod handles look like a leopard, with blemish spots abounding. But the tale is being told.

The handle starts to show slight signs of wear, specifically lighter areas of wear where the hand isn’t. Where the hand is normally placed has a darker color than the rest of the handle. Over time, the dirt is more compressed there, as well as put there more often.

Here’s a thought. You know those little pockmarks where the filler came out? You can fill ‘em the next time you slip and fall down a mud bank. At least they’re filled till the handle of your rod gets soaked. I usually give my reel and handle a rinse once every 4 times on the water, while untangling an errant cast from the tip top, or, even worse, casting so badly you put a half hitch between the tip top and the first guide. When you’re working on the tip of the rod, the handle of the rod tends to get wet. The deeper you’re wading, the more likely the dunking is.

Then find another mud bank.

As time goes by and the handle sees more use, the cork starts to get shiny as well. It’s difficult to describe, because how can all that accumulated “patina” shine? It’s the cork being compressed by usage, losing the tiny imperfections and taking on a reflective sheen. It takes a while to get to that point.

I love rod handles. They tell me so much about an angler. My conversations are much different with a clean, or even worse, still wrapped in cellophane handle. PLEASE! It’s not worse if you’re just starting. No one was born with a fly rod in their hand. But please, Please, PLEASE take the cellophane off the handle. It’s so much more comfortable, less slippery, and perhaps most importantly, nothing screams rookie more.

The conversation nerdifies with the tale the handle tells. Depending on patina, we may talk about tapering leaders, the latest flies, river conservation, why on God’s earth are we still using fiberglass in 2022, the difference between Aquel and Gink, and, if the handle has enough wear, and matches the owner, we may grouse about how it was so much better back when we were kids. We’re wrong- we just didn’t know any better. But it’s still a great conversation. I’ve solved the world’s problems several times over in fly shop conversation. It’s a great place to meet free spirits, big wigs, where the high and mighty and the low down, dirty and bad all contend with the same wind.

I’m always fascinated by who’s attracted to fly fishing, and why. I try not to be a navel gazer, but when you’re dealing with the highly stereotypical and un-PC classifications of people as bank presidents and mechanics, and all points in between, it’s absolutely fascinating to watch even a small part of their fly fishing journey. What do they want from this, what are they willing to give it?

The answer is in the rod handle.

This may not get past the editorial board. I try not to, but I judge people by their rod handle. I alluded to it before, and I assure you it’s not what you think.

As I said, you see all kinds in a fly shop. People regale me with stories of multiple 20” fish in a day out of Rock Creek. They talk about how worn out their line is. And I see the handle. 2 year’s wear, tops. It’s a 9’ 5 weight- it’s the go-to rod. I’m not going to question them closely about too much- the information I get will be hackneyed and exaggerated. Inflated and not tempered with experience.

Just like I did when I was trying to master this $#^&[email protected] sport. If I caught one, I bumped it to two. Two was a passle. Three and I was over the moon. I memorized Stenonema Canadensis (fat lot of good it did me- they went and changed the classification) and used it in a sentence whenever I could. In short, I was just getting started. As said before, no one gets further without getting started.

The handle of my rod was worn then, but it wasn’t my doing. I was using the same rod my father learned with, and he deserves much of the credit for the patina.

It wasn’t hard to tell I wasn’t the only dirtier of that handle. You get so you can tell, you know.

The next handle I see is an IM6 Winston. It’s so worn, the cork has slightly shrank and the glue between the rings is visible. It’s so dirty it’s actually been rinsed off. On purpose! Not sanded, just rinsed, so the last few layers are diminished, and you can see the filler spots with a little more clarity. But it’s not clean, like a toddler in the bath. They’ve gotten wet, but getting to the base layer is too much work.

If you look closely, you see wear marks on the reel seat as well.

They’re of a certain age, the age when you had to spend $400 on a fly rod to get one that was any good. $400!!! That’s a lot of money. They did it once, they did it right, and no amount of hype, advertising, peer pressure or Google ads is making them change their mind.

That’s written on a ringed handle. The moisture is disappearing from the cork. Lots of sunshine. Lots of rain. Lots of use makes a handle look that way. You don’t see many of those.

So you ask, hows your fishing been? They might tell you they “took more than a couple, less than a few”. When you ask how big, it’s always maybe one over 15”.

I wish I’d videoed this exchange. An older customer is leaving the shop, and on the way out the door, I said, “Have good fishing.” He stopped, turned and looked at me. Formed his thoughts. Looked at me, completely deadpan. Said this, “You know, I used to go to Rock Creek as a young man. Fish all day, come home with a 16” trout, a couple 12’s and three or four 8-9” long. People thought I was a pretty good fisherman. But in these days of catch and release, I’m not sure I’m so good anymore.” And he walked out the door.

To this day, I don’t know if he was joking, if he was serious.

I do remember reading somewhere that a fish story without photographic evidence is just that, a story. Probably fictional.

When I was teenager, my youngest brother was fascinated by the size of fish. He had a Zebco De-Liar (the secret is in the name) which was a combination scale and tape measure. If you caught a fish when he was near, he measured its length.

You know what I learned from that? There’s a hell of a big difference between 14” and 16”, and 18” and 20”. Fish get bigger geometrically, they’re not just longer, they’re BIGGER. Like a lot. It was stunning (and annoying) how few 20” trout I caught. 20 inches is the trout benchmark. It’s tradition. They all looked like 20”ers, until that #@$%?)! De-Liar. 15.5”.

It was close.

Three years ago I had the chance to float the Clark Fork with John Gould, long time Missoula guide (and our rival so don’t go calling him! But we’d hire him in an instant!!!) and the 11 year old kid of a childhood friend. The childhood friend is a doctor AND intelligent, and his son Franco is frighteningly smart. The fishing was slow (Truth is, I was brutally hungover. Barely functioned till mid afternoon, and by then it was too hot) and John had the 11 year old in the front of the boat, and 7’ deep. He would catch a fish, and ask John how big it was. “14”, maybe and a half” This happened for 3-4 fish, and finally Franco says to John, “Yesterday, the other guide said those fish were bigger.”

I say this jestingly, but we’re lucky we didn’t crash the boat. John and I were laughing so hard. After a long, hard guffaw, John says. “I call ‘em as I see ‘em. Been doing this a long time.” So Franco rummages around in his vest, or John provides one, I don’t know, but a tape measure appears. Turns out John’s dead accurate on ACTUAL length.

Not fisherman’s length.

The De-Liar took most of that out. To quote Ed Zern, “Fishermen are born honest, but they get over it.”

When the ringed handle extends by saying they had a good day on the Bitterroot, I do my part and extend the conversation. What were you using? Any clouds? Where were you?

The handle tells me that any answers I get will be useful, but the last one is the important one.

Ya soften ‘em up before going for the gusto.

Parenthetical Insertion. NEVER tell a fly shop employee where you had good fishing, any further than “the upper Bitterroot” or “the middle of Rock Creek.” Because while we’re not actually trying to stick it to you, we’re happy to have a different answer! So within a day, we’ll reuse that info at least once, and over 3 days, twice.

But not more than that.

I’ve been in destination fly shops in New England and in Missoula. The number one question is “Where do I go fishing.” With all that entails.

When I worked in North Conway at a fly shop, we shared a building with Dick Stewart while he wrote his book series, Flies For Bass/Trout/Saltwater/Atlantic Salmon/Steelhead. Sharing a building means you get some of your flies in books. Thanks, Dick and Farrow. Dick had been the previous owner of the fly shop, and one day while chatting, he said he had a fly shop fantasy.

He had mentally picked the traditionally biggest, best time of the year, the Siphlonorus hatch. In the past, the shop had made over 100 walk-in sales in a day when the hatch was strong. Dick said at least half asked where the best place to fish was.

His fantasy? Send every angler to exactly the same rock. Give them all identical destinations, and then sit back and think about the chaos he’d created!! Cue fiendish laughter.

But we all know what it really would have been. It would have been a disaster on the river. It would have been everyone’s worst nightmare about opening day. 50 anglers in the same area would wreak havoc on the banks, bottom and through the environment.

Would it have ever happened?

Hell no.

Not enough parking spaces.

That idea has sat with me for a long time. That as a person utilizing the resource, I should try and do what I can to protect the resource. So when I’m in the shop, and it’s the first week of April, I’m trying not send every angler to the Bitterroot. Third week of June, and I’m looking for Rock Creek alternatives. We do the same with the fishing reports.

We all know the best Skwala hatch is the Bitterroot, and the best Salmon Fly hatch is Rock Creek. So they attract enough attention on their own. But here’s the thing. You’re in Missoula, there’s 300 miles of floatable river within an hour’s drive. The fishing is good wherever you go round here. No one will be deprived. As a responsible fly shop, we try to spread the usage around. Usually saying it won’t be as crowded. And it isn’t.

Maybe it makes us feel better as we use the resource.

PUBLIC STATEMENT – Find a conservation organization you feel you can support, and support it. I have been involved with conservation for 30 years. While it might not be as dire as the wingnuts would have you believe, it’s amazing what someone will try to do to a river when they think no one is looking. Strong talk is appreciated- money does the work.

Upon re-read, that’s pretty harsh.

But unfortunately accurate.

So find an organization that’s doing the job you would do if not previously engaged, and help them do the job you can’t. That’s not a criticism, it’s life. You do what you can when you can.

Again, so harsh. So true.

But try and put cold water conservation higher on the list.


I’m taking a little longer to spool the reel that came off that partially stained, ringed handle. I’ve been adroitly told his good day was on the lower Bitterroot. He wasn’t floating, so now I’m really interested. I obliquely ask in a couple of ways about firmer location details. I’m politely and deftly directed in different conversational directions.

Once in a while it pays off, and you get PRIMO info.

Did you really think I’m going to tell you?!?!

But knowing he’s been stingy with the locale, he feels honor bound to tell me about the hot fly. I can’t say anything right now, confidential you know, but I now have more than a couple in my box.

The handle had the rings of truth.

And the grime of usage.

The stains of time on the water.

The half cleaned look that says they noticed.

That can’t be faked.

George Kesel