Peace on earth and a trout on your line

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

Is it holiday madness or holiday gladness we’re all a part of these days? Your answer probably depends on a few things: Did you get the tree up and your Christmas cards mailed? Was Aunt Betty’s gift sent? The list goes on.

With our recent snowfall, the feel of the holiday season has returned along with its hurried pace. I’m also back to fishing nymphs below an indicator, but the few weeks of temps in the 40s treated me to some fun dry-fly fishing with midges. Like the warmth of months passed, this time of year lends itself to reflection and eagerness for the new year. For me, fishing during the holiday season is an essential respite from the gift buying, light hanging, and party going. And few places are better for reflection than wading into a favorite run on the Gallatin River.

Here are a few of southwest Montana’s 2014 fishing highlights along with some New Year’s resolutions.

Mother’s Day caddis on the Yellowstone. “Epical.” “Absolutely amazing.” “Best. Day. Ever!” For a few days in mid-May those phrases were flowing from angler’s mouths. Most fly shops and guides hype the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yellowstone River and it rarely lives up to expectations. In fact, most years the river is too muddy to fish. In 2014, the stars aligned with a string of cold nights to keep runoff at bay and daytime temps warm enough to spawn the hatch. For those that were in the right place at the right time, the Yellowstone offered its glory for a few historic days.

Upper Madison consistency and PMDs galore. The river’s flow was high during mid-May making it difficult to fish, but once flows started to drop below 3,000 cfs the fish were happy, hungry and plentiful. Many Upper Madison old-timers were comparing the quality and abundance of fish to pre-whirling disease days – in the ‘90s the disease reduced fish populations due to a parasite infecting the cartilage of small fish. This summer, fish were looking to the surface regularly and good anglers willing to commit to dry flies found cooperative fish. Indicator nymphing, at times, was downright easy.

Missouri River trico hatches returned. When I first started guiding the Missouri in the ‘90s, summer was defined by plumes of trico mayflies rising from the rivers’ edge. It felt like I never had enough variations of trico spinner patterns in my fly boxes. Flash-forward nearly 20 years and present-day Missouri River anglers work hard to find tricos. Not this year. The tiny, black-bodied, white-winged mayflies returned en force. These days, fishing the Missouri is bittersweet as I remember when you shuttled with the local bartender, not with one of four fly shops servicing the river. The tricos return helps dissuade a curmudgeon’s nostalgia.

Bigger fish on the Gallatin. Local anglers were reporting good-sized fish in March. That trend continued throughout runoff and into the summer. You might question anyone claiming to catch a fish near two feet in length, but enough reports and pictorial proof surfaced this year of larger-than-normal fish on the Gallatin. Several years of good snowpack and average summer-time temperatures help grow big fish. It also helps that the Blue Water Task Force has the river’s long-term interests at heart. The local nonprofit is devoted entirely to the health of the Gallatin and its tributaries.

The river and its fish are doing well. In 2015, we can continue to hope for good snowpack followed by average summer temps. But that’s beyond your control. Here are a few things in 2015 that you can control:

Become a better caster. I spend a week each year chasing permit in the Florida Keys. My guide, Mike Guerin, begins pestering me in late November to improve my cast so I can land – in area the size of a folded T-shirt – a heavily weighted crab pattern at the end of my 80-foot cast. Whether you have annual trips to exotic places, or just want to perfect your double haul, devote a few hours each month to your casting. Invest in a lesson or get together with some friends and offer each other help – the best way to iron-out kinks in your cast is to have someone else observe you. Or, use the GoPro you got for Christmas to record yourself.

Be friendlier on the river. We fish for various reasons: to be in nature; to challenge ourselves; and for exercise, solitude or camaraderie, among others. Upon encountering other anglers, offer a polite “Hello” or “How’s the fishing?” You might meet a new angling friend or learn of an effective fly. If not, at least you offered a pleasant greeting.

Support your local fly shop. We’re lucky in southwest Montana because fly shops are alive and well, and always nearby. Most of them are family run businesses. Their owners are the same people your kids go to school with or the guys you see out on the water. They’re your best source for local fishing reports and free information, as well as specials on closeout models and demos for all the new goodies.

Watch your son or daughter catch their first fish on a fly. Make a point to observe rather than be wrapped up in your own fishing. With our busy lives this can be hard. Commit to it and schedule the time, but allow yourself to be flexible – forcing a kid to fish is no fun for you or them.

Personal time is precious during the holidays. We all look for ways to enjoy the season, while keeping our sanity. As you’re ticking off the items on your to-do list add “Go fishing.” While you’re on the water, reflect on the year and promise yourself to fish more in 2015.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.

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Jimmy Armijo-Grover, Manager and custom fly tyer at Gallatin River Guides, teaches 7-year-old Watson Littmannew_eddy_line_FlyTying_Busby how to complete a Super Bugger at Fly Tying Night held every Thursday at 5 p.m. at GRG. The classes are open to all skill levels, but GRG asks that you please supply your own vise, tools and thread. PHOTO BY TYLER BUSBY