Story and photos by Matt Hudson Explorebigsky.com Editorial Assistant
TOWNSEND – A stiff northeastern breeze sends the 17-foot boat into a constant pitch, and it moves methodically up and down at the water’s whim along the western shoreline of Canyon Ferry Lake. Closer to the center of the broad reservoir, whitecaps crest in succession.
The area has seen varying weather conditions in the past month, which is generally not conducive to fishing. Today, the fish aren’t exactly jumping in the boat.
“This is like the Dead Sea out here,” says Terry Thomas, 56, a phrase he repeats several times in the next 24 hours. Terry and his twin brother, Lance, rarely check the fish finder. They know they’re down there.
Suddenly, a strike on one of the crank baits trailing underwater jolts the adjoining rod. Lance springs into action. Terry and their friend Dominick Defilippis, 53, look on.
After brief contest, the fish escapes to the chagrin of Lance, who loudly curses the escapee. “It was a head-shaker,” he says, indicating a strong walleye strike.
Walleye take the bait and dive, they say, while trout tend to run sideways with it. This one dove.
After about 20 years fishing on Canyon Ferry Lake, it isn’t trout that lure the Thomas brothers out on the water. It isn’t the carp or the pike or perch. They’re only interested in walleye, and they travel 100 miles from Big Sky nearly every weekend, mainly in the summer, to fish them.
“Unless it’s elk season,” Terry says.
Terry and Lance Thomas grew up in northern California and moved to Big Sky in 1979 and 1986, respectively. Today they operate Thomas Heating and Sheet Metal during the week and fish on the weekend. The twins both sport long hair and beards, their exposed skin tanned from thousands of hours logged on the water.
Lance mans the tiller motor, keeping an eye on two rods mounted to his left. Terry watches two rods of his own. While canvassing the water near the shoreline, he calls to a passing boat.
“You guys knockin ‘em dead?” he asks. The reply is flat: “Real slow.”
In better conditions, Terry says they average about 15-20 fish per day between the two of them.
The spike-finned fish, which aren’t native to Montana, are the main attraction at Canyon Ferry Lake, and a satellite community has sprung up around its southwest end to support seasonal and year-round anglers. The 25-mile reservoir impounds the Missouri River and lies just north of Townsend.
Montana Outdoors, a magazine produced by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, claimed in its May/June 2011 issue that anglers here catch walleye at about double the rate of Minnesota’s premier walleye fishery, Mille Lacs.
In the ‘90s, Montana FWP sought to curb an exploding walleye population at Canyon Ferry. As a predatory species, they threatened the other local fish species, namely trout and perch. It eventually began managing walleye alongside the other species, allowing a daily take-home limit of 20 per person to help maintain manageable numbers.
The Thomas brothers said while the ‘90s were the heyday of walleye fishing at Canyon Ferry, those days contributed to a significant population decline over the past decade.
For the 2011 season, FWP cut the catch limit to 10, with no more than four over 16 inches. The regional management plan states the new limit, still among the highest in the nation, is necessary to balance all fish populations. The bag limits at Canyon Ferry have long been a topic of contention.
Terry and and Lance impose their own catch limits as an effort to boost the overall population. They generally don’t keep more than five apiece, and let the larger ones go, keeping only the “eaters” – those around 13-15 inches with plenty of meat – for a meal. Many of their friends stick to a similar protocol.
The following morning, the wind pulls back its reigns and the chop has eased. Lance and Terry Thomas are on the lake by 7 a.m., trolling the shore with crank baits in tow. Small flocks of pelicans employ a similar strategy and cruise the shoreline, hoping to snag carp that swim just below the surface. Occasionally a dorsal fin breaks the plane of the water, leaving a mellow wake before the carp scurries back underwater to resume spawning.
The Thomas brothers want nothing more than to wrestle a few walleye onto the boat before turning to land for a round of horseshoes. Generally reserved, they widen their expressions and speak faster when a fish is on the line. Otherwise, they quietly discuss work, bait or the next pocket of water they might fish.
Tackle boxes stashed in all corners of the boat hold a dozen different lures for any situation. The Thomas’ coded lexicon identifying different areas of the lake shows experience, but nothing about them reveals a tiredness or boredom, just anticipation for the next fish.
What is it that keeps them coming back every weekend?
“The walleye,” they say in unison.