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The Eddy Line: Wrestling with shoulder season

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By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

November is a month of transition for many of us in Big Sky country. Personally, it means catching up on family time and honey-do’s, but it also includes daily rituals to the snow gods. Ski season is near.

As for fishing this time of year, I treat it like the days before college graduation – no need to wake until the crack of 11 a.m. There’s a parallel to the underbelly of impending graduation, when the question is always asked, “So, what are your plans after graduation?” The question asked of fly fishers here in southwest Montana is, “So, what are you up to this month?” The answers are mostly “hanging out,” “tying flies,” or “chasing steelhead.”

At least until the ski hill opens. Until then, here are a few ideas to keep your casting arm in shape.

Flee west or north to chase steelhead. Standing in the same run for countless hours methodically – almost as if in meditation – casting and drifting over and over has never appealed to me. Then it happens: a steelhead is hooked on the 2,871st cast and it all makes sense. The immeasurable pull of a steelhead – its pace and determination to end the fight is felt throughout your entire body, and the nights camping and cooking Jetboil meals are forgotten with the first run of a hooked steelhead.

Blue Winged Olive hatches and midges on Paradise Valley spring creeks. In winter, the fee is only $40 per rod, and you’ll have minimal company. Head to the creeks on a day with little wind and you’ll find fish eating tiny dry flies. If little or no hatch occurs, fish size 18 or 20 midge nymphs below a very small indicator and you should have success. If you want a head start, or wish to learn more about these fisheries, consider hiring a guide for a day.

The Upper Madison between the lakes or above Lyons Bridge. As the lure of trophy bull elk keeps many people in the woods, the potential for large brown trout and solitude exist on the Upper Madison River. Dead drifting or slowly stripping large streamers is popular; however, for anglers that can see little dry flies, hatches of midges are a daily occurrence. If you like techy dry-fly angling, bring size 18 or 20 dry flies. Watch the forecast because an overcast day will bring more fish to net, as Upper Madison trout don’t like bright sun.

The Gallatin River near Big Sky. Talking about the consistency of the Gallatin as a winter fishery is good and bad: you want people to know it’s damn good, but not so good that it feels crowded. Look for midge hatches, but you’ll succeed with tandem nymph rigs using an indicator. For Big Sky locals, the Gallatin is ideal – you can get in a few hours of fishing during the best time of day and still have time to work; make a supply run to Bozeman; or as a fishing guide in downtime, take a nap.

Running down the list of things I need to do before the chairlifts start spinning – aka the list of things I’ve put off all fishing season – I think of all the good runs on the Gallatin that have no one fishing them right now. And I remind myself that the sooner things are put off, the more time I have to eventually get them done.

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 Pat operates the Montana Fishing Guide School and the Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School.

This article was adapted from one published in a November 2013 issue of EBS.

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