Miracle on Montana’s Missouri River

An ironic twist of fate.

You either hate them or you hate them. And I’m not talking about whitefish and wind-knots. I’m talking about that little, evil creature called the mosquito. If you fish the Rocky Mountain region this summer, rest assured, you’ll meet that nemesis via an unsolicited introduction.

These days, the mosquito’s bite isn’t as harmless as it used to be. In the past that bite meant you got a welt and then scratched like a dog for days. Today, being bit by a mosquito means you could contract the West Nile virus. You may not die, but you’ll be miserable for a while. When you’re on the water this season, take a long-sleeved collared shirt with Insect Shield and a tube of the good stuff, meaning mosquito dope, preferably with dangerous amounts of DEET.

Some of the more noted Rocky Mountain mosquito grounds include Montana’s Big Hole, Red Rock and Beaverhead rivers; Idaho’s Silver Creek; and Wyoming’s Flat Creek. Over the years I’ve endured several horrific mosquito attacks. But, none is more noteworthy than The Miracle on the Missouri.

I don’t expect, or require, you to believe this. Even friends, who know my knack for being deposited in strange stories, raise eyebrows when I describe the details. Here’s how it went down: Robert Eddins, who owns RO Drift Boats in Bozeman, Montana, and I were fishing the Missouri River in mid-summer and the entire day had been slow. The fish had their noses buried in the grass and I don’t think we raised more than a few rainbows the entire day. But, I wasn’t worried. A caddis hatch of immense proportions was coming off every night and anglers could bank on great evening action, but it only lasted an hour or so.

Near dusk we waded into the big river, a couple miles downstream from Silver Bridge. Almost immediately, the caddis popped and we could see trout heads breaking the surface to meet them. This was it and this would be stellar, I mused. And then I felt a bite. And then another.

I wasn’t wearing a shirt, just a short-cut vest. My arms, neck and shoulders, even the small of my back, were inviting targets. I slapped another beast and said,

“That’s it, you’re all dead now!” And then I reached into a vest pocket and came up empty-handed. I slapped my neck. Then my shoulder. I dug deeper and let the plague have its way with my left arm. Empty again and a dark realization swept over me.

The mosquito dope was in the truck and to get out of the river, and up a cliff and back to the truck meant I’d miss the prime action. Which meant, I’d have to tough it out as long as I could and then admit defeat. Taking refuge in the truck, I grumbled, would be a piss-poor way to spend the hatch, especially after waiting all day for it. Robert shouted, “Throw me the dope, I’m getting destroyed by these mosquitoes!” When I told him the news he said, “Oh my god.”

I’d accumulated a couple-dozen mosquito bites, perhaps more, when I said, damn it, one more cast. A new bite arrived every couple seconds. I was being eaten alive. If I toughed it out any longer I’d end up driving to Helena for a blood transfusion instead of staying in Wolf Creek for pints of beer. I reeled in line and then, in one of the strangest and most gratifying moments of my life, I spotted something floating on the surface, about 10 yards out. I held arms above shoulders and charged through the water toward the object. I reached down and wrapped my hands around an almost-new, three-quarters full, aluminum bottle of Deep Woods Off. Halleluiah! I am saved! A miracle on the Missouri.

Robert and I sprayed copious amounts of Off on our bodies (Eddins may have even taken a tap hit). For once, we agreed, the cancer risk was worth it. We just wanted those little bastards gone. And they were.

There was no time to waste. I greased a fresh fly and proceeded to cast. That’s when I noticed a commotion upstream, past a cliff and around the bend. I could see three anglers patting their chests, reaching into the back pockets of each other’s vests. I could see hands raised in the air above one guy’s head, palms turned toward the heavens as if he was asking, Why Me? I could see the other two slapping at mosquitoes. And then the words drifted downstream on the evening breeze: “Enough! I know I had it. I don’t know where it went. I dropped it, I guess. Let’s get out of there.” And they were gone, chased away by mosquitoes. Robert shouted, “One man’s loss, another man’s gain!”

Briefly, I thought about chasing those anglers and returning their dope. But to reach them required a climb over that cliff and then a stumble through the sage. Returning their loot would have burned the hatch for all of us. Finders keepers, I said. Fish-on, brother.

Despite their annoying lifestyles, mosquitoes are pretty cool creatures. Really, it’s not like they’re out to annoy us. They just harbor a taste for blood and anglers are easy targets. In reality, once you understand the mosquito, you can muster some sympathy for the creature, especially for the male variety.

Mosquitoes do not hunt in packs, as you might believe when thousands hover around your head, a steady whine of beating wings resonating through your ears. Instead, they hunt individually, each vying for a tasty portion of your body. They drill any exposed skin and in a somewhat ironic discovery, only the females bite.

While it may be tough for some anglers to sympathize with mosquitoes, life isn’t all rosy in that bug’s world. Especially for males.

Male and female mosquitoes are equally chastised by anglers. However, males are not so bad. They feed on plant nectar, not unlike a hummingbird. And, if single humans think their odds are bad while visiting the local nightclub, consider the male mosquito’s plight.

Those males gather in swarms, drawing the attention of females. When a bachelorette arrives, she darts into the center of the swarm and, apparently (although I can not say this statement is scientifically backed), the mosquito with the best line ends up getting lucky. The other lonely bugs hang their heads and retreat in defeat.

There are two types of western mosquitoes and, although they thrive throughout the region, their presence is likely more significant to the fly fisher than it is to a trout.

Temporary water mosquitoes, Aedes, lay their eggs at the receding water line. When the water rises and covers those egg mines, millions of bugs go on a blood-sucking rampage. During drought years, when the water level remains low, those eggs rest dormant. They can do so for 15 years, which means a high water year after a series of droughts can ignite our western rivers with multiple generations of mosquitoes.

Permanent water mosquitoes, called Culex, Culiseta or Anopheles, are long-lived insects that lay multiple generations of eggs and bite humans during summer. When cold weather arrives they hibernate in outhouses, sheds and gopher holes.

While mosquitoes can migrate, anglers encounter mostly local residents. However, scientists have tracked neon-painted mosquitoes 35 miles from their birthplace.

According to Ken Quickenden, a mosquito expert, those bugs home in on certain scents, including our breath.

“If you perspire or breathe deeply and exhale a lot of carbon dioxide, more of them will be attracted to you,” Quickenden said. “Some people breathe more deeply than others and they probably get bit more often. Unfortunately, mosquitoes are most active early and late in the day — two of the best times to fish.”

If you flyfish in the Rockies, or for that matter anywhere else in the world, it becomes a matter of when, not whether, you will be bit by a mosquito. They are a permanent, very persistent presence in our summer ventures.

However, rather than allowing those bugs to ruin your trip, arrive prepared with bug dope, that long-sleeved Insect Shield shirt and pants if you are wet wading, and a plethora of cheap cigars. Consider sympathy for the male mosquito and watch out for those ruthless females.

If you are going to make an investment in your cancer-free future, check out EX O’s awesome insect shield clothing. Here’s the gear you need.

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2 Responses to Miracle on Montana’s Missouri River

  1. bernie says:

    I heard if you eat a lot of garlic they tend to leave you alone. The garlic secrets a bad aroma around you like the bad breath that you get when eating garlic.

    • Greg Thomas says:

      I dated a girl for a while, almost married her, in fact, and the thing I miss most about her is the caesar salad dressing she made from scratch. This thing dripped garlic. We’d fill up a big metal bowl with romaine, slather this dressing on it, drop in a few homemade croutons, and go to town. Nobody other than ourselves could stand to be around us. The garlic seeped from our skin. Unfortunately, the mosquitos could care less. We still got chowed on even when we’d eaten this salad the night before fishing. I still take my chances with Muskol and Deet.

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