I used to do a lot of fishing with friends, but that’s because I was younger and hung out with dudes in ski towns who had less than demanding jobs and were afforded lots of time off in exchange for their occasionally timely presence at their places of work.
As I’ve grown older and those friends built careers and families, it’s more difficult to find partners who can drop their responsibilities at a moment’s notice and head out on the water when the weather is favorable or a solid hatch is coming off.
More often these days the people I fish with are guides, and I fish with them not because they’ll pull oars for me, but because I am equally eager to pull oars for them, and they don’t have to babysit my ass all day. I don’t get much time with these dudes during summer and fall, when they are in the heart of the guide season and making their grubstake for the year. But in the winter, spring and late fall, I often get a chance to join them on “recon” missions, where they’ll test out new water that they know little about, aside from hearing reports or just wondering what’s out there.
I’m a sucker for the unknown just as much as anyone, and I love to ply sections of rivers that I haven’t seen before. The guides always warn, “It may be good or it might be a bust,” and I assure them I’m down with that, whatever that brings.
This weekend I got to do a recon trip with outfitter Jed Fitzpatrick (Sula Mountain Fly Fishing) and one of his guides, Chris. We fished the Bitterroot River through a stretch that isn’t known to produce many fish, nor great hatches, but it was worth plying with hopes of catching one solid picture fish. Because we were looking for Mr. Big, we pretty much made a pact to throw streamers, but then we found some rising fish and were able to pick off dry-fly fish number one for the season, a meaty 14-inch rainbow.
The pace wasn’t fast and furious, that’s for sure, and we must have covered a few miles, a couple different times, without even getting a take. But we did manage a 16 or 17-inch brown trout that was sunning itself in the shallows, and we pulled a native westslope cutthroat, with zero hookscars, out of a deep mid-river run. We saw exactly two skwala stoneflies during the entire drift and we saw no other bugs, except for a few midges early in the day. And we never did tangle with Mr. Big. So, was it a bust?
Not in my mind. We saw some country we didn’t know to exist, caught a couple solid fish without hookscars, and we soaked in the best weather of the year so far, 60-some degree temps and a sun beating down from above. And I got to spend time rowing a raft down the Bitterroot, hanging with fishead guides who were quick to dole out refreshments and very appreciative of the few fish we managed to land. It’s the start of spring, the fishing is going to quickly improve, and I’m eager to do another Mr. Big recon mission as soon as possible, on the Bitterroot or anywhere else a guide is thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if that long stretch, that nobody fishes, with the nasty takeouts and the freaky diversion dam, is the place to be.” Am I up for that? You bet.