NOTE: I penned this piece for the Spring issue of Fly Rod & Reel, but with the holidays coming I thought you might want to consider putting a Watermaster or some other personal boat on your wishlist. Read on and catch the fever.
Finding underfished waters and trout without hookscars.
I was halfway through a pitch to fish two different rivers in two days, one of which flows through highly private lands, when my potential partner, Jeff Wogoman, said, “Are we going to get shot?”
Wogoman lives in Jackson, Wyoming, in the bastion of public access laws that severely restrict the Cowboy State’s anglers from fishing mile after mile of top-shelf trout streams. I live in Montana where a modern stream-access code allows anglers to ply those Big Sky Country streams wherever they choose, as long as their boots or anchor is planted below the established high-water mark. I paused at Wogoman’s question and offered some comfort: “Jeff, I don’t think we’ll get shot, but I’ll have a big bottle of bear spray on hand just in case someone gets lippy with us.” He responded with a fair warning: “Thomas, the last time you had bear spray with us you shot yourself with that stuff!”
Over the years Wogs has served as sort of lab rat for me, for several good reasons. First, he’s a regular smart alec who I enjoy teasing and being tested by, and he has a forgiving job—director of new media at Teton Gravity Research—that allows him to take spontaneous fishing trips when many other professionals couldn’t swing an extended weekend, let alone four or five days of the workweek. Second, he’s
pretty much game for any fishing excursion, ranging from our backpacking adventures in northern Idaho to our bushwhacking for bull trout jaunts in southern British Columbia. Finally, he’s not afraid to sleep in the dirt and forgo the shower for days on end so we can stay in the field, on the water, capturing stories and images galore. On one of our trips we survived on beef jerky and Backwoods cigars for five days and I never heard a peep about not having enough to get by on. It didn’t hurt that we slayed the cutthroats and landed a few eight to 10-pound bull trout.
I knew he was the right guy when I decided to utilize Montana’s stream access law to reach water that common anglers typically regard as off-limits and drive right by on their way to the big-name and heavily fished rivers. My decision to fish these streams
coincided with a wave of new single-person watercraft on the market, ranging from a plethora of hard kayaks and micro-skiffs, to the most versatile in my opinion, that being the inflatable raft, including Outcast’s new Commander and Big Sky Inflatable’s legendary Watermaster. The Watermaster has no floor, can be rowed with oars or kick-steered with fins from an elevated seat, and swings to the downstream side of an angler when they stand up to fish. It changed the face of Northwest steelheading back in the 1990s. Weighing in at 50 pounds or less, it can be stored in a single waterproof bag with shoulder straps, and carried in on a trail for however far upstream an angler chooses to go. Think roadless areas paralleled by a trail and you should start to see the possibilities. In addition, these lightweight, frameless new watercraft are much more helicopter-friendly than full-size rafts, allowing hard-cores to be dropped at or near the headwaters of mostly inaccessible streams, all geared up for a float out through miles and miles of unfished water. The Watermaster Kodiak, which I fish out of, is stable enough for anglers to carry all the gear they need—tents, sleeping bag, pad, cooler, food and water—right
behind their seat. When he was alive, I used to load my 120-pound Labrador, Moose, onto the raft and let him ride the river right behind me.
Near the end of our phone conversation in July I told Wogs, “This five-mile stretch of water gets fished one week all year and only by the ranch owner and a couple of his friends. You’ll get miles of unfished water and native cutthroats without hookscars,” adding, with a bite, “What, have you gotten old and become soft?”
Wogs sighed and said, “Sounds cool. See you on Tuesday,” adding this demand: “I don’t have any flies and my five-weight is broken. You’re in charge of gear. Set me up.”
I met Wogs’ demands and set him up with a brand-new five-weight and a half-dozen black, foam ants. Shortly after meeting up, we dropped the rafts off a public bridge and
into the stream. Then I said, “If we don’t get a few fish between 16 and 20 inches I’ll be surprised.”
We floated out of sight, then stopped to rig up. After tying on some 4X and an olive Stimulator I made a short cast to a four-feet deep run and immediately had a six-inch cutthroat hammer the fly. A few minutes later I lost a 15-inch fish. Fifteen minutes later Wogs and I had each landed four cutthroats and were floating to the next patch of promising water, a tactic we utilized all day, before finally pulling off the water, nine hours later, around 7 p.m. By that time we’d lost count of the fish and conservatively
estimated that we’d landed at least 50 between us, none above 16 inches, but all painted in beautiful yellows and oranges, all harboring adipose fins and lacking hookscars, the exact equation I was hoping for. Later, at dinner, where Wogs ordered and ate the most heart-clogging and gravy-laden cheeseburger I’ve ever seen, I asked, “How many trout did you catch today?” Wogs answered, “At least 25. More than I’ve caught all year around Jackson.” I added, “And how many anglers did you see?” Wogs said, “Two. You and me.” I concluded, “That’s a pretty sweet, pretty rare equation right.” Wogs shook his head and said, “How much did you say those Watermasters cost?”
We spent the night at my house in Missoula with my daughters, Myka and Tate. Wogs slept on an old leather couch, which used to be nice before the girls’ mother went through fifty-two gallons of Oreo ice cream during two pregnancies and, later, a friend sat on it with some sort of lotion lathered on his legs. Whatever it was it took over the leather and occasionally rises to the surface. The following morning, while cooking waffles and eggs, I heard a noise and thought that an Italian was getting her upper lip waxed in my living room, but it was Wogs peeling himself off the couch. I knew what I’d see. When Wogs wandered by, the back of his sky-blue Jackson Hole One Fly fishing shirt, which he’d slept in, was mostly brown. I shook my head and said, “Um, you’re not going to be happy with me.”
An hour and a half later, the girls back with their mother, Wogs and I strolled into a grocery store to buy water, beer and a couple sandwiches. We were in “Out There” Montana and the parade of characters may have caught Wogs off guard. I told him to stop staring but then I was staring at the chest of an eight-foot tall and super hairy Neanderthal dimwit, who was sporting a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and the front emblazoned with the word Fuck above the letter U, all designed to look like a college logo. He hopped to the counter with a woman and set a fifth of Captain Morgan on the counter. It was 9:30 a.m. I turned to Wogs and said, “That’s the guy who owns the property we’ll be floating through today.” Wogs said, “That’s not even funny,” and I retorted, “Come on. They’re good folk. Card-carrying members of the NRA. They home-school their kids, support planned parenthood, and they probably created that brand of beer called Polygamy Porter. They even voted for your homeboy Dick Cheney in the 2000 election. Attended the swearing in ceremony. You’ll get along with them nicely.” Wogs looked down and pointed at his chest, which was covered by a T-shirt touting New York City’s shee shee Patagonia store. “Yea,” Wogs spat, “We have similar agendas. They’ll love me.” I said, “Walk over there and see if he’ll trade shirts with you.” Wogs replied, “No way. We’ll be seeing that guy on the news some day. Think of the weapons cache at his shack. I can almost hear their breakfast conversation: ‘Hey, babe, let’s grab a fifth of the Captain, put the kids to work in the grow room, and we can shoot the AR-17 today.’” Wogs looked at my ratty shirt and dirt-smeared shorts, noticed more dirt under my nails and about 30 mosquito bites on my legs. I set a six-pack of Budweiser on the counter and he said, “Not that we’re any better.”
A while later Wogs and I shoved off again, this time on a public section of water, accessible to anyone who made the effort to reach it. The problem with this section is that much of the stream is located far from the road and to reach it you’d have to negotiate a forest and underbrush that is dense and laden with stinging nettles and poison oak, plus moose, black bears, oversized spiders and wasp nests. In other places the stream is guarded by private property with owners who probably resemble Wog’s new fried, the summa cum laude from F U. In addition, the stream is way too small to launch a standard sized raft on; to set a driftboat on its flow would be an invitation to death. Ah, but the Watermasters. With those rafts, Wogs and I took on a six-mile stretch that never gets fished and sports, once again, native cutthroats without hookscars.
The water was moving fast, flows, so we walked the boats downstream, portaged them over a log that stretched from one bank to the other, then parked them on a gravel bar next to a deep pool. I said, “You’re up,” and Wogs worked the magic ant—the only fly he fished the day prior—right off a log that was set into the bank—classic cutthroat habitat. As expected, a big cutthroat grabbed the ant, but it was almost an impossible situation, with fast flowing water headed downstream, below another log, and Wogs trying to hoist an 18-incher upstream and out of the hole with 4X tippet. Pop. Wogs’ chin fell to his chest and he said, “That was huge.” I raised eyebrows and compassionately said, “I would have caught it.” Then I yarded a couple smaller cuts out of that hole while Wogs rerigged. Shortly, we set off downstream, rowing around boulders and downfall, negotiating sharp turns, and, generally, having a blast, just floating on the water. We stopped at the choicest spots, snapped photos of each other with great fish, and worked our way slowly downstream. Two miles into the float I saw something white and frothy downstream, headed hard right into a canyon that wasn’t even aware of—the river picking up speed and turning into a rapid. Wogs saw it, too, and shouted, “Thomas, did you ask anyone if there are rapids in this stretch?” I was trying to act cool, but I’d launched a boat on the water not knowing what I would encounter. That’s a cardinal crime and an efficient way to get yourself drowned or, worse, a friend and the father of two young children killed.
Wogs and I pulled the rafts off the water and struck out on foot, ripping through the brush, peeking downstream to see around the next bend. After a quarter mile we saw exactly what we hoped for—a long straight stretch following the short canyon, and nothing that seemed not navigable. In fact, the water looked awesome and likely was full of meaty cutthroats.
After a splashy run through that canyon, I fished a hole downstream from where we parked the boats while Wogs hoofed it along the edge of the water, back upstream, to a nice pool we’d floated over. I had my doubts but Wogs was quickly into a big cutthroat and motioning for the net. A few minutes later he had a beautifully colored 18-inch westslope cutt in-hand. After releasing that fish he made another cast to the far bank, just below a cliff, and allowed the ant to dead drift with the current. Just as Wogs gave up on the drift and turned to say something, I saw another big cutthroat rise quickly to the ant, nip at it, then return to the dark. We cast to that fish numerous times but couldn’t tempt it again.
No worries. For another hour we took solid cutts on isolated and virgin public water until two lightening bolts touched a nearby ridge and I said, “I’m off the water right here, right now.” As much as I wanted to continue fishing, taking shelter was the right thing to do and as lightening cracked overhead, and hard rain and hail tested the worthiness of our rain jackets, Wogs and I spent time talking, planning, dreaming.
“Do you think you’ll make it up here this fall when these cutthroats are hammering October caddis and Hecuba?” I asked.
“This fall?” Wogs questioned. “What are you doing next week?”
“How many fish have you landed today, Jeff?” I asked.
“Maybe 20,” he replied with a wide grin.
“And how many anglers have you seen?”
“Two,” he chimed.
“Do you know how many streams there are in Montana and other places with liberal stream access laws, like Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Alaska, where we could do similar trips?”
“Dozens,” Wogs replied.
“No,” I offered. “Hundreds for sure and maybe even thousands. Enough water for a lifetime of fishing in solitude.”
Wogs shook some water off his jacket as shafts of light finally broke through the storm. “Wherever, just count me in. This opens up a whole new world of fishing. It’s like legally poaching, just better. As long as F U doesn’t show up.”