We’ve been enduring a rare period where winter conditions ice the Bitterroot over and make it nearly unfishable, the type of extended period that starts fermenting a serious case of the shack nasties. That’s what legendary fly-fishing sage and author, John Gierach, called the fly-fisherman’s cabin fever in the masterpiece, Trout Bum. Shack nasties. We finally had a cold snap, a regular “Montana of my youth” dose of winter. Cold enough for long enough to freeze the river nearly across in most places, shelves of ice guarding most of the sweet spots in the upper river, and it even stacked a big ice jam right on top of one of my favorite winter nymphing runs close to town. It’s been Real Montana Winter for a couple of weeks now, and with Valentine’s weekend and other facts of Responsible Adult life, I was startled to realize it’s just about the last week of February and I’ve yet to catch my February trout. I haven’t been fishing since January! If I go more than a couple of weeks without getting my waders or oars wet any part of the year that’s not Elk Season (yes, capitals), I start showing clear signs of sketchiness, restlessness, and irritability that are chief symptoms of the shack nasties. In the middle of winter, my cure is usually European nymphing in one stretch or another of the Bitterroot River. There’s a handful of us die hard nymphers on our river, most of them my good friends. Crazy bastards each of them. Using ten or eleven foot two or three weight rods with equally lengthened leaders, they wade the ice-water to reach the fishy runs under their rod tips instead of casting nymphs under a strike indicator from the relative warmth of shore in the more traditional method. Tight-line nymphing just attracts a certain kind of person, I reckon. Trout obsessed, innovative, “fishy” guys who also enjoy the solitude that accompanies miserable conditions and get a little extra satisfaction from catching trout while others are skiing. We use tight-long lines and heavy bugs, personally tied, because you just can’t buy them heavy enough for the big tanks and faster runs common to the Bitterroot. And, I suppose, crafting one’s own nymphs is another indicator of being that “certain kind of person.”
There was finally a break in the weather this afternoon - 37 degrees and spitting just a bit of snow, warm in the relative sort of way that 48 is cold in July. Perfect. It was crappy enough to discourage all but the most diehard fishermen, but warm enough to keep your guides and line from freezing up. All that spitting snow looked nasty, but it bounced right off a jacket. Really not bad at all. Much of the ice had pushed out, and the river’s temp, unscientifically measured, read “ice-water.” The fish might be sluggish, but they would be in the river, guaranteed. No catching them from home. This Christmas, my wife surprised me with a new nymph rod, the new Redington Strike. It’s an 11 footer in 3 weight, specifically designed for Euro-Style. 3 weight sensitivity and tippet protection for the big trout, with a butt that handles the same fish like a six weight. I’ve fished it a half a dozen times since Christmas, and it continues to impress me. My previous 10 foot, 3 weight - a Hydrogen - is a nice stick and has served me well for many years, but this thing is incredible. With only a short time to fish, I strung the Strike up and tied on my flies - a heavy dark stone fly for my anchor fly and a heavy pheasant tail variant for my dropper - in the parking lot. I fish a variation of those bugs most of the winter, changing my flies for weight more than appearance or species, truthfully, and keeping my hands warm while tying on flies at the truck is a bonus. Today was not one of them, but there are certain days that are so cold I make a deal with myself that if I snap off I’m hiking back to the truck and calling it a day rather than freezing my fingers to re-tie. This, I
tied on that pair of go-to bugs which I tied during the freeze, slipped my waders over a couple of pairs of heavy socks and eased them into the oversized wading boots I reserve for winter fishing only, and hoofed to a good run a quarter-mile from a fishing access site fairly close to town. The snow revealed that only one other fisherman made the same walk earlier today, and given the increased pressure all blue-ribbon trout rivers face, one set of tracks from early in the day is tolerable competition. I worked the runs quickly in my limited time, figuring that if I found one, I’d find a few. Eventually, I managed to find a couple of fish, one on the dropper and one on the anchor. Both bonefish. Natives. The Rocky Mountain Whitefish - a much underappreciated species, but like the Westslope Cutthroat and the Bull Trout, was swimming this river when the Lewis and Clark expedition waded through it. Not the February trout I’d hoped for tonight, but I had the river to myself, and I still have a week left to catch a nice brown, cutt, or bow to keep my Twelve Months of Trout alive. I’m confident that I will. And my shack nasties have been bedded down for at least a couple of weeks. By the time they’d even get a chance to flare up again, everyone in this neck of Montana will have their minds fixed firmly on Skwala stoneflies, and even more importantly, so will all those trout.