Fly fishing for Rainbow Trout in the Fall in Montana

HOPE to go to British Columbia this fall to cast a fly for steelhead in the Morice River where it exits the Telkwa Range near Smithers. I settled on a blue ribbon trout river in Montana, one that was far enough from home to give me the feeling of a trip. In fish size it was a long step down. But in other ways, the streams had much in common. The two ran across a land still unstained by the hand of man. And both rivers, in the third week of October, had given up to the geese, bears, and otters, to which they rightfully belonged.

Out of respect for the size of the fish, I only brought one rod, a 7 1/2 foot bamboo that I had built with cane that I picked up in Scotland a few years ago. It handled a 4-weight double taper on its slow, parabolic bend, and I occasionally abused it with a high-density shooting head and the small marabou brooks that this river’s trout have become so addicted to. .

For me this was a kind of homecoming. I had fished the river every fall for a half-dozen years in the late 1970s and early 80s, pitching my tent on a bluff above the junction of two feeder streams that melded into cobalt meanders through the buffalo grass. High in the folds of the canyon above the river, deer antlers rose with the season, and more than once I had blackened my face with ash and picked up a bow and quiver of arrows to seek their source. But I was older now and softened my racing heartbeat at the sound. I had become content looking for a more meditative sport.

October 1990 Field & Stream Cover
The October 1990 issue featured a mixed bag of the best of fall and a cover photo by William S. Lea. Field & Flow

It’s no secret, really, that it flows in the fall. But the fishermen who are lured by its reputation all go to the same places, many kilometers downstream, where the river winds its way to the long arm of a reservoir. Most do not suspect that reservoir trout, which migrate upstream to spawn, sometimes climb much higher than the lower bends of the river. They don’t even bother with anything other than the heavy drip coffees about which so many words have been written.

But the secret of this stream is up here in the pines, where brown trout gradually give way to a guard of rainbows that come out of the lake in September. Unlike their more somber cousins, rainbows don’t pause in their upstream march, but swim right through the canyon and beyond. I have seen them jumping like salmon in the falls of the creek that whispers us to sleep at night, but the best fishing is in the creek a few miles below camp. Fisheries biologists have told me that these trout do not spawn until February. So in their migration pattern they’re a little different than the Morice fall-run steelhead I wanted to catch, and they possess all the qualities of those fish in a smaller package. Hard hitting, high jumping, long winded – they are everything a wild trout should be.

For several years I have been concerned that their numbers were declining. In the past I had caught 10 rainbows for every brown in these limits, but the last two falls the opposite had happened, and while the browns were nice fish, they were no match for these rainbow trout in anything but size.

It was evening before my tent was pitched and the rod collected. It was almost dark before the first trout came to hand, a small, silvery brown, which I gently scooped up and returned to its cradle. I covered my arms and rested my fly rod in the crook of an elbow. It was not a good start. There had always been fish in the canyon before by the time baseball pennant races were established in September. The first pitch of the World Series was to be thrown tonight. There was plenty of time for the run to get this far. I walked back up the hill and built a fire, cooked a pizza in a pie iron and tuned my transistor radio to the broadcast from Oakland. This too had always been part of the fall ritual, along with trout and deer. But tonight even the deer were silent. A handful of coyotes howled from among the boulders. I folded my waders and boots under the tent canopy and went to bed.

Sometime during the night I awoke and almost lay down thinking about the problems of my civilized life; worrying about money. It was my first night on the river and I knew this would pass. Tomorrow I would sleep more soundly, and by the third morning my whole life would be right here, and all the gold I would need would have been scattered to the ground by the wind in the aspens.

Breakfast for a serious trout fisherman comes early. I was up before six o’clock, lit my lantern, and struck out toward the river with the stalk over my arm. During the night they had frozen as hard as cardboard, and I thawed them in the thin water by the stream, while I tied an olive marabou to the top of my leader. In previous autumns it had been a spruce fly or a black marabou. Only during the odd year did color matter. One fall, a line of rainbow/cutthroat hybrids climbed the canyon. They wanted orange on the channel wings, and I caught many of them on a fly that was the color of the crevices under their jaws.

But usually all that mattered was being on the water early. When I closed the valve on the headlight it was still dark. The grass was silvered with frost, and the river, a black ribbon with a thin trail of smoke over its surface, broke out peacefully in its sleep. This was the heartbeat of the river that few noticed, for the sound seemed to disappear with the light of day.

I moved a few feet away and began sighting the casting head through the guides, casting slightly upstream and turning the marabou in short pulses across the current. I took a step downstream and jumped again. No shot came, but I was still very high on the rifle. In a strange way, I dreaded my steady progress towards the deepest part of the run, where the rainbows should be, where they had always held in the past. If they weren’t there, I didn’t want to know. But then the fly was working down, cutting its turns into the tongue of the first thick water and there it was, the strong pull of a good trout. I knew it was a rainbow even before it shot. His heart came out for the next 5 minutes and then I had him in my hand, an 18 inch male with the beginnings of a kype on the lower jaw. Her gills flashed in the water for a while before she was strong enough to go.

I got three more rainbows in the next half hour. All were better than 15 inches, and all held a bend in the bamboo for so long that I had to submerge the rod in water to keep ice from forming on the snake guides. I finished the run with a beautiful speckled brown trout with an orange breast and an old gold belly. I put the marabou into the keeper’s ring, satisfied, and saw a pair of geese whistling overhead as they headed upstream.

I could go on fishing. There are a dozen good pools and riffles on this stretch of river. I ran madly from one to the other in a certain sequence, constantly retreating into the deepest shadows, because once the sun hit the surface, the trout became shy.

But this morning I was content to go no further. It was enough just to know that the fish were back. I sometimes wonder if our biologists, in their endless tinkering with the stocking programs of the reservoir that produces these fish and of other reservoirs in the West, fully understand the jewel they have in a fall run of rainbow trout. They are a poor man’s steelhead, and catching them was as close to fishing in British Columbia as I would get this fall.

As I returned from the river, I found my eyes wandering among the thickets where the deer lived. I knew that their silence had only been suspended, and that one would eavesdrop any minute now.

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