Chilling in Northwest Montana

Chilling in Northwest Montana

I appreciate the unique challenges posed to fishermen during colder months, like cleaning ice out of rod guides, tucking reels in armpits to keep them from seizing, making sure fly selection and knots are spot-on to prevent having to re-rig with frigid fingers.  It takes longer to get ready—so many layers! 

But the payoffs are huge. On the main stem of the Flathead River in Northwest Montana, fly-fishing is open year-round, but few people seem to take advantage.  Most of the fishermen I see here in the late fall and early winter are pursuing spawning whitefish—not for fun, but for business, as mountain whitefish roe is a sought-after delicacy world-wide.
So, there’s no leap-frogging for prime trout water this time of year. Maybe it’s because a certain amount of research must be done beforehand to keep up on where the fish are—whether they’ve moved from the North Fork downstream to the lake, from the Middle Fork to a series of aquifers, or in the deep, latent pools of the main stem on the edge of town. 
My friend Jen and I recently got the reminder that spontaneous winter fishing can be dangerous.  When I called her on a ten-degree Tuesday and asked her to skip work with me, she said yes without hesitation. We ducked the ropes of time and temperature by putting on in West Glacier for a six mile Middle Fork Flathead float. I rowed the last two miles by “feel” in complete darkness, since the light from our headlamps only bounced off the dense fog, making visibility even more difficult. We came home to our waiting husbands hungrier and colder than we conceded to them. The stories from that day are great—but it could have gone either way, especially given that at mile two we realized I’d forgotten to put in the Clacka plugs.

Today (another ten-degree beauty) I fished in town, which meant I could completely rig up inside the warmth of my own home and make the mild walk to the river with my dog, Jolene. I loaded the Westwater pack with snacks, a thermos of schnappsy tea and extra gloves. After a couple of hours, I started playing mind games—telling myself it was ok to bail before my toes fell off and my lips turned blue. But as the subsurface hits didn’t come, I kept on, breaking good intentions to protect my face and phalanges. I decided not to quit until after the first fish, even if it was a whitey. Ultimately, though, common sense came from behind for the win, forcing me onto the bank and up the trail. As I hiked out, I could practically smell the crockpot roast my husband and daughters had waiting for me. I tapped out shivering…and smiling.

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