Evening shadows lengthen and the river bottoms come to life at the end of the day. An owl flies into a cottonwood tree to get a good lock at the anglers walking into its domain. At the end of a warm and sunny day, it’s time to put on a good helping of bug spray and go out in search of some of those fish that ignore anglers during the day.
Now that it’s mid-August, tactics that worked a few weeks ago probably aren’t as effective anymore. Pale Morning Dun mayfly hatches aren’t as prolific as they were a month ago and trout aren’t looking up at the water’s surface for their next bit of food with any reliability.
That doesn’t mean fishing isn’t good. It’s just time to switch gears and go fishing when the fish are feeding, which is about the time that everybody else gets off the river.
Our son, Kevin, and his family, have been camping and fishing with us the last few weekends, so Kevin took a walk with me through the mosquito haven that is the lower Big Hole River in search of fishing action.
Unlike the daytime hours, when the river is filled with float anglers and recreational floaters, the evening more often is a time for the solitary angler willing to brave mosquitoes and falling temperatures in hopes of finding trout on the feed.
There are never guarantees, of course. Still, when Kevin and I walked through the tall grasses and brush, we were filled with anticipation. We were heading for a spot that has rewarded us many times in the past, a bend in the river where we can wade the shallows and cast toward deeper water along the opposite bank.
Aquatic entomologists sometimes talk about an ‘evening drift,’ a time when mayfly nymphs let go of their rocky shelters on the stream bottom and go for a little trip. Fish, of course, take advantage of this chance for an evening snack, though sometimes those bits of aquatic food have a little sting, often in the form of a soft-hackled wet fly, part of the legacy of Syl Nemes, whose death I noted a month ago.
This evening, the action is slow in starting. In fact, I begin to wonder whether there will be any action. It somehow seems that when I’ve had hot action it was when the water is lower than it is this season of high water flows. I finally have a strike from a fish that grabs the fly and goes for a short run before shaking the hook.
I walk a little farther downstream and change flies and this one; a soft-hackled pheasant tail nymph seems to have some magic to it. I catch an energetic brown trout that puts up a good fight before I’m able to bring it in for the release. Then I get a substantially bigger brown that goes on one long run after another before tiring. A third fish follows that one.
By then it’s almost dark. The air temperature has dropped and I’m feeling chilled from wet-wading in the cool water, so it’s actually a relief to walk back through the trees and warm up a bit while we slap mosquitoes. We’ve done better on other occasions but we had enough action to make us happy.
We weren’t the only anglers on the river that evening. Earlier we’d passed a bait fisherman excited about a three-pound brown trout he’d caught a little earlier. He was gone when we came back but we heard the next day he’d caught several more browns, including a deep-bellied, nine-pound brown trout that I suspect might stop at a taxidermy shop along its way to a trophy wall.
Late evening and night fishing isn’t for everyone, though on a visit to Michigan a couple years ago I learned that there it’s almost a religion during early summer brown drake and ‘Hex’ hatches. Here in Montana it’s almost a given that you’ll have the river to yourself.
Just don’t forget the bug dope.