It’s not easy to leave Puget Sound in summer, especially during king salmon season, but Montana–and our friends Craig, Jackie, Finn, Dozer, Gizmo and Bee The Cat–were calling. So the kids and I traded industrial-strength downriggers and gear rods for five-weights and waders, and headed east for what turned out to be one of the best trips of our lives so far. After a couple days on the road, we had a welcome home-cooked feast of thick, juicy elk burgers at Craig and Jackie’s, then headed to the river. That’s the kids and Craig soaking up that gorgeous Montana light, waiting for the post-dinner hatch to come on.
With Craig’s expert tutelage, Skyla struck first with a gorgeous, bright rainbow that jumped five times and nearly ran out of the pool. Weston hooked a big fish at dark that did run out of the pool and under a logjam, jumping all the way. It finally broke off, and Weston, probably for the first time, felt that gut punch of a good fish getting away.
In the days that followed, we wet-waded meadow streams, hiked up boulder-filled canyons, and fished the Madison in the evenings, finding healthy, fat, drag-pulling, wild fish everywhere we went. That’s Skyla, below, with one of eight selectively feeding rainbows the kids landed one night on pink lady spinners. (Photo by Craig Mathews)
And the incredible meals from Craig and Jackie’s kitchen! I think the antelope steaks took top prize, although the ruffed-grouse-jalapeno sandwiches were right there, too, as were the elk burgers. We actually looked forward to dinners–the food, the friends, the dogs and cat–as much as the fishing. Huge thank you to Craig and Jackie for making our visit so special, and for all their conservation work that’s kept this part of the world the incredible place that it is.
One day we left the rods behind and drove through Yellowstone as pure tourists. Skyla chose the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls as something she wanted to see. They did not disappoint, although the hike back up to the car nearly killed me. About 3/4 of the way back up the trail, huffing, puffing and sweating, I had to take an old-guy break while the kids sprinted, yes, sprinted, past me to the top. Humbling. My cell-phone pix don’t do it justice–if you’re ever in The Park, go check out the canyon and falls. Breathtaking…in more ways than one.
Both kids fished well, even going to some single-handed Spey casting along brushy banks. Their dad about burst with pride. Watching neon-colored grayling rise up through five feet of air-clear water to eat a dry fly was a highlight.
As were chrome rainbows taking soft-hackle flies (sent to us by our friend Yvon specifically for this place) in a 30-knot headwind down in Idaho.
And yes, Weston found redemption for the big one he lost the first night.
That’s him putting the wood to something big, above, with paparazzi in tow. (Photo by Craig Mathews) And finally, after an epic battle, lifting Troutzilla for a quick picture. When he released it, he stood there with a funny look on his face. “Dad,” he said, “there’s something wrong with my hands.” He extended them for me to see–they were shaking from adrenaline. Welcome to Montana, Buddy!
Sometimes, in the middle of hectic summer activities, it’s good to just calm down and go fishing. All it takes is an hour, a handline (or little trout rod), a hook and a bit of whatever critters you scrape off the bottom of a dock. And it turns out, you’re never too old to become completely absorbed by a tug on the line.
I figured the kids would’ve outgrown this by now, but Weston led the charge and Skyla soon joined in. And before I knew it, I was peering into the depths and hoping for a bite, too. All for fish that we usually walk past as we jump in a boat and charge off in search of bigger game. Today’s tally: 10 shiners, one flounder–all observed briefly in the bucket aquarium and released–and an hour’s worth of pure fun.
Well, it turned into a party. After a few hours at home to catch up on work, reload the bait box, unload some fish and generally hop around like a lunatic, Weston, Halo and I jumped in the car and picked up Skyla at volleyball practice. This meant hitting the road at 5:15pm on the Friday of a three-day weekend…which only a crazy person would do. But sometimes, apparently, craziness is rewarded: No traffic! None. Weston and Halo slept, Skyla played DJ, and we chatted and sang our way to the coast. We eventually had all five Sweeneys–including Grandma Janet–and their dog Fisher, Smarty and his dog Honey (Halo’s cousin), me, the kids and Halo at the cabin. People party, dog party, fishing party. Awesome.
Morning came fast. The kids and I jumped in with Smarty and four Sweeney’s took their boat in search of salmon. As an added bonus, we were joining the circus that is the annual Willapa Bay Salmon Derby, so nobody was getting lonely on the water. Pictured at top: the kids and Smarty with Weston’s king (which he couldn’t lift on his own) and Skyla’s silver. Just above, the Sweeneys with a nice silver.
Of course, Weston–the kid who sleeps most of the time while fishing and still manages to land the biggest trout in Montana and the 30-pound halibut on a steelhead rod in BC–won the kids’ division of the derby, earning him hearty applause from the crowd, $50 cash, and bragging rights. He was stoked! That’s him with Skyla and Sweeney, weighing in his fish.
Fishing remained tough, but we hit the water again for the afternoon tide, and again the next morning just scratching out a fish here and there. By Sunday afternoon, we were fished out. Smarty headed down the coast to scout geese with Honey, and the rest of us kicked back on the beach, which turned into an impromptu raft-building party. That’s the crew with all hands (and paws) on deck. What a time! Huge thanks to the Sweeneys and Smarty for being family to us, and for making such great memories. And on that note, it’s time to go pull the last load of fish out of the smoker now…Love this time of year.
Where was I? Oh, yeah…Montana. Every day was a new adventure; one day we drove down into Idaho and fished a gorgeous river near Ashton. On another, Yvon, the kids and I started fishing the Gallatin up high in the park where it’s a meandering meadow creek, then followed it north to where it turned into a medium-sized freestone river. And on yet another day, we took a break from fishing and headed into The Park to brave the circus around Old Faithful (it was 10 minutes late, crowded, and still spectacular) and look for wildlife (spotted bison, elk, bighorn sheep and a moose). Of course, we did have to stop for a few casts 0n the Gibbon and Firehole on the way back…
Wherever we went, though, we wrapped up each day back on our “home waters” of the Madison. That’s Skyla watching and waiting for the evening hatch to start. I loved sitting with her in the warm evening light, feet dangling in the water, listening to the excitement in her voice when she spotted a rise.
We often fished until almost pitch-black night, with bats swooping through the air, and that spooky feeling–a tingly mix of excitement and dread–that comes from being in a river in the dark. That’s Weston and Craig with a fat Madison River rainbow that chased down a big waking dry fly. I think the look on Weston’s face says it all. A huge thank you to Craig, Jackie and Yvon for kindness, patience, generosity, wisdom and just being plain fun to hang out with. We made the long drive home stoked on gratitude and memories that I know will last forever.
One day we fished a medium-sized river flowing through potato and wheat fields. Once Yvon had Skyla rolling on her own with the tenkara rod (no reel), he helped Weston wade into position to try the same techniques with a regular fly rod. Soft-hackle wet fly, downstream swing, small twitches along the way and…FISH ON! I think each kid must have landed at least 20 fish in an hour, with lots of laughter, high fives and huge smiles.
Another day we hiked around in The Park, searching for high-elevation brookies between waterfalls and in creeks meandering through glowing meadows.
Once we found our rhythm, we started each day the same, with Weston washing the breakfast dishes and Skyla packing our lunch while I loaded gear into the car for our next adventure.
But wherever we went, we ended each day back “home” on the Madison. Skyla, below, showing off her new tenkara skills. After yet another fantastic dinner at Craig and Jackie’s, we’d wader up and hit the 50-mile riffle ’til dark. That’s a rhythm I could really get used to.