August 23, 2014

Big Fishing at Big Sky

The town of Big Sky is small, even by Montana standards, but it has a big time reputation around the world for its trout fishing.

You probably wouldn’t believe me if I tell you I stayed quiet and calm when the fish got off, especially had you seen the trout or felt the fight.

It took the fly gently, then responded with full power when it felt the hook, and headed downstream. We were looking eye-to-eye, though I was only in knee-deep water, when the first jump was about 10 yards away.

A foot-and-a-half long if an inch, shaped like a football with a vibrant red stripe glowing in the rainy gloom, the rainbow trout continued its Air Jordan-like jumps until it shook the fly about 30 yards downstream.

The words of frustration from my mouth, as were the many more words of excitement about several nice trout that didn’t get away, could have come in a variety of languages.

“We took out a group of fishermen from Nigeria last week and get quite a lot of Europeans,” said Jimmy Armijo, Gallatin River Guides, and fly shop, manager. “We get people honestly from all over the U.S. We’ve had a lot from India this year, too.”

Those people make such treks to southwestern Montana to fish some of the most famed trout rivers in the world. Many base out of Big Sky, a small town located at the sport’s epicenter, and home to Armijo’s shop.

Armijo, a self-confessed trout-aholic who came from New Mexico for the trout fishing, quickly shared the names of seven legendary rivers within easy drive of the town, including the heralded Madison, Yellowstone, Henry’s Fork and Bighorn rivers.

“That doesn’t even include all the options in Yellowstone (National Park), as close as an hour away,” said Armijo. “You have hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in there and some nice lakes. It would be impossible to fish every inch of trout water around here in a lifetime.”

The trout fishing sub-culture is large and growing in southwest Montana, where some small communities have more fly-fishing shops than churches. Early morning cafe parking lots are loaded with pick-ups pulling high-sided drift boats, as local guides await visiting clients.

With the sport’s popularity, has come a mindset that has benefitted the fish and fishing.

Armijo credits local guides and serious anglers spreading the gospel of catch and release fishing for some amazing trout numbers in many rivers, most of which have not been stocked with fish for many years.

“We are seeing more people releasing fish, and 3-4,000 trout per mile is typical in a lot of sections,” said Armijo. “It varies a lot, but some stretches probably have more.”

But with the fame comes the fishing pressure that has made some of the nation’s wariest trout. Even on a weekday, vehicles parked by wading anglers are in about every pull-off that offers public access to a river. Seldom is there not a drift boat in sight on the larger waters.

Still, those who know what they’re doing, or fish with those who do, can learn why southwestern Montana’s waters carry such fame. Catches of several dozen trout per day are common, under proper conditions, with the right guidance.

On last week’s family vacation, I invested in a pair of Armijo’s fishing guides, rather than hitting the waters in ignorance. For a half-day Brian Elliott, my nephew, and I waded the Gallatin River, which runs through Big Sky, with guide Trey Braasch, a native Pennsylvanian. Every stretch we saw of the fabled stream had fresh wader boot tracks in soft sand.

Within 10 minutes, casting a streamer and trailing quarter-inch long nymph, a brightly yellowed 16-inch brown trout took the small fly, was hooked, fought, photographed and released. The bigger, high-flying rainbow that shook the hook was an hour later. There was also a 16-inch rainbow amid the 10 trout I caught during the afternoon with Braasch.

The big day came on an all-day float trip with guide Aaron Broughton on the Yellowstone River, a river he knows better than I do the woods of our family farm. A native of northern California, Broughton, too, had come to Montana for the fishing years ago.

Shortly into the trip, I told Broughton the day was a success when he netted an 18-inch brown for me. Less than a half-hour later, he netted a near twin of the first brown for me, too. A beginner fly fisherman, Brian caught several 12- to 14-inch rainbows, all of which were bigger than any he’d landed before that day.

Collectively, we boated and released 35 to 40 fish from the float.

On the drive back Broughton talked about some of the bigger browns that lurk in some stretches of the Yellowstone. The fall spawn and spring feed-up, he said, are the best times to look for such fish.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 12 to 15-pound brown come from there,” said Broughton, who someday wants to catch such a fish himself. “That’s a dream fish, but I think there are 20-pound browns in there.”

You probably will believe me when I say I’m excited about going back.

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