September 9, 2017
We drove 30 minutes to the Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop in Missoula to meet our guide at 7:00. We met David Hufman and did all the paperwork in the shop and put our rods in his Toyota truck. We drove south about 45 minutes to the Bitterroot River. We thought we were going to fish Clark Fork, but David said the Bitterroot was fishing better. We talked about the fires as we headed toward Lolo National Forest. He said the smoke acted like a cloud cover for the river, keeping it cool and making fishing better. I asked about his beautiful Boulder boat. He said it is the third one he has had. A client had given him this one! He has guided this man on many fishing trips. He is a very wealthy man, now 90 years old, and still comes fishing with him. He had bought the boat and wanted his aid to learn how to use it and to take him fishing. That never quite worked out, and it sat in a shed for two years. One day David got a call from the man’s aid, who said, “David, this is your lucky day. Mr. … is giving you his Boulder boat. He is going to have it shipped to your house.” The drift boat is a light, thin-walled boat that slides easily over rocks.
We learned that David grew up in western Pennsylvania. His best friend moved to Montana and kept telling David he needed to come join him guiding fishing trips. Finally, he came, and now he has been guiding for 18 years. By the time we got to the river we learned David is a bright guy with tremendous knowledge and enthusiasm for his profession. After pushing off into the river, he put tippet and different hoppers on our lines. Then he gave us some instructions on how he wanted us to fish. We told him we were here to fish, but also to learn, and we welcomed any instruction and coaching. You might think we know how to fish, and we do to some extent, but a great guide, like David, is fishing every day. He talks to other professionals, and he spends every day with fishermen and women, talking and watching techniques. He knows where the fish are, what they like to eat and what time the hatches are. Even if you had a boat like this to float the river, we would just start fishing flies we thought might work, but we would likely make the wrong choices, the wrong colors or the wrong presentation. We would probably catch some fish, but we would not have the kind of day we were about to have.
David coached constantly, in a soft, positive manner all day. It was like going to a clinic with a great expert. We started catching fish from the start – big, strong cutthroats, rainbows and a cutbow, which is a cross of the two. The biggest fish of the day was a 19-incher Kelly caught. He almost made the 20/20 club, where you catch a 20 inch fish with a size 20 fly. That is a very tiny fly! After about an hour and a half the Trico hatch started. These are tiny little flies that hatch, spawn and the males die. David said they must be like cocaine for trout, because the love them, and while feeding on them, they will ignore everything else. We watched a real bug float over feeding fish, and they ignored it.
In one area, they had put old cars on the bank to try to stabilize the river banks. It didn’t work so well, but it makes great cover for fish. It also makes a great place to break your line and lose fish. It doesn’t look like these old car frames will do what they wanted. David said the powerful river moves every year, washing these sandy banks away. In one area the river will likely go up and over the banks and take an entirely new route.
We have seen feeding trout before, but never like this. Big noses poking out of the water as they sipped Tricos. They were schooled-up in certain areas with 10-15 fish feeding. David called them pods of fish. He could tell the big ones by the size of rings they made in the water. Sometimes you would get a glimpse of the tail or the whole fish sipping tiny Tricos, 3-4mm in size. Looking into the water by the boat, you could see hundreds of dead males floating by. Similar to salmon, they hatch and mate. Then the males die while the females live on. This river is full of food for fish. The trick, and it’s a demanding trick, is to pick out a ring where a fish is feeding and cast the tiny fly one foot above it with absolutely no drag from the line. You have to drop the fly right on the target, not a foot in front or behind. Why would the fish move when the food just keeps coming down the river. You have to drop the tiny fly so gently, it looks like it has a parachute on. The fish then has 100 options, one of which is your fly. If he takes it, you must wait for him to swallow it. He has his big mouth open and if you jerk the fly, it just comes out of his mouth before he has a chance to close. This is a whole, new level of fishing. There were so many fish feeding that we managed to catch some of them. Big, powerful, hard-fighting fish that and take 15 minutes to land. Even then it takes an expert lunge of the net by David to finally land the fish.
After a while, we went back to hoppers and kept catching fish. We agreed this was the best day of trout fishing we have ever had. It was a beautiful day on a beautiful river with a great guide and coach. It just doesn’t get any better than that.