High Water

Time to seize the season

The mountain river shoulders up out of its banks, pushing into the willows and alder, washing flotsam upon new grass. The water, though, is clear. But it is big and fast and the run-out is not good: miss your footing on slippery stone and it is down through Class V with only the air in your lungs for flotation and flailing arms for locomotion. This is late spring fishing in high Montana, and tall water is part of it.

This day threatens rain, and it is the kind of day that never produces. It never warms enough for a hatch, it never squeezes enough moisture out of the clouds to matter much at all, and it never produces a fish. It does produce cold wind from the granite and snow flanks of the mountain to the west and it also does produce a particularly dandy batch of hungry mosquitoes that somehow thrive despite the cold that deters other bugs. Not even the wind can keep them down. They hang in the leeward side of your body and dine. Later, down out of the high country, you will wonder why all the bites are on one side and then you’ll remember the mosquitoes surfing in the wake of your body.

It is not always this tough on this river. There have been days of good casting and a steady rise of big fish. This time of the year the big rainbows usually show up, running up out of the desert river below, and eating little fish, slapping and slurping on the water. On a few of these days you’ve caught them, chunky specimens of pink and green. Just last year, you had your best year and you netted six rainbows, all over 18 inches, all thick sinew and strong gill. Brawlers in a mountain river of high water.

Since there is little else to do other than practice casting into the wind, you find a convenient stump, a gray strong thing that has been polished by the mountain winds and etched by winter storms. It is a good place for a cigar, and the smoke clouds into the wake of your frame and drives the mosquitoes to less heavily armed prey. And you think about high water.

And abundance.

Now is the time. Carpe diem. If you do not live in the now, right now, then you will be missing the whole point. There has never been a better time in modern history to take a fly rod in hand and cast to the trout feeding thick in clear pools. There has never been a better time to heft a good rifle or shotgun and go afield for game, furred and feathered all.

Now is the time. Those of us who fight and whine and complain about things beyond our immediate control are cautioned to remember that whining and complaining takes time and energy. Time and energy that are better spent enjoying what makes you live where it’s tough to survive, brought you here and keeps you here. Certainly, don’t forget to fight, but don’t forget why you fight. This is the reason you are here: to cast on good water and cast your eyes across a mountain hold. And these are the high-water years. Make no mistake. In fact, some of the high water may already be receding, never to be seen again. It is likely that we will never see the big mule deer boom of the 1960s ever again.

Perhaps we will never see chukar and gray partridge in the numbers of the 1990s. Clearly, the sage grouse will not be back to the 1920s levels.

But for all we have lost and for all that is past, it is still good to be a modern-day Montana sportsman. There are elk in abundance. In many places you can tag two in a year. You can even shoot a wild bison if you are lucky enough to draw a permit. There are good fish in streams and lakes that never held trout before white men came to this land. You can still catch pure subspecies of native trout. You can even catch fish that are native to places like California’s Sierra Nevada (golden trout), Germany (brown trout), or the Midwest (walleye). There are solid numbers of mule deer, whitetail deer, and antelope, and there are moose in places there never were moose before.

We sportsmen have more and enjoy more than any man in the history of mankind. Right now is high water. Enjoy it now, because we are placing a lot of demand on the land that has given us so much already; this generation is living and consuming as if there will not be a next.

Right now. Get out there. The water is dropping.