Embracing Montana's multiple personalities.
A warm spell in midwinter is a strange and disorienting experience. You go to sleep after a long day riding powder and as you lay in bed you can still feel the float in your legs from the board pushing through each fluffy turn. The next morning the steady drip, drip, drip, of snow melting off the roof wakes you up and immediately your day is ruined. You could still go up to the hill but after yesterday's powder today's slush would be a letdown. Unable to avoid it any longer you crawl out of bed and go outside wearing boots and a sweater. Moping around the sloppy yard a strange feeling comes over you and you turn to face the sun. The feeling is warmth: something dimly remembered from mid-September. You go inside and trade in your boots for sandals, your sweater for a tee shirt. The hammock hanging in the aspens out back feels weight for the first time in months and you soak up the sun like a lethargic turtle on a riverside log.
The five-day forecast calls for more of the same so a plan is hatched. The next day winter is cleaned out of the truck: boards, boots, snowshoes, and poles are replaced by rods, reels, and waders. A lunch is made and the dog awakes from hibernation on the couch. You load up and drive out of town toward the Beartrap with the windows down and radio on.
Hiking up the rocky path that mirrors the Madison, the dog can't resist and steps in, taking a few tentative laps of river water. She hops out quickly and shakes vigorously. "Well, what do you expect,” you tell her, “that stuff was snow a few days ago." It's still cold but most of the shelf-ice is gone and it's not hard to imagine trout coming out of their winter stupor and allowing themselves to be caught. You hike until you find a promising run. This time of year the trout seem to congregate in deep, slow runs where they can expend the least amount of calories and still pick up the occasional nymph washed down from the riffles above.
You take a long time to rig up and it feels good to get in the rhythm: cast, mend, drift, repeat. Following the bouncing neon indicator and the simple repetitive casting puts you in a nice, chilled-out trance state. The trout are interruptions but pleasant ones. They are stainless-steel rainbows, all cast from the same 12- to 13-inch mold. Ice-bright and cold-water feisty, they dart quickly back to the riverbed when released.
After a while your hands are numb from frequent dunkings in the icewater so you climb up the bank to eat your sandwich and console your barking dog. She hasn't quite grasped the finer points of the catch-and-release ethic and gets increasingly agitated with each potential snack put back. In the summer she wades out and attempts to assist in the landing process but now the cold water forces her to stand on the rocks and voice her displeasure. You placate her with half a ham sandwich and sit in the sun watching the river and feeling lazy. You haven't thought about fresh tracks or the depressingly snow-free weather forecast all day.
You clamber back down the rocks and catch a few more fish, finally deciding to leave before the dog goes into convulsions or rolls a rock down on your head. Walking the trail back to the truck, the air is still warm even thought the sun has started to dip below the canyon walls. Every once in a while you catch a whiff of something that’s about two months ahead of schedule. It’s the smell of spring: vegetation freshly stripped of its cold white blanket and becoming warm again in the sun. You drink up the earthy organic smell and think, this is something I could get used to.
Life continues like this for a few days, a week maybe, and you forget what was so fun about getting up early to scrape ice off the windows and let the car warm up. Shoveling the driveway is a thing of the past and naps in the hammock have become a daily ritual. Then it happens: you get up one morning to let the dog outside and before you can even get the coffee going she is scratching and whining to be let back in. Opening the door, a blast of snow-laden wind cuts through your pajamas like they're not there and the dog rushes by your legs, making her way purposefully for the couch. Once again, your day is immediately ruined. You had planned on getting the boat out of storage and floating the Yellowstone, but now it looks like the wind over in Livingston would blow you upstream and turn every cast into a fruitless tangle of fly line.
There is only one thing to do and the dog doesn't even raise her head as you layer up and head out the door. Winter regains its rightful place in the truck. Rods, reel, and waders are shuffled back to the garage, replaced with boards, boots, and goggles. You drive slowly up to the hill in four-wheel drive and after your first powder run you forget entirely why spending all day in a boat with the dog sounded like a good idea.
A stretch of warm weather in the midst of a Montana winter compresses a year's changes into a week. Seasons last only a day or two and the passage of time is so apparent that you are forced to acknowledge it. Winter to spring, to summer, to fall and then ultimately back to winter again. All of the enjoyment is tinged with a slightly frantic need to "do it now while the weather is nice." The cold specter of wind and snow hovers in the back of your mind even when the breeze from the open car window is blowing your hair around.
It's best to treat these little glitches in winter's program as a sort of one-night stand: enjoy them while they last. Just keep in mind that "fall" will probably be here tomorrow with winter close on its heels.
Fly Reorganization–A Winter Tradition
When the temperatures plunge to frighteningly low numbers and even the desire to tromp out onto the ice begins to wane, take heart—this is the time to partake in an annual reorganization of your beloved fly collection. This anal-retentive spree has become a regular tradition in my life, typically accompanied by NFL football and my favorite alcoholic elixirs. It is a time to remember fishing adventures now past and dream of angling exploits yet to come; time to exhume old fly boxes from the catacombs of the closet, garage, shed, or wherever that nook in your home completely given over to fly tying might be.
Once the myriad boxes are assembled and within arm’s reach, you can began sifting through their contents. Storage boxes over here, vest boxes here, boat supply boxes there, streamers, dry flies, nymphs, midges—or, for the really precise, baetis, caddis, terrestrials, Salmon flies… Yes, out springs the inherent human tendency to categorize and label, and it is true that fly reorganization can raise some disturbing questions about one’s own psyche, not to mention saying something profound about the personalities of all those who gravitate to the sport. If you’re like me, by the end of the evening you’ll still be far from finishing the task, and as long as you needn’t concern yourself with pesky kitty-cats or snoopy bird dogs, the reorganizing extravaganza can continue for days.
The payoff is that when the equinox rolls around and the hidden forces of entropy begin their work, you might actually know where to reach for that size #4 brown bugger or #18 blue-winged olive. Just try to get a handle on matters before the temperature climbs into the mid-40s or you’ll wish that you’d just cut to the chase and organized that spring creek box for winter midging.—JIMMY LEWIS