For the past couple years, Orvis has hosted a guide’s barbeque on the Missouri River in Craig, Montana, on the day after the Orvis Guide Rendezvous. Everyone hits the river first and then comes back to compare notes, tell fish stories, drink a couple beers, and eat some good grub. Last year, the weather could not have been more miserable, with air temperatures in the low twenties, high winds, and occasional heavy snow. Andrew Pierce and I shared a boat, and we set out with high hopes. But after about two hours of fighting the wind and freezing our butts off, we packed it in, with just one small brown (which Andrew caught on a streamer) to show for our efforts. “The Mo” was not good to me, and I held a grudge for an entire year.
This year, conditions were markedly better when I hopped into the South Fork Skiff to try again to crack the Missouri code. The temperature was hovering around fifty, there wasn’t much wind, and I had the boat to myself. Plus, my guide, Todd Everts of PRO Outfitters, has been guiding on the Missouri for almost twenty-five years and knows his stuff. We decided to start off throwing streamers, which I really enjoy. But, alas, we did not start off with a bang. I pounded the banks, swung through seams, and dropped off midstream shoals for a couple hours and never turned a fish. I began to have that old feeling again. Could I be skunked two years in a row on one of the most famous trout rivers in the world?
“Let’s throw the Skwala dry for awhile,” Todd suggested, much to the relief of my shoulder. So I dropped the big dry fly right on the bank and along inside seams for about another forty-five minutes, but nothing rose to eat it. I cast for the hundredth time and turned to Todd.
“I’m starting to get a complex about this river,” I said.
BAM! No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a gorgeous brown trout hammered the fly, and the skunk was off.
“Try saying that again,” Todd suggested after we released the fish, but I didn’t want to tempt fate.
But sure enough, after that, nothing would eat the dry fly. We had lunch on an island in the river and decided to go back to the streamer. We tried every color in the book, sizes ranging from big to monstrous, and every retrieve we could think of. Nothing. Finally, I told Todd that my shoulder—which has suffered from bursitis on and off for twenty-five years—simply couldn’t take any more. So he tied on a different Skwala pattern.
“How about a dropper?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he replied and tied on a pink Czech Nymph about eighteen inches below the dry. I continued to work the edges for about another half hour, when as the fly drifted along an inside seam, the Skwala disappeared. I set the hook and immediately realized that this was a big fish. It swam straight to the bottom and bulldogged, rather than going on a streaking run. Todd anchored the boat as I struggled to put pressure on the trout, which was putting a serious bend in the 6-weight. The real excitement set in when I finally got the fish near the surface, where we could see it.
“That’s a pig!” Todd said as he jumped out of the boat. I finally had the big brown under control, and I led its head toward Todd’s waiting long-handled net. But as he scooped the fish out of the water, the handle of the net snapped! Showing pretty remarkable reflexes, Todd shot a hand out and caught the stump of the handle, and then brought the fish back up to the boat.
I’m not a real numbers guy, so we didn’t measure the trout, but Todd guessed twenty-two inches. And it was a heavy fish, with a big girth—probably the second-biggest brown trout I’ve ever caught in the U.S. We snapped a few pictures, made sure that the trout was well revived and swam away, and then sat in the boat for a minute to bask in the moment. It had been a lot of work, but the day was made by that stunning brown. Todd picked up the two pieces of his net and made me take a picture of him with it for posterity.
We continued to fish the Skwala-and-Czech-Nymph rig for the rest of the afternoon, and we hooked five more and landed three, including a couple of really pretty rainbows. It was an afternoon that washed away a whole year of angst and frustration, which I’d been feeling since last year’s debacle. I had been jokingly bad-mouthing the Missouri whenever it came up in conversion, but I think I’ll be singing a different tune from now on.
Next year, I’ll have to get to work reversing that new Bitterroot jinx.