March Madness

I knew that as soon as the NCAA champ was crowned the first weekend in April it would be time to fish

By Rob Breeding

There’s a basketball tournament on campus today. There are basketball tournaments all around us this time of year. It’s a signal telling us it’s March. Winter’s almost over. There will be a bit of mud. Then it’s spring at last.

It’s been this way since I started fly fishing three decades ago. Back then, in Southern California, I knew that as soon as the NCAA champ was crowned the first weekend in April it would be time to fish. Watching the Final Four stimulated a kind of Pavlovian reaction among the group of trout bums I hung out with. We’d watch hoops and then pile into the vehicle of whomever had the most reliable ride at the time, and head for the High Sierra and the Owens River.

Those were good trips. Sometimes we’d mix in a little spring skiing on Mammoth Mountain. That late-season snow had the well-earned nickname of “Sierra Cement,” but I wasn’t much of a skier anyway. It was just a diversion from the trout game, as well as a chance to meet women. There weren’t many women out on the rivers fly fishing in those days.

After moving to Montana I transferred that fly fishing/basketball association from the NCAAs to postseason prep tourneys. I was in the Bitterroot when I first came to the state, and the end of basketball season meant one thing in that river valley: skwalas.

February would be pushing it, but always in the first week or two of March somebody would get into fish rising to skwala dry flies on the Bitterroot. Then they’d of course brag about it at the gym. The big stoneflies are the first hatch of the year in Montana, and are the perfect antidote to the winter stir-crazies.

The Flathead River has its own version of this spring respite: the cutthroat spawner run. I have to admit I never sorted this one out. It’s one thing to bundle up in late winter and get on the river when you’ve got a reasonable shot at heads inhaling surface flies. It was always harder to convince myself it was worth dredging the depths of the Flathead with nymphs for the occasional spawner cutthroat that joins the party.

The last time I made a real effort to go after these fish was in April a few years back. We planned to float Glacier Rim down to Blankenship just to see what was up. Unfortunately, a six-foot berm of ice and plowed snow blocked the access site at the highway. I think we put in on the South Fork instead, and only hooked a couple dinks.

Gymnasiums are a kind of refuge from winter and most Montanans have spent their fair share of time flattening their buns on rock-hard bleachers, either for basketball or wrestling. Watching prep sports in winter is as much a part of the culture of this place as is fly fishing. Maybe more so. But I’ve mostly given the prep sports scene up, as I have that other Montana springtime diversion: gardening in frozen soil. My interest in the gyms waned as my kids moved beyond high school and I was no longer writing about prep sports for a living. I still make it to a state tournament now and then, but the players are unknowns now, making it harder to stay interested.

Gardening is another thing. It was an activity that was always more about getting outside than it was growing food. I don’t know how many times I nearly became hypothermic filling Walls O Water when it was clearly too soon to be setting out frost sensitive plants. Still, I managed to tell myself it was all worth it as I shivered back to the house.

Not anymore. Yes, there is something therapeutic about that day you first start working the soil in late winter. I eventually learned you can save money just buying what you need at the farmers’ market. A grow-your-own ripe tomato on the Fourth of July is a pretty cool thing, but it’s nothing compared to an 18-inch trout with a dry fly stuck in the corner of its mouth on March 4.

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