Hazy Days on the Middle Fork

Fishing and floating in the middle of Northwest Montana's fire season

As I drove west on I-90 last week, the skies grew increasingly hazy.

It was actually cool and cloudy when I left Billings that morning. The night before, emergency alerts interrupted local programming: flash floods were predicted throughout the region.

We already knew what was coming. The storm rolled through Billings in the early evening, but first announced itself an hour earlier on the horizon in the form of a lightning storm erupting over the Beartooths.

The cleansing rain only fell in the East apparently. As I drove closer to the Continental Divide, spent rainclouds gave way to smoke and fire camps along the interstate. It was beginning to look more like a typical Northern Rockies summer.

This year has been anything but typical, however. Old timers will tell you that in the past, every Montana winter was an opportunity to reacquaint one’s self with frigid Arctic winds on the walk out to the barn.

I’ve been roaming around this country since 1992 and I can recall three or four winters like that, winters that made me think: Was I crazy to give up the palm trees of my native Southern California for this?

Last winter was one of those.

Winter is part of the deal we make for living in these parts. This year winter was followed by one of those springs where, in a lot of places, lawn watering seemed optional. All this was supposed to add up to an easy-peasy summer with few fires, and above average flows in our rivers well into August.

Then some bright boy decided to lock Montana up in a kiln for July, drying the country out like bisque. We then proceeded to the raku process, finishing the red hot pottery in piles of leaves and pine needles, turning the sky a smoky mess.

That’s the late summer price we pay for living in the Northern Rockies, though for a time I’d convinced myself we’d somehow dodge the smoke this year.

Such were the conditions when the kid and I launched the raft at Moccasin the other day. August is late for the Middle Fork, at least if you’re hoping for big whitewater. There are still standing waves at the bottom of Bonecrusher, but not the type that strikes fear in your heart the way they do in early summer. Screaming Right remains devilishly tricky, but if carefully navigated won’t put up much of a fuss.

Jaws has been defanged. Stay river right, mind the rock halfway down, and it feels more like dentures. Its class 4 menace will return next year with high water.

The kid caught fish. Not a lot of them, but enough to make the day a success. Most were the small, typical Middle Fork cutties, the kind of fish you catch plenty of if you spend your day drifting orange Stimulators in the seams and foam lines out in front of the boat.

There are bigger fish here, 15- to 16-inch cutties, and even bigger migratory fish that move up from the lower river and lake. Experienced fly fishers catch more of those fish, but the kid fishes only once or twice a year, generally when I show up. Her fly rod otherwise gathers dust. I was in my mid-20s when I got serious about fly fishing and began obsessively practice casting out on the lawn. Mastery requires commitment. We’ll see if she follows suit.

The kid did pick up one of those nice cutthroat. She drifted her fly nicely through a fish holding  run, then played a nice 16-inch fish to the net. But then, once I had the camera ready, she fumbled the trout back into the river before I could snap a photo.

There was a time when a fish to the net counted for everything. Today, it’s a fish to Instagram. Without the social media post, it’s as if the fish were never caught.