May begins a season of compromise for Montana fly fishers. We want to be on rivers; it’s in our DNA. But once high water comes up rivers are usually unfishable until sometime toward the tail end of June.
That’s the current case with the Yellowstone River. It’s a fumarole of churning, belching snowmelt. The water is dirty and cold and good for little except transporting large trunks of fallen trees downstream to the next logjam. In addition to being lousy for fishing, high-water is plain dangerous. Innocuous floats turn deadly this time of year, and if you’re unfortunate enough to land in the drink, the deadly embrace of hypothermia is just moments away.
But dang it, that doesn’t mean we have to give up fishing until Independence Day. Life’s too short for that kind of sacrifice.
I was hanging out with my buddy, Coach, the other day when fishing came up. Coach works with another track coach, Steve, who has a weak spot for some of the less glamorous species of fish in Montana. In other words, he fishes for something besides trout. I’m admittedly a trout guy, but that’s more a reflection of habit than rough-fish bigotry. I know trout and have become fairly competent at catching them. When I head out to fish, I go for what I know.
The breadth of Steve’s fish expertise vastly exceeds my narrow slice of insight, and on the Yellowstone that’s important. Billings is the dividing line on this river. Upstream it’s pretty much trout water. Downstream, it’s a crazed Lord of the Flies battle for survival. There are plenty of native fish, but they’re competing with a smorgasbord of introduced warm-water species that have taken over large reaches of the lower river.
Our targets the other day were channel catfish. Catfish are a blue-collar species if there ever was one. But before you get snooty, remember this: channel cats — unlike rainbow and brown trout — are Montana natives. These fish naturally occur in the lower Yellowstone without the assistance of a single mule-packed milk can.
Since catfish were the target we of course didn’t catch any. Well, Coach did, but it was a bullhead so it didn’t really count. The spot we fished has been productive for cats, even during the day, at least this time of year, but after an evening drizzle turned into an overnight deluge, conditions weren’t exactly ideal.
Still, we caught fish, and each time I catch a fish I consider it a small miracle worth celebrating, even when it’s a species from the wrong side of the tracks. In this case the shunned fish was another native, goldeye, a shad-like species found throughout the upper Missouri River system. Goldeye are feisty fish, and at first were a nuisance as they toyed with our nightcrawlers and cut bait as they drifted in the slow current of a backwater.
We caught a few, including a 12-inch goldeye on literally our first cast of the day. We kept that fish with the intention of using it for cut bait, but as the morning wore on and the channel cats never materialized, our intentions evolved. Steve had always wanted to smoke a batch of goldeyes, a prize delicacy up north in Canada where there’s even a baseball team named after the fish. Three or four weren’t going to be worth his trouble. We needed a bucket full.
Steve and I gave up the catfish quest grudgingly, but Coach took the new assignment like fish to water. There’s no fish hierarchy in his book, just a series of small miracles each time something tugged his bobber under the surface.
We did our job, and Steve got his fish. The next small miracle will come in a week or so, when the smoked goldeyes are ready to eat.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.