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Outside: Saving Grace

Westslope cutthroats are heroes to the novice angler

Written by Greg Thomas  
Illustrated by Fred Thomas  
February 2015


When you’re known as “the fly fishing guy,” and you live in Montana, friends and acquaintances are sure to come knocking.

This isn’t a bad thing because I love introducing people to the sport, but the inevitable solicitations aren’t like a short-order breakfast request; fly fishing, despite what you may have been told, isn’t two fried eggs over a piece of toast.

Sure, I can place you in the bow of a boat, position it eight feet away from a prime pool, and let you flail with a strike indicator and a nymph, but nobody really wants to do that. What my friends imagine when they picture themselves fly fishing for the first time is a person ripping out double-hauls that sail 80 feet and land gently, just inches from the bank and directly above a rise. And when that doesn’t happen, it’s never their fault.

“Tell me how to do it,” they might implore. Or they might shout, again, “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t you fix my cast?”

I may pause for a few seconds and sigh, just to let the gravity of the situation sink in, then respond: “Same thing you’ve done all day. Your rod tip is touching the water on your backcast and your fly has a better chance of landing in a tree than on the water … where fish actually live.”

Most of these conversations are tongue-in-cheek because we always have smiles on our faces whether we’re catching or not. But I have figured out a way to up the odds for success and diminish the pressure on myself when novice anglers visit. And the way to do that is to focus on westslope cutthroat trout.

Here’s why. Westslopes live in fast-moving streams and rivers where food sails over their heads in an instant and they have to make snap decisions to eat an item or not. This means they don’t have long to inspect your fly. In addition, westslopes are programmed to eat dry flies, they seem to prefer a floating bug to subsurface nymphs. This is in contrast to the snobby rainbow and brown trout I’ve chased on such waters as the Henry’s Fork, Silver Creek and the Clark Fork, fish that rise at flies with a magnifying glass in hand, checking to make sure a particular pattern has the required three tail fibers instead of two, and that it’s floating with an absolutely perfect dead drift. Westslopes aren’t like that. In fact, if westslopes had a mantra for their eating habits it would be: See the fly, be the fly.

Another advantage to chasing westslopes is that they can be found in a variety of habitats, from broad rivers — such as western Montana’s Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot — to tiny rivulets tucked up in the heavily-forested mountain canyons and narrow valleys. These smaller streams offer anglers an opportunity to explore, to find little sections of water off the beaten path and not visible from a road, where trout swim in bliss and, until you arrive, never see a dry fly. These are the places I seek when my first-timer friends arrive.

Last summer I took a friend I’ve known since second grade to a remote fork of a well-known river, specifically to a section of water that carves through a three-mile patch of private ground. To access the water we launched my Watermaster single-person rafts. Via raft, we could float the river and cast to likely looking spots and, moreover, pull off at prime pools to cast from the banks.

This particular friend has visited Montana several times, beginning with a trip from his home in Los Angeles to Montana’s Madison Valley, where I used to live. That time we fished the challenging Madison River for finicky browns and rainbows that have seen it all before. The Madison, in fact, is one of the most heavily fished waters in the West and you have to be top-notch to catch fish consistently there. At the end of that first day, still fishless, my friend turned to me and said, “I thought you were a great guide.”

“First of all,” I said, “I’m not a guide or you’d be paying me for this misery. And second, you should have told me you have muscular dystrophy.”

The following day we fished Ennis Lake, which offers some of the best “gulper” fishing you’ll find anywhere. “Gulper” is the term used for fish that cruise predictably, just under a lake’s glass-flat surface, picking off every midge or mayfly they see. To catch these fish you have to make perfect — and gentle — casts, trying to time the landing of your fly just in front of the place you next expect a fish to open its mouth. My friend had as much chance of catching one of those rainbows or browns as he would have had in solving the Rubik’s Cube. But I give him credit because he washed that frustration away in a gallon of Rainier beer and never blamed his “guide” for a second straight goose egg.

Last summer was different. We had only floated our rafts downstream for 100 yards before I saw a perfect run with a nice open gravel bar on one side and a deep, fishy slot running under a high, rocky bank on the opposite side. As soon as we stopped and rigged our rods I saw a fish rise under those rocks and said, “Oh, man, just saw one, and it’s big.”

My friend waded out, stripped line off his reel, made a couple sharp false casts, then launched a dart to the bank as if he’d fished trout with a fly rod since the day he stepped out of diapers. And when the fish rose for the fly, he ripped it right out of the fish’s mouth.

Fortunately, these fish were westslopes and they’ll rise for flies more than once, even when they must wonder why the fastest mayfly on the planet landed in front of their snout. I told my friend to hold his cast until the fish rose again. When it did, my friend made another perfect cast and this time he set fast to the fish. When he glided it to the beach I pulled out a tape measure. Seventeen inches tail to nose.

We floated for eight hours that day, stopping here and there, landing cutts between 10 and 16 inches at a steady clip. By the time we dragged those rafts off the water it was dark and my friend had a new outlook, which was a refreshing change.

This friend, a loan officer, has been through misery the past few years, first being financially devastated by the economic downturn, next being left nearly homeless by divorce and the aftermath, including an ex who wants to grind him into corn meal. I’ve been through the same. One day I phoned and said, “Had trouble sleeping last night. Was worried that I might die in my sleep. I was relieved when I woke and realized I was alive.”

He replied, “When I woke up I was pissed off I wasn’t dead.”

On the banks of that cutthroat stream, as we loaded our rafts into the rig, he said, “We need to do more of this. What gear do I need? And what does your fall schedule look like? Maybe I’ll come back up here. Or maybe we should go on one of those trips you’re always taking … you know for skeleton fish, or — what do you call them — poons, or maybe for steelhead. What do you say?”

I considered the skill factor required to catch bonefish, tarpon and steelhead. I considered how much fun we’d just had and how relaxing this day had been. Mostly I considered my friend’s new mindset and sudden zest for life. I said under my breath, “Thank god for westslopes.” Then I smiled and said, “I’ll be around this fall. For now, let’s stick to these mountain streams and catch some more westslope cutthroats. That’s what I think we should do.”