A couple fantastical coincidences, a handful of conscious choices and a very cheap plane ticket saw my life take a slightly unexpected turn in March of this year: I moved to Montana. Not for good but for a whole year. I’d submitted my PhD on the introduction of brown trout to New Zealand just before Christmas, and spent the remainder of the summer getting my fill of New Zealand’s backcountry; hiking, fishing and roaming about the country like a bona fide dirt-bag. Showers were weekly, beer was frequent and happiness was at an all time high. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to New Zealand for the time being.
Missoula was my destination in the U.S., where my girlfriend, Morgan, is partway through a Masters program at the University of Montana. Packing my life into two bags (7 fly rods and 4 kilograms of fly tying kit…), I bade farewell to my folks and hopped on a plane. The transition between summer in New Zealand and the tail-end of winter in Missoula was stark and I arrived to a foot of snow in the middle of town and temperatures in the negatives (Celsius that is). This was going to be a bit different…
On my third day in Missoula I heard of a fly tying event… hosted at a brewery…with free pizza… Nothing could keep me away. Through this event I quickly made a couple of solid connections, first with David Detrick of IFlyFishMontana (who hosted the event) and later with the guys at the Missoulian Angler (it is never a bad idea to walk into a fly shop with a 6 pack in hand). After picking up a license, a few flies and a copy of the regulations I was ready to hit the river. My inaugural fish, a Bitterroot River brown trout, was celebrated with a fine IPA (and the obligatory splash poured out to the river gods). Over the following weeks I proceeded to borrow Morgan’s car whilst she was studying and familiarise myself with the local rivers. I had no job, no commitments and I threw myself at the fishing.
Surface action was minimal to begin with and I primarily fished a double-hander, catching good sized rainbow trout on the Clark Fork and native cutthroat trout on the Flathead River. After bumping into a local angler, Zach, first at the fly shop and then a brewery he invited me out on a float trip of the Clark Fork and we spent the day picking off side braids, drinking beer and catching rainbows. I insisted on learning to row, and let me just say I quickly gained a lot of respect for the guys and gals that manoeuvre these boats so nimbly. Success in float fishing is not so much about the skill of the angler, but the man on the oars who positions the boat and sets the drift.
As the temperature rose so too did the fish. Midges and small baetis mayflies led the charge, followed shortly thereafter by the famous Skwala hatch. For a Kiwi the large-scale stonefly hatches of the American West, such as the Skwala and Salmonfly, are a true spectacle to behold. Skwalas, specifically, brought about a totally unique experience for me: fishing dry flies in snow-storms. Twice I fished in what seemed to me a blizzard (although to locals was probably little more than a light dusting) and enjoyed superb hatches. At one point on the Snake River, just out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Morgan and I could count upwards of a hundred fish rising along a slack edge as wind and snow buffeted any exposed skin. The snow became less frequent, and March browns (a larger mayfly) joined the party. I soon put the nymphs away and simply prospected with a larger Skwala pattern or fished to rising fish with small mayflies.
I was quickly getting an impression that the fishing was a little different to back home. The sheer volume of both fish and insect life necessitated subtle changes to my approach and I was grateful to the local anglers that shared their knowledge with me. Particularly fascinating was a day spent on a local creek with Missoula guide Jeff Heiskell, who gave me a lesson in entomology and showed me how to correctly fish cripples (another new experience for a Kiwi). And yet some aspects remained consistent with back home – they are, after all, still trout. I found that because of the way I fished, slowly, focusing on the edges and picking off small side channels, I caught a higher proportion of brown trout than was typical. Similarly, I was able to sight fish a number of smaller water, leading to some extremely fun encounters. Techniques and approaches from back home were aiding my success in Montana; just as I have no doubt that what I learn here will help in New Zealand.
As I write this, run-off (another novelty for Kiwis) has well and truly hit Montana and as the snow melts and the rivers flood to enormous proportions the trout will be getting a well deserved break from this itinerant Kiwi. Soon we head down to Wyoming, where we’ll spend the summer in the small town of Dubois. I’m already planning adventures – golden trout in the Wind River Range, nipping across the Idaho border to fish the Henry’s Fork and hopefully taking a trip up to Alaska and road-tripping back down through British Columbia. Seems like there’s always a trout to catch, somewhere…
~ Jack Kós is an Epic Ambassador, writer, photographer, filmmaker and mad keen fisher of flies.