“Exciting” Fly Fishing

One morning in the fly shop I noticed a 19 year old “flat brimmer” sitting in a chair near the coffee maker. His buddies were chattering and joking as they purchased their flies and leaders, but this guy looked bored. So I struck up a conversation with him. Come to find out, this guy was just “along for the ride” on this fishing trip—his preferred sports were rock climbing and snowboarding. “I’m more of an adrenaline junkie,” he proclaimed. “I’m just hanging out with my buddies, but Fly Fishing seems a bit dull to me.” I didn’t have the time to explain it to him, but fly fishing can provide lots of opportunities for excitement, even adrenal gland stimulation. You just have to know what you’re doing, or sometimes NOT know what you’re doing.

First of all, wading around in a meandering, summer trout stream can be a bit dull. I’d suggest focusing your efforts in the spring when runoff is occurring. And while small, turbulent streams can be fun, it’s the big rivers that can sweep you off your feet and take you for an exciting ride; plus, if conditions are right, they have hydraulics that can suck the paint off your hypalon kick boat. If you wade too deeply in this stuff you may find yourself getting an up-close, personal view of trout habitat. Even the Bighorn River, a waterway where you can often fall asleep at the oars and not hurt yourself badly, can be exciting at 14,000 cfs. That sound of frying bacon you hear is the sound of silt and sand scouring the side of your boat. There are cute little whirlpools that form on the downstream side of islands, and they gather and suck debris down to the bottom, spitting them back up to the surface 50 yards downstream. You can be treated like the debris too. So what do you do when you find yourself hurtling downstream in this type of turbulent water? Without being overly analytical, I prefer the advice of veteran river kayaker, Arlene Burns, who says, “I’m a proponent of the Mark Spitz school of self-rescue: “Swim like hell.”

Another excitement-inducing activity I highly recommend is the use of jet boats. I ran them in Alaska years ago, and they’re appearing in Montana in increasing numbers. Not legal everywhere, jet boats provide the ability to travel through rock-studded rapids and treacherous shoals at high speeds, an endeavor totally dependent upon fallible human judgment. It’s kind of like snowboarding in a way. Judgment is further compromised by fish lust and testosterone. I know there are women jet boat drivers, so testosterone is not always a factor, but it helps. As does alcohol. A macho, almost godlike feeling, comes over anyone who drives a jet boat, especially if you’ve had two or five beers. Speed is an important component of jet boat excitement and since most jet boats can go fast, why have one if you’re not going to take advantage of it? The feeling of imposing your will over the river, and even life itself, is exhilarating, right up until the time you strike that slightly submerged boulder. I recommend putting all fly rods in the back of the boat, and all the soft baggage in front for padding, but pray you’ll be thrown out of the boat completely.

Wild animals often provide the opportunity for adrenaline secretion. Here in Montana there are the usual suspects like grizzly bears and mountain lions. We’ve also introduced wolves. To be fair, there are few documented cases of wolves attacking humans. Of course, there are thousands of undocumented cases—ha, ha, ha, only kidding. I like wolves, but were the elk and deer consulted about the reintroduction? Or the sheep? It’s easy for us to relish hearing the quavering, mournful howl of the wild, grey wolf while enjoying the comfort of our motor homes, but we’re not the ones getting our hamstrings ripped out on a cold, winter morning? Rest assured that IF the wolves ever do eat all the elk and deer, they would never consider viewing you as a potential meal, and they don’t cross the Park boundary … very often.

Large predators aside, it’s the small animals that should concern us most. Some people are unaware that pound-for-pound, the common muskrat is one of the most ferocious animals on the planet. I won’t go into detail about how I know this, but suffice it to say, if you inadvertently snag one while fly fishing, cut your line and leave the little critter the hell alone. In the small animal world, wolverines may have the reputation, but in an actual cage match, I’d bet on the muskrat.
Fowl of various types can also present a hazard. Suicidal pheasants decide to end it all by flying into the windshield or grill of your SUV. I don’t know if these feathered creatures have just broken up with their boyfriends or girlfriends, but there are times they will not be denied. Don’t try to evade them or you’ll just run off the road and kill yourself. This advice applies to almost all wildlife encounters on the highway, except maybe for moose. Keep both hands on the wheel and let the pheasant end it all. If you feel guilty days later, donate to Pheasants Forever.

On some trout rivers there is an abundance of swallows who take to the air in vast numbers, usually on days when a prolific insect hatch is in progress. This winged multitude flits, flitters, and glides over the stream, heedless of the fly caster plying his craft just a few feet away. Sooner or later you will hook one of these little birds, and that’s when you the difficulties begin. No, the birds aren’t hard to land on light tackle. But holding them firmly without crushing them, while you back the hook out of one of their wing feathers, is not easy. Plus, they peck with surprising speed and strength. Because of their tiny size, the damage they do is minimal, but I once calculated the strength to weight ratio, and if they were the size of say, a chicken, they could easily fillet your forearm.

My calculations notwithstanding, swallows are the least of your problems. If you fish into the evening, the day may come when you hook into a bat. Yes, the kind that hang upside down in caves, and fly around at night. I didn’t really know what was going on when it happened to me. Suddenly my cast just stalled in mid-air. I began stripping my line in, pondering how I must have hooked some type of airborne vegetation. When I made a grab for the mysterious object it hissed, fluttered and lunged at me. Some would say the “lunging” part is an exaggeration, but I know what I saw. I can’t say positively that the bat was of the vampire variety, but I am reasonably certain it was. I cut the line and let the little bloodsucker drift downriver. I apologize to bat lovers everywhere who feel I should have cradled the little creature delicately in my hands in an effort to release him.
Even insects can increase excitement levels if you consider the consequences of their presence. In the old days, insects were responsible for simple discomfort and annoyance. Today, you can contract exotic and highly-incapacitating diseases from them. The mosquitoes have West Nile Virus and Encephalitis, and the ticks have Lyme Disease. I miss the good old days, when all you could get was Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

By the way, insect exotic disease is an issue I researched extensively for this piece, even going so far as to look up a Wikipedia article entitled, “Tropical Disease.” There were many troubling passages contained therein, but get a load of this one concerning Chagas Disease: “(Also called American trypanosomiasis) is a parasitic disease which occurs in the Americas, particularly in South America. Its pathogenic agent is a flagellate protozoan named Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted mostly by blood-sucking assassin bugs, however other methods of transmission are possible.” At that point in my research, I shut down my computer and hid behind a potted plant for several minutes.

Now I know we haven’t heard much about Chagas Disease up north, but please recall that just a few years ago scientists told us that Africanized “killer bees” were heading this way. I assume they were killing all the peaceful bees in their path as they raped, plundered and looted their way through Mexico and the southern states. Not sure if they ever made it all the way here, but I’ll take them over “blood-sucking assassin bugs” any day!

By the way, there is some good news in the war against insects and exotic diseases. Instead of smearing your body with cancer causing, toxic chemicals that ward of the disease-infested critters, you can now buy clothing—Bug Stopper is the trade name—that has the cancer causing, toxic chemicals embedded in the fabric itself.

Inclement weather is something the excitement-driven angler can utilize if one plans his trips carefully. I prefer the months of March and April, although late October can be good too. Remember those episodes of “Little Outhouse on the Prairie,” where Pa would be out hunting or getting supplies in Mankato, and a freak blizzard would blow in. TV blizzards are fearsome events, with Antarctic temperatures and Donner Pass-like snowfall appearing out of nowhere. Ma would have to stand in the doorway of the cabin banging pots and pans so Pa could hear the sound and walk toward it amidst the unholy howl of the wind. Pa would finally stumble in, nearly dead from frostbite and hypothermia. Fortunately, Pa recovered quickly, and the very next day he was building barns for neighbors and chasing Ma and Halfpint around the woodstove.

Anyway, I’ve fished through similar weather, and the fishing is usually spectacular. I guess the fish are already cold and wet, and they can’t imagine a human being stupid enough to be out there casting to them in such conditions; hence, they feed with reckless abandon. This reckless abandon aspect tempts you into your own reckless abandon, and you fish until after dark. Finding your way back to the vehicle is the exciting part. I’ve found trees to be helpful as they deflect your course when you panic and run. They keep you from veering too far of course. Try to remember to bring survival gear and fire-starting equipment, and it helps to have somebody back at the truck with pots and pans.

These are only a few of the exciting opportunities fly fishing presents. Some other time we can discuss electrical storms, rattlesnakes, or angus bulls hooked on backcasts. The bottom line is there’s no reason for fly fishing to be dull.