The Big Leagues

Nick Simonson

By Nick Simonson

“That’s why they say Montana is the big leagues of fly fishing.”

My brother’s words stung like a spring training cut for the lifetime AAA baseball player that knew this was his last shot at the majors, but still found the pink slip tucked into the air slot on his April Arizona changing room locker. 

The waters along the Yellowstone River outside of Livingston under the snow-capped peaks of the mountains were high and muddy and while they reflected the runoff those of us downstream on the Missouri River had yearned for in order to keep the idea of summer transit, let alone walleye fishing, a reality; in the moment the roiling chocolate milk before us thwarted the idea of catching any of the flow’s famous cutthroat trout this particular week.  On the hydrograph, the arching blue line skyrocketing over 14,000 on my computer screen ahead of our outing confirmed my suspicions that connecting with anything other than the incredible scenery would be a bonus.

Most every stop along the Highway 89 corridor put us in front of the same scene: roiling brown waters far wider than we’d anticipated, and certainly less pristine than the postcards that highlighted the spinning displays at the area tourist stops and gas stations. Turning up a paved road which quickly gave way to a pothole dappled gravel stretch, we saw none of the region’s famed salmon flies, let alone any other insects that much elicited any excitement.  The water in the small feeder creek swelled its banks and it rolled along the side of the road leading up into the National Forest area that would allow us the rare point of public access to the freestone streams in the foothills of the mountains. 

After deciphering a path of orange stakes with circular tops alongside the five-pole wooden fences stacked tall and prominent like anti-tank Czech hedgehogs in the ditches of the gravel road which denied us access to the flow until the confusingly marked angler’s easement, my brother and I found ourselves in the on-deck circle of the raging flow of what once was a small stream. 

Underneath the blue green whirl of the water we stared, and I adjusted the polarized glasses over my backwards baseball cap to get a better look.  If there were trout there, I couldn’t tell, but like a lifelong hacker, I unloaded the yellow line from my fly reel and flung it across the churning water of the swollen stream.

With a woosh, the compact sparkle black woolly bugger whipped down the flow and I struggled to keep pace with the velocity at which it pulled away from me, straightening my line in the most unnatural way. I pulled against the tension and whipped the line forward off the water, rolling it under a small tree on the far side.  Again the flush of water ripped the fly away, and even if a trout lay in wait along the small seam on the far side of the flow, it would have had to have been the equivalent of DC comics’ Incredible Flash to have slashed out and inhaled it. 

Over and over, I tried possible likely spots, staying ankle deep in the swollen creek, just below the high water mark which allowed us access to anything that looked fishable. Meeting back up with my brother on the far side of the stone bank, I gave in and laughed as we called it a morning. 

Recognizing that while I was out of my league in terms of the elements and the flow, I gave it my best shot.  While his parting words of wisdom may not have been the most consoling, they felt proper in the moment and did not rule out a second chance at taking a swing at the freestone fish somewhere down the line amidst the shadows of the mountains on fly fishing’s grandest stage.

Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.

Featured Photo: A Rush. High flows and fast waters, even on smaller creeks, met the author on a Montana trout fishing trip. Simonson Photo.

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