There seems to be confusion amongst many anglers in the Northern Rockies when June 21st rolls around. On the calendar, it marks the first day of summer and the beginning of the season where most anglers dust off their fly rods. A season of warm air, blue skies, the end of school, and wildflowers that blanket the valleys with snow capped peaks painting the landscape to a dream mountain vacation. Unless we’re talking about the northern range of the Rocky Mountains.
June 21st hits and so too does a blanket of snow that engulfs the landscape and frustrates even those that live here. We have a saying about the landscape we play and live in, “we have two seasons: winter and July.” Sadly, it holds true. But with the wild temperature swings, summer snow, and the extreme runoff of the early season, it still asks that the fly rod gets rigged. The rivers may be chocolate milk from the snow runoff, but the insect life is thriving nonetheless. We aren’t the only ones who have been begging for old man winter to release its grip.
Trout begin to slurp insects from the surface of the lakes that have been thawed by the occasional warm day that sneaks through and the skies are buzzing with life of newly hatched bugs that confuse even the most hardened anglers into what to tie on. But one thing also remains during this beginning of the season, and that is the lack of hoards of tourists that rush our rivers like soldiers marching the beaches of Normandy. There aren’t complaints as many of us need and thrive during the tourists season for most of our revenue, but the early season is a great time of year to breath in the clear and smokeless mountain air and feel that refreshingly chilly morning and evening cool that help paint that summer sky that takes our breath away.
As July becomes evident, so too do the animals. The rivers slowly calm their rage and life sparks all over the mountain and valley floors. The chances of snow wildly decrease and the rivers slowly tame their beasts. But now is the time where clients show up in droves to our parks and waters and where their safety is often our top priority. Although we have another saying that Natural Selection is real amongst the mountains and wildlife of the Rockies that also extends to the humans that frolic amongst them.
The days drastically warm and the length of day is sometimes an annoying prospect for those of us that have to wake early and try to get some sleep. But sleep is hardly anything that you should do. When most are on the river floating for the day, they take out around dinnertime and dive into the happy hour of the local watering hole. But the moment the drinks are poured is when the bugs wake for the day.
The daylight creeps behind the mountains and the shadows paint the landscape and river edges. And that is when the big browns and rainbows lurk in the depths; waiting to ambush what may unfortunately float by. When driving to the river while most are swilling away a cocktail, telling stories about the whitefish they caught dead drifting nymphs, a salmon fly smacks your window harder than the hail that often falls during the afternoon thunderstorms that leash hell on the valleys.
The decision on what to tie is evident and the slapping of the water with the giant bug sparks movement out of the shadows. The fly is engulfed and the line careens out of the reel with the large brown launching itself into the air out of the confusion and frustration at what it just ate. There is no one around to share the experience and no one at the watering hole down the road will believe you. Water flows over its gills as it slowly and gently swims out of your net and the smile rips across your face at the afternoon coffee you drank instead of the whiskey on ice you avoided.
August roles around and the A/C in the vehicle seems to be in a constant state of full blast. The days are exponentially warm and the greenery and flowers that once scattered the landscape of the valleys are now turned yellow. The farmers are working around the clock watering their fields and cutting crop in the evenings when the day cools. But the farm land that borders the rivers offer what could be the greatest, “hatch,” of the summer, and that is the flight and emergence of the grasshopper and other terrestrials.
When the day’s mercury flies well above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the clicking sounds begin all around in somewhat of a deafening state, it is evident what to tie on. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what time of day you decide to hit the river, if you feed the river banks with the most horrendous slap of a cast, it will spark movement by anything that lurks. What I personally love about the hopper season is that it doesn’t take a skilled angler to get into fish. In fact, the uglier and less delicate of a cast you make, the better.
But the grasshopper pattern doest just work in the lowland valleys where the heat scorched earth boasts the emergence of these insects, but also the crown jewel of the Northern Rockies opens up from its long and restful winter sleep, and that is the alpine bliss of high elevation creeks and lakes. The roads disappear or are non-existent and the dirt takes over. The rattles and jangles of everything that was once organized in your vehicle are now scattered across the floorboard, and the 4×4 is often locked into place with the hubcaps as the road worsens, climbing in elevation. Eventually the road stops and the dirt path narrows to where the next chapter of summer takes place, the lacing of the shoes and the backpacks being shouldered.
Everything is packed from the three-weight and a sleeping bag, to water purifiers and bear spray. The pack is heavy and the trail up in elevation is brutal, but the air is cooler, the scenery incredible, and the quiet is heard only by you and the slog of the effort you put forth to get there. In fact, the harder and more remote your trek, the better the fishing and the less humans you will encounter. The chances of a grizzly are quite high and each double haul may need to be accompanied with a double check over your shoulder as well, but on nearly each cast a fish comes to hand and the kaleidoscope of color mesmerizes even those with the blurriest of vision.
Once the valley floor has been left, so too does the size of your desired target. But what they lack in size they make up for in beauty that often rivals the landscape they call home. Everything from brookies and cutthroat, to grayling, and even some golden’s, the only California native welcome anywhere amongst these granite towers. But in order to greet them, you must hike deep into grizzly country just to get a chance at these little fish, and for most, it hardly gets seen because of it. And with nearly 3,000 miles of the range of the Rockies with the northern section making up over 600 of them, the mountains boast endless opportunities for lakes and streams to be had all to yourself.
While hoping you were able to maximize all your summer time fun getting out while the weather was good, September is the wildcard, or knight depending on how you look at the board game of chess that is summer in the mountains. It can still hold every alpine aspiration of a backpacking trip you ever wanted with even less humans than there ever were, or they could be sealed until next August come Labor Day. With what could be the most beautiful and peaceful week on the forecast to go and backpack, the next could be a left turn of snow and sub zero temperatures. The trees, even though it is still summer technically, begin to fade and change color and heat that scorched the earth and kept the windows open slowly fades as the briskness of old man winter begins to blow down from the mountains.
The daylight slowly fades and the evenings and mornings cool to a crisp with frost that often paints the landscape. The droves of tourists that stormed our waters now retreat back to their schools and jobs wince they came, and the animals begin their rut. Bison go back to grazing, elk begin their jousting, and the bears are on over drive, stocking up on anything that moves, where counting calories takes on a whole different meaning.
With the changing of the guard and even the local anglers hanging up their rods for another season, the fisheries get a breather despite honestly never sleeping. The trout too are in full feeding mode of what little bugs remain buzzing the water, and the sub aquatic strikes are what make the indicator bob more than the surface feeding. The variability of the three month season brings in the most revenue and drive from locals and tourists alike, but could arguably be the most finicky to score.
A season most of us look forward to come June then begin to dread when the heat kicks in come August, is often reflected on while sitting drinking coffee in September. But one thing remains and that is the healthy population of fish. The stunning scenery of the granite Rockies and the abundance of wildlife that keeps everyone in a constant state of distraction when that large trout comes to feed, are often the highlights amongst tourists and locals alike, and why those that live here as well as travel here remain to do so.
Article written by Sean Jansen @jansen_journals. Sean Jansen is a freelance writer for Flylords Magazine, and spends his time in Bozeman, Montana where he guides tours through Yellowstone National Park.