As Montana gets more and more crowded, with people flocking to the state to experience the outdoor lifestyle, I have to work harder to find solitude. When I moved to Montana, 19 years ago, who would have imagined that I would deal with rush hour in Bozeman, my hometown? Something I thought I had left behind when I moved from San Francisco. But even worse, who would have imagined that I would find full campgrounds, rivers dotted with fishers as far as I could see, boat ramps jammed with cars and trailers. That I would witness what we call bikini hatches. Herds of beer drinking, half-naked bodies on inner tubes, bobbing down rivers.
Social media and the internet have exposed people to alternative lifestyles, and the ability to work remotely, thanks to the internet, is pushing more and more people out of the city and into rural areas. City slickers, like I used to be, who want to be closer to nature and adventure. How could I blame them? I was one of them, just ahead of time. In response, I started shying away from the “on the map fishing destination,” and trying to find my solitude off the beaten path.
I didn’t use to enjoy fishing lakes, mostly because it seemed like a repetitive, brainless way to catch fish in nonmoving water. The experiences I had, lake fishing, was to cast out as far as I could and strip, strip, strip until my arm dropped or I fell asleep from boredom. Sure it could be fun if the action was hot, but more often than not, I would spend more time licking the blisters I would get from stripping, than catching fish. Or if the lakes were overpopulated, like many are in alpine settings, then I would be fighting off a million of skinny dinks wanting my fly. And there would only be that. Dinks.
My attitude for fishing lakes changed a few years ago when I realized that I was fishing the wrong lakes. Either too big and deep or too alpine and overpopulated by small trout. I started looking for specific attributes in a lake. A remote setting, cruising fish that can be spotted from shore and big fish. Yes, big fish. I hate to admit it; I am a trophy hunter.
Sometimes I wonder how spiritual I am. I don’t sit on a pillow, with my legs crossed and my thumb and index finger held in the shape of an o. Gently chanting Om. Fly fishing and being in nature is my form of meditation and where my spirituality comes out. The more remote the place, the more I get into that zone. Hiking up to a lake, that I know hasn’t been fished much, gives me a feeling of serenity and inner peace. It’s a more authentic experience than parking on a paved fishing access and tossing the line out with the rest of the world. So yes, this spiritual connection to nature it’s important, but the question always is “Will the fishing be any good?”
Recently I found a tiny lake in the middle of nowhere. Truly a spit of water. The first time I saw it, I was on a bike ride. A sliver of gin-clear beauty down below, only a few feet deep. You always wonder if these remote lakes hold any trout at all. And if they do, are these fish even worth catching? Most of the time they are overpopulated by starved, skinny little trout. Haven’t those fish heard of contraceptives? It’s extremely hard to find alpine lakes, with a controlled population of trout and good food supply, to make the ones in there grow some fat and length. And that’s what I look for, lakes with less horny trout and plenty of food. We looked down and only saw little movement. That’s a good sign; you don’t want to see too many fish. My friend Ryan said “I bet that lake never gets fished” And of course those words sparked my curiously. It was time to make plans and come back with a fly rod.
I came back, and as I watched a bald eagle make a low pass, I wondered to myself how any fish could survive in such an exposed little world? In a lake this small and shallow, what’s in it, is no secret and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I watched several fish in the 20+ inch range cruise its shores, and before I pondered on it for too long, I was casting a line that quickly went tight. Watching that giant wild trout at my feet, felt like meeting the Dalai Lama.
I haven’t figured out what the magic is for larger fish in lakes. Obviously the food supply, but what causes productive lakes to overpopulate or not? Does it have to do with sparse spawning grounds that only allows for a limited number of fish to procreate? Predators like bald eagles and ospreys that thin down the population? Whatever it takes for bigger, better-fed fish, there is no easy answer to find out beforehand. Unless you get a hot tip on a spot, the only way of knowing is to go there and look for yourself. On hikes and bike rides I started scouting and looking at lakes off the beaten path. Recently I have been using pack rafts. At only 5 pounds you can hike them anywhere. I try to get away from the human species however I can. If it’s by foot, pack raft, bike, or levitate when I manage.
Most of the time you make it to a remote lake and find nothing to impress you, but then, there are those rare times, that you run into a hidden gem.
Usually, if you immediately see fish, lots of them, it’s a bad sign. The lake is probably overpopulated. You check inlets and outlets. Typically they will give you a good indication. And then you keep a hawk-eye on the shallows. Not seeing anything is a good sign, keep looking, and a moving log might show up. And that’s when you have found your gem.
The fishing then becomes extremely exciting. It’s sight fishing at its best. I usually stay off the water and slowly walk the banks, keeping an eye for any fish or shadow. When I do, then it’s game on. Figure out the path of the fish and make that perfect steepled cast to intercept its trajectory without snagging the bush behind you. It always happens when you are most excited. Damn bushes, I swear they move.
I have become a dry fishing snob, I like to cast to a rising fish. The more time I spend fishing, the more specific I become on how I want to catch those trout. However, when I fish lakes, I don’t care if I hook them on a dry or a stripped nymph as long as it’s sight fishing. Watching a 20 + inch lunker, open its mouth and swallow a nymph, it’s something every fly fisher should experience once. I would recommend anyone to put on some hiking shoes and get after it. There are plenty of backcountry lakes to be explored.
As the world population keeps growing and people move to more rural and remote areas it will become more difficult to find solitude when fishing. Wild spaces are limited. I watch houses being built in pristine nature. Trails that were once going through the woods are now subdivisions. Wild places lost forever. Will this destructive process ever stop? Unfortunately not, it’s a reality we need to come to terms with.
I feel fortunate to live today when I can still find a hidden gem. Many are still there, but you have to look for them. I can only encourage everyone to explore and protect what we have. It’s going away much too quickly.
Paolo Marchesi is an Italian photographer with too many passions. Mostly storytelling about dogs, surf, flyfish, hunting. Splitting life between Mexico and Montana. Check him out at @marchesiphoto or at marchesiphoto.com.