Outdoor Moments: Tried-and-proven rock yields big trout for 30 years

Alan Charles
Friday, May 3, 2019
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On my fourth cast, a big fish grabbed the jig, and my rod bent double. I just smiled, and thought to myself, one more time, one more year, here we are, the fish and me, at this same place, this jumbled set of boulders lining the edge of Canyon Ferry Dam, marking the beginning of another season, another springtime start to Big Sky Country angling adventures.

I have stood in this same place for more than 30 years, and caught these big, threeto-five pound rainbow trout that cruise the shallows just after the ice goes off the lake.

I first learned about this incredible opportunity when I traveled from Miles City to Helena to work as an instructor teaching non-commissioned officer leadership classes at Fort Harrison.

I remember stopping at the local sporting goods store and asking a clerk if he could recommend any hunting or fishing opportunities for someone new to the area. Artie, as I came to know him, sold me $27 worth of tackle, consisting of a spinning rod and reel, six Marabou jigs tied by a local angler, and a red-and-white Daredevil spoon.

“Drive out Canyon Ferry Road, and just as you drop down the hill beside the Yacht Basin, you’ll see an osprey nest. Park there, walk down through the rocks, and cast the jigs. Let them drop to the bottom, and fish them back in short hops. The trout usually hit on the drop.”

I thought to myself, this guy is quite a salesman. What are the odds, to get information that specific? But, I followed his directions, and on my second cast, the biggest trout I’d seen since my days fishing in Alaska slammed my jig.

I caught two trout that evening, trout darned near as big as salmon, and took them back to base, where the mess sergeant cooked them. I fished there again the next day, and caught two more. I’ve fished there ever since, every spring, for over 30 years.

This is not a secret place, or an unknown opportunity. Every spring, on this lake and other nearby lakes like Holter and Hauser, anglers gather to fish for these big, strong, coldwater trout. Some folks keep some trout to smoke or can, while others choose to simply catch and release their fish. Keeping some of these trout does no harm to the fishery, which is a product of the fish and game agency stocking fish to provide a put-and-take opportunity. In those areas where the trout might be able to successfully spawn, no fishing is allowed.

But this experience, at least for me, goes far beyond just the opportunity to catch a fish.

Where I choose to fish, there is rarely another angler within sight. The climb through the rocks is tough enough to deter most other anglers. I can cast and watch loons, loons that sometimes swim close, diving to pick crawfish off the rocks. I have sometimes caught trout right from beneath a loon, where the fish is feeding on crawfish pieces that fall from the loon’s bill.

I can look out across the lake, and lose myself in memories of elk hunts and grouse hunts in the meadows of the distant mountains, and imagine how deep the snow might be in the white lace that rims the twin peaks called the Sisters. I can feel the cries of passing Canada geese echo off the water, and watch forever as big white pelicans soar on the thermals above the lake.

If I am lucky, I can put some big trout on ice, to take home to Miles City, where I will fillet them and put some in brine for the smoker, and others into jars that I’ll cook in the pressure cooker, topped with a single slice of jalapeno pepper, to share with my neighbors.

Traditions, like old habits, help punctuate our lives, like seeing fresh-bloomed flowers after a long winter. On the fifth cast, I get another strike. And smile.

( Alan Charles lives and writes in the Pine Hills.)