I didn’t know how many days of fly fishing I’d get before the Polar Vortex caught up to me. Maybe one or two? I was heading south and it was on my tail. The weather report said it was big and ominous. From all the TV and Radio chatter it sounded like the thing had teeth and was chomping its way south. I was glad to be ahead of it. I crossed the border at Sunburst with the Sweet Grass Hills to the east. Then it was two hours of mostly flat, featureless terrain with absolutely no trees. The only sign of life and movement was the constant 80km wind blasting the prairie grass, Oil Jacks pumping away in the distance, and some Pronghorn Antelope on the run. Apparently they had also heard about the incoming vortex.
A short while later I knew I was nearing Oilmont. I could smell the gas. It always smells of gas there even when the wind is at gale force. Your lungs tell you that what you’re breathing isn’t good for you. From sweet grass to sour gas all in thirty minutes. I speed up, hold my breath and wonder about the health of the locals. That’s if anyone is alive out there. I always think that if I did meet someone from Oilmont he’d look something like Daniel Day Lewis in the movie: There Will be Blood; and he’d be clenching a bowling pin.
Past Oilmont I saw more Pronghorn. They are amazing creatures. It seems they can live where nothing else can. They range from Baja and Sonora Mexico where they wear sombreros all the way into southern Alberta and Saskatchewan where they look smart in their white cowboy hats. They really look like they belong in Africa, somewhere out on the Serengeti. I’ve read they can take intense heat and cold, and can survive where there is almost no water. They are the second fastest land animal. Only the Cheetah stands higher on the podium in a sprint. Stretch out the race a bit and the Pronghorn takes gold…speed plus endurance.
After a couple of hours crossing the flats it always feels good to arrive in the town of Great Falls. Seeing trees and buildings after the “big void” is always comforting. I’m always flabbergasted by the number of gambling establishments in this town. It seems every corner on the main commercial strip has a couple of VLT joints. They are attached to gas stations, convenience stores and motels. They have names like Cart Wheel casino, casino Emerald City, Lucky Lil’s and Diamond Lil’s. All of the windows in these establishments, if they have windows, are darkly tinted and have neon signs. The whole scene kind of looks secretive and seedy. And it always seems there are a dozen pick-up trucks parked outside at all times of the day; people hunched over the glowing machines from morning until night. You just know a lot of kids in the region are going to school without lunch money.
On the south side of Great Falls I always stop at a Barnes and Noble (book store). It has big comfortable couches and is a great place to grab a coffee (in-house Starbucks) and a magazine after four and one half hours on the road. I purchased The Drake fly fishing magazine which sold as advertised for “5 bucks (no tax), $10.00 for bait fisherman”. After a quick break it’s just a 30 minute drive to the town of Craig, my angling destination.
On this trip, Craig was a ghost town. Everyone had cleared out. Obviously they had heard a polar vortex was coming. Either that or they had migrated west to fish for Steelhead. The local restaurant was closed. Papa’s Burritos was boarded up. There were a couple of anglers walking around and one stray dog but that’s about it. Two of the three fly shops were open, but empty…no customers, well, except me. It’s a gamble fishing here this late in the season. Everything is weather dependent and November can be a dicey month.
The high wind made dry-fly angling real challenging. There were tumble weeds rolling in the streets and some even rotating in the river. I managed most of my fish on dries and a few on streamers when the wind completely took over. Someone once told me that, “The wind around here has issues”. How true.
There were some midges in the morning and tiny olives in the afternoon. There were no large olives this year. I spent most of my time hunting for calm water. I generally had to focus on a 2 or 3 foot wide section of placid water that often existed next to the shoreline/bank. That’s where fish could be spotted rising when there was a bit of a hatch. The rest of the river was often just too choppy. Every once in a while things would calm down and the river briefly became mirror-like and some fish would rise further out. These moments, however, were rare and fleeting. Angling time was also fleeting. Not much daylight at this time of year.
I fooled my best fish, a brown trout, and the only one of the trip, on a beetle. Success on a terrestrial pattern in the second week of November! Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the brown. As I was getting set up to “click, click” he bolted to deep water. He was a good one: fall colors and a hooked jaw. The fish of the trip. I did manage some nice rainbows, many of them sippers. If there are some bugs around and you make a commitment to patiently watch the water in the right spots, you’ll find trout rising on the Missouri. Unlike Lil’s it’s a sure bet.
I got two days in before the polar vortex (cold air) hit. The morning after it was calm and I fished for a few hours and managed to catch a trout in sub-zero (C) weather on a midge dry. Then it was time to head home on the icy roads.