In my piscatorial prowling around the state of Montana searching for trout, I mistakenly overlooked a great fishery--bass fishing! Had I not taken an extended hiatus from Montana and took up bass fishing in California and Oregon, both traditional forms sans bait and fly fishing, I would still be driving past great bass fisheries in my pursuit of trout fishing here in Montana. Yes, it is true that bass have a slow growth rate here in Montana because of the cold winters, and sometimes they have poor spawning conditions during the spring conditions, but smallies from one to two pounds are common, and three and four pound largemouth are not uncommon. Ask Darin Williams how big the largemouth get, and he will tell you about his state record largemouth bass that he caught on Noxon Reservoir in 2011. Weighing in at 8.8 pounds and 22.5 inches, this fish provides a pointed contrast to ten-year old Garrett Frost who caught a 3.5 pound largemouth on one of the sloughs of the upper Flathead River. What Garrett's bass lacked in weight he made up for in age. Fish biologists estimated that the hardy largemouth was at least 19 years old when young Frost sent in the red floy tag. State biologists are searching the data records hoping that Montana earns the distinction of oldest bass caught and released!
My own bass fishing took place in the summer of 2011, when I fished the Middle Thompson Lake. Using traditional gear and spinner baits, I caught bass and a number of small pike in the 18 to 20-inch range. From there I moved to a section of the Clark Fork River below Thompson Falls. Here too I caught largemouth and smallmouth bass on spinner baits, Senko worms and small tube baits. I was delighted with two of the largemouth weighing in from three to four pounds. The smallmouth bass were disappointing in that they were all seven to ten inches in length, but they kept me busy! During the summer of 2012, I floated the Flathead River from Buffalo Bridge to the Sloan Bridge, which is a long stretch of the river running through the Flathead Reservation east of Ronan, Montana. If you want to float a section of pristine river with sandstone cliffs, wooded islands with towering Ponderosa pines, grasslands separating forests of evergreens and towering mountains in the background, do it in the spring and you will also have solitude and the absence of humanity.
However, plan on a long float. I was told twelve hours, and that's about what it took me. During that time I saw two other boats, no houses, no roads, no cell phone towers, a number of mature bald eagles, some geese and lots of bellowing cows. I will not embellish the fishing. In that long float, I only caught fourteen fish, but they were stout fish and fought like champions. Had I not been concerned about time, and had I known where to locate these bronze fighters, I would have had real bragging rights because I caught them on everything I pulled from my tackle box and fly box. This stretch, and the two floating stretches below Sloan Bride are equally as long. The last stretch ends up in Dixon, Montana. All of the shuttles are long and complicated shuttles. Be sure that you have a map because you will be meandering around in wide, open ranch country. The other two boats that I met where made up of two fathers and their teenage sons.
They would motor at full speed from one good spot to another and not waste time on non-productive waters. Reservation fishing requires a tribal fishing permit, and all the waters on the reservation, except Flathead Lake, are restricted to 15 hp outboards. When I float this stretch again next year, I will camp out on one of the islands and make the adventure a two-day fishing tip. In all I probably I only spent two or perhaps three hours out of the boat fishing. I wasted a good amount of time fishing non-productive water. I was probably into the second hour of floating before I caught my first bronze back. Clearly, I wasted a lot of time fishing slow water sections that looked promising to me. I went through a long, turbulent riffle in my river pram with my good buddy, Buddy, sitting on the front deck. Manning the oars and sneaking in a cast without snaring my Labrador or burying a fly in my neck is a real challenge. The water was still high so I pitched a small tube bait on the edge of a seam hoping to catch a rainbow. Instead I stuck a smallmouth that fought like an 18-inch trout. I dropped anchor and dragged the 20-pound lead anchor to the bottom of the riffle before I landed the bass. (Yes, I know that I need to get a lead free anchor.)
Like trout the bass were lined up right under the seam in four feet of water. Standing in the pram, I nailed three or four scrappy bass. Every riffle was the same. I caught bass in deep riffles, along the seams and at the tail-outs. I was thrilled, but every time I got to a promising spot after twenty or thirty minutes of floating, I found the father and sons. When they saw me, off they would speed to the next hot spot. Looking down the river, I spotted one of the boats up against a large sandy cliff. They were in deep, slow water. I spotted a promising spot about sixty yards down from them where a willow struggled to survive on a shallow slide at the base of the cliff. I rowed out of the current, jumped up and made my first cast.
Oh, my goodness, when I stood up I spooked a half dozen fish swimming in three feet of water. I quickly sat down and reasoned that I should change lures, as by now I had switched to my bait casting reel finding it easier to sneak in a cast while I drifted. I put on a white spinnerbait with a chartreuse skirt. On my second fish, and due to my excitement, I had not realized that I was in a long, back-water eddy that, although compressed and elongated, stretched for almost a hundred yards. I looked up to see the other boat floating right next to me as I worked my way up alongside the cliff and they worked back down. I apologized and said I would leave. They laughed and told me to join them. They had been drifting up and down for an hour catching one bass after another. It was great fishing, and I can't tell you how many bites I missed. This bass fishery extends from Buffalo Bridge to Dixon to Perma to the confluence with the Clark Fork just above Paradise, Montana. All along this stretch, anglers can also fish for pike, which can reach twenty pounds. And then the fishing continues all the way down the Clark Fork River to Noxon Reservoir, which although narrow, snakes up the river for thirty-five miles. So, how long have the bass been in Montana? Well, since 1914 when the state planted bass in Horseshoe Lake, near Big Fork. Time to fish for those "warm-water" species in Montana!
One final thought on pike fishing. My son Brandon and I went to a pike infested lake on the Flathead Reservation. We fished for quite some time in a heavy wind before catching a small pike. After quite a spell of worrying about getting back across the lake with wind swept whitecaps, we decided to hug the shore on this small lake. By the time we got to the boat launch, my son had caught a number of nice pike with a white spinner bait. I stubbornly worked a jerk bait in this weed infested water. His insight was too strip that spinnerbait as fast as he could. If it felt like he picked up a weed, he would crank harder and then set the hook. When we took out, we met some other anglers who had done really well on the larger pike. We asked for suggestions, but they were fairly vague. I did note, however, that on our approach to their boat one of the men flipped up a large towel that sat on a cooler. I didn't know what to think of it. The wind settled down so we decided to give the lake another go. Brandon caught about fifteen fish with his method. I switched, but I never did have the success that he had.
Later that afternoon we decided to fish the Flathead River. The same two men were launching ahead of us. When I walked down to greet them again, I saw the same towel spread out on the cooler. In the center of the towel was a flat piece of foam. Attached to the foam were at least 20 spinnerbaits. All of them were slightly different in the color combinations of brown, black and orange. Again, when one of the men saw me, he flipped up the towel to cover their methodical method for searching patterns. I smiled when I remembered both men had told my son and I to use only white and green with Colorado blades. We followed their advice and had one hell of a day, but their method has piqued my curiosity because they showed us a photograph of a 12-pound pike they had just caught as they were coming into the launch site. They knew what they were doing, and it wasn't a random search through their lure box in the hopes that something big, or something shinny would give them a strike.