Monday, April 20, 2015

Chasing the Sun

A first-class view from five miles high

Without exaggeration, I’ve spent thousands of hours on commercial aircraft in the past 18 years.  When I know I’ll be flying at dawn or dusk, I make every effort to select a window seat.  Seeing the entire visible spectrum flow from horizon to zenith as the sun warms the east is an emotional wellspring.  The view from 30,000 feet is one of deep indigo, neon pink, and soothing orange.  I’ve always considered it a privilege to have this eastern spectacle unfold on an AM southbound flight segment.

This previous Thursday, I went west.  I found the evening sun suspended many degrees above the horizon as we gradually pushed above the cloud layer, with the eye-catching yellows and oranges fighting for their ephemeral moment.  I connected my phone to the plane’s WiFi network and sent my status into the Twittersphere:

    Currently chasing the sun…

Pardon the math lingo for a minute, because I can’t resist.  If my memory is correct (doubtful) and I did the math right (slightly less doubtful) then the sun covers a geodesic along the surface of the Earth at a little more than 1000 mph.  Even assuming my little CRJ900 flight was cruising at about 500 mph, this is a futile pursuit, but a gorgeous one.  The colors glow brilliant and gradually yield to indigo, black, and starlight.  I arrived in Great Falls, Montana under a dome of darkness, full of hope for a beautiful Friday on the Missouri River, chasing trout instead of sunsets.

My guide for two days of floating and “casting” the Missouri was Joe Bloomquist, outfitter and proprietor of X-Stream Flyfishing and the Missouri River Lodge, located a few miles north of Craig.  He’s been on this river for 26 years, and he’s guided my family on several occasions here and on the Blackfoot.  When I called him about a month ago and asked if he’d be available for my little two day window, I asked him how to pack.  “I know April can either be Sunny and 70, or it can be snowing and 30,” I said.  Turns out, I’m psychic.  Joe’s classic advice was waders and layers.

I shook Joe’s hand around 8 AM Friday, with a fresh 2-day nonresident license in my shirt pocket.  “Settle in, grab some coffee, “ he counseled.  “We’re in no hurry.  The fishing gets better as the day goes by.”  He’d spent at least the previous 3 days out prospecting with other guides who work for him, and had a solid plan for the day with the forecast: 70F in later afternoon, winds 0 to 5. 

We put in at Craig around 9:30.  Midges everywhere, at least one every 4” by 4” area of water surface.  I barely needed lunch from all the midges that were swallowed before noon.   No luck passing the bridge piling, but there was a pod of slow gulping risers 200 yards down.  We anchored and Joe let me try his Sage ONE with a couple of dry flies rigged.  I managed to trick one riser into a strike, but lost it quickly.  My sloppy technique scared off the rest of the pod.  As Joe pulled up the anchor, I noticed the “midge mat” that had accumulated in the lee water off the bow of the boat:  a thick mat of bugs 14” wide and 20” long were doing their thing in the sheltered slack water.  Every eddy and slack on this section of water had similar clusters of tiny midges.

If you can get to the Missouri for some fishing, GO NOW.  The rest of the day was nothing short of magical.  Joe would countdown as my indicator approached a rolling current line or dropoff.  “3… 2… 1…”  and the indicator would drop nearly every time.  We even had a little fun repeatedly circling a hole where we were dialed-in and pulling fish at will.  Other boats would see us row out with a fish on, so they’d row in… and float through with no results.  Joe’s sly grin told me he was having a blast.  The only bad part of the day was forgetting to put sunscreen on the back of my hands.   Again, I say this without exaggeration: not a cloud crossed the sky, but the fishing was truly phenomenal at 70F and sunny.

Saturday was slightly different.  The sky was completely overcast and the thermometer announced 36F as we left the lodge.  Joe and I suited up in the cool breezes, and we both wondered if we needed an extra layer between base, waders and raincoat.  I pulled on the Polartec fleece knowing I could always toss it into the dry bag if it did indeed reach 50F later on.  I doubt it did.  As soon as we launched, the rain started and the wind come up around 7-10mph.  Joe rowed upstream and got me into some great fish just off the edge of the shallow bar.  We then scooted downstream to catch up with our companion boat for the day.  The rain turned to heavy, painful sleet.  20+ mph winds were pushing 18” whitecaps upstream to Craig.  We could have easily floated back upstream to the ramp with no effort.  Joe and Matt snugged the boats into a small sheltered cluster of willows as the sleet turned to snow and the wind mediated a bit.  Coffee was recycled and our waiting was rewarded by 3 pods of risers: one below us, one above us, and one 50’ out from the anchored boats.  As I returned from my bio-break on shore, I observed Joe at work, casting upstream with dries on his ONE.  He waved me up and said he’d saved 3 fish for me.  When I finally got lucky enough to get into a rhythm with that powerstick, I dropped a midge cluster imitation about 18” from the lane of a riser.  He went for it and ran deep when he realized he’d been hooked.   I figured I’d lost him when he raced 45 degrees back toward me, but I fought him for 15 minutes.  Just as Joe was about to make a first netting attempt, I made a mistake. I had rested a finger against the fly line, creating a fractional drag increase that was just enough to snap the 5x tippet when the fish saw the net and ran.  A harsh and truly valuable lesson.

The previous-day’s blanket of midges was replaced by Blue Wing Olives before noon.  Both Joe and Matt said they’d never seen a BWO blanket like that. To my amateur eyes, it seems that the fish on the Mo’ are feeding slowly and at will, growing fat, happy, and energetic.  I think I recall most fish making 3 good runs and then being easy to net when I’ve fished here in prior summers.  This time, it was nothing for a runner to  make 5-10 such runs back to deeper water.  One went into my backing and we struggled back and forth for 20 minutes before Joe hiked down with the net.  Even after all the effort, that fish wanted no recovery time and anxiously left the net.

It was a cold, snowy/rainy day with periods of stifling wind and occasional calm.  The fishing was notably different, but no less fantastic.  I still had periods of 6 landed fish per hour.  Nearly all of that time was spent trying to land a fish that just kept running when brought up.  Even Joe lost track of time in the fun, where I’d occasionally ask him to pursue a riser or show me technique for approaching a hole.   Watching him cast is seeing a master artist at work.  So humbling to watch.  I have much to learn.

I’ve learned that the “progressive, degenerative” part of Parkinson’s Disease is beginning to dominate my right arm.  I’ve definitely lost some strength, stability, and control over the winter.  The beautiful thing about fishing with Joe is that he will put the boat in position to accommodate my terrible casting abilities, then provide superior instruction on slack and mending so he can pilot the boat into such a position that you effectively had a perfectly placed cast by the time the flies reach the intended fish haven.  Longer term, it’s time for me to relearn casting, but with my left hand.  My entire summer’s fishing efforts will be focused on this: Cast Left, Manage and Retrieve Line on the Right.

I can imagine a future year when I may be totally dependent on a  guide or my daughter to have any success with flyfishing.  Right now, I have a good arm and can slowly tie knots despite the diminished use of my right hand.  There’s currently nothing that can be done to halt the sunset of my neuromuscular control.  For now, I intend to keep Chasing the Sun.


  1. Great trip report. Good luck on your conversion to a lefty and with your ongoing battle with Parkinson's.

  2. That was a good read. I like your idea of retraining with your other arm. My experience with MS and playing keyboards has also been a retraining thing. Still in painful progress, but progress none the less.

  3. Thanks, folks. I've started another posting on my early conversion/retraining efforts. Coming soon, I hope. ("Hope" is a four letter word...)