Friday, October 9, 2015

Trip Report: Piney Creek


Saturday, September 19.  This was a challenging day of fishing.  Since I’ve already pontificated extensively on how Parkinson’s Disease, inflicted insight, and a little humility shaped this day of fishing, those aspects will be omitted.  This one’s about the fishing.  Also, this was Day 2 of the trip.  I've written elsewhere about Day 1.

Hay meadow adjacent to Piney Creek

But First, A Little Philosophy…

If you don’t care to read about or ponder the moral or ethical aspects of stream access, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.  Where I grew up in Wyoming, land ownership and access are sacred to most (except for oil, gas, and minerals companies.)  You just don’t walk onto someone else’s land, period.   There is no stream or river access without landowner permission.  If a waterway is big enough to float, the spirit of the law goes something like this:  The State owns the water, but the land on both sides and under the waterway are private property.  Ergo: you can float on the water because it is public property, but you cannot anchor, and you cannot wade without permission, perhaps unless your name is Thomas or Jesus.  Sorry, John, you may be the favorite among the “fishers of men,” but you’ll have to stay in the boat unless you want a citation from the Sheriff.  So I grew up fishing public waters.

When I moved to Montana in 1998, I discovered something both wonderful and disturbing:  Montana’s Stream Access Law.  From the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website:

“Under the Montana Stream Access Law, the public may use rivers and streams for recreational purposes up to the ordinary high-water mark.”

So, in spirit, if you can legally access part of a waterway, you can wade it, float it, and anchor in it for its entire length.  Very cool for anglers.  Not so cool for folks whose private property is now not-so-private.  While living in Montana, I enjoyed the former and pretty much ignored the latter.  But let it be said that I believe those who fail to treat other people’s land with the utmost respect, even though they have legal access rights, should face painful consequences.  “May he catch three doses of clap.”  They ruin it for the rest of us.

This day I was faced with the other side of this coin, back in Wyoming.  I would be fishing a stream on private property.   If I understand correctly, Rock Creek Anglers has exclusive access to this section of water, and the landowners receive a $100 per day “rod fee” for each non-guide that accesses the water.  “Good for them,” says the free enterprise spirit inside me.  “Why should they have to put up with people walking the banks of the creek on their land?”  The Montana liberal-access part of me was disappointed.  “Why should they get to keep this resource to themselves?”  Well…

A) they own it, and 
2) Montana’s stream access law probably wouldn’t provide access to this stretch of Piney Creek anyway, because there are deep places and overgrown banks you wouldn’t be able to wade around without trespassing outside the ordinary high water marks.  A person might be able to kayak from a public access point, but it’s questionable, and I have no idea if there’s a practical and legal access point downstream to facilitate an exit.
Mootness achieved.  Ultimately, I think what got my well-preened feathers ruffled was the idea of having to pay to access fishy water.  I’ve never had to pay for it before, and it still feels dirty.  And I would prefer never to do it all, no matter how beautiful or productive said water might be.

… Or Skip To Here

This was indeed a beautiful and productive creek.  I had once fished less than two miles from here at the Lake DeSmet dam, between Sheridan and Buffalo in the low hills at the eastern foot of the Big Horn Mountains.  I had no clue what was just over the next couple of hills.  We parked in the barnyard across from a small, simple ranch house.  Weather was a picture perfect late summer morning: cool, no breeze, a few scattered clouds.  My guide, Cole, didn’t waste words.  I respect this, as I am incapable of shutting up.  As we hiked an estimated half-mile, the scenery included two flocks of wild turkeys, pronghorn antelope, whitetail deer, cottontail rabbits, hawks, and a turkey vulture.  Cole explained we’d take the short route across the hay field to the far end of an oxbow and work upstream from there.

He offered a challenging first cast: over a small island and against a shelter bank, keeping rod tip and line high and off the grassy island.  I passed the test, but no early takers and no early risers to offer hints.  We shuffled upstream to watch our first long run of the day for heads we could target.  On the way by, I gently landed the attractor pattern into some “soft water” along the bank at the head of the narrow slot we had just fished.  “Strike!” I yelled as I missed the fish and tossed my fly right back, just a little upstream from the previous spot.  “Good,” Cole stated.  “I like how you think.”

Cole’s trained eyes spotted several rising fish in the next fifty upstream yards.  I slowly worked the night’s rust out of my cast and developed some distance again, though more would have been welcome.  Two fish spit the hooks back at me within three seconds of being hooked.  It took an hour, but I finally landed a decent brown trout about an hour after my first cast.  Even better, there was an audience.  My guide from the previous day, Clark, was escorting a pair of Minnesota anglers a mile or so further downstream for their day on the private ranch water.  Jokes were made, pleasantries exchanged, and fishing resumed.  We worked our way upstream ten feet at a time, evenly covering the straight run.  I missed a few, hooked a few that released themselves, and brought a couple into the net.  I definitely learned a few things that will be useful on the creeks in southeast Minnesota.

Lunch was taken back at the truck.  After a morning of wading and hiking, it felt great to sit under some shade in a folding chair, nibble a sandwich, and chug red Gatorade.  The afternoon session took us into the middle of the oxbow we’d bypassed on the morning hike.  Immediately, Cole had me in over my navel, backed up against a fifteen-foot-tall stand of willows.  I executed a few good “flop casts” and sometimes made a marginally-acceptable roll cast.  This was an intimidating challenge and I very much look forward to trying more opportunities like this.  Roll casting will be a concentration next year, much as learning to use my left arm is the goal this year.

Difficulty casting a nymph rig with an indicator and two flies continued to be problematic.  It got worse as fatigue set in.  In the future, I’ll know to be a bit more assertive with a guide.  I should have voiced my opinion on a couple of things:
  1. Finding very little success with casting nymphs was dragging my attitude down.  Yes, nymphing was probably my best shot for making one more catch.  Yet I think I’ve now caught enough fish on different days to know I don’t have to catch every fish in the river.  I was happier finishing the day tossing a grasshopper a unlikely water, feeling decent about how I was casting.
  2. I spent too much time not fishing with my rod.  Cole had brought along a shop rod, and I didn’t care for how it felt.  Most of the nymph fishing was done with “not my rod” and I quietly accepted this.  After all, the “shop rod” from the previous day (6-weight Orvis Helios 2) had felt excellent and I enjoyed using it.  I wish I’d spoken up and asked to just use my rod.  I’d gladly have waited a few minutes to have it re-rigged.

I’m glad I had the chance to fish this water, but I doubt I’ll ever visit lower Piney Creek again.  I’d come back in a heartbeat if it were open for public access.  The variety of fishing conditions within a one mile walk was eye-opening and occasionally jaw-dropping (some deep, deep pools, as seen above.)

After settling up at the Rock Creek Angler fly shop on the HF Bar Ranch, I took my leave and drove east on I-90 to Gillette to visit some family, and pay my respects to other family members.  This entire trip carried a level of emotional intensity I wasn’t anticipating.  But I focus on the good, and there was much goodness in this little excursion.  I’ll work the rest out later.

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