2 states, 2 spectacular weeks of fishing

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, July 20, 2018
Clay Henry holds a 27-inch rainbow trout below Bull Shoals Dam.
Photo by Bruce Ritter
Clay Henry holds a 27-inch rainbow trout below Bull Shoals Dam.

I'd been writing the Silver Bow Club story in my mind for four days. How do I cover all the neat things I saw on my trip to Divide, Mont., with friend Wayne Reed?

Three guided floats on the Big Hole River could fill three columns. The cooking of chefs Brian Wasilewski and Colton Klauss could take care of one or two more. There was a great new dish every night, although Brian's mocha crème brulee could be a feature in the newspaper's food section.

Randy, Adam and Ethan Bowe hosted us at their amazing lodge. There's every imaginable toy - ATVs, golf carts, 5-station trap on the side of a mountain and, yes, a helicopter. There's a stocked pond with fly rods rigged to go after 24-inch rainbows.

The edge of the pond is mowed like a golf course to provide casting platforms. You can watch from a fantastic back patio.

It was like nothing I'd ever seen. Reed's seen more special places out west like Ted Turner's expansive Vermejo Park in New Mexico and Forbes Park in Colorado. He said those two places hold nothing over Silver Bow Club.

OK, I may not get to all the things that happened in Montana because I did what I always do at the end of a summer trip. I returned to home waters to finish off my vacation. It's not like anyone needs to leave our Arkansas trout streams to find better fishing.

It's not better out west in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho or Montana. It's just different. What I tell my wife about traveling to fish: trout live in beautiful places and cold, clear streams. Mountains or beautiful lakes are always close. The air is cooler out west in summertime and drier, too.

Temperatures at Silver Bow did climb to 84 degrees a couple of days, but you don't need an air conditioner in the lodge. You open windows because it's going to dip into the 40s at nights. That's what happens at 6,000 feet in the summer.

I caught fish on the Big Hole. There were rainbows and browns each day with guides John McKinnie and Rudy Ketchum. They are both hosses oaring those rubber rafts through rapids and boulders. They oared us into great casting position and pointed to the best slots to drift our dry-dropper rigs. They were top shelf.

I'll say that one guide on the trip had a hole in his net that never came into play with the way he used it, but it did when my friend Wayne grabbed it to scoop my big brown of the trip. It slipped through a corner that the guide never used while swinging fish into his raft.

Wayne laughed later that you don't let a buddy grab the net when there is a big fish bet. We had a loose bet with another pair of Arkansas anglers staying at Silver Bow. They threw it out, but I never accepted it. That fish would have won it, so all is well.

It became the running joke the rest of the trip: check the nets before the rubber rafts are launched.

And, all of this gets us to what good friend Sam Hannon emphasized should be the lead of the Montana trip: what happened on the White River near Bull Shoals Dam on Thursday. We saw Sam and Steve Graves at the end of the day Thursday as we continued to catch fish on a day I'll never forget.

Of course, every time I fish in our Western states and introduce myself, there is always a quick recognition of my new friends that my home waters include the White River. It's one of the great destination trout fisheries in the world. They call Cotter the Trout Capital of the World for good reason.

The brown trout in the White River are huge. There are 40-pound trout there now, according to trout biologists. The 24-inch minimum set in the last four years has taken what was already a trophy river to the next level. You have a great chance to catch a brown trout better than 20 inches every time out.

Our rainbow fishery is not so good. Yes, well over 1 million rainbows are stocked in the White every year, but there aren't many regulations to help them. Rarely do you catch anything other than the freshly stocked rainbows. They are stocked and quickly caught and killed.

Well, there are still a few giant rainbows in the White. I proved that Thursday on a hastily planned trip with Louis Campbell and Bruce Ritter.

Wading the White River has been almost out of the question for the last three months while Bull Shoals Lake was evacuated because of heavy spring rains across Northwest Arkansas and Southern Missouri. Water goes from Beaver Lake to Table Rock Lake and then to Bull Shoals. It's been heavy generation at all three lakes on the White River system. Until Thursday.

The first day of low water was forecast Wednesday night for Thursday. The three of us had to be there to wade near the dam. Those fish have hardly seen a fly the last three months. Ours would surely produce a good day.

I was third into the river, walking to about 30 yards below the restricted line at 7:15 a.m. My first drift with a size 18 root beer midge produced a fat, 18-inch rainbow. That's a great start. That's a big rainbow.

But the day became epic on the next drift. I cast my 10-foot Sage One for four weight line to about 20 feet past the spot that produced that first rainbow. I was proud of myself. I actually do remember thinking, “That's a nice, long cast and I'm going to get a good drift in a spot that hasn't seen a fly in a long time.”

Oh, then my strike indicator disappeared after only 5 feet of drift. Instantly, line began to scream off my Lamson Guru reel as a big fish made a long run. There was new 6x tippet on my leader. I'd not fished Cortland Ultra Premium before. It advertised 3.9-pound breaking strength. Was it going to be tested this quickly?

There was no real set of the hook, only raising the rod tip to get line off the water and find out what might have my tiny midge.

Brown trout hug the bottom. Rainbows often come splashing to the surface at the set and you see silver and pink.

This one stayed down. There was not one time in 20 minutes that I saw the head of the fish. I did finally see a boat paddle of a tail stick out of the water on its last 10 turns as it went from one side of the big river to the other. That was 10 minutes deep into the fight.

Louis was maybe 40 yards to one side, Bruce maybe 80 the other way. Both began to wade my way. It's bad karma to suggest a picture would be needed during a long fight, but I did.

Both offered to net the fish when I had it 10 yards away. I had lost a big fish in Montana (through a hole in the net). That wasn't going to happen. If there was a mistake on this fish, I wanted to be the one making it. I scooped it cleanly on its first close pass.

It was a monster, measured by Louis and Bruce at 27 inches. It was longer than my Fishpond Nomad net, sticking past the handle. That net is 26.5 inches. Weight is always tough to estimate, but it was a huge hen rainbow with a huge girth.

Holding it for the picture was problematic. It was tough to get my hand around the tail. I lifted it and it reminded me of the night I weighed my Montana luggage. I'm not kidding.

Whether it's a brown or a rainbow, a 27-inch fish in the White River is an event. But there just aren't many rainbows caught that are that big these days.

I absolutely love that spot below Bull Shoals Dam. To be able to wade it and fish midges from my tying desk and catch fish with them makes me laugh out loud. To land such a fish just is an incredible rush. I was shaking as it came to the net.

I've made three holes-in-one, including one with a No. 1 iron. None of those shots did to me what drifting that midge and landing that pig of a rainbow did to my soul. Yes, those are the words of an addict.

It's that addiction that takes me to places like the Silver Bow Club and makes me appreciate what the Bowe family has created on the Big Hole River. And, it's always special when you climb into a rubber raft with elite guides like John and Rudy.

It was a special treat before our last morning float when Rudy asked me if I wanted to fish my midges, then picked my size 18 ruby midge out of my box and said, “Fish it. It will take browns and rainbows on our river.”

That provided a high to start the day. I had watched with envy the first two days as Wayne fished his own flies, more conventional pheasant tail nymphs. He probably didn't care what the guides wanted us to do, just knew his flies would work. We both caught plenty either way, more than others floating around us.

I wanted to fish the root beer, too, but when a rainbow ate the ruby within sight of the put in, that fly was the only one used that third day. Rudy asked for it at the end of the float. It's unlike anything he'd seen out west.

Yes, that makes you smile, too. It's part of the addiction.

Oh, there's one more addiction I'll admit to: Brian's crème brulee. Adam Bowe asked me to jab Brian and Colton a little about cooking too healthy. I gave that a try but my heart was not in it.

You wouldn't want to change a thing at the Silver Bow Club, just more nights with crème brulee.

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