Northwest Fly Fishing

Spirit of the Old West
By Jason Randall

I knew I was going to love this place when the asphalt turned to gravel with 20 minutes yet to go, and a vanilla voice informed me that turn-by-turn guidance was no longer possible. With our truck trailing a cloud of dust, my son, Evan, and I followed the serpentine road cut from the edge of the Ruby River Valley past ranches with barbed wire strung between wooden fence posts.
   For someone who likes to get off the asphalt and away from the crowd, the Ruby River is a breath of fresh air. By the time we drove up the driveway of Upper Canyon Outfitters, we hadn’t passed another vehicle. Our hosts, Jake and Donna McDonald, greeted us with an open-arms Montana welcome and showed us to the cabin that would be ours for the next five days. With two bedrooms, it would be large enough when my wife, Jo, and Evan’s girlfriend, Michelle, arrived the next day.
   After a dinner fit for a ranch hand’s appetite, we unpacked and decided to fish the last of the evening light. With the breeze sweetened by the smell of sage, we fought through willow thickets to the river’s edge where we placed our feet in the footprints of deer and coyote rather than angler and hiker.
   Once called Passamari by the Shoshone, which aptly means “water of cottonwood groves,” the Ruby River was renamed for the garnets that early settlers mistook for rubies. I didn’t see any rubies or garnets, but it was hard not to notice the cottonwood trees; they cloistered around the river as if to guard her modesty as she meandered to and fro.

 

The Upper Ruby
A tale of two rivers, the Ruby comprises two distinct stretches, upper and lower. The upper Ruby is a freestone stream fed by snowmelt, springs, and tributaries from the Gravelly Range to the east and the Snowcrest Range to the west. The gravel road takes you upstream, rising steeply in elevation. Around any bend, you might meet a cow and her calf. Driving through open range country, you quickly learn to slow down because slow and easy is safer for both you and the cattle. 
   The river sometimes parallels the gravel road and sometimes cuts against the base of the mountains, where stretches are shaded by conifers. Where dense riparian vegetation makes for tight casting, a roll cast comes in handy, but other spots are more open. More forgiving. You can lose yourself for an entire day following switchbacks; each offers the promise of new discovery and a new favorite hole.
   A typical hard-bottom, riffle-run-pool mountain stream, the Ruby’s fast-flowing runs empty into deep plunge pools, whispering hints that brown trout lurk in the darker water. Fat rainbows hold behind rocks in riffles and runs. Ideally suited for nymph fishing, the upper Ruby also fishes well with dry flies; clouds of Pale Morning Duns often fill the air on midsummer afternoons and caddisflies in the evening. A bit later in the season, hoppers offer dry-fly excitement.
   The upper Ruby even boasts a healthy population of grayling, thanks to a successful repopulation effort by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. We fished one afternoon with Emma Cayer, the biologist in charge of the reintroduction effort. We followed her high into the mountains and far upriver, with enough space between vehicles to avoid her dust. The gravel road eventually led to Three Forks Cow Camp in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, which marks the point where three smaller tributaries merge to form the upper Ruby River. Although grayling can be caught for several river miles below the confluence, two tributaries (the west and middle) also hold grayling, offer easy access, and the challenges of fishing skinny water. We pulled off the road, parked behind Emma’s pickup, and rigged our rods.
   “Grayling were once native to the Ruby, but disappeared nearly a century ago,” she said, explaining that the degradation of habitat and the building of dams that blocked large-scale seasonal spawning runs led to their decline.
   Looking at what appeared to be pristine wilderness, it was hard to imagine a more suitable habitat. Sweeping my arm to encompass the area, I asked, “What could be better?”
   “You’re right,” she said. “It’s a lot better now. With the cooperation of local landowners, ranchers, and the U.S. Forest Service, much has been restored. In 1997, after a careful search for rivers with suitable habitat, grayling were reintroduced into the upper Ruby River from the Big Hole River.”
   Ideal habitat for grayling means deep pools and river stretches with a lower gradient, but also gravel washed of sediment during high flows. Unlike most other salmonids that construct redds as repositories for eggs after fertilization, grayling broadcast adhesive eggs that attach to the clean gravel substrate of the streambed. The upper Ruby River was chosen as an ideal site for reintroduction.
   The initial reintroduction attempt was only marginally successful, with many of the early transplants appearing downriver as food for hungry brown trout. To imprint the young grayling on the upstream sections of the upper Ruby, innovative biologists in the department designed an incubating chamber that percolated water from those stretches over the developing eggs and sac fry. Once imprinted to the water of the higher part of the river, they stayed upstream after their release. Now a sustainable population awaits anglers eager to catch a grayling in the Lower 48.
   We picked our path between clumps of sagebrush to the river’s edge with Emma’s dog, Henry, bounding ahead. With plenty of water to fish, we separated to try our luck, Emma with an Elk Hair Caddis, Evan with a Pheasant Tail Nymph, and me with a team of wet flies. I claimed that Emma had an unfair, home-court advantage when we later met back at the truck and discovered that she had outfished us.
   Above Warm Springs Creek, the upper Ruby is home to grayling and cuttbows, with the occasional rainbow and cutthroat. The introduction of warmer water from Warm Springs Creek attracts brown trout below the creek’s input, but the grayling disappear. This warm water input is a trout magnet for early season fishing when the rest of the river is cold. It also holds fish in the fall as the water temperature falls in the rest of the river.
   Later, near Cottonwood Campground, rising fish dimpled a shady pool protected by the boughs of a juniper. A riffle tailed into the pool, delivering bits of food to the fish. A few egg-laying caddisflies dabbed the water’s edge.
   “Grayling?” I asked hopefully.
   Evan shrugged. We tied Elk Hair Caddises onto our tippet. Careful not to spook fish in the clear water, we crouched and crawled into position. The first cast landed softly on the water upstream of the rising fish and was gobbled in a splashy rise a few seconds later.
   “Cuttbows,” Evan said after the fish was landed. So was the next. But at least we had two nice fish from the pool.

 

The Lower Ruby
In contrast to the upper Ruby, the lower Ruby River is a tailwater, separated from the upper river by Ruby Dam and Reservoir. Just below the dam, Vigilante Fishing Access Site (FAS) offers free parking, picnic tables, a restroom, and a trail that leads to a deep pool along the outer bank of a river bend where I met an angler from Florida and his son. We sat for a moment and contemplated the depth of the pool and the size of the trout it should hold.
   I followed the trail farther upstream, picking out prime lies in pocket water and deep runs. I introduced myself to several nice trout along the way. A Prince Nymph worked well as long as it got to the bottom in the strong current. Tight-line techniques that replaced the float-style strike indicator with a “sighter” indicator (a section of high-visibility line incorporated into the leader) produced several quality fish from fast runs. The sighter should stay at the level of the surface with a high rod position, keeping the line off the water and allowing the flies to drift near the bottom. 
   The lower Ruby changes abruptly as it leaves the mountains and flattens out in the valley, weaving between pastures and alfalfa fields. Here, the gradient is less and the bottom softer, but cobbled riffles and runs are still common. Undercut banks carved by high spring flows turn the water around outer bends as the river meanders. Healthy rainbows are plentiful, but this is the domain of large brown trout cruising along undercuts and overhanging vegetation.
   Evan and I spent the next day fishing with Jim Reynolds, head guide for Upper Canyon Outfitters. Just upstream of the Alder Bridge FAS, the deep water around a river bend gave up a nice brown trout. Working upstream, the drop-off behind a gravel bar yielded three good rainbows in three casts to a Delektable CDC Prince Nymph, tied by local tier Dan Delekta. Woolly Buggers and streamers are also effective in the lower Ruby, especially in autumn.
   A shade tree next to the river provided a great spot for lunch, complete with Trout Slayer and Moose Drool beer from local Big Sky Brewing Company. I’m not much into beer or wine pairings, but they tasted great with ham and cheese sandwiches.
   After lunch, we moved a bit farther upstream to a section of private water leased by our outfitter and ours for the day. Casting to fish that see less pressure and fewer flies is a special treat, well worth the expense of a guided day trip. We came upon several trout sipping from the surface in a riffled tailout. Evan and Jim fished to the rising fish and hooked two nice browns on a PMD dry fly. 
   From the hamlet of Alder, the lower Ruby River continues its northbound trek and eventually joins the Beaverhead River near the small town of Twin Bridges. Between Alder and Twin Bridges, only the Silver Springs Bridge FAS offers undisputed public access. This limited access has been a point of contention between anglers and landowners, giving rise to a practice local landowners call “bridge jumping,” whereby anglers gain access to private stretches of the river at road bridges.
   Perfectly legal, common in usage, and accepted by most private landowners, bridge jumping is held in disdain by a few landowners who have looked to the courts to prohibit access. Currently, using Montana’s stream access law that ensures public access to streams and rivers, anglers enter the Ruby from the bridges of public roads that cross the river on private property, by means of a public right of way that includes not only the road surface, but also adjacent ditches alongside the road sufficient for snow removal and weed maintenance. Once in the river, you can wade and fish in either direction but you have to stay below the high-water mark. If you stray outside the high-water mark, be prepared to answer a challenge from landowners.
   In their defense, some landowners have had unfortunate experiences with anglers disrespecting their property—leaving garbage, eroding river banks, and even letting their dogs run through their pastures chasing cattle. Courtesy and respect go a long way toward repairing strained relationships between parties that both hold the river and her trout in high regard. A knock on a door, asking permission, and a simple thank you go a long way in Montana.
   “You don’t own the land,” a third-generation rancher told me, explaining her love of the land. “It owns you.”
   After drawing a living and raising a family from the same ranch as your grandfather, repairing the same irrigation canals and fences as did he, you develop a deep respect for the land and river. And a justified sense of protectiveness.
   Battle over access still wages as ranchers along the lower Ruby River try to make bridge jumping illegal by reducing the public right of way to a width too narrow to gain access to the river. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the public right to the river, but remanded the case back to the local court to decide the exact width of the right of way. This decision will determine whether the public will continue to have access to the Ruby River at bridges. The decision may affect public access at other rivers
as well. 
   Water rights and river access have long been disputed in dry country where water means survival. It took a court-mandated adjudication in the 1930s to ensure that there was still some water left in the Ruby River when prior to that sometimes barely a drop reached Twin Bridges. Upriver ranches diverted the water for irrigation, leaving nothing for ranches in the lower valley that held the oldest water rights. Through the court order, each ranch was allocated an amount of water measured in miner’s inches, which is the amount of water that flows through a 1-square-inch hole in a 2-inch-thick plank.
   Early prospectors were very miserly about water flow, calculating it to the inch since they needed every drop to sluice gold from the soil. The remains of placer mines still line Alder Gulch along the road from Ennis to Alder near Virginia City. In the 1800s, the mines in Alder Gulch yielded $10 million worth of gold in a single year.
   The day the girls arrived, Evan and I took a break from fishing, saddled horses, and rode into the mountains with them, led by Donna, our host. We dismounted at the top of a ridge to give the horses a blow and us a chance to stretch our legs. With a bird’s eye view, we could see the Ruby River zigzagging through the valley and picked out sections of water we’d like to fish the next day. In a cluster of cottonwood trees, we saw a moose cow and her calf. Donna suggested we give them a wide berth on the way back; a charging half ton of maternal protection was an experience to
be avoided.
   The Ruby area is an ideal family vacation because it offers plenty of activities for nonanglers. You can pan for gold or garnets, rent horses or four wheelers, hike, and even take in a rodeo. Later that week, we drove to Ennis for the Fourth of July parade and rodeo, only a 15-minute drive from Alder and the Ruby Valley. The nearby towns of Ennis (perfect steaks cooked over a wood fire at the Longbranch/20 Below Saloon) and Virginia City (gourmet ice cream churned by an old-fashioned, hit-or-miss engine the kids will love) capture the spirit of the Old West, offering unique shops
and restaurants.
   My wife, Jo, is a skilled angler, but this trip was the first time fly fishing for Michelle. The next day, we concentrated all our efforts on catching her first trout. After spending the morning on the river, she was a bit discouraged with only a whitefish to show for her efforts. Because of the heat and high skies, we quit after lunch.
   On our last day, we fished the upper Ruby just downriver from Cottonwood Campground. A broad, flat riffle section looked promising and we rigged Michelle’s rod with a strike indicator and cheered as she caught her first fish from a pocket behind a boulder. It would have been fitting had it been a grayling, but she was not disappointed by a fat cuttbow.
   I didn’t get a grayling that trip, either, but it was special just knowing they were there. And it’s just one more reason to return to an area that captures the spirit of the Old West and a river that captures the hearts of anglers.

 

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