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On the Road & the River

Photos and Meditations on Fly Fishing in Southwest Montana and wherever.....

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Posted by on in On the Road Blog

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_legacyblogphoto.jpgI cannot say how much Norman Maclean has had an impact on my life. This might sound cliche but it was "A River Runs Through It" that had me immediately run out to buy a fly rod. I have always been a self taught fisherman from early childhood, but growing up in Texas I had never heard of or seen a fly rod. As a self taught fly fisherman, who later wanted to perfect his casting and took certification classes. I learned the magic of waving that wand, what it could do for my mind, and the calmness that clouds over me. It's as if a switch has been turned on, my focus tightens, and all my worries fade to black.

Everyone who knows me will tell you I'm nuts, my family calls me a free spirit. Nothing seems to keep my attention for very long, high school certainly didn't, college I barely made it through, Survival School twice, long distance rifle shooting school, etc. Only fly fishing has been able to keep me focused.

While my son Corey was here this past week we spent a lot of time fishing together, I had taught him at a fairly young age but he lost interest. This trip his interest was on fly fishing. I was shocked! So we worked on his cast, and he picked it up very fast. I had to do little to bring him up to speed, and we were off. It was definitely an adventure, we hiked over a mountain from 8200 ft to 9600 ft and back to around 8200 ft in a hour and a half to fish a high mountain lake. Where he caught 62 fish in just under 2 hours. We spent two days on the Beaverhead, and one on the Ruby. Covering at least 20 miles, when you add elevation gain who knows what we covered. My dream is that all my children get the bug for fly fishing. It's the escape that fly fishing provides, the beauty of my surroundings, the trek of miles without seeing a soul, it gives me solace, feeds my soul, let's me feel I'm in the presence of God. If my children learn anything from me, it is this mind set, and "The world is full of bastards the further one gets from Missoula Montana" Norman Maclean.
Thank you Mr. Maclean
I am truly haunted by water....
Fish on my friends,
Luca Troiani

Posted by on in On the Road Blog

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver1.jpgFor several reasons I watched David Letterman’s final show on May 20th signifying the end of his iconic twenty-two year career as host of the CBS “Late Show” and another ten on NBC’s “Late Night” starting in 1982. For one, his zany humor was always enjoyable. For another, not only are we the same age, but his career spanned about the same number of years that I lived in Montana. In fact, when I first moved to Twin Bridges in 1983 there was no cable or dish TV. On a good night and with the use of “rabbit ears” we might get the signal of two channels bouncing over the mountains from Butte resulting in varying stages of fuzzy static that offered a paltry choice of programs, so often Letterman’s was the only show available to those of us who claim to be night owls.

And after landing a job as a rod wrapper with Winston Rods in 1984 his late night program would be my entertainment as I wrapped guides on as many rods as possible into the wee morning hours in order to be free to fish as much as I could during the daytime. At that time I was fascinated with the nearby Ruby River and went there with regularity wherever I could gain permission to fish on private land or find a public access point - which were sketchy. But maybe the main reason I watched the show was that it was the neighborly thing to do, since Letterman, in a noteworthy twist, bought a ranch on the Upper Ruby River just a few years before I retired. Consequently, as the show that night neared its end, nostalgia set in. Not only did his retirement mark the end of an era for many a Baby Boomer, it was also a formal reminder of the three wonderful decades I lived in Montana that are now over for me as well. More importantly, his sentimental departure prompted a reflection back to those early days on the Ruby. But little did I realize then the impact that the unassuming Ruby River would have on the history of Montana.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver2.jpgNot much was known about the Ruby by the general angling public in the 80s. There was always a “best-kept-secret” aspect of this tailwater gem as it flowed out of the reservoir through forty-some miles of private ranch land until it entered the Beaverhead River near Twin Bridges. The same could be said about the river above the reservoir. After its headwaters pass through National Forest land much of the Upper Ruby winds its way through the mountains and then into a beautiful corridor of willows and private lands and pastures, including Ted Turner’s, until emptying into the reservoir. Back then it was mostly locals who fished the entire river after gaining access from angler friendly landowners, and the excellent fishing reports were intriguing. As it turned out, however, many of the old time Montana ranchers would grant permission to anyone who would kindly ask, local or not. But as these ranchers died or sold out, this kind of access to the Ruby started to fade away. Also there was a growing resentment from longstanding Montanans as a result of the passage of a stream access law in 1985. Although ranchers legally own the water in the river the law allowed for citizens to utilize river corridors by foot or by boat between high water marks for recreational purposes. This law rankled the ranching community because the ranchers deemed this to be a violation of their property rights. But in Montana fish and wildlife constitutionally belong to the public and the court recognized the right of the public to fairly access fish. Subsequently, conflicts arose.

But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that several critical issues on the Ruby came to light, and from that time forward this obscure Montana river would be cast into the national limelight forever. Undoubtedly, after the movie “A River Runs Through It” was released in 1991, a new age of fly anglers was unleashed upon every river flowing through the entire Big Sky State, and the Ruby was no exception. At that same time the entire state was still subject to an unabated drought that had begun in 1985. As a result, the dwindling water supply and the increased number of anglers desiring fishing access created a new age tension between ranchers and sportsmen that had actually started when a section of the Jefferson River was dewatered in 1988. And since the Ruby River is a tributary to the Jefferson watershed it followed that there was a closer scrutiny of water usage throughout the entire drainage with reports that sections of the Ruby were regularly drying up during that period as well, especially in the early spring.

Then, in the fall of 1994 one last push of water from the already depleted Ruby Reservoir resulted in a release of silt that threatened to suffocate trout and bury miles of river below the impoundment in a slug of muck. Sportsmen groups, state agencies, and even concerned ranchers rescued many fish, but emotions between ranchers and sportsmen erupted to an unprecedented level in an on-going battle of finger pointing. And that catastrophe drew the attention of national media. To assuage the situation then Governor Marc Racicot appointed a task force made up of sportsmen, ranchers, and citizens to resolve the water flow crisis on the Ruby, and the result was historic. A watershed council was formed and an agreement was eventually reached with the landowners along the entire river to replace archaic head gates with more efficient water delivery systems partially paid for by the public to allow more water to stay in the river while providing sufficient enough flow for ranching operations. Although this win-win eased the conflict between the ranching and sportsmen communities, that task force revealed another issue simmering and ready to explode as well.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver5.jpgAt the time there was an out-of-state land development corporation openly planning to buy and/or lease as much property and river access along the Ruby as possible. In its brochures this company boasted exclusive members-only access to the entire river that it ultimately intended to privatize. To make matters worse the association’s representative was the modern day equivalent of a snake oil salesman from the Wild West. Since access to the Ruby was already limited, once again sportsmen were outraged, this time by out-of-state “interlopers”. So in 1996 the Governor once again appointed a task force to address this conundrum on the Ruby, and it was my privilege to serve on that committee. The public argued that since it was funding a portion of the new water delivery system, it had the reasonable expectation to access the river. In the end the effort of the task force resulted in a developed access site directly below the reservoir as well as another bought and paid for by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) with fishing license funds a mile below that. Then FWP negotiated several lease agreements for developed public access sites with three local ranchers to be renewed every five years. The important final component of this resolution, though, was the decision of the Attorney General at the time to issue a legally binding opinion that the public had the right to access any river at every bridge crossing below the high water mark throughout the entire state. In 2009 this opinion became law to the objection of many new age landowners, and once again the Ruby River stood out in the middle of the hard fought process.

Over time there have been several legal challenges to the stream access law in general, but none have been more contentious than the attempts to overturn access at the bridges. The latest challenge that went down to defeat in the Montana Supreme Court in 2014 was launched by wealthy out-of-state landowner Jim Kennedy. His Ruby River property is bookended by two bridges just south of Twin Bridges. Ignoring the fact that most of his stream and property improvements were made possible only by the efforts of public funding to maintain a viable in-stream year round flow, Kennedy has made it clear that the public has no right to access the river at the bridges bordering his property. In sharp contrast a few years back out-of-state landowner Craig Woodson bequeathed his reclaimed section of land and river to the Ruby River Habitat Foundation that allows for managed fishing access on the property. In fact, Craig believed that the Ruby is too precious not to share in some way with the public. Indeed, the tale of two neighbors.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver3.jpgThe story of the Ruby River should never be forgotten. It has been the lightening rod for in-stream flow and the beacon for unprecedented public access that serves as an example for the rest of the Western states. Thanks to the tireless efforts of FWP, Public Lands and Water Access Association (PLWAA), Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU), the Lewis and Clark and George Grant Chapters of TU, various watershed, ranching and sportsman groups, the Ruby thrives today as both an ecosystem and a blue ribbon fishery.

And as the “Late Show” tribute concluded on May 20th who would have thought as I was wrapping rods watching David Letterman when his career began in the mid-80s that he would one day become another page in Ruby River lore. In my reverie I could only hope that he truly does appreciate the significance of the river that proudly flows under the bridges of time and through his piece of Montana.

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  • Bill
    Bill says #
    Hi Jerry, excellent piece here about the trials and tribulations of the Ruby River. Just heard from my new neighbor (we just move

Posted by on in On the Road Blog

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_carpediem1.jpgI learned many Junes ago when high, discolored runoff was peaking throughout Montana, a fishing trip back East always seemed like an alluring alternative. Although this plan meant missing out on Big Hole salmon flies or Henry’s Fork green drakes for the season, the conditions in the East were prime at that time of year for a variety of angling opportunities, and a long road trip always resulted in many exciting adventures. From New York to Maine to Newfoundland, the drive never seemed too far -until it was time to return. But often the most exciting fishing prospects were the ones close to my childhood home on Grand Island in Western New York. From trout in local streams to bass in the Niagara River, there was never a lack of places to go or fish to catch. And before life drastically changed for me a decade ago, even carp became a sought after prize. But now that the dust has settled a bit, including a move back East, the time seemed right to reconnect to those days I left behind.

Getting out of the truck in the parking area overlooking the Upper Niagara River a few weekends ago I realized that it had been nine years since I last stood in that very spot. Gazing at the river flowing serenely beneath a June-blue afternoon sky several miles before the vast volume of water makes a turbulent tumble over the world famous Falls, I appreciated that it was indeed rare to return to a place that looks very much the same as it did when I was a kid sixty years ago. Appearing more like a lake than a river, the Niagara’s current is deceptive, but these days the water is crystal clear as well as much cleaner and healthier than in my youth. Back then cousin Paul and I would catch the occasional smallmouth or northern carefully casting lures so as to avoid hooking dead fish floating by in varying stages of fungal rot. And in June we were always fascinated with the large numbers of huge carp flopping around the shoreline in a swill of stinky water and slimy algae. Although we tried to hook them on worm or lure, the effort was often thwarted by snagged dorsal fins resulting in the complete obliteration of our wimpy Zebco outfits as Volkswagon-size fish screamed straight toward Canada. Back then, we didn’t know much better.

For many Junes that followed I would wade the shoreline of the Niagara in search of smallmouth bass while disregarding the prodigious population of plump carp prowling the shallows in a frenzy of spawning and feeding activity that was quite the spectacle. Apparently these fish have been doing this ever since they were introduced from Europe and long before I was a kid in the 50s, but remained mostly ignored by anglers- as is often the case with carp. At one point, however, it occurred to me that since the knee-deep water along the shore no longer resembled a flowing cesspool, maybe fly-fishing for these behemoths would be a logical consideration. At the very least, I figured, the challenge should be good practice for my next bonefish trip. But it wasn’t until a dozen years ago that I finally made the leap into the kingdom of carp thanks to a local fly angler known to everyone in the area as “Coach.”

It seems that Coach is a Buffalo legend noted for his dedication to the pursuit of carp and his relentless effort to elevate this piscatorial porker to the well-deserved status of sportfish worthy of its porcine-like size. Until his retirement, Chris “Coach” Garcea was a physical education teacher and swim coach at a nearby high school, and on the nice guy scale, he is a ten. I met him about fifteen years ago at the Oak Orchard Fly Shop in Buffalo. Although Coach loves fishing for Lake Erie steelhead in the fall, he devotes six weeks every May and June to the sole purpose of stalking carp. And while many of the other local fly anglers are chasing Atlantic salmon in Quebec, striped bass in New England, smallmouth on the river and Lake Erie, or trout in area streams or even the Catskills, the Coach’s singular commitment to these Great Lake’s goliaths is unwavering. He has developed flies, tactics, and techniques based upon all the subtle nuances it takes to understand this particular species of fish. So when Coach offered to take me to his favorite spot on the Canadian shoreline of Lake Erie in 2003, I jumped at the opportunity. And after an entire day and an exhaustive effort of casting to a cadre of innumerable finicky carp, the lesson paid off with a few chunky fish. Coach is truly a guru. Thus, armed with that knowledge and a few of Coach’s flies, I finally caught my first ever carp in the Niagara River a week later, along with a few more the year after that. But unfortunately those days were short-lived as time then slipped away.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_carpediem2.jpgStanding at the tailgate of my pickup while stringing up the rod amidst a barrage of random memories and solemn thoughts, I prepared for smallmouth bass, but listened for the familiar wallowing and splashing that would indicate the presence of my long lost quarry. Unlike so many other occasions in the past, however, this time I would be ready for any carp encounter. But just before heading to the water, a vehicle pulled into the lot and out stepped a familiar face.

“Is that Coach?” I yelled across the blacktop and added, “I can’t believe it!”

Shaking hands and laughing about the chance meeting, we then caught up on the many years that have passed much too quickly. After telling him I was just reflecting upon that day we spent on Lake Erie and how it barely seemed like yesterday, I thanked him again for sharing his enthusiasm for carp with me. In turn, he thanked me for alerting him to the carp fishing along the shore of Grand Island. In fact, he said, it saves him from going to Canada as often. I suppose telling the border guard that one is entering their country to go carp fishing could raise a cloud of suspicion in this heightened era of security, so why take the unnecessary chance. Coach then told me he was on a scouting mission that day to get ready for the annual Carp-O-Rama tournament that would be taking place the following morning.

Nick Pionessa, the manager of Oak Orchard Fly Shop, founded the Carp-O-Rama event ten years ago to promote the joy of carp fishing as inspired by Coach. It is an informal gathering that concludes a day of carp capers with beer, barbeque, and fish stories for all those who participate. A uniquely odd carp wind chime is first place prize for the longest fish of the day as measured and determined by the honor system. The winner then gets to hang the chime at his or her house house until the following year. My brother Rick usually takes part in the festivities and notes that a good time is always had by all. When Coach asked if we were going to be there, I told him that Rick and I had intended to go out for musky in a small lake an hour away the next day, but added that all plans could change due to the stormy weather system approaching the area. Before going our separate ways, though, Coach encouraged me to show up for Carp-O-Rama, and also invited me to join him and another mutual friend for a day or two of steelhead fishing in the fall. Hopefully we will make that happen. After his departure, by the way, the carp I eventually found that sunny afternoon never even looked at my fly.

Next day the weather was as crappy as predicted, so Rick and I weighed our options – Carp-O-Rama or musky? We concluded that the bad weather would likely have less of an impact if we stuck to the musky plans, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. While the toothy predators went AWOL during the storm, we were told that Carp-O-Rama was the best one ever. It seemed that the hulky critters liked taking flies in the rain and many were caught. In fitting tribute to the tenth anniversary of Carp-O-Rama Nick caught the longest one of the 2015 event.

As it turned out, Rick and I should have “seized the day” on the Niagara. But instead of carp-e diem, for us it was crap-e diem. The coincidental meeting with Coach the day before was the foretelling omen we should have heeded.

In the end we learned that trying to out think Mother Nature is one thing, but ignoring the Cosmos is another.

To make matters worse, according to Nick, this was likely the last year for Carp-O-Rama. So unfortunately for Rick and me, next year is not an option either.
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  • steven summers
    steven summers says #
    The poor mans bone fish. Hope all is well with you Jerry, and tight lines.

Posted by on in On the Road Blog
b2ap3_thumbnail_blogfb080315.jpgSweetgrass Rods has a policy that if a customer asks us to go fishing, we get the day off to go fishing with them. It's not a guided trip we actually fish and have a great time. Today was something special. Charles Harris 73 years young, with a doctorate in philosophy, who travels the world with his wife tango dancing and fly fishing, was my fishing buddy for the day.

b2ap3_thumbnail_blogfb080315b.jpgI must say that I spent most of the day watching him and not fishing. His fly fishing ability reminded me of my mentor Chester Marion a legendary fly fisherman and guide in Paradise Valley on the Yellowstone River. Chester came in to Dan Bailey's where I worked, to give me a daily fishing report for the previous day, and we would sometimes meet up after work and fish the Yellowstone till dark thirty, or go fishing on the weekend. He took me under his wing and showed me technics, and his favorite spots, that he would never tell anyone else. He often said " keep this one under your hat" or "I have to show someone these spots before I die"b2ap3_thumbnail_blogfb080315c.jpg Chester died the following year in a rafting accident on the Boulder River at age 72. I miss him dearly and think of him often when I'm on the water.

Today with Charles I didn't learn anything new, but it was like reliving my time with Chester, only in the sense of their fishing ability. It was such a treat to watch him cast, methodically working each pool with precision. His line control was awesome making difficult drifts of the fly look natural and easy.

I know my time on this earth will not be long. I often feel that it will end soon. I don't know why but I know in my gut it's true, so I try to live my life to the fullest. Cherishing each day as it was my last. I love to meet new people, sharing my experience and love for fly fishing. Most people tell me I'm very intense, and high strung on the water, moving from hole to hole with speed. I'm good at reading water and knowing where the fish lie and wait. People often ask me why are we skipping this water, and my response is do you want to catch some big fish? Let's keep moving there's a lot of good water up ahead. b2ap3_thumbnail_blogfb080315d.jpgToday was different, I sat back and watched a fine fisherman. I will cherish my day with Charles knowing I will never live to be his age, but I look forward to fishing with Chester for the big fish in the sky....

Fish on my friends!
Luca

b2ap3_thumbnail_blogfb080315e.jpg
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  • steven summers
    steven summers says #
    A nice piece, what a joy it is to have a good day, with a good friend, on a good river. Cherish those days.

Posted by on in On the Road Blog

Dave hard at workIt is with much sadness that Sweetgrass Rods officially announces the retirement of Dave Delisi from our team. For the past eight years Dave’s contributions to the company have been integral to our success. As business and production manager, publicity communicator, and builder of nearly 500 rods, Dave’s talents were invaluable and always appreciated. In fact, without his computer skills we would still be doing business on a yellow pad with a dull pencil.  From our initial workshop behind the library on the Beaverhead River to the makeshift shop at the back of Novich Insurance to our permanent shop on Main Street, Dave’s positive attitude and consistent dedicated effort helped ease the company through difficult times. But now it is his time to move on to a wonderful opportunity.
 
 Dave will become the new Outreach Coordinator for the Ruby Habitat Foundation. His duties will be to set up public outreach programs, schedule daily angling access opportunities, work with visiting anglers, and be the spokesperson for a demonstrable example of how resource management and agriculture can coexist in a happy balance. The Foundation honors the wishes of Craig Woodson. Before his passing, this former newspaper publisher and sportsman had a vision for his 1,100 acre ranch that included a legacy of public use blended with a working-model ranch. Smiling with SweetgrassDuring his lifetime Craig devoted much effort restoring several miles of the Ruby River to world-class status along with promoting sustainable methods of ranching to protect the riparian resource in the process. The mission of the Ruby Habitat Foundation is to continue on with his wishes while experimenting with agricultural techniques that are totally compatible with a healthy ecosystem.
 
From the inception of the Foundation, Sweetgrass has supported its efforts with a few fund raising projects. As a company our dedication to environmental and social causes are well documented, so we couldn’t be more pleased with Dave’s decision. Sweetgrass looks forward to collaborating with him and the Ruby Habitat Foundation on creative projects in the future.  We are pleased to note that Dave will continue to build rods for us in his shop at home as time allows, so we won’t let him off that easily.  Further, Jerry will also be assembling rods at his new home out East, so our production schedule will not miss a beat.  Though we will miss Dave, we know he is only a few miles away. He can be reached at: dave@rubyhabitat.org.  

Dave & Glenn in China, 2009

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  • Jesse Conner
    Jesse Conner says #
    When I visited the Sweet Grass facility four years ago, Dave was gracious enough to give me a tour and answer my many questions.



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