Chasing Rainbows in Northwestern Montana E-mail
Written by Ema Grey   
Tuesday, 03 September 2013 00:00

smile doof

Slowly shifting her hefty weight about the well-trodden porch of The Dirty Shame Saloon, a large woman in a tattered yellow bathrobe palpated a rolling pin as she stared at a pair of well-rigged fishing kayaks. Though they were safely tucked and tied into the bed of my pickup truck, the kayaks were garnering stares reserved for outsiders most unwelcome in this place long-fabled as a hideaway for those seeking escape from societal oppression. This lush Montana valley, the one shouldering the scenic Yaak river, is raft and drift boat country. It is a place for beards, buffalo check flannel, and self-reliance. At this point, however, we had none of the above. Fresh off the Yaak's parent river, The Kootenai, we were too tired to cook a proper meal or pour our own beers; we were traveling in search of sustenance.

My dad first broke the nervous silence. "She looks serious. Maybe we should just head back to camp and rummage through the coolers."

Refusing to be pulled into the valley's shady mystique, I horizontally nodded a silent stance of disagreement and shifted the truck into park.

USE downriver Twelve hours prior has us departing a small forest service campground atop the aforementioned kayaks. Ahead of us lay 26 miles of swift yet largely flat Kootenai River. Normally pushing a day's limit at 19 miles, the stretch was lengthened by a construction project at the only sanctioned takeout. A fish hatchery was being erected, and automotive traffic was forbidden on the winding dusty access road. Shoving off from the pebbled beach and eddying into the current, we did our best to gain a favorable position. A few hundred yards downstream roared the first and greatest section of rough water on the trip. A mere speed bump for whitewater aficionados, the rumbling water was enough to devote serious attention from those atop broad sided and heavy sit-on-tops. With bows aimed firmly at the V-shaped current seam, our boats slid over the chop and around the bend. When the water cleared of turbulence, a shallow gravel bed awaited the first cast of the trip. Previous years had taught us that the Kootenai's rainbow trout are quite dated in their tastes. Cleos, Daredevils, and other equally gaudy chunks of metal always did the trick. The river also houses massive bull trout and they, especially, rose for only the simplest of lures.

I was, however, a victim of a debut trip to Cabelas, and had in my possession an arsenal of extremely life-like replicas of crawfish, juvenile trout, and arthropods. First up was a crankbait resembling a baby brook trout. A short fling and the brookie was undulating through the gravel field. Three turns of the reel, and the five foot ultralight rod was arcing in a perfect homage to the target's rainbow namesake. Soon, a rotund fourteen inch specimen arrived, and the day's routine was set. Riffles chased by gravely runs yielded consistent 'bows of impressive color and girth; expectation became rote, and I soon began experimenting with my new array of plastic and balsa faux fauna.

DETH grip1 Perhaps attributable to a bout of success-driven cockiness, I tied onto the line a grotesque model of a horsefly. With the day's last frothy section sliding into the foreground, I cast the plastic insect upriver and flipped the bail. Entering into the whitewater at a speed well above that recommended by the lure's maker, I watched the rod bend with strain, and aimed my boat at the terminus of the rapid. Glancing at the two empty IPA cans at my feet, I realized that my typically conservative approach had faded, and, as a result, my bow was misaligned with the river's flow. An eddy on river left swallowed the leading edge of my boat, and it, and I, were soon facing upriver and sitting at a complete stop on the river's edge. The horsefly somehow remained in the center channel and quickly floated past my stranded vessel. The rod straightened for a moment, but soon regained its strained bend once the lure was also oriented upstream and struggling in the current. Glancing downstream, I noticed that my father - a relative kayaking newcomer - had successfully navigated the run and was a quarter mile distant.

I had in my hatch one last sandwich, and this seemed as good a place as any to enjoy its nourishment. I placed the pole into the rod holder, and let the horsefly flutter about the rushing water. With a mouth full of turkey, Swiss cheese, and pretzel roll, I gazed upward and fully understood the nature of big sky country. I was soon awoken by the familiar sound of peeling line; by now, the drag was set playfully loose. The hook was soon set, and the sandwich was discarded amongst the other detritus of the hull - pliers, line clippers, and a Clif bar wrapper. Wondering about the structural integrity of such a small rod, I played the fish for a few minutes, and finally reached crate-ward for my net. The spastic wedge of silver soon showed itself, and my net was immediately deemed miniscule.

After removing the barely lodged horsefly from its upper lip, I cradled the seventeen inch fish, admired the kaleidoscope of color upon its flanks, and placed it into the slowly swirling eddy. I then put a paddle blade into the water and begun a long, five mile slog through barely flowing water. The Bonner's Ferry flag, that gigantic Idaho-based bastion of patriotism, soon rose above the horizon. A crowded brew pub passed on river left. A billboard sported a seven foot tall pint glass filled with porter, and the smell of garlic fries permeated the air. The takeout was but a half mile away.

"Really? You really wanna go in there?"

"We were too grubby for that high dollar pub. I'm sober, hungry, and getting damn cranky. Yes. Yes, I do."

yaak beer The old man winked - as he always does when agreeing to my stupid ideas - and exited the truck. We walked up the gravel drive, gave no quarter to the obese lady-bouncer, and entered The Dirty Shame. When our pupils adjusted to the dim conditions, and after they soaked in the over the top rustic decor, our eyes fell upon the small crowd assembled at the bar. As their hushed conversations fell into complete silence, the patrons' eyes uniformly swung to meet ours. I instinctively reached rearward and placed my hand upon the door handle. As comprehension took hold, however, I relaxed my grip, tossed a puzzled look in my pop's direction, and regained my thirst.

It seemed as though the folklore and guidebooks were either dated or misinformed. Pleated slacks, power suits, and thick rimmed tortoise shell glasses appeared to be the norm around here; our fish scale stained board shorts again placed us in the grubby category. A well dressed woman clutched a glass of Riesling and sauntered toward my dad. She soon thrust at him a real estate brochure, and drunkenly convinced herself that we were but two more property hounds descending on the valley. "It does seem rather quaint and placid up here, but I have to ask - that woman outside, the one with the rolling pin - does she represent how it really is up here?"

"Oh, no," said the real estate broker as she swirled the tailings of her fourth glass of Riesling, "It seems the tourists have discovered the fishing up here. We get some real weirdos dropping by for their vacations."

As it travels a 485 course to the Columbia River, the Kootenai dips south into the US and flows heartily through the states of Montana and Idaho before returning to its Canadian roots. Below the towering Libby dam, the Montana stretch boasts trophy trout and minimal crowds. Paddling distances can often exceed fifteen miles; kayak anglers are urged to come prepared with adequate fitness and supplies. The Yaak River Campground places an angler's home base between two easily accessible stretches of water. By putting in at the ATV-clogged yet friendly town of Troy, boaters can enjoy a mild three hour float that terminates at the campground. More adventurous paddlers can depart from their campsite and travel 26 miles into adjacent Idaho. Doing so, however, dicates the need for dual state angling licenses.

 

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