Cutthroat Palate

In the late summer heat of wide-open Montana, amid the upper reaches of the Judith Basin, the grass has dried, water – from the higher elevations, some 40 miles away and 3,000 feet higher – is running, slower and clear; and at it’s lowest ebb. From the mid-day to the near-evening, the sun bakes everything around the ever-slower flowing stream. Water temps are on the rise.

The sounds of insects begin around 3PM and build to a fever pitch cacophony by the near-dusk hour.  It’s a frenzied sound, building in intensity that can jangle the nerves. Though after a time, it becomes more of a background hum that is oddly soothing.

The hoppers appear in late July and continue through the heat of late August and sometimes on into mid September.  By the middle of August they are everywhere. Old folks talk about the great plagues of locust from the 20’s and 30’s. But these aren’t locust. They’re just palate tickling, trout-pleasing’ hoppers.

You can toss a hopper out onto the surface of any pool and get a pretty instant reaction. A few kicks of the hopper’s powerful back legs, sending concentric circles out, into a pattern that is easily interpreted by any trout in the vicinity as, “SNACKS HERE!”.  The reply –’PWOPP!!!’– comes quickly and the hopper is gone. Replaced with a bigger, more disturbed ring, quickly overtaking the hopper’s smaller circle base.

It’s fun. It’s regular. But the players are all small fry, compared to what lies just under the undercut banks. Back in the dark, cooler waters.  Waiting for the sun to go down; the main flow to cool a bit; and the ‘kids’ to head off to their night resting spots.

Just as the sun is fading in the west and the colors in the sky take on a Monet pattern of a fused pastel palette, the truly, big fish, begin to stir.

In some sections it’s the bigger rainbows that show up and down the stream. Feeding on late mayfly emergers and spents.  Then the big brookies will work the bumbling caddis larvae that have yet to find their next grazing rock.

In the more lit sections the large, few-and-far-between, Cutthroats will begin to appear. Casting their eyes to the sky. Looking for the last, big hoppers wiggling on the surface. Those too big for the ‘small fry’ and struggling after the youngsters have left.

Easing out of the cool undercut bank, a big male cutthroat, in a blaze of blood red and orange, tilts his gaze skyward. In his line-of-sight he picks up a rapidly expanding ripple-ring. It’s then the big hopper, struggling in its last throws of attempts to gain freedom, grabs his attention.

That freedom will not come as the hopper is working for, but come-it-will.  Down the gullet of a big cutthroat eager to ease its pain… and please its hungry palate.

I hope you enjoy this #eLITHOGRAPH, entitled, “Cutthroat Palate”, from the series ‘From Below’. © Les Booth, 2008

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