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Trout Watching

Mountain Stream and Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains.

Drift snorkeling is like chilling in an underwater train, watching wild mountain trout cruise by your window. Imagine: you, floating along with the current, and beautiful fish putting on a show right in front of you.  It's an underwater adventure that's equal parts exciting and exhilarating!  Just ditch the fins and let the current whisk you away on a scenic underwater tour.

The Montana afternoon sun beat down, urging us onward towards the hidden gem we'd heard whispers of: a mountain stream so clear it shimmered like a shard of turquoise. As we neared, the sound of rushing water grew, a cascade symphony that sent both a thrill and a tremor through my core. This wasn't your average babbling brook – the water tumbling over moss-covered rocks promised an adventure unlike any other.


Peeking through the canopy, we gasped. The stream wasn't just clear, it was a kaleidoscope come to life! Cyan, the color of a summer sky after a cleansing rain, melted into emerald green, then swirled with playful flickers of sapphire and sunlit gold. It was liquid magic, born from the melting heart of the mountains. Donning our protective armor – wetsuits that felt like second skin, gloves that promised nimble fingers, and booties that hugged our feet like loyal companions – we prepared to enter this aquatic wonderland.


The first splash was a jolt, a wake-up call from the warm embrace of the sun. The rushing torrent, a moment ago a fierce roar, became a gentle hum as cool water embraced our faces. Sunlight, dappled through the leaves above, streamed down in a mesmerizing display, illuminating the watery world even at ten feet below the surface. Every twitch, every turn, brought a new discovery. A flash of crimson – a darting brook trout! A majestic rainbow trout, its scales shimmering like a disco ball under the sun's watery spotlight, hung suspended next to a fallen log, its every movement a testament to the silent grace of the wild. The world above faded away, replaced by an underwater ballet, a breathtaking display of life and color. In that moment, I was not just an observer, but a part of this vibrant, hidden world.

After a quarter-century of chasing elusive trout with feathered flies and a fly rod, I made a thrilling scientific conversion: I ditched the fly rod for a snorkel. Witnessing these aquatic athletes in their natural habitat ignited a whole new appreciation for their complex lives. But it wasn't just about marveling at their scales and fins. Peering underwater, I became an observer in their world, and what I saw transformed my perspective.


Gone were the frantic struggles I'd witnessed from above, the desperate thrashing after a fly's deceptive allure. Here, beneath the shimmering surface, the drama unfolded in a ballet of biomechanics. A dry fly, once a triumphant prize, now appeared as a clumsy intruder. The hooked fish, a marvel of streamlined efficiency just moments ago, became a valiant warrior, fins digging into the crystal-clear water, its body a study in desperate maneuvers against the unseen force.


This shift from angler to "aquatic anthropologist" sparked a newfound passion. Drift snorkeling became my gateway to the vibrant riparian world. It's a relatively low-impact exploration, allowing us to witness the intricate dance of life in these freshwater ecosystems. Unlike the controlled environment of an aquarium, here we see fish interacting not just with each other, but with the very current that shapes their world. Every observation becomes a scientific treasure, a chance to decode the language of fins and flicks of the tail.


This immersive experience fosters a profound respect for rivers and their inhabitants. We become stewards, not conquerors, recognizing the delicate balance that sustains this underwater realm. It's a captivating exchange: the river reveals its secrets, and in return, we gain a profound respect for the lifeblood of our planet. Observing trout in their natural environment provides invaluable insights into their behavior and feeding patterns, far surpassing the knowledge gained from a decade of fly fishing. This approach not only spares the trout the trauma of being hooked and potentially injuring their delicate mouths, but it also fosters a deep respect and understanding for these creatures and their habitats. By immersing ourselves in the serene world of rivers, we transition from being mere anglers to becoming true stewards of the aquatic ecosystem. We begin to appreciate the intricate balance that sustains this underwater realm. In this captivating exchange, the river unveils its secrets to us, and in return, we develop a profound reverence for the lifeblood of our planet.

Montana's beauty, immortalized in "A River Runs Through It," beckons countless souls, both newcomers and veterans. Lured by visions of idyllic fly fishing, they arrive with Simms waders, picturing themselves gracefully battling a magnificent trout. Yet, the reality can be a far cry from the film's serene imagery. Imagine yourself at a cozy diner breakfast, suddenly yanked from your chair, a foreign object piercing your mouth. Panic surges as you fight for your life, the familiar comfort of your world replaced by a desperate struggle. That's the unseen perspective of the fish – a violent intrusion on their peaceful existence.  Before we cast our lines, let's remember this.  The Montana rivers we romanticize are not movie sets; they're vibrant ecosystems. Perhaps, a moment of reflection, a quiet connection with the flowing water, can be just as enriching as a fleeting catch.


by Jere Folgert. Bozeman, Montana

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