At first all I saw was a shadowy movement on the bottom of the stream. Attracted by the commotion of the struggling cutthroat, a bull trout big enough to molest a buffalo materialized and began drifting toward the surface of the deep pool. I gasped as the big trout attacked in a flurry of curses and splashing water. The curses came from my friend John who had the unlucky cutthroat on the end of his line.
"Careful," I yelled as John pulled the whole thrashing mess up on the bank. I jumped from my perch on the boulder to lend a hand, and our host, Gary LaFontaine, called out from the trail above. "Now you know why we don't wade naked in Montana." We were only five days into the trip, and already we'd had the best fishing of our lives. I had been daydreaming about what the next five days would hold when this monstrous trout appeared. "Unbelievable," I muttered, shaking my head.
When Gary called three months earlier I was watching black skies and thundering rain hammer my office window. "The fishing's great. Get out here," was all he said.
So late June found me and my buddies-John Hinde, Dick Ryan, and Hank Reifeiss-shaking Gary's hand in the Missoula airport. Our goal for this trip was to fish as much of Montana as we could in ten days, and we didn't waste any time.
"Grab your gear and let's go fishing," said Gary, and The Great Montana Trout Tour had begun. On that first day, after eight hours of airplanes and airports, we were ready for instant gratification. I wanted to park right next to a river, take three steps into the water, and catch a fish. We did exactly that after a 45-minute drive to Fish Creek. The stream's surface was covered with the circles of rising cutthroat, so we hopped out of the van, yanked on our waders, grabbed our rods, and were immediately into fish. We spent the next three days of our trip just 30 miles from Missoula, on one of the premier trout streams in the country-- Rock Creek.
....four friends with their rods deeply bowed
This river tumbles for 50 miles through canyons and meadows down to its confluence with the Clark Fork and holds excellent populations of rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout. In the midst of blizzard hatches of Pale Morning Duns and Blue Winged Olives, we had three of the most intense days of dry-fly fishing I've ever experienced. More than once I looked downriver and saw my four friends with their rods deeply bowed under the weight of yet more big Montana trout. When Gary and I finally reached John and that too-big-to-believe bull trout, we just looked at each other and laughed. We were in flyfishing heaven.
Gary held the big fish carefully while I worked the unhappy 16-inch cutthroat from his jaws. John measured the bull trout to be 32 inches as Gary explained how rare this event was. "These trout are almost extinct," Gary said sadly. "In fact, the state passed a regulation protecting them. They are truly magnificent." We could only agree as we watched the huge meat-eater slide into the waters of the Big Blackfoot, and we vowed to keep our waders pulled up while in Montana.
Early on the morning of Day Six we pointed the van south, and five hours later walked into a fly shop in Last Chance, Idaho. Mike Lawson, owner of the Henry's Fork Anglers, had hunted turkeys with me just two months before on my farm in mid-Missouri, and he'd offered to show us around the world-famous Henry's Fork and Madison rivers as part of the Trout Tour. It was late afternoon when we reached Millionaires Pool on the Harriman Ranch section of the Fork.
...arguably the most famous piece
of trout water in the world.
"The Pale Morning Duns should be out tonight," said Mike. "So make sure to get upstream of the fish and try to anticipate their movement. These trout are finicky, and not The author was continually fighting combative trout during his 10-day fishathon in the Big Sky Country. only must the drift be perfect, you've gotta show the fly first or you'll spend all night casting and not catching." With those words of advice we stepped into what is arguably the most famous piece of trout water in the world--and were humbled.
We couldn't do anything right. Part of the problem, I'll admit, was the fact we were awestruck. Just before dusk, the "heads" appeared, and we promptly lost our minds. One minute we were watching a calm, placid pool of water, and the next minute trout were sticking their entire heads out of the river to sip flies from the surface. It was an amazing sight. Hank and I spotted one enormous fish working steadily up the length of the pool, and spent the next hour chasing him all over the river. We took turns being humiliated by this very large trout until we could take it no longer.
As we plopped down on the bank to gather our thoughts, I remembered what Mike had said earlier. "We have to get into position, pick out a single fish, and feed the fly downstream to him," I said to Hank. It took us awhile, but soon we both had serious bends in our rods. Giggling like a couple of school kids, we were finally fighting the stout rainbows of the Henry's Fork. Mike had his vest on when we pulled up to the shop on Day Seven.
"Open the door and scoot over," he said. "Lets' hit the road. The PMDs are coming off thick on the Madison."
Thirty minutes later Mike had Dick and me hustling down a dirt path along the water as he explained how to fish this beautiful river. "Most folks come here for the first time and think the best place to fish is in the middle of the river," Mike said as we walked down the sage-lined path. "But the bigger fish are laying in the little pockets next to the bank, often in less than a foot of water. You'll never see me fishing more than five feet from the bank or making casts longer than 20 feet." Mike stopped so suddenly Dick bumped into the back of him. "Look there," he said, pointing to the disappearing rings of a fish's rise-form, not 15 feet from where we were standing. "There's one." Mike took two steps to his left, false cast once, then laid his No. 16 X-Caddis dry fly next to the rock where the fish had risen seconds before.
"Got 'em," he yelled as the fish came up and nailed the fly before it floated 6-inches. "Did you guys see that?" he laughed as he turned to see what we were doing.
We didn't answer. We were already making a mad dash for the water, and we spent the rest of the day copying Mike's moves, catching 18- and 20-inch browns and rainbows, one right after the other.
an hour before dusk when the river
exploded with big rainbows
Later, while watching the mountains in the background turn purple as the sun set over the Madison River valley, we agreed to come back the next day. Day Nine found us on the way back to Missoula, with a brief stop in Twin Bridges, Montana. The Ruby, the Jefferson, the Beaverhead, and the Big Hole all come together near this small town. These rivers were suffering greatly from extreme low-water conditions, so we did a little scouting with an eye toward our next trip, and soon hit the road. Day Ten in Montana was to be one of the most memorable. Gary had scheduled an afternoon float on the Clark Fork, so by two o'clock we were on the water and casting. Absolutely nothing happened until an hour before dusk when the river exploded with big rainbows rising freely as far as we could see. "Don't waste much time on these fish," exclaimed Matt Hammer, our guide for the day. "Make one cast to a fish, and if it doesn't take, pick out another fish downstream and work on it. We need to get downriver to the big fish before dark." I couldn't believe it. Here we were hurrying through the largest pod of rising fish I'd ever seen so we could get downriver to more rising fish. Only in Montana.
As darkness fell, we put the rods down, opened a couple of beers, and toasted a great day's fishing while Matt let the boat drift toward the takeout. "Ssshh," Matt suddenly whispered. "Listen to that." Every few minutes a beaver would signal our presence with a startling slap of his tail, but Matt was talking about the very distinctive "slurping" sound of big trout taking tiny flies off the surface of the stream, right next to the boat! "Go ahead and make a cast," he said to me. "There's a good chance you'll hook up."
"No," I replied. "I've caught plenty of fish these last ten days. I'm going to sit back, look up at those beautiful stars, listen to those Montana trout, and start planning The Great Montana Trout Tour Two."
If You Go
If You Go Montana is the fourth largest state in the U.S., and most of it is covered with trout streams. The best way to sample the fabulous fishing available is in pieces. Pick a section of the state, a city to use as a base, and let the hatches dictate which rivers to fish. An excellent place to start is with the streams in the southwest corner of the state, using the town of Missoula as a jumping-off point. There are two fly shops in town, the Grizzly Hackle (406-721-8996) and the Missoulian Angler (406-7287766). Current stream conditions and hatch information can be found at both places, as well as complete guide services. The town of Last Chance, Idaho, is an easy half-day's drive if you want to try your hand with the tough trout of the Henry's Fork or the Madison River. Contact the Henry's Fork Anglers at 208-558-7525 for information about the fishing on these two rivers.
Jeff Bryan has written for "Lefty's World," "Pennsylvania Angler," "Fly Fisherman," "California Fly Fisher," "Flyfisher," and "The Quill," among other publications; he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Born and raised in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri, Jeff has been fly fishing and tying his own flies for well over 20 years.