“Montanans don’t like to walk when they go fishing,” said my friend Tom Dickson as we gathered our gear in an empty trailhead parking lot.
Maybe Montanans don’t like to walk, but it was Thursday and raining. The trailhead had just reopened after having been closed due to a nearby wildfire. It may have been a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but we had the trail to ourselves. Dickson, a former Minnesotan who has been living in Helena for 14 years, likes to fish here because he rarely encounters other anglers. Most of the traffic on the trail are horseback riders and pack trains headed deep into the wilderness. We were only walking in three miles; far enough to find good fishing.
A sign at the trailhead warned, “This is Grizzly Country.” Tom carried bear spray, an item I’d foolishly forgotten at home. The trail followed the river valley through a dense forest of lodgepole pine and spruce. Our three dogs–Tom’s griffon Mesa and my two yellow Labs, Tanner and Rainy–trotted ahead of us. We carried leashes so we could control the dogs if we encountered a party with horses.
Instead we encountered something else. Mesa barked and stared intently into the woods. Tanner and Rainy were doing the same.
“Mesa usually doesn’t bark when she puts up a grouse,” Tom said.
We heard something moving among the branches high in a nearby pine. Whatever it was made more noise than a grouse. A porcupine?
“It’s a bear cub,” Tom said. “The mother is standing rght there.”
Thirty yards away, a chocolate-colored bear was watching us. We told the dogs to stay and they did. Tom had his bear spray in hand.
“She has the body profile of a black bear,” he said.
With three well-behaved dogs, we continued down the trail, leaving Mama Bear and cub to their business. Eventually we reached the river, where I traded hiking boots for chest waders. The river was as clear as mountain air, gently tumbling through shallow riffles and into turquoise pools.
You’d think trout would be easy to see in such a stream. Instead they are invisible. The only time we saw them is when they rose to our dry flies. Size 12 Royal Wulffs; the only fly you need here, Tom assured me. Some were rainbows. Some were West Slope cutthroats. A few were natural hybrid cutbows. All ran a respectable 13-16 inches.
We leap-frogged on another as we fished upstream. The dogs, all schooled in the trout fishing game, stayed by our sides or messed around on the bank. Whenever we caught a fish, they’d wander over for a look-see.
The fishing was satisfyingly easy. We soon figured out the active trout were in the deeper pools. We looked for slight splashes made by rising trout. A well-placed fly was rewarded by a strike often enough to keep things interesting. We’d catch a fish or two from each pool. Others often kept rising after we’d caught one, but they’d ignore our flies. Wilderness trout can be easy to catch, but they aren’t pushovers.
There was no path along the bank. Moving upstream we’d go overland between pools, clambering over fallen timber left behind by a wildfire, which was tough on the dogs. Tom said the fire had occurred before he started fishing here, but poor soils and a mountain climate meant a slow recovery for the forest. The saplings were less than waist high.
Rainy, my six-month-old pup, had more fun hanging around with two-year-old Mesa than with Tanner and me. Every now and then he’d come by to check on us, then it was back to Tom and Mesa. It is fair to say he covered most of the river bank twice.
Recent rain had erased most of the game sign, but I found fresh deer and elk tracks in the riverside sand. I showed Tom where bears had torn apart rotting timber to look for grubs. While there was plenty of such bear sign, all appeared to be the work of black bears. At least it didn’t look any different from similar sign I find along the North Shore.
Tom thought the rain and cool temperatures had slowed the fishing, but it was fast enough for me. In one pool I hooked a trout that first appeared to be the smallest of the day, but it stubbornly refused to give up. Eventually I brought to hand a chunky, hook-jawed rainbow–my biggest for the day.
In the next pool I saw no risers, but the river swept invitingly along a rocky ledge. It was a spot that just had to hold a fish. I drifted my Royal Wulff within an inch of the rock wall and watched it disappear in a sipping rise. This one was another hard fighter, a West Slope cutthroat nearly equal in size to the rainbow.
There are times in trout fishing when you know you’ve reached the apex of the day. Occasionally at such moments I’ll reel up and go home, knowing that the river has smiled on me. On this day I just kept fishing, because precious few days of my life will be spent in a place as wonderful as this.
We reached a feeder creek where Tom usually stops fishing and heads for the trail. Intead we kept going, knowing we’d eventually reach the bridge where the trail crosses the river. This was new water for Tom. We soon found good fshing. By now we were no longer leap-frogging up the river, but traded off each time one of us caught a fish. Since we are good friends who rarely see one another, we just enoyed each other’s company.
By now the dogs were tired. We’d been on the river for hours. I was sure the bridge was around the next bend. We went around many bends. My foot was sore from a poorly fitting wader boot, so finally–bridge or no bridge–we called it a day. Changing into hiking boots brought welcome relief to my aching foot.
Still, we didn’t give up. As we climbed the slope away from the river, Tom spotted rises in a distant upstream pool. Of course, we had to check it out. We saw no rises at the mediocre pool we found when we got there. It was time to go home.
We stopped for a burger at a bar in Middle of Nowhere, Montana. Then we made the long drive back to Helena. My Montana fishing adventure was just beginning, but it would be hard to top this day.