On a recent trip to the northern Rockies, Vikki and I made an overnight stop in Helena, Montana, to visit our friend Tom Dickson and his partner in life, Lisa, who moved there from the Twin Cities nearly a decade ago. Tom and I first met when we were wet-behind-the-ears college grads hired by the long-defunct Fins and Feathers magazine. Hunting, fishing and work sort of blended together at Fins and we formed a lasting friendship. However, I hadn’t seen Tom since he’d moved to Montana.
Tom and Lisa live in a fine old Helena home on a hillside a short walk from downtown. An even shorter walk leads to an endless network of hiking trails on Mount Helena and beyond. We took a short walk with the dogs, then enjoyed a good dinner and better conversation. They put us up in a spare bedroom–a welcome change from our camper.
The next morning, Tom and I went fishing to his local honey hole, the famed Missouri River near the tiny town of Craig, less than an hour’s drive down the Interstate from his home. The Missouri is formed at the merging of three great Montana trout streams, the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers. When Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri on their Voyage of Discovery, they found native cutthroat trout all the way downstream to Great Falls. While the explorers might still recognize the arid, pine- and sagebrush-clad hills along its banks–mostly protected with permanent conservation trusts–they would not know today’s river.
Three dams upstream from Craig impound the river and profoundly affect its ecosystem. In the impoundments swim stocked walleyes and nonnative rainbow and brown trout. The fertile, fast-flowing tailwaters below the dams support dense aquatic vegetation and an abundance insects and other invertebrates, creating a productive pasture for grazing rainbows and browns. Well-fed, the trout grow to impressive sizes, with chunky two-pounders the norm.
It’s no wonder Craig is a fly-fishing Mecca, although the trout are not easy to catch. They frequently feed on tiny insects, forcing anglers to use equally tiny flies. Because food is abundant, the trout are picky eaters and not easily fooled with a fake fly. It takes perfect fly-fishing technique and no small amount of luck to catch a trout here.
Tom has fished the Missouri long enough to have paid his dues. On the way to the river he told stories about the fishing and talked about duck hunting along the river in December and January. The only other duck hunters he knows who go out at that time of year are other transplanted Minnesotans. The local Montanans think they’re crazy.
But crazy is as crazy does. Tom pointed out a tributary stream where big rainbows from the Missouri spawn in the spring. The caveat is the canyon where the creek runs is full of rattlesnakes. Tom only fishes there is before the snakes emerge from winter hibernation. He leaves the big rainbows to the crazy locals who don’t mind snakes.
While he said there are no snakes along the Missouri, I’m not sure I believe him. We followed worn angler trails to the water’s edge. The Missouri is by no means a secret place and is frequented by fly-fishers from all over. Many choose to float the river, perhaps with a guide, in a drift boat. A few, like us, walk and wade. There are more than enough trout for all.
Walking on the bank, we slowly headed upstream looking for rising trout. Soon, we found them. In a deep eddy on the edge of the main current, a pod, or school of rainbows, was feeding on the carcasses of miniscule Trichorythedes mayflies. The mayflies mate along the river on late summer mornings and then fall to the water and die, their spent bodies coating the surface film like a scum. The trout sound as though they are sucking through straws as they slurp them up.
Catching a fish in such a situation is ridiculously difficult. Matching the hatch means using a fly so small it is nearly impossible to see. Some anglers enjoy the challenge. I do not. Tom suggested using a tiny, subsurface nymph beneath a strike indicator–which is simply a fly-fisher’s fancy name for what any 5-year-old fisherman would call a bobber. If the indicator twitches or disappears, you know you’ve had a strike. I couldn’t do it. Call me a snob, but I gave up bobber fishing when I turned six–and long before fly-fishers started using them.
Instead I choose an iconoclastic approach, tying on the biggest, ugliest fly in my box. Such shock treatment for trout has worked for me in the past. Tom didn’t say much when I did the opposite of what he advised. Instead he headed off to find some risers of his own. Then it was just me and the fish, separated by about 25 feet of moving water. My monster fly was ignored as it floated time and again past the feeding trout. I tried other, smaller flies. Still no dice. After an hour or so the trout stopped rising. I think they were full.
I walked along the bank until I found Tom, who was casting to several risers in a smooth run. As I approached one took his fly in a savage swirl. Caught off guard, he struck too hard and broke the leader tippet. It turned out to be the only strike either of us had all morning. We tried another place, where, casting into a stiff breeze, I managed to hook myself in the upper arm. I hadn’t pinched the barb to make the hook barbless, so removing the fly was a bit of a streamside process for which there were fortunately no spectators. Suffice to say human skin, even when you jerk a stuck fly with a pair of pliers, is elastic and surprisingly tough.
When we quit fishing around noon, the trout had stopped feeding, though inevitably they would reappear when another hatch began in the afternoon. Vikki and I still had miles to go to reach our destination, so we wanted to get back on the road. I’d experienced enough of the Missouri to now know it was what it was cracked up to be, a beautiful stream stuffed with big, hard-to-catch trout.
And I learned something else. Tom and I have long been friends, but we have one serious difference. He likes one side of the mountains. I like the other. He enjoys Helena, on the eastern, Rocky Mountain Front, where the mountain rain shadow creates an arid, open landscape. I’m drawn to the West Slope, where rain and snow from the Pacific Ocean provide nourishment for vast forests of tall conifers. But we agreed we were both drawn to places where clear, cold waters support wild trout.
Back at Tom’s house, we swore we wouldn’t let so many years pass before we got together again and said goodbye. Then Vikki and I headed West, crossing over the Rockies to the other side. That night, we camped beneath tall trees at Seeley Lake. That’s when I discovered something else. On either side of the mountains, Montana is a good place to be.