Stillwater River, Montana – May 3-7, 2016

The Stillwater Water

The Stillwater Water

I had been dying to fish the Stillwater River for one simple reason: the guides don’t typically go there.  And consequently, it’s a lightly fished river:

  • it’s just about equidistant between Bozeman and Billings; about 2 hours from each. So the guides don’t go there.
  • it’s a freestone, so it’s subject to getting blown out, high and low water conditions. So, when it fishes well; it fishes really well
  • it is a river full of rapids which also scares away all the guides except for the ones that are the best on the oars. People drown on this river.

I had this trip inked for almost 9 months.  And it was a chance to fish again with my buddy Mike Hillygus who owns the Stillwater Outpost and is quite the guide, outfitter, and fly fisherman himself.  And the really best part of it was that my 20-year-old son Mark was going to join me.

Mark and Me

Mark and Me

I flew to Bozeman and Mike picked me up.  We arrived at Stillwater Outpost with plenty of daylight to fish.   But, I wanted to check out the lodge first because I was told it was the perfect place for the annual “get locked” trip that I plan, organize and run for 12-14 of my buddies each year.  and it is…  a converted barn with a bar to do the gourmet meals and cocktails.  Plenty of decks with views.  Even a driving range.  And the best news is that it will do at least 14 in beds and has plenty of bathrooms to go with it.  Eve my wife Kelly would love this place.

The “barn” at Stillwater Lodge

The “barn” at Stillwater Lodge

 

Now back to fishing….  I was just going to wade in and fish for an hour, but Mike would have nothing of that.  He insisted on a short float with him on the oars from about a mile up river to the lodge.  I caught two really nice fish (a rainbow and a brown) on dries right in front of the lodge!

The next day we did a big float on the Stillwater downstream.  It was hot; that meant the snow was melting.  and it was obvious the river was rising.  Mike and I caught fish, but the river was getting close to blowing out; it was losing clarity and the dead didymo floating down the river was causing issues.

How can you not love a place that has a brown trout propane tank?

How can you not love a place that has a brown trout propane tank?

That night Mark blew in from Bozeman just in time for another gourmet meal and cocktails…well he had a beer or 4; I had cocktails.  Mike’s buddy Andy, one of the very few guides that does the Stillwater stopped by for a beer or two also; Great guy.  And what I was to learn the next day: great guide.  Andy and Mike drove up river the next morning to check a really hairy stretch to see if it had enough water for the drift boat to get through.  Remember the water was rising and the chance to fish the upper stretch is a somewhat rare and exciting thing.  And they decided we could do it with two boats: Mike’s drift boat with me and Mark in Andy’s raft.  I have never fished crazy water like that before in a drift boat.  I cannot imagine rowing in that water; I’d crash for sure.  Mike is very good on the oars.  I caught fish on dries, but after I switched from dries to a streamer I killed.  I caught a lot of fish.  Mark stayed with dry-dropper and did pretty well too.  It was a great day and we fished in shorts and t-shirts because it was hot.

Mark with Andy at the Oars

Mark with Andy at the Oars

On our last day Mike insisted we make the 2-hour drive to the bighorn.  I was excited because that is where I guided my buddy Mike O’Laughlin; the one and only time I manned the oars for an entire float; did not fish and he did really well.

Mark is first to prove out Mike’s Theory: Look closely for that big skwalla in that brown’s face.

Mark is first to prove out Mike’s Theory: Look closely for that big skwalla in that brown’s face.

 

When matching the hatch does not Matter

Montana Fl;y Company Bullet Head Skwalla

Montana Fl;y Company Bullet Head Skwalla

The coolest part for me and Mark was that we were going to be a subject of a test and a theory Mike had.   Mike has a goto bug; it imitates a Skwalla, which is a huge mayfly.  We all have flies we are confident in; we all have a go-to fly when things are slow. Mike’s theory was that a size 12, bullet nosed skwalla fly would do well on the Bighorn even though they don’t get Skwalla hatches at the Bighorn.  A traditional fly fisherman or a most guides would scoff at the notion.  But that particular pattern from Montana Fly company has the nice thin profile of many large mayflies, but at the same time can be mistaken and a number of small terrestrials like hoppers.  It sits really low in the water so the trout can see them well from below, yet it’s big enough and has a nice yellow foam post so you can see it well from distance in its drift.  And if you know the Bighorn, you know you have to make the cast at least 20 feet, sometimes 40 away from the boat because the drift boats spook the fish in that crystal clear water.

Another big brown on the bullet head skwalla for Mark.

Another big brown on the bullet head skwalla for Mark.

 

Well Mike was right.  And the best part (for a dad) was that I missed 3 takes on top. 0 for 3 while Mark landed two.

Question: What’s better than catching big browns on the dry?

Answer: Catching big browns on the dry that freak out when hooked and do 4-5 shamu-like jumps before you can wrestle them to the net.

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Brown-zilla, on the dry (size 12 bullet head skwalla), on my 3wt which was a battle, 4 huge shamu-like jumps.

The “big trip” is going to be at the Stillwater Outpost next June of 2017.  But, those of you who know me, know I can’t wait a full year and will figure out how to visit Mike there again before winter.  I strongly you suggest you visit Mike at the Stillwater Outpost too.