I have now decided I’m moving to Missoula. And someone needs to tell Kelly because I’m afraid to. What an awesome 3 days I had on the Clark Fork River.
The Clark Fork Outpost
Honestly the reason my 3 days were so awesome was because of Mike Hillygus. I met Mike for the first time on this trip. I had an incredible 3 days of fishing with Mike. The funny thing was that the weather was just miserable. Cold, Windy, Raining and Snowing. Why is the fly fishing always so good when it’s snowing sideways? We did get sun at points. It is Montana, of course. And in Montana the weather changes by the minute.
I stayed with Mike and his two dogs, Bell and Cru, at Mike’s lodge, the “Clark Fork Outpost”. Mike’s lodge is right on the Clark Fork River. It’s about 80 miles downriver (Northwest) from Missoula. More specifically it’s in the stretch of the Clark Fork River that does not parallel I90. The closest town is St. Regis, MT.
I flew in to Missoula late on Saturday night. I offered to rent a car and drive it out to the Clark Fork Lodge, but Mike wouldn’t have anything to do with that: “You’ll just hit a deer and ruin the trip.” That is how Montana people view Southern Californians, as cullers of big game with rental vehicles.
Well, Mike and I hit it off right away. Because he’s a genuinely great guy and like me, loves to tell stories. And before I knew it, I had refilled my glass with Buffalo Trace and it was after 12AM. And we had a big day in the morning.
I heard the dogs around 6am… and I was a bit crusty. It was my first real day of fishing on the west side of the Rockies. I have fished the “Bozeman side” of the rockies in Montana many times. But, for some reason I never had the opportunity to fish the “Missoula Side” of Montana. I can check that off my list now. Now the real issue is that I cannot wait to get back in September.
So after a couple cups of coffee, I’m thinking of eating a power bar that I brought. But, Mike had different intentions: a smoked salmon basil scramble with a thick cut ham steak. Oh man…. A lot of guys maintain they are good cooks…and are not. Really the only thing I am good at is grilling. But, a buddy of mine told me Mike was a good cook and Mike said the food was going to be good. I had no idea. I didn’t come back from the trip skinnier like Kelly wanted me to. That night was a salmon dinner. I’m not a big salmon fan, but there was something he did to it that made it awesome. I wish I knew. The other breakfast featured a ham frittata and another gourmet scramble. The 2nd dinner was a rib eye… but, not just any rib eye it was custom rolled from the outside “marbley” part. Unbelievable. I learned on the trip that Mike went to Culinary school and served as a chef before guiding and ultimately becoming an Outfitter. I have been to a number of lodges that claim to have gourmet level food. They do not as compared to Mike. He’s in a class by himself.
Now, I’m not a dog guy…. Anyone who knows me knows that. I loved our dog Dontee. Not as much as Kelly, but she trained her so well you couldn’t help but like it. And she was smart. Dontee was Kelly’s dog. Mike’s dogs are English Labs. They are bird dogs. But so calm and so loving. I just couldn’t resist petting them. And they are fishing dogs. They road in the drift boat with us. And not even a peep from them. But, Belle sure does love sniffing and sometimes licking the trout when you catch them.
On Sunday the first day, we dropped into the river in Mike’s drift boat around 10:30AM….and didn’t come off the river until 7:30PM. I landed 7 0r 8 and hooked and missed about double that. But, it was the dry fly action that was so fun. When we saw rises Mike had me throwing a Skwalla imitation called a Bullethead Skwalla – Tan Wing, Size 12 from Montana Fly Company. A Skwalla is a big ass bug in the wild and throwing that big a dry made it easy to see in the water. And I was throwing my new TFO BVK 3 wt again. I’m in love with that rod. I caught my first west slope cutthroat on this day. What a treat that was.
The 2nd day we got out a little earlier and floated a little shorter stretch of the river. The weather was just horrible. I was so cold at points my hands were numb. I had snow blowing in my face. And the fishing was awesome. I landed somewhere between a dozen and twenty and missed about 15. I caught some quality fish.
My Favorite Moment #1
My favorite moment #1 was on this 2nd day. Mike and I were hunting rises. And doing really well. It was crazy fun. Is there anything more fun in fly fishing than casting at a rising fish with a dry? Well, yea, it’s doing that at the West Slope Cutthroat. I’m used to those vicious attacks by the browns and rainbows of the west where they scare the crap out of you as you set as quickly as you can. But, there is something about the West Slope Cutthroat that makes it so slow. It went down like this: Mike, “Did you see that?” as a fish rose 40 feet ahead and 45 degrees up downriver from me. Tim, “On it.” So, I casted…and it landed it well enough, just a few feet from the fish in slow glassy water. The Skwalla pattern drifted right over him as the boat caught up. Now we were staring directly to the port side of the boat just 15 feet out. And like it was in slow motion up from the depths comes a big ass west slope cutty; just taking his time as he gulped my fly. It was like it was in slow motion. I set and boom! The fight was on. I was screaming, “Did you see that?! That was awesome! Woo!”
The last day I fished half day guided by one of Mike’s Guides named Sam. I think Sam is a new guide for Mike. I didn’t get details or even his last name, but I can’t wait to fish with him again. We only floated 3-4 hours. The weather was miserable. At times it was even colder than the prior day. I landed 5 or 6, but, they were mostly big fish, and only missed 2 or 3.
My Favorite Moment #2
Sam pulled us into an Eddy where I was drifting the eddy and into the current. Nothing. Then straight up river on the seam. He guided me to drift every which way in that hole. It was really deep there so I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I casted and drifted about 20 times in there. Then Sam said, “Pull it in for a minute, Tim I want to lengthen your dropper by a foot.” And I have to tell ya’ I was skeptical. For a second I thought he was doing that just to impress Mike. I had zero confidence but, after he lengthened the tippet to my girddlebug dropper Sam said something like, “Throw it in the same place.” So I did. And son of a bitch my indicator fly went down I set on a brick. I battled that fish until my arm hurt. “I want to lengthen your dropper by a foot.” I’m still laughing about that. Wanna’ know the difference between a great guide and a good one? it’s knowing the river and its flows so well you lengthen the tippet to the dropper 12”.
I know this is now going to sound like a commercial but, I can’t help it because I was just so pleased by my visit to “CFO”. So here is my guidance: if you want to fish the Clark Fork out of Missoula there is no need to stay at one of those high priced expensive lodges. Contact Mike Hillygus at his web site. Mike’s Clark Fork Outpost lodge sleeps 6 in beds (3 bedrooms; 5 total beds). But, he can accommodate 14 more at his neighbor’s place.
Oh yea, Mike also owns the Stillwater River Outpost… I cannot wait to visit that one in May. On that trip my son Mark is joining me and I cannot wait!