Category Archives: Clark Fork Outpost

March in Montana

Montana, March 7-9, 2020

 

I used an excuse to pick up some fly-fishing equipment I had ordered to go visit my son Mark in Montana. When I saw the long weekend airplane flight of $250 I grabbed it.   The plan was to fly into Bozeman. Fish DIY with my son and his buddies, then make the drive to the Clark Fork River Outpost to fish with my buddy Mike Hillygus. Then fly home from Missoula.

March 6th To get the cheap airfare I had to fly out of Ontario International airport. It’s an awesome little airport, but 90 minutes from where I live in Carlsbad. Well, I got to Denver just fine, but my incoming plan was delayed 6 hours out of Newark. So, I had to spend the day in the Denver Airport and missed the opportunity to fish the Gallatin with my son. He worked that night, but I did get to take his roommates out for dinner at Montana Ale Works (my favorite restaurant in Bozeman).

Mark Huckaby with a big rainbow in spawning colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 7th With Mark on 3 hours of sleep because of work, we were joined by Mark’s Roommates: Burnsie, Bovoso, Jacob & Carter. And we were joined by legendary Cuban Fishing Guide, William, who is credited as one of the 2 guys that invented the Avalon Permit fly. We headed East on the 90 toward Livingston. then we followed the Yellowstone River South, upriver, towards the park and into the Paradise Valley. We had rod reservations at the Spring Creek at Armstong’s ranch (directly upstream from Dupuy’s). I love fishing the spring creeks of the Yellowstone River and if you catch the timing right, it can be epic. The boys got a 30-minute jump on me because I had a couple conference calls. By the time I caught up with them I expected them to be doing well and they were not. I fished dries mostly all day with a little nymphing and streamers mixed in. I didn’t catch a lot of fish and certainly nothing worthy of a trophy shot, but I did get to fish with Mark alone for a stretch and he nailed a beautiful male rainbow staging himself for the spawn. It was a fun day, of course. The sun was out and weather was in the 50s so totally comfortable. But the wind just killed us. We had sushi together that night and, exhausted, turned in as early as possible.

Mark Huckaby in Battle on the Armstrong Spring Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 8th In order to get a full day’s float in Mark and I had to leave his house at 6:30AM. As nice as the day was the day before it was not this day. After my alarm went off I peaked outside to find it snowing with 4” already on the ground. Well, I scraped all the snow off Mark’s little Honda Civic and he slept while I drove. When I got on the 90 heading west towards Missoula it was a bit hairy. To be safe I was going 45 in an 80. It didn’t get safe from weather until I crossed over the Continental Divide. On the other side of the continental divide it was sunny, dry, but really cold.   Mike Hillygus of the Clark Fork Outpost (CFO) met us at the Missoula airport where we stashed my son Mark’s car. We hopped in Mike’s Suburban towing his drift boat and off we went headed north-West, following the north flowing Clark Fork River to the town of Saint Regis and then another ~5 miles into the wilderness to the lodge. It’s about an 1:15 drive to Mike’s Lodge. We launched the drift boat right from the Lodge and did my favorite float of the area. I have done that float so many times now I feel like I could guide it. I pretty much knew from memory all the “fishy” spots, the big foam patches in the eddies, etc. What I cannot do is row the rapid that is in that float. That rapid is a pros only deal. We caught fish nymphing and on dries. It wasn’t crazy good, but it really shouldn’t be in March. It was, however, snowing; bitter cold at points. The biggest excitement of the day wasn’t the big west slope cuttroat I nailed on a dry feeding in the foam. It was cruising by a large herd of rocky mountain sheep that just stared us down. Mike said we were super lucky to see them. This the same float we ran into a bear cub in a tree a few years back. It’s in the middle of the wilderness. No cell phone signal. Super fun day spent with my son and my good friend Mike at the oars. We hit the closest restaurant, Quinn’s at the hot spring resort and had a great time.

Herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

 

 

March 9thWell, between several conference calls I had to do and Mark simply catching up on sleep we got a late start. And that was a good thing. With overnight temps in the teens there was no reason to rush out to a cold river. In Fact, when the sun came up there was fog on the river because the river temp was much higher than the air temp. We put in up stream and did another fun float I love to the town of Saint Regis. It is there that the Saint Regis river enters the Clark Fork. That confluence of the Rivers has always produced in all times of year, so we had that to look forward to in ending it. For the first time ever…and I have fished this river a lot over the last many years… it was slow. We couldn’t get anything to move in all the spots that usually produce. We tried several tactics from dries to nymphing to streamers. Nothing was rising and we were not fooling any trout; not even nymphing. Then to top it off the sun disappeared, it snowed lightly, and the wind was howling. It’s undoubtedly that drop in the barometer that caused the fishing to slow down. They have a saying in Montana: “It’s Montana”. That means you never know what you are going to get from the weather. The forecast said sunny in the high 50s. I have to admit it did cross my mind that even at the confluence we were not going to do well and it simply would be my first poor fishing day ever on the Clark Fork river. Oh was I wrong. Right before the confluence we pulled over to the side and Mike rigged Mark and I up both with fresh nymphing set ups. As we pulled up to the confluence, I got a tug, then lost the fish to a head shake. 10 seconds later I hooked up with a big fish that we landed, pictured and released. Mike pulled across the confluence so we could fish the run (the mix of the two rivers) from the inside. That is when it started to get nuts. For the first hour at the confluence, we basically did laps in that run with Mike back-rowing so we could fish it over and over. Mark caught so many big fish (West Slope Cutthroats, Cut-bows, and Rainbows) that he lost count quickly. From the back of the boat I was railing fish too; big fish. Then, for the 2nd hour we basically anchored, caught a group of big fish, moved the boat 20 feet downriver and did it again. All in all, I bet Mark landed ~15-20 fish over 16” in ~2 hours. It was absolutely nuts. I learned later from Mike is that all those big trout were simply staging. They were waiting for the Saint Regis to get big enough so that they could swim up and spawn. Which totally explains the spawning colors of many of the males we caught and released. Epic Day.

After hitting Quinns again (which honestly if Mike is not cooking; he is formally trained, is the only decent restaurant for miles) we tried to hit the sack early but, between cocktails and packing and the excitement of the day….well, lets just say the alarm at 345am was brutal. And now I’m on the trip home already in the reality of work and wishing I was in Montana with my youngest, Mark Huckaby, who has turned out to be an outstanding fly fisherman. Epic trip.

If you want to:

  • fish the middle of the Montana wilderness guided by the best
  • catch and release a bunch of wild trout from the comfort of a drift boat
  • Stay at lodge that is a fraction of the price of the “normal” high end lodges of Missoula and Bozeman

Then contact my buddy Mike Hillygus at: http://stillwaterriveroutpost.com/ or 406.721.2703.

 

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 West Slope Cutthroat

The West Slope Cutthroat

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.

TimHuck

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.

The Clark Fork Outpost

The Clark Fork Outpost

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.

St. Regis, MT

St. Regis, MT

The Food

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.

Rolled Ribeye

Rolled Ribeye

The Dogs

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.

Huck with Belle and Cru

Huck with Belle and Cru

The Fishing

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.

Cutt-Bow

Cutt-Bow

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.

Mike letting Belle have a sniff

Mike letting Belle have a sniff

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!”

Another Big Cutt-Bow

Another Big Cutt-Bow

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

Big Clark Fork Rainbow

Big Clark Fork Rainbow

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”.

Another big Clark Fork Rainbow

Another big Clark Fork Rainbow

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.

Belle Ready for Fishing

Belle Ready for Fishing

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!