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).
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.
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.
March 9th – Well, 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.