A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part V
After the beat down on the
Cornhole Madison, we drove 4 hours to Rock Creek, with a quick stop along the way in Deer Lodge for a bite to eat. Deer Lodge is actually a pretty interesting place because right in the middle of town is the Old Montana Prison (known as the Montana’s Territorial Prison when the first inmate was incarcerated in 1871). The facility hasn’t provided three squares a day for inmates since the late 1970’s, nor was there much to choose from as far as eating establishments elsewhere in town. We did manage to find a joint that was open and horked down a meal that was barely a notch above prison food before continuing on our way.
Twenty miles east of Missoula lies Rock Creek. It’s a place, not a town, despite having a Clinton, MT designation (Clinton is actually a few miles west). Interesting to note is that in this small settlement you have a couple of very well known establishments: Rock Creek Lodge, home of the famous Testicle Festival; and the Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile. Inside the bar at Rock Creek Lodge you’ll find a handful of what appear to be locals, playing pool and pinball and drinking (this is not your Columbia PFG crowd). The wall behind the bar is adorned with a wide variety of interesting signs and stickers, my favorite of which being the one that says, “I don’t care that you fly fish”. A quarter mile up the road you find the renowned “Merc” which does indeed care that you fly fish and exists because you do. Flowing just behind both establishments is Rock Creek—the legendary Rock Creek—another of Montana’s storied blue ribbon trout streams. Upon arriving at our destination we stopped for a beer at the Rock Creek Lodge before checking into our cabins at the Merc (shop was closed; keys were under the mats).
The first time the Rangers fished Rock Creek was in 2008 when we weren’t even known as the Firehole Rangers and our current assembly of corps hadn’t yet been fully assembled. That first visit was during peak runoff, on a year when there had been plenty of snow (unlike this year). We probably shouldn’t have been catching fish that year because we probably shouldn’t have been on the water. But alas we were and we did: lots of big water, lots of medium-sized fish, despite that we were too early for the salmonfly hatch that year. The second time we fished Rock Creek was in June 2014. We’d only been home for couple of weeks after returning from the annual pilgrimage to the Firehole when Marck, Morris and I went for a long weekend. It would appear, in going thru my records, that I didn’t write about that trip. I reckon there wasn’t much to write about. We were there during the peak of the golden stone hatch but fish were only wanting a Purple Haze. I didn’t discover this until the last day when it was all but too late to change the outcome of the weekend.
The good news, this year, was that we had timed our arrival perfectly. We talked with a guide who had just gotten off the river and he told us the salmonflies were working their way upstream and we could expect to encounter the giant stoneflies at about mile 30 up Rock Creek Road. The salmonflies begin popping on the lower river and work their way upstream as the days/weeks progress. It was decided that we would drive to the big bugs in the morning.
There’s not a lot at Rock Creek other than the Merc, the Testicle Lodge and Ekstrom’s Stage Station. But there is, of all things, a coffee stand right outside the cabins where we stayed: good coffee, too. After breakfast we piled into the Soccer Mom Express and proceeded up Rock Creek Road. The first 8 or so miles are paved; after that the road turns to dirt and potholes, although being early in the season the road was still in pretty good shape. Good thing, too, because with the weight of 6 guys in an already-low-slung mini van, it could have gone badly had the road been in worse condition. After what seemed like an hour (because it was) we arrived at the river access near the Morgan-Case Homestead (interesting story behind that—stop by and read the signboard next time you’re up that way). We geared up and packed our Gore-tex jackets—rain was forecasted. I had intentionally left my lucky fishing hat back at the cabin because it doesn’t accommodate the hood of a rain jacket as well as a ball cap, and frankly it hadn’t proven to be lucky the day before (stupid hat, anyway). We hiked a short ways to the river and spread out; Marck and I heading upstream while the others moved down. Before we had even gotten to our first run I heard Goose yell, “I got one!” That didn’t take long and it gave me hope that it would be a good day.
The river looked nothing like it had in 2008, when it was a raging torrent of chocolate milk, and while it was still flowing plenty fast, good visibility was in ample supply and we didn’t have to stand far back in the bushes to fish. That said, at these flows wading was not much of an option so reaching good water was a challenge. Fishing was a bit slow to get started: I was using a salmonfly dry pattern with a SJW dropper. After an hour I had one 10″ brown to hand that ate the dropper. Marck hooked his first ever bull trout about the same time, making Rock Creek the first river on which we’d each caught a bull trout (mine came in 2008, and was a lot bigger).
We hadn’t been at it for more than a half hour before the weather took a rapid turn for the worse: the wind came from downstream with little warning and we could see a squall blowing rapidly in our direction. In the time it took to remove our jackets from our packs and put them on, the rain was upon us; blowing sideways. Fortunately it didn’t persist for more than 20 minutes before the clouds parted. Despite that the we had dry conditions for the remainder of the day, a dark cloud continued to follow me around.
No fish were rising and no bugs were out and about. In fact we didn’t see many of the big bugs until much later in the day, and even then they weren’t prolific. The fish weren’t keying in on them either, which field research confirmed: we tossed a few live bugs into the river and watched them flutter as they floated downstream without a single fish rising to take them.
I tried several different dry varitions of a salmonfly but I had zero takes. Big ones and slightly less big ones; bright orange ones and less brightly orange ones. Not even a tasty looking Cat Puke could rise a fish. All I could surmise was that the fish had seen and eaten so many of the big stoneflies recently that they were absolutely stuffed and they couldn’t eat another bite (reference Mr. Creosote, Month Python’s Meaning of Life). That, and/or we were simply in the wrong place. A few rafts drifted past during the day, casting to the opposite bank, and we observed several of the boat anglers catching fish as they cast their bugs under overhanging branches. So apparently there were fish in the river willing to eat, but most of the good water appeared to be on the opposite bank, far out of our reach: there was no wading across at these flows so we made do with what we could. I tried different ant patterns, a golden stone dry, different droppers…all to no avail. In retrospect I probably should have tried pulling a streamer through some deeper holes.
As the day droned on and the fishing remained painfully slow (for me anyway), I had plenty of time to appreciate the surrounding beauty. Rock Creek flows through a narrow canyon carved into the Sapphire Mountains and if the fishing had been good I may not have taken the time to appreciate where I was. However, I was there to catch fish and because I wasn’t catching fish, some of the natural luster wore off by afternoon.
I slowly moved downstream, all the while trying to convince myself that my luck would change, until I came to a spot where I saw 3 moose on the opposite shore. They were most likely a safe distance away and fortunately none were cows with calves. But I don’t really like seeing moose when I’m alone in the wilderness and I’m not afraid to admit that their presence put me on edge. Had I been distracted by catching fish I may not have even noticed the moose; but since I wasn’t, I did. I glanced around to find the nearest climbable tree but when nothing promising could be found I moved away from the spot and headed back upstream toward the main trail from the road. Shortly thereafter I ran into Nash, Jimmy and Morris: all had been catching fish and none had noticed the moose. Morris barely slowed down to exchange words: he seemed to be on a mission as he aggressively worked through water that I had just fished. I tried to warn him that there were no fish there, just as he hooked up with and broke off a nice fish before continuing upstream at a frantic pace, changing flies in mid stride as he focued intently on the next piece of promising water. Nash drifted a fly through some water I had just passed through a half hour earlier. Before I could tell him he was wasting him time he landed a fish. Screw this—it was 3 pm when I finally walked back to the
truck mini van, climbed out of my waders and broke down my rod. And reached for a cold Vitamin R from the cooler.
After an hour the others began to trickle in. The fishing had been tough for almost everyone but nobody had caught just a single fish, other than me. Goose managed to land 6 fish and, due to having been distracted by soggy feet, missed the hook set on about 20 more. Morris caught “more than anybody else!” by landing about 20 fish, including 4 out of 5 of the Grand Slam species. Jimmy only remembers catching a brookie and some others. Nash recalls catching 6 or so, but “had a hard time seeing the size 4 salmonfly dries” he was throwing (I think he was being sarcastic). Marck declined to weigh in with his fish total, but I know he caught at least a bull trout (undoubtedly many more other trouts as well). If you count all the fish caught by everyone, collectively we got the Slam: bull trout, rainbow, brown, brookie, and westslope cutthroat. And a bonus whitey.
I stood idly by while the others talked of their fishing prowess and geared down for the last time on the trip. For Goose, this was a welcome end to having spent the past 5 days wearing leaky waders. As he removed his foot from the custom garbage bag liner I snapped a quick photo and made what may have been some sort of wise-ass comment. “F#ck you!” he said, offering a familiar hand gesture, “You’re not going to make fun of me on your damn blog.”
I would never do that.
And so the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers is in the books and, other than a single day on the Big Hole, it’s one I’d just as rather forget. If I wanted to get my ass handed to me I could stay much closer to home, wear my lucky fishing hat, and spend a day on the Yakima.
But at least my waders didn’t leak.