I don’t have an offishial bucket list—to keep one would surely lead to disappointment. I do, however, have an idea of some rivers I’d like to fish before I kick the bucket. One of those rivers is the Missouri. I know lots of folks who’ve fished it, and I’ve read much about it. While it always sounded a bit too busy and populated for my tastes, I have always wanted to experience it firsthand and draw my own conclusions. The allure of 8,000 fish per mile (and nearly as many anglers); a river that fishes like a giant spring creek; wind that can literally blow boats off the water, etc. Yeah, I’ve wanted to visit the Missouri for some time, and if I kept a bucket list I could now scratch this river off the list.
Prior to our annual Firehole Rangers excursion we had made plans to fish Rock Creek on the last leg of our journey. We had cabins booked at the Rock Creek Mercantile and we’d lined up a guide: Scott Anderson, owner and outfitter at Montana Fishing Company. As the day drew nearer, reports indicated that the Creek was running extremely high and fast, and it was Scott’s assessment that it would not be a good idea to float it. The Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork—all nearby rivers—were also out of shape. We were told the only viable option was the MO. With that guidance we canceled our lodging at the Merc and, after fishing the Madison on Monday, drove to Helena.
As The Rangers headed north of I-90 we found ourselves in uncharted territory as none of us had been to Helena before. Nor were we there long enough to do more than grab a bite to eat and sleep before heading out the next morning toward the bustling troutopolis of Craig, MT. The countryside traveling from Helena to Craig made me wish I’d been there before. I imagined Lewis and Clark as they passed through this area over 200 years ago, and surmised that the countryside probably hadn’t changed all THAT much since then. Ever since the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s journey to the the Pacific coast I’ve fancied myself a bit of an armchair historian when it comes to the epic journey of the Corps of Discovery. As we proceeded on I began to feel all romantic about the unspoiled Montana countryside of the past. That said, I have to admit I was glad to be traveling at a high rate of speed on a paved highway, drinking coffee within the comforts of a minivan rather than walking overland and/or paddling dragging heavily-laden canoes upstream; worrying about my scalp and lamenting the fact that the whiskey had run out.
It was with great excitement that we pulled into Craig, a town that needed no introduction. Three fly shops and a restaurant and a bar, and not much else, comprise this angling destination which likely wouldn’t exist if not for fishing. We browsed through Headhunter’s Fly Shop to kill a little time before meeting our guides at the Craig boat ramp. It was there that I was surprised (and delighted) to see a certain set of books on the shelf (I hear that those books have since been purchased so it is my hope the folks at Headhunter’s have ordered more—gotta pay for my gas to go fishing, you know…).
At 9 AM we met Scott Anderson and the other guides from Montana Fishing Company, loaded our gear into their trucks and drove a few miles upriver to Holter Dam, our launch point. Holter Dam is a a massive, aging structure measuring 1364 feet long and 124 feet high that, as one might imagine, presented quite an obstacle for Lewis and Clark and their men as they pushed up the mighty Missouri River in the spring of 1805. But I digress, back to present day…the current powers-that-be that manage the water coming over Holter Dam had been busily reducing the flows from 11,000 CFS the day before, to 5,000 CFS the day we fished. We anticipated that this would be a good thing, and the water was running clear and cold as we boarded our vessels for the day. We’d drawn numbers the night before to determine who would fish with whom, and the results were that Jimmy and Morris would share a boat, as would Marck and Nash.
Goose drew the unlucky number and was paired with yours truly. We carefully took note of the very important information clearly displayed on the sign at the launch and mentally prepared ourselves for a day of fishing. 8,000 fish per mile: surely a couple would offer themselves up for the catching. Undoubtedly Marck would catch at least 4,000 of them. We set off for the day under partly cloudy skies, pleasant temperatures, and no w#nd. Yet.
With Holter Dam still in view behind us, fish began to fall for the scuds that dangled beneath indicators and split shot. Goose was first on the board in our boat. He was also second on the board in our boat. I was down 2-0 before I knew what had happened. Then I reminded myself that Goose and I were on the same team. Now before you roll your eyes and proclaim that fly fishing is a leisurely activity intended for pure enjoyment and not meant to be a competition, keep in mind that we had three boats. It wasn’t important that any particular boat caught more fish than another, as long as you weren’t in the boat that caught the least.
After an enjoyable morning we broke for a shoreside lunch and compared notes: none of the 3 boats were slaying fish, but all had caught some.
Drifting with the lazy, often swirling current, we saw hundreds of large fish sunning themselves in the shallows as we floated overhead. The Missouri really was living up to its billing as large spring creek with an abundant insane trout population. Despite that it isn’t really a spring creek, it fished like one: in spring creeks the fish are not very often easy to catch. We confirmed this later in the day when our boat anchored up on a large pod of rising fish, just about the time the w#nd started to pick up. We must have seen 30-40 noses sipping small mayflies at any given time, and many appeared to be rather large fish. Goose was first to take a turn on the one boat rod that was pre-rigged for dries. As he wiped sweat from his brow he declared that he’d only ever caught one fish on a dry fly. After three casts—casts that may have lacked finesse and delicate presentation thanks to some annoying gusts— Goose could no longer say that he’d only ever caught one fish on a dry fly. The fish ran downstream like a freight train, taking line to the backing. These Missouri fish certainly proved strong…especially when ass-hooked.
After Goose made it look so easy, it was my turn. Now bear in mind I’ve caught a few more fish on a dry fly than my teammate, so I fully expected that it wouldn’t take 3 casts before I got a fish to take my expertly presented fly. “When you see the fish take the fly, count to 3 before you set the hook,” was the advice of our guide, Scott Anderson. That’s easier said than done, particularly when your nerves are shot from 20-30 casts, made between strong gusts of w#nd, to large rising fish that want it placed right on their nose with no drag. I finally got it right and the result was a beautiful Missouri hen, a fish I felt I had really earned. My nerves were shot, my casting arm spent.
We were about to pull anchor when it happened again. I may have been hard to live with for the next few minutes.
Distracted by the rising fish, we’d lost over an hour and it was decided that we needed to make some fast time in order to catch up with the other two boats. By now the w#nd was really started to rear its ugly head, and we pushed through a lot of slow water without really fishing much. No worries, we’d caught some fish nice already.
We did finally catch up with the other boats, and while they hadn’t enjoyed the dry fly fishing we had, they’d been catching a few fish and hopefully having a good time. There was an uneasy tension in the air as we approached and asked how everyone had been doing. Answers were vague.
Goose and I had been a well-oiled machine for most of the day and had even enjoyed a double on nice rainbows. That’s teamwork, folks. We were in it to win it.
By the time we got off the water that evening at Craig, the Missouri had partially flexed its muscles by offering up some pretty serious w#nd—not the stuff that legends are made of, mind you, but enough to make a person realize what it’s capable of. I’m fairly sure I’d rather not experience the Missouri’s full potential if given a choice. We were also not heart-broken to have dodged a thunderstorm which had been threatening for the last hour of the day.
All in all it was a fine day on the water, and everything I’d hoped it would be—and less. The river was not crowded. I imagine that in another month we wouldn’t be able to say that. We drove off into the setting sun en route to Missoula where we spent our last night. The next morning The Firehole Rangers headed west, taking a more direct route than the Corps of Discovery had done 209 years before us. I still don’t understand why Lewis and Clark continued south, then west over Lolo Pass. I-90 is so much faster.
Oh, and lest one should forget about the score at the end of the day, the tally went something like this:
Morris: “A little less than 10, but I don’t count fish. A couple whites. Are there browns in that water? I think I may have caught one.” (His words, not mine) Jimmy: 5 rainbows
Nash: 3 rainbows and one 20″ whitey Marck: 3 rainbows, one golden bone and one whitey
Goose: 5 rainbows UA: 4 rainbows
By my reckoning, Team Goose/UA won, because Morris doesn’t count fish and cannot be relied on for the truth. And we didn’t catch any trash fish caught only trouts.