Hell or High Water? Day One: The Missouri
So as not to keep you in suspense, I’ll get right to the matter of our annual pilgrimage to the Firehole River: High Water.
We shouldn’t have been—and we weren’t—too surprised that we ran into plenty of high water this year. After all, it’s that time of year. Runoff, meltoff, whatever you want to call it, we encountered it. In some past years we’ve gotten lucky and found waters that were fishable despite the time of year, but this year was a big water year thanks to a big snow winter. Our first barometer for Montana river conditions is the Clark Fork, which we first encounter at St. Regis, MT. It’s as if the Clark Fork welcomes us back to Montana, and offers us a glimpse as to what we should expect everywhere. It’s nearly always big and brown, but this year the Clark Fork was bigger and browner.
Our first destination was the booming metropolis of Lincoln, Montana, where we spent the first night at the Three Bears Motel (not to be confused with the Three Bears Motel in West Yellowstone, where we often eat but do not stay). It’s worth mentioning that the rooms were small and quite tidy: perhaps the cleanest motel I’ve stayed in. So if you find yourself passing through Lincoln, Montana, and you need a place to crash for the night, instead of continuing down the road and risking a crash encounter with one of Montana’s many nocturnal big game animals, do not hesitate to stay at the Three Bears Motel.
The day had been pretty nice, but a storm was rolling in from the south. While we were enjoying the last of the nice weather, sitting on the porch outside our rooms, Jay Dixon (our outfitter for the next day), pulled into the parking lot with his drift boat in tow. He was en route to the Missouri and, knowing we were staying in Lincoln, happened to see a group of guys that he assumed were the Firehole Rangers. There aren’t many folks in Lincoln, and since we undoubtedly stuck out like sore thumbs, his assumption was a safe one. As the clouds won out over blue sky, Jay proceeded to tell us a bit about the next day’s planned float trip. He informed us that the Missouri below Holter Dam had been holding at around 8500 CFS, so it should fish well. He also mentioned that there was a w#nd warning for the next day. No matter, the w#nd is not an uncommon thing on the Missouri, so we all rested easy (except for Nash, who bunked with Goose) that night before getting up early the next morning to meet with our guides. As Jay drove off the rain arrived en force.
The Missouri hadn’t our first choice, but because of hellish high water everywhere, it was our only choice. We had originally wanted to fish the Blackfoot—a river none of us have ever been on—but it was milk chocolate in color, as expected. But the Missouri is certainly no consolation prize, as we discovered 3 years earlier (which I wrote about here: Missouri Loves Company). Anglers flock to the Missouri every year like flies to a rump roast. And for good reason: it’s like a ginormous spring creek chock full of trout. Mostly big, strong trout.
Despite that it had rained throughout the night before, when we pulled into the Prewitt Creek Fly Shop at 9 am the next morning the sky was blue, with a few broken clouds moving overhead at a rather brisk clip (when I say ‘brisk’ I’m being kind). The wind advisory had called for mild w#nds that would build throughout the day. If that had been the case, I would have hated to see what the w#nd would have been like later in the day because it was already ripping. That didn’t do much for our spirits because fishing in the w#nd isn’t much fun, and can in fact be dangerous on the big water of the Missouri.
But, like Lewis and Clark 211 years before us, our flotilla set off down the Missouri. Now, some of you may be saying, “Wait just a damn minute: Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri through this area in 1805, so that would be 212 years ago, not 211 as stated. UA sucks at math.” And if you said that you would be correct on all accounts. But read carefully what I wrote: “…our flotilla set off down the Missouri.” It was in 1806 that the Corps of Discovery floated down the Missouri on their return trip from the west coast. So, suck it, Trebek. I was write.
Marck and I first met Jay Dixon of Dixon Adventures in 2011 when we fished the Bitterroot with him (reported on here: Bittersweet Montana). We’d had a great time with Jay on the Bitterroot and Marck and I were looking forward to fishing with him again. Goose and Nash fished with “Antelope Pete*” while Jimmy and Morris took their seats with “Busdriver Billy*” (*Guide names altered to protect their identities). With a very strong w#nd at our backs, we pushed off, armed with double nymph rigs. Since I’ve already
probably undoubtedly lost most of my small list of readers already, lets jump to some highlights of the day, and photos:
- The fierce w#nd would actually lessen as the day wore on (counter to the forecast), and did not dash our hopes of a fine day on the water.
- While catching was on the slow side, we did get into some strong Missouri fish. Marck and I had probably 10-12 fish to our boat, which was probably about the same for the other boats.
- All but two of our fish were caught on nymphs. I managed one big brown on a PMD dry and Marck enticed one on a streamer.
- It was a long day covering many—approximately 12—miles of river. We were nearly the only three boats on this lower stretch of the Missouri; a nice change of scenery from the boat show upriver closer to the booming troutopolis of Craig, MT. It’s always nice to see some new country. The float took us through a rugged canyon where the Missouri actually resembled a rushing river in some places before unfolding into a vast expanse of open country where the river resumed its flat, broad nature.
- We would not need the rain jackets that we brought along just in case. In Montana, one never knows what to expect from Ma Nature.
When w got off the water at 8PM we still had a 4 hour drive to West Yellowstone (not including a 1 hour stop for dinner in Helena). Following a chance encounter with Applebees—that left us with full bellies and heavy eyelids—we would be driving for another 3 hours in the dark, through daunting game country. With Jimmy behind the wheel, and Goose appointed as his wingman, I worthlessly occupied the back seat. It should be noted that when driving through Montana at night, there is no more important role than that of the wingman, whose job it is to keep the driver engaged and alert; and to be a second set of eyes. Goose was perhaps not the best man for the job as he was asleep before we’d reached the outskirts of Helena. It should also be noted that we were the ‘mine sweeper’ vehicle, with the other Ranger transport following close behind. Fortunately both vehicles would arrive, front bumpers intact, at the Ho Hum Motel in West Yellowstone at 1AM. After a few brief hours of shut-eye, the Rangers would begin the next day on our namesake river, the Firehole.