Montana's New Spring Creeks

Montana's New Spring Creeks

If there were fairy tales about spring creeks, one would be set in a narrow filigree of water winding through a grassy field in the shadows of Montana's

  • By: Jeff Hull
If there were fairy tales about spring creeks, one would be set in a narrow filigree of water winding through a grassy field in the shadows of Montana's granite-capped Ruby Mountains, and the main character would be a sharp little shiny-jacketed fellow named Copper John. One October morning, using a tiny beadhead fly of the same name, I tricked over a dozen 20-plus-inch rainbows from a stream so toy-like that dragging such large trout from it seemed as much an act of imagination as physical action.I had never caught so many fish over 20 inches in one day-and I only fished for a couple hours. What's even more magical about this little freshet of cold, clear water called Cattail Creek is that, up until a few years ago, it didn't even exist. Cattail Creek, on the ranch of Craig Woodson outside of Alder, Montana, was conjured from whole cloth, or more exactly, drafting paper, by Clint Campbell, a stream restoration specialist from Bozeman. Prior to Woodson's purchase of the ranch in 1992, Cattail Creek was a sedge-infested low spot in the midst of a hay pasture. But the redirection of a spring-fed irrigation channel, combined with the tapping of groundwater springs produced just enough flow to provide homes for rainbow and brown trout that now reach in excess of 26 inches in length. The invention of Cottonwood Creek ?? is an ambitious example of a trend in Montana, and throughout the West, that involves the cleaning up of old irrigation or cattle watering schemes and restoring their potential as fisheries. Enough ranchers have opened their rehabilitated springs for use as pay-to-play fisheries that the number of private spring water available to fly fishermen in Montana has more than doubled over the past decade. And some, like Woodson's, or the McCoy Cattle Company outside of Dillon, or Milesnick's MZ Bar Ranch near Belgrade, are already close to rivaling the storied Paradise Valley spring creeks-Armstrong, Depuy's and Nelson's- in terms of productivity. Spring creeks represent a pure distillation of fly-fishing. Bubbling from underground, spring creeks are generally tiny slivers of flat, transparent water that enjoy year-round constant water temperature, clarity and alkalinity levels-a stability that produces great gobs of aquatic insects, which in turn attract and quickly fatten greedy trout. In most small springs, you see the fish you're fishing for, but of course they can see you too, which invites army-crawl approaches, pinpoint casting, 6X tippet and semicolon-sized flies. When you spot a 26-inch rainbow holding in 12 inches of spring water, anything less than the exact fly pattern pitched perfectly into the feeding window invites botchery-which is exactly the fun of it. Joe Urbani is an authority on stream restoration. "Big fish and lot's of 'em" is the Urbani&Associates motto, and nobody knows more about how to create conditions that allow for the presence of big fish. Based in Bozeman, Urbani has worked on projects in 17 different states. On a clear October day in the shadow of the Bridger Mountains outside Belgrade, Montana, Urbani and I stand on the banks of Story Creek, which was recently been purchased by Big River Lodge owners Dallas and Debbie Marvil. "You don't find streams like this anymore," Urbani says, pointing to the water, made murky by hundreds of dabbling ducks, slurping between brush-cluttered banks. "One million dollars a mile for a spring creek is the going price these days,," he says. "That's just the creek corridor, no associated land, unimproved. The Marvil's got a deal here. This spring was in the worst condition I've ever seen." Urbani leans down and plucks a rock from the creek. It's covered in a film of muck, in which a few chironomid nymphs have burrowed. "This is basically old cow shit we're looking at," Urbani says, wiping at the muck. "The landowner who owns the source of this spring uses it to water animals. So there's a lot of manure in the river. Before we started restoration, we measured the flow and sediment depth on 6,200 feet of this creek. Didn't find a pool more than 1-foot deep. Sediment was knee-deep. We found almost no existing bare gravel. Bank-to-bank the stream was chock-full of fine grain sediments." Urbani, who moved rocks around the stream behind his parent's New Jersey farm as a kid, studied stream flows for the government for decades before going private, brought in an excavator to dredge the Story Creek streambed. Urbani and his associates dug pools, narrowed channels, built point bars, sunk woody debris, elevated riffles with gravel fill to create more water velocity. Because springs do not experience seasonal run-off, the sinuosity, flow volume and grade of the streambed must ensure that sediment loads are continually moved through the system. It's math, "all sine and cosine," Urbani says, but it's calculable. A well-designed rehab project allows a stream to scour sediment from its bed in a self-perpetuating system, just as spring creeks do naturally. "When we started, this stream had two gravel riffles and four pools deeper than a foot. Now we have 78 riffles and 62 pools, some of which are eight feet deep. We're monitoring aquatic insect populations. Before, it was all tubifex worms [the hosts of Whirling Disease-causing parasitic spores], crayfish and sowbugs. Next spring I think we'll find caddis and mayflies increasing dramatically." Spring creeks are niche environments. Freestone streams support a highly diversified range of aquatic insect and plants species, but host lower population densities in those species because water flow and temperature vary dramatically throughout the year. In a spring creek, constant temperature and flow support fewer species (there are fewer niches to fill), but the bugs that move in flourish. All these juicy foodstuffs explain why such large fish are typically willing to forsake deeper cover to inhabit a spring creek's skinny water. "Fish respond," Urbani says. "They make you look real good. We finished construction here right before Thanksgiving and the second week in December we found seven spawning redds." Urbani&Associates and Clint Campbell's Kingfisher Consultants are representative of a burgeoning group of stream rehabilitation firms. Although a number of engineers or landscaping outfits nationwide claim to offer stream-related services, Montana is home to a collection of highly qualified specialists with titles like hydrologists, fluvial geomorphologists and hydro-biologists, and whose sole focus is restoring degraded streams. But not all restoration projects are undertaken by experts. Poncho McCoy owns 1,500 acres of bottomland just north of Dillon, Montana, upon which he runs 700 heifers and about 1,000 yearling cows. He bought the land because it had springs on it, which meant that, in the icy grip of Dillon's winters he wouldn't have to grease his face with Vaseline to prevent frostbite while he hauled water to his chilled cows every day. Very quickly he noticed the huge waterfowl populations using his wetlands, and decided to excavate a few ponds to give nesting ducks a break from marauding foxes and skunks. "That next year, when I was calving, " he said, "I'd see hatches and little trout jumping," Poncho, a former Olympic and World Cup downhill ski racer, explains, "Brook trout, real small. Every time we made a bigger place for waterfowl, the fish would move in. Then [Frontiers Anglers owner ??] Tim Tollett came out and looked around. He said, 'Shoot, I could bring people out and they would pay to fish here.'" Since 1991 McCoy has restored over three miles of water in two separate spring creeks that he calls Big Meadow and Fox Island. He shows me a section of Big Meadow Creek, which winds through an open pasture. Eventually these springs connect to the Beaverhead River, one of Montana's best big-fish waterways. Four mountain ranges are visible in the distance, but the wide-open bowl of the valley and the sky capping it spins everything to the periphery. "We never hired consultants. Not enough money," McCoy, who estimates he's spent around $140,000 of his own money on restoration projects. "I would come down in the summer and walk the creek, study it, and come up with what I think would work. Fishing guides are a great resource, too. George Anderson [of Yellowstone Anglers], I've called him and he's always come over and walked the creek with me. He gives me really good ideas." McCoy points out a section of creek where construction of a point bar effectively narrowed the creek channel from 50 feet to about 10, increasing flow and scour and aerating the water. But instead of filling the entire point bar with earth and planting it, a significant portion of the point's tip is gravel submerged below just a skiff of water, a George Anderson suggestion that allows anglers to cast over water rather than reeds. The McCoy's charge $100 a day per rod to fish on the ranch's steep tilt. "Every dime we've made on fishing we've put back into the resource," Ponch says. The price tag also allows McCoy to place a premium on privacy, allowing only one party (two rods) per creek per day. Another spring creek charm is that they lack crowds. Montana is a popular fishing destination for many reasons, not the least of which is its fisherman-friendly stream access law. But a quirk in the wording of that law allows spring creeks not, "historically navigable waterways"under Montana law, to be exempt, which lets landowners restrict access to them. As Montana's more popular streams and rivers grow to resemble Alaskan "combat fishing,"spring creeks are an attractive option to those willing to pay for it. "Right from the start we've limited it," McCoy says. "The primary reason is we don't want to be too hard on the fish. Our fish are strong and they stay strong all year. Their mouths aren't all cut up from a bunch of flies and leaders. People like it too. If they want to stop and talk or picnic or take a nap they don't have to worry about someone else moving into their spot." Crowding and the effect it has on a resource became the primary motivating factor for Tom Milesnick to establish a fee-fishery on his ranch near Belgrade. For years, fly-fishing magazines would run photos of grinning anglers trundling huge sagging-bellied trout caught, the caption winked, in a "secret Montana spring creek" or "Stream X." As often as not, those pictures were taken at Milesnick's Bar MZ Ranch. Locals fished Milesnick's for free from the 1960's up until 1999. The old-day rules held that anybody could fish if they kept their mouth shut about the place. But too many people squawked, and soon the Milesnick's were seeing 20 to 30 rods a day on the two spring creeks, Thompson and Benhart, that run about four miles through their cattle ranch. "It was just too much drain on our resources, as well as our sense of humor," Tom Milesnick says. Milesnick has a laconic humor that is almost stereotypical. When I snag my hand on barbed wire and bleed slightly, he glances over and says, "I see you sprung a leak." But he also has a stubborn streak. After hearing about an Oregon-based movement to ban cattle grazing on stream banks, he decided to demonstrate to the world that streams and cattle could get along just fine. "I wanted to show by example that you could have good grazing and good riparian areas," Milesnick says. After serious study, he broke his ranch into 17 pastures, which Milesnick calls "cells," some as small as eight acres. With strict discipline, he rotates 200 cow-calf pairs through the pastures on a 32-day cycle. For the more delicate streamside pastures, he might allow cows only 12 hours of grazing before shuffling them off to the next paddock. The system creates a great deal of extra work for Milesnick, but it's indicative of the simple yet profound sense of responsibility to the land, a caring that overflowed into the rehabilitation of Benhart and Thompson Creeks. "We just watched what the creek did, where the deep spots were, where the riffles were," Milesnick says about his approach to restoring the creeks. "You can tell if you're doing a good job by watching the fish. We spend a lot of time watching nature out here." Milesnick also admits to doing a lot of reading about what makes fish habitat. Although he won't do so unless asked, he can talk of sinuosity and sediment load with the best of them. In addition to the standard techniques of narrowing stream channels, raising riffle beds with fine gravel and gouging out deep pools, Milesnick estimates he's planted over 20,000 willows for bank stabilization. "We've always tried to take care of everything and these springs were one of the things that needed to be taken care of," Milesnick says. Spring creeks have not always been the focus of such efforts. Les Gilman, who now manages the Woodson ranch, where behemoth rainbows hold in tiny Cattail Creek, grew up ranching in the Ruby Valley. "Twenty years ago the river was a nuisance," Gilman says. "It was a transportation vehicle for irrigation water. River and creek bottom was used for wintering grounds. I was glad my ranch was on high ground and not river land because the river was always meandering through your hayfield; it iced up and gorged in the winter, froze and the cows walked out and fell through in winter. I used to rejoice that I didn't have water frontage." In recent decades, economic conditions have mandated that ranches were run with a sole purpose: the production of cattle. As a result, on some marginally productive properties, natural resources have been degraded for years. But as a nation of suburbanites continues to look for connections to the natural world, a new breed of ranchers has recognized a recreational component to the resources they own. Craig Woodson is another facet in the turn toward conservation, the landowner who acquires property primarily for recreational purposes. Woodson may not need the income generated by grain or cattle production on his 1,100 acre Ruby River ranch, but he was eager to keep the traditional land-use patterns in place when he bought it 1992. Last year Woodson placed the property in a permanent conservation easement in conjunction the Montana Land Reliance. The ranch is now called the Ruby Habitat Research Fund and future access to Cattail Creek will probably be available on a strictly limited basis through the nearby Ruby Springs Lodge. "Craig's probably a poster child of how an owner can become intimate with the land," Gilman says. "The deeper that intimacy gets the deeper your understanding of the complexity of the land. Craig came here with a focus on fisheries and fishing. Now he's more interested in what grasses are growing, what song birds are around, he's interested in providing habitat for multiple species." In Montana, fee-based spring creek fishing is sometimes decried as restrictive and elitist, but there's an inherent contradiction to that view when you realize that Tom Milesnick and Poncho McCoy are precisely the sort of ranchers anglers should want to own the land; why shouldn't they be rewarded well into the future for their conservation efforts? The public-waters fishermen who flick flies on the Beaverhead or Gallatin, the Blackfoot or Ruby, or any rivers with private spring tributaries, benefit from increased fish numbers spurred when such productive spawning habitat is restored, and an additional fishery in the neighborhood at least marginally helps ease pressure on the public waters. A fully functioning spring creek system provides homes for waterfowl, raptors, songbirds, foxes, deer, mink and a wide range of other flora and fauna. When landowners restore private waters, everybody wins, not least of which the angler who crawls along a trilling stream, peeks under a mat of watercress and spots, as I did on McCoy's Big Meadow Creek one day last summer, a tail the size of my splayed hand gently waving at the edge of the subsurface shadows. The fish, a brown trout, looked like it could go 30 inches. Big, selective fish, tiny transparent water-all thanks to someone's efforts to rescue this stream from its history as a cattle-trampled watering trough. I was about to find out just how I stacked up against the potential for botchery. Botchery prevailed. The McCoy Cattle Company offers access to Fox Island and Big Meadow creeks near Dillon, Montana. Rod fee: $100/day, two-rod min. Limit four anglers/day. Accommodations are available at $150/night. A guide is required for first-time fishermen, and McCoys will refer local guides. 406-683-5262; www.mccoycattlecompany.com Ruby Springs Lodge near Alder, Montana, offers limited access to Cattail Creek and also nearby Alder Creek. Accommodation: $1800/three nights (min. stay), all inclusive. Guide included. 406-278-7829; www.rubyspringslodge.com Milesnick Recreation Company north of Belgrade, Montana, allows six anglers/day on Benhart and Thompson creeks. Rod fee: $75/day. Guide preferred for first time visitors. Will refer local guides. 406-388-7001; www.milesnickrecreation.com Story Creek, north of Belgrade, Montana, can be reserved by guests of the Big River Lodge in the Gallatin Valley. Rates: $250 - $325/night. Guides available. 800-628-1011 www.bigriverlodge.com The Krutar Ranch outside of Ovando, Montana, offers access to two restored Blackfoot River spring tributaries, Rock Creek and Kleinschmidt Creek, on a first-come-first-served basis. Rod fee: $50/day. Limit 4 anglers/day. Will refer local guides. 406-793-5607.