Fly-Fishing Motana's Small Creeks

Fly-Fishing Motana's Small Creeks

Beat the crowds and the picky fish on these little waters

  • By: Jeff Erickson
"It's just too easy," exclaimed my wife, Mary, as she happily waded back to our camp on Crow Creek well before dark. More prone to gluttony, I couldn't pull myself away just yet. We had discovered Yellow Humpy paradise, with small rainbows hurling themselves like missiles at our mid-size, elkhair attractors. Just as often, the Humpies were pulled under by sharp tugs on the small beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymphs we were using as droppers. This is the way fly-fishing used to be (sans dropper), the way I remember it before trout flies began their amazing shrinking act.Perhaps like you, over the years I've found that the compartments in my fly box that hold juicy items like Humpies, Royal Wulffs and Irresistibles get opened a lot less than in the past. Sometimes-especially when I am immersed in tailwater small-fly surgery-these attractors seem like relics from an earlier time. But when my fly-fishing addiction began as a teenager during the late 1960's, these were the kinds of flies one routinely used for trout fishing, especially in the West. After a nice long spell in small-fly paradise, I've begun to miss these gaudy bugs. On my home river, Montana's Upper Missouri between Holter Dam and Cascade, the small stuff generally rules. And even the best fly angler can often feel like a beginner on large tailwaters and spring creeks-especially during mid-summer-as they cast over pods of a dozen or more frenetically rising fish that seem inexplicably spooked by even a three-foot, 6X fluorocarbon tippet. In fact, this is why some anglers carry small flasks of whiskey or other contraband with them. Seeking at least a brief reprieve and change of pace, Mary and I recently fired up our 1977 Toyota truck to explore some smaller Upper Missouri escapes. We wanted to find some tributaries where we might be able to go back to an earlier, less complicated time, streams where one has a decent chance of slapping down a big Royal Wulff and having several fish charge the fly on the first cast. The Upper Missouri River watershed includes some of the world's best and most fabled trout rivers, which also happen to be steeped in the rich history of the West: the Madison, Gallatin, Big Hole, Beaverhead and the Missouri itself, to name only the biggest stars. But it takes a lot of creeks and small rivers to nurture and sustain these giants. Now, I would never suggest that anyone ignore these great rivers and only fish lesser-known tributaries, but if you need a break from picky fish and the growing crowds-or just want to try something different-grab a DeLorme atlas and hit the backroads. There are dozens of possibilities. An added bonus on a road trip like this is an up-close look at the back pages of Montana's past; get away from the main river corridors and highways, and history seems fresher, making you feel like a more active participant in the re-discovery. Bring a roadside history guide and an ample supply of Humpies-but you probably won't need the whiskey flask on account of the fishing, although you might want to bring it for the campfire. Crow Creek Crow Creek gushes off the east slope of the Elkhorn Mountains, an island range just south of our home in Helena. Like many Montana creeks, the lower reaches flow through arid, rolling range land, and irrigation demands divert its flow into such a delta-like maze of ditches that it's difficult to find where it actually hits the Missouri, that is if there's any water left at all. Montana and other parts of the West often defy the natural paradigm in that many streams and rivers get smaller as they move downstream, drawn down by ranchers who depend on the water to survive; head upstream to find water and fish. In its upper reaches, Crow Creek is a frolicking mountain stream with a stable flow and enough shade to keep it pleasantly cool, even on hot days. On a warm, 92-degree July day, I waded in wet and made my first cast, using the size 16 Yellow Humpy I'd been dreaming about during some tough days on the Missouri, with a size 18 beadhead Pheasant Tail as a dropper. Immediately a trout flew at the Humpy with such enthusiasm that it completely overshot it. Two casts later, I hooked and landed a brilliantly colored rainbow. Mary had a great day too; it's not often she says it's "too easy" on the Missouri. The Crow Creek fish were small, but their numbers, beauty and zeal made up for their lack of size. The most direct route up Crow Creek is west off of State Highway 287 at Toston, then west on County 285 to the hamlet of Radersburg. After that, there's a good gravel road through private ranches, scattered parcels of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, and finally the Helena National Forest, where most of the fishing opportunities lie. There are informal creekside campsites, plus a primitive BLM campground further downstream. Blacktail Deer Creek Winding east down County 202 out of Dillon, Mary and I passed a scattering of new trophy homes shimmering in the mid-summer heat, and crossed the lower portion of little Blacktail Deer Creek. We can tell you that it doesn't look all that appealing at this point, close to where it joins the much better-known Beaverhead River. Degraded and dewatered in its lower reaches, with limited access, the creek gets much better once you hit gravel and move toward the distant Snowcrest Range. So keep the faith and keep driving. Kicking up thick clouds of dust and gravel, we skirted the base of the Blacktail Mountains and eventually hit the sprawling Blacktail Wildlife Management Area. We entered a different and better world, where you can still stand on a sage-covered rise, spin in all directions, and not see anything but rolling grasslands and distant mountains, with serpentine Blacktail Deer Creek anchoring the valley floor. On a late July evening, within sight of our campsite, I hooked a feisty brook trout on my first cast. Tossing out the familiar Humpy/beadhead combo, I proceeded to entice more brookies and cutts, including one surprising native that stunned me with a high leap before dislodging next to some brush. The hot action continued until nearly dark, when the temperature began to plummet, and the fish hunkered down for the night. During our drive out the next day, a large herd of antelope took off sprinting over the rolling, sage-covered hills. Under a vast bowl of warm and windless blue, the Snowcrests at our back, Mary and I agreed that life doesn't get any better. Boulder River/South Fork of the Boulder These are actually two distinct tributaries on either side of the Jefferson River, and not to be confused with the much better-known Boulder River, which flows out of the Absaroka Mountains to join the Yellowstone River near Big Timber, Montana. The Boulder River addressed here rises off the gently undulating east slope of the Continental Divide, west of Basin and Interstate Highway 15, between Helena and Butte. In its middle reaches, the Boulder has been severely damaged by mine waste and the construction of Interstate 15. High Ore Creek, downstream from Basin, has been the conduit for heavy metals that have depressed fish populations in this stretch. Farther upstream, however, the Boulder presents some alluring small-stream opportunities. The upper portion of the Boulder winds through Deerlodge National Forest and flows through excellent beaver country. The stream alternates through willow flats and timbered runs, with some portions being too closed-in to fish effectively. But the fish are here, a mix of brookies and rainbows, with browns farther down. Don't look for a trophy on the upper Boulder-this is small water. A number of designated and informal camping areas along the river make an overnight stay an alluring proposition. On the upper Boulder one mid-summer's night, Mary and I camped across the creek from a partially collapsed miner's cabin, which still had an easy chair and bed mattress inside, and the remnants of an old mine shaft in back of the building. It was one thing to poke around the ruins on a 90-degree July day, another to imagine what it must have been like to spend a long, uncertain winter here, closed in by waist-deep snow. An entirely different Boulder River-the South Fork-hits the Jefferson from the south between Cardwell and Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, draining the northern edges of the spiny, mine-riddled Tobacco Root Mountains. Down toward the Jefferson, the South Fork often gets sucked down to a trickle by irrigation demands, but keep bouncing up the gravel road toward the little community of Mammoth and you'll see the creek get larger and much more enticing. Compared to the (north) Boulder, this stream has a faster, more mountain-like character in its upper reaches, with an abundance of pocket water. I didn't catch a fish on my first cast here; I had to wait until my third, when a cool-to-the-touch brookie emerged from behind a rock to engulf a size 8 Woolly Bugger, which I had lazily left on from a previous trip to the Missouri. Rainbows also figure into the mix, with some browns down toward the Jefferson. Trout Unlimited is currently involved in a cooperative effort to improve habitat in the Jeff, and maintaining better flows on the lower South Boulder would enhance spawning potential for fish coming up from the main river. The South Boulder drains some spectacular high country, fed by such alpine lakes as Lost Cabin, Sailor and Louise. Below 10,000-foot peaks, Mary and I explored Lost Cabin one August afternoon, and attracted the interest of some westslope cutthroats. On the hike down, we tried a pretty, high-meadow stretch of the uppermost reaches of the South Boulder; it was bathed in alpenglow. Casting size 18 Adams and Pheasant Tail droppers, we soon had small cutts performing excited aerial circus stunts, seemingly trying to hit the dry on the way down from their leap. Elk beds littered the meadow; on the hike out we jumped a bull, which went crashing across the South Boulder in the last light. Big Sheep Creek The journey up Big Sheep Creek, winding past the Tendoy Mountains towards the Bitterroots on the Idaho border, has aptly been designated by the BLM as a "Scenic Backway." This is big, open country, dotted with blasted-out homesteader cabins, old stage stops, undulating sage-covered hills and distant mountain vistas. For adventurous souls, it would be well worth the trip even if the creek weren't such an enticement. Big Sheep Creek wears two different faces. Along some reaches, it's a tumbling, pocket-water mountain stream. Elsewhere, sometimes just around the bend, it's a slow, serpentine, meadow spring creek, with a slick surface and deep, undercut banks. This productive stream can provide match-the-hatch action and great terrestrial fishing, but that old Yellow Humpy could get a real workout in the faster pocket water. Mostly, you'll find browns and some rainbows in Big Sheep. Much of Big Sheep Creek flows through BLM land, and there are plenty of publicly accessible fishing options. However, some of the best Big Sheep meadow reaches are on private ranches, with a good chunk owned by a wealthy woman who helped mount an unsuccesful legal challenge against the Montana Stream Access Law. This is not property where you want to get caught trespassing, but if you stay within the high water mark, you're legal. The Big Sheep Creek valley is easily accessible off I-15 south of Dillon, near the village of Dell. The road along the creek is gravel-probably not something you'd want to tear down in the new Corvette-but it's generally passable to passenger cars if it hasn't rained recently. If it has been wet, especially if you intend to drive the entire route in a two-wheel-drive vehicle, you might have the good fortune of being there for a while. Upper Smith River/Belt Creek These two wonderful streams share certain similarities: Both flow north out of the Belt Mountains through serpentine limestone gorges before discharging into the Missouri. Unlike the other waters reprised here, the Smith really is a river, albeit a small one. The middle reaches of the Smith are well known for offering some of Montana's most scenic, near-wilderness float-fishing opportunities. In order to preserve a quality experience in the 60-mile canyon stretch downstream from White Sulphur Springs, the state regulates the number of floaters, in recent years allowing no more than nine launch parties per day from Camp Baker, the main put-in site. Float permits are highly coveted and increasingly difficult to obtain, but worth the effort because of the often great fishing and spectacular vistas (call the Montana Fish, Wildlife&Parks Smith River Manager at 406-454-5857 for permit information). There is more to the Smith, however, than the popular canyon stretch. Upstream from the restricted section, the Smith is smaller and supports much less float traffic, offering exciting wade-fishing opportunities. Between the gorge and White Sulphur Springs, the Smith is a small, easily negotiated river, running less than 100 cubic feet per second during low-water years. Although much of the upper river flows through private ranch land, there are some places to get on, particularly the sprawling Smith River Fishing Access Site between historic Fort Logan and Camp Baker. This site affords access to several prime miles of river, and excellent primitive camping opportunities. The upper river has a mix of browns, rainbows, brookies, whitefish and an occasional cutt. A few years ago, Mary and I had some superb PMD action on this upper stretch, with some early-season Tricos coming off in the morning. It was time to temporarily put away the Humpies and get back to the small stuff. Although the Smith is perhaps more hatch-oriented than some of the other waters listed here, you can still do very well with attractor patterns. A Stimulator makes a particularly good attractor on the Smith, doing extra duty as stonefly and hopper imitations. Belt Creek, which rises in the Little Belt Mountains and hits the Missouri downstream from Great Falls, is like a miniature version of the Smith, winding through a narrow limestone canyon, with boulder-strewn rapids, luminous runs and deep pools. As on the Smith, rainbows, browns, brookies, whitefish or even a cutt could find themselves at the end of your line here. Wading anglers can access the creek by following the decaying remnants of the old rail line, which was abandoned in the 1940's; you should be prepared to ford the stream repeatedly, as all the old trestles are out. Adventurous hikers can make their way through the gorge to the old ghost town of Albright, now nearly hidden in the reborn forest. On foot, this is a trip best done during low-water conditions, although it's possible to pinball your way through the gorge in a small raft or kayak during higher flows-not a trip for novices. On an agency-sponsored weed-control float a couple of years ago, Mary and I were glad it wasn't our raft that was getting pummeled. The lower reaches of Belt Creek are more open, and attract some spawning browns up from the Missouri in the fall. And for those seeking a little-fished stretch of the Big Mo itself, the reach around the mouth of Belt Creek, located downstream from Morony Dam-the last in the series of Great Falls impoundments-offers a diversity of warm and cold water species, including rainbows and browns. Although it doesn't provide the staggering numbers of trout that the Holter-to-Cascade stretch offers farther upstream, this is an area where you can often have the river to yourself. The new Widow's Coulee Fishing Access Site provides an opportunity to explore the remote south shore of this run, at the upper end of the Missouri Breaks country. Little Prickly Pear Creek Little Prickly Pear is a creek that most Missouri River anglers blast past on I-15, between Helena and Great Falls. Given the great fishing that often waits on the Missouri, it's easy to understand why the stream is overlooked. I've passed it by hundreds of times on the way to the big river without giving serious consideration to stopping. But take a look as you're cruising down the Interstate, and you'll see that there are enticing small-stream opportunities down there, beckoning for the right moment when your guard is down. Little Prickly Pear Creek is a key spawning tributary for the prime stretch of the Missouri below Holter Dam. The creek has a reputation for occasionally offering up browns and rainbows out of proportion to its small flow, because large Missouri River spawners sometimes decide to set up shop in the creek for a while after reproductive activities have wound down. (In order to help safeguard spawning browns and rainbows, the lower portion of the creek is only open from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.) Little Prickly Pear Creek can be divided up into a number of relatively distinct reaches: the winding, bottomland stretch before it hits the Missouri, including the mouth, where spawners stack up in the spring and fall; a relatively popular run that parallels I-15 through the canyon south of Wolf Creek; the Sieben Ranch flats; the pretty, rattlesnake-infested canyon above the ranch, with good access via a rail line that follows the creek; and the bouncing upper reaches, including the Canyon Creek tributary, winding back toward Flescher Pass and the Continental Divide. Each has its merits, and reasons to recommend them. Although a serious Whirling Disease infection has reduced the numbers of rainbows in the creek (with negative long-term impacts on the Missouri rainbow fishery), the creek continues to offer fine opportunities for browns, with a brookie or whitefish also a possibility. Access is good along much of the creek, as it is paralleled by a rail line and secondary roads. The hatches won't be as prolific as the Missouri (although the creek has good caddis and mayfly populations), but the fish can be less selective and-at times-less damaging to your self-esteem than late-summer fishing on the big Mo. Getting there/headquaters: Interstate 15 is the major north-south corridor in western Montana, and it parallels the Upper Missouri along much of its route. To access many of the streams described here, it will be necessary to leave the pavement for gravel. While helpful at times, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is not a requirement under dry conditions. Major cities in the region include Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Bozeman, all offering air travel and a complete range of services When: Few fishing regions are more delectable than western Montana during the prime summer months of June through early September. On the smaller waters discussed here, late June through early September are the most reliable times for a visit. The standard season for stream fishing in western and central Montana is the third Saturday in May through November, but there are many exceptions, and some rivers and streams are open all year. Be sure to pick up a copy of the Montana Fishing Regulations, as it is difficult to generalize from one stream to another. Call Montana Fish, Wildlife&Parks (406-444-2535) for more information, or visit their Web site (www.fwp.state.mt.us). Necessary accessories: A day pack or pack-style wading vest; polarizing sun glasses, sunscreen and hat; an easy-to-pack rain jacket; waders and wading boots you can comfortably cover some ground in and quick-dry wading pants for those hot summer days when waders have no appeal. A jug ("growler") of beer from the Blackfoot River Brewing Company in Helena is a nice treat to have waiting for you back at the car at the end of a hot day. Fly shops/guides: Great Falls/Wolf Creek: Montana River Outfitters, 800-800-8218, www.montanariveroutfitters.com; Helena: Cross Currents, 888-434-7468, www.crosscurrents.com. Montana Fly Goods/Big Sky Expeditions: 800-466-9589, www.montanaflygoods.com; Dillon: Frontier Anglers, 800-228-5263, www.frontieranglers.com.