The Blue Winged Olive

The Blue Winged Olive

Bed, breakfast and spring-creek fishing in Livingston, Montana

  • By: Chris Santella
Smoke was hanging over Paradise Valley as we arrived at the Blue Winged Olive, a tidy bed and breakfast off Route 89, just south of Livingston, Montana. For that matter, smoke was enveloping all of western Montana in August of 2003, one of the worst fire seasons anyone could remember. "They've been shutting down the Yellowstone between town and Big Timber," Joan Watts, the proprietress of the Blue Winged Olive, informed us after we'd exchanged pleasantries. "Trout fishing closes down when the water temperatures hit 70 degrees, so the fish don't get too stressed.The good news is Armstrong's Spring Creek will never reach 70." Within a healthy double-haul of Livingston, there's a bit of everything the troutist could desire, from the big waters of the Yellowstone to high mountain lakes that seldom see an angler. Cast a bit farther afield-say an hour's drive or two-and you factor in the lower Madison, the Gallatin and some of the treasures of Yellowstone National Park. It was the spring creeks of greater Livingston-specifically Armstrong's-that were the draw for me, however. I had never fished such a stream before, and frankly, I was a bit intimidated at the prospect. I'd heard the tales of ultra-thin tippets and tiny flies and wasn't sure I was up to the challenge. I didn't know the half of it! Armstrong's Spring Creek bubbles up gin clear on the property of the O'Hair family, and is as beautiful as it is baffling. It runs a little over a mile through meadows and between outbuildings before entering the grounds of the DePuy's family ranch, where it fittingly becomes DePuy's Spring Creek. Lined by alders and cottonwoods and shadowed by the 12,000-foot-high Absarokas, the creek averages 50 to 100 feet in width and three feet in depth, making it easy to wade. Constant water temperatures in the mid-50's and rich mineral content create undulating beds of vegetation that provide excellent insect habitat and cover for the fish-healthy numbers of rainbows in the 14- to 20-inch class, as well as some nice resident browns and cutthroats. Accomplished fly tier and Yellowstone Angler fly shop owner George Anderson first fished Armstrong's in the mid-60's after Charlie Brooks recommended he try it. "There were a lot of fish visible in the creek, and many hatches coming off simultaneously," George recalled. "It was the first time I ever encountered such selectivity. While there might be Pale Morning Duns and Sulfurs on the surface, the fish would only be feeding on PMD nymphs, then the emergers, then the duns. You couldn't get by on Armstrong's with the standard Light Cahill. You really had to have the right kind of flies to properly imitate the insect stage." As we geared up at the civilized hour of 9 am, a pod of sassy rainbows was feeding right in front of the parking area, their broad shoulders occasionally breaking the surface as they rolled. We waded below the fish and took a position about 30 feet across. Guide Bob Bergquist asked me to tie on a size 22 Sulfur emerger. The strain on my eyes and the pricks my clumsy fingertips endured were as humiliating as the general indifference the trout displayed to my offerings. A half hour of fruitless flailing was finally rewarded with a 16-incher. After the rainbow was brought to the net, Bob's torture began in earnest. He intuited that midges were next on the menu, and implored me to attach size 24, then size 26, imitations to my 11X tippet (well, it was only 7X, but it sure seemed like 11X). Fifteen minutes and three dropped flies later, I meekly asked Bob to attach my midge. Following a lunch of grilled chicken sandwiches, we re-entered the creek 30 yards below our starting point, where another pod of fish was working. Bob now decided that midge larvae were the ticket-in approximately size 30. At this point, I excused myself from my companions, muttering something about the wind having come up, and that grasshoppers might be blowing into the water along the grassy banks of the lower creek. I think Bob understood that my downstream retreat was a form of capitulation. If Armstrong's proves too daunting, solace awaits in the more willing inhabitants of the Yellowstone, and other lesser-known but productive freestone rivers in the region. On day two of our trip, Bob gave us the option of roasting on the Yellowstone, or walking and wading his home river, the name of which he begged me not to mention. Hoppers were the order of the day, and considering the heat, the fish were accommodating, including a brown that topped 18 inches. Whether you are fishing the challenging spring creeks or enjoying the easy pickin's on the Yellowstone, the Blue Winged Olive provides an inviting retreat. A well-stocked angling library, fly-tying benches and the trout-themed decor help put an angler in the mood. Each of the inn's four rooms (accommodating up to 12 anglers in total) have private baths, and open onto an outside deck. Joan Watts has been serving anglers for 10 years, and is well acquainted with area waters. She and her staff are happy to make reservations for anglers at Armstrong's, or at one of the other famous spring creeks in the region. (Be warned that spring creek access is limited, with rod fees of up to $100/day.) They can also set you up with guides who are well acquainted with the rigors of spring-creek angling. The inn serves hearty breakfasts to fortify you for the day's fishing; picnic lunches are available on request. While dinner is not served, Joan will be happy to make you dinner reservations in town. One night we visited Chatham's, an elegant bistro owned by artist/writer Russell Chatham. One might expect to find such an elegant place in Los Angeles, rather than Livingston. But the fish of Armstrong's Spring Creek are certainly picky about what they eat. Why shouldn't its anglers be equally choosy? For further information about staying at the Blue Winged Olive, contact the inn at 800-471-1141; e-mail www.bluewingedolive.net.