Spoiled in Big Sky Country

For us New Englanders, it’s no secret that we have some spectacular fishing right here in the Northeast. Big native brook trout, spunky smallmouth bass, sea-going stripers, monstrous wild browns, and a myriad of other species are all accessible within a couple hour’s drive of just about anyone in the region. However, when given the chance to visit the promised land of Montana, I know few New England fly anglers that would turn it down.

For the second year in a row, I was lucky enough to travel to a world-class fishing destination for the Trout Unlimited Teen Summit. Last year, passionate, young fly fishers and conservationists gathered in Asheville, North Carolina, one of the most underrated trout fishing locales in the country. This year, 24 teens made the trip to southwest Montana from states around the country, including California, Maine, Georgia, Minnesota, and many others.

Before the Summit began on June 28th, though, I had to do some pre-fishing to find out what all the Montana hype was about. With fellow blogger Jo Tango giving daily reports from his 30-day fishing sabbatical in the area, I had a general idea of what to expect. However, I was somewhat disappointed to hear the shop’s report that rivers were still running high and hatches were behind by a couple of weeks. Oh well, I’d have to make do with the conditions I was dealt.

In order to get some confidence under my belt, I opted to begin at what the shops described as a “small stream”. What I expected to appear like a classic eastern brookie stream in nature instead turned out to be a rushing torrent of untamed, ice-cold water. When my jig streamer, tied with a 4.6 mm tungsten bead, was immediately washed downstream in the blink of an eye, I understood Western fishing would take some getting used to.

Eventually I discovered that anywhere there was slower water, there were fish. Seams, deep pools, undercut banks, and slower riffles were all fair game, assuming I could safely reach them in the swift current. I managed a small wild rainbow on a jig streamer in that first stream, and missed/lost a few more on a Chubby.  

First fish in Montana!

The next challenge was breaking down the large, seemingly uniform rivers the region is famous for. When the storied lower Madison River first emerged through the valley of arid grazing land and steep, rocky cliffs, it seemed like a float angler’s paradise; but, for a wade angler like myself, I couldn’t imagine having enough time to pick apart such a vast, complex system.

Thankfully, the challenge was mostly in my head. Though the spot I chose was largely flat and featureless, pods of rising trout emerged from seams and back eddies as a nearing storm front spurred a mayfly hatch. In an hour I connected with another rainbow and my first-ever cutbow, both on nymphs. So far, I was finding that while the water was certainly more daunting that back east, the fishing was far easier.

Then it was Summit time. We managed to fit in plenty of fishing time in-between our planning sessions and conservation-oriented trips. From our home base at Georgetown Lake, we explored three of the area’s mid-sized streams, each with their own unique characteristics. One stream held a healthy population of brown trout in its lower reaches, and a mixed bag of browns, brookies, and cutties in its upper stretch. The fish happily obliged, chomping any Chubby or small nymph dead-drifted under a cut bank. And I mean UNDER. My biggest fish came from deep within the mazes of overhanging grass and brush, crushing the large dries with vigor.

Respectable brown, and the undercut it came from.

Another creek (or crick, as they passionately pronounce it in Montana) was fishless before 2008 due to mining pollution. Now, small numbers of cutthroat and brook trout have repopulated the river, though it doesn’t hold a candle to its former glory. While I caught a few fish there on a dry-dropper, the real star of the show was my buddy Sawyer, who was feeling discouraged after losing a few browns the previous day (in many years of trout fishing, he was still yet to catch a brown trout). When his seven-and-a-half foot, three weight glass rod doubled over, I quickly knew his jig streamer had enticed a nice fish. Three nerve-wracking minutes of fighting through fast current later, I scooped Sawyers 14-inch cutbow, his first ever, into the net. The jubilation that ensued drew many of our fellow sumiteers over to see what all the ruckus was about.

Benton’s cutthroat

The final creek we fished was talked up throughout the entire Summit. When the day finally came to fish it, a thunderstorm threatened to throw off the legendary fishing we expected. Thankfully the storm rolled through just before we packed the cars, and the post-front green drake hatch that evening was one for the ages. In one deep riffle, cutthroat of all sizes gorged on the massive insects as they wriggled through the surface en-masse. A small Chubby or big Purple Haze was all one needed to connect with the native fish. The kid I was paired with, Benton, had struggled to find fish all week. On that final evening, as the hatch peaked and and trout erupted across the river, he managed to catch his first and only fish of the Summit, a pair of large, colored-up westslope cutthroat trout. Watching those fish slurp down Benton’s Golden Stone Chubby was an experience I’ll never forget – and the same goes for the wide smile on his face as he held the fish up for a picture.

After the Summit, my family and I took a quick day trip to Yellowstone. After suffering through the crowds at the popular geysers and villages, I finally convinced my parents to venture off the beaten path. Of course, the first thing we found as we approached the small Yellowstone cutthroat stream was none other than a fresh, bloody bull elk carcass. My mom’s fear of bears and other unfamiliar predators that I had worked so hard to dispel was immediately rekindled. To the credit of my incredibly supportive parents, they let me fish the stream for a few minutes before we escaped the onslaught of biting bugs and foul stench of rotting flesh. Needless to say, I posed for a picture next to the grizzly warning sign at the trailhead, pointing at the words “avoid dead animals”.

On our way out, we stopped briefly at the Gibbon. Knowing absolutely nothing about the river, I tied on what had been working for me all week: a size 10 Golden Stone Chubby with a size 16 Higa’s SOS trailing. The rig managed to put a few cutts and browns in the net, but whitefish, which I had unfortunately managed to avoid all week, continued to evade me. Oh well, there’s always next time.

All in all, I’d say I was pretty spoiled by my Montana trip. It’s rare to find a place in the East where you can pick any random roadside pull off and more-or-less guarantee there’ll be a few trout around. Even in the middle of big (relatively big, anyway) cities like Bozeman and Anaconda, trout streams snake through densely populated urban centers as regularly as bike lanes through Boston. While you constantly have to vary your offerings to find consistent success here in New England, Montana trout were happy to eat dry-droppers all day long. It’ll take some readjusting getting back to 7x tippet on the Swift after a week of 3x, and the visions of the immense Rockies will likely swim through my memories for months to come … let’s just say I’m looking forward to my return to Montana.


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