Montana is the fourth LARGEST of the United States and occupies 147000 square miles. Montana is the eighth SMALLEST with a population of 970000!
To put this into context, the UK occupies 94000 square miles (that is, it is 36% smaller than Montana), but at a population of 61 million, has 63 times as many people!
So Montanans have 98 times more space each in which to play than we do! Or for every mile of trout stream we have each, our US friends have 98 miles!!
And the place in which they play is incredible for its ‘vastness’. It is for good reason that car tags, number plates to most of us, refer to the ‘Open Skies’ state. The annual Mair/Fraser trip somewhere, took us to South West Montana this year. It would have been sooner had Fraser not been convinced by successful teasing by someone, that wading anglers there, wore metalled leg guards to avoid being bitten by swimming rattle snakes – do they?, can they?
Set amongst different mountain ranges, divided by lush and fertile plains, and the whole considered to be a part of the Rockies, the vista combines snow capped peaks, parched grasslands, and greening vegetation, irrigated by rotating, wheeled hosing systems of a length demanded only by the size of Americas crop fields, and the appetites of its citizens. Goodness knows how these might increase when America’s waistlines are slimmed down by a protein enriched diet! Over the hills, beyond the greenery, I am sure I saw John Wayne, ensaddled, guns blazing, being chased by a pack of marauding Shosone Indians. Or was it Roy Rogers?
There are Highways and InterStates used by up to 36-wheelers, and locals’ vehicles, usually 4WD pick-ups, and it is surprising just how quickly even a twenty mile journey can be made when there are no traffic jams. And off highway, the dirt tracks past numerous farms, sorry, ‘Ranches’; reveal plentiful wildlife, aviaral and four legged; and a journey across the hills, can take you through old towns where the stores and bars are reminiscent of the cowboy films of my boyhood. And the past is remembered by an abandoned miscellany of the mining heritage where copper, silver and rubies were mined in the 1880’s and beyond, and evidence remains of the fate of miscreants, who suffered from the Hangman for his crimes. This is not Disney, this is real, and it is amazing and it is fascinating!
And then there is the weather! Winter temperatures start in November on the plains, by which time the mountains are snow covered, but we were there in July, and it was hot. And at a sunny high of 90 degrees, not only is head cover essential, but so is a copious supply of cold water, for as I, a sun lover found on day one, not enough of these can leave you dehydrated after a day on the river.
And the hot days create storm clouds of the greatest intensity and from a distance the spark of lightning shines in relief within the threatening charcoal. Rain falls in massive streaming plumes which move across the sky at a pace the unwary learn to regret, and when it hits, as it did twice during our five days, an outright soaking is guaranteed. But whilst the temperature has fallen in the winds which precede this, it is still hotter than London, and ‘what the hell, I will be dry soon enough’ and we found that a good storm wakes up the fish, anyway!
When you watch the weather tearing toward you, it can be alarming. But from the sanctuary of a lodge, and from the lodge’s deck, after the sun has gone down, and the sky is a myriad of yellows, oranges and crimsons in one direction, and dangerously hued in another, and it is crackling fireworks from yet another, because the panorama is so vast, it is like observing the end of time, and a new beginning in another. On this skyline, this is Nature at its startlingly awesome…a ‘son et lumiere’ of which Les Francais can only dream…and when the hailstones come…just dive inside and enjoy another glass of Washington State’s finest (or Napa’s if it’s available).
Our internet search revealed many lodges, but neither mixed sport, nor family friendly, were on our agenda, and the Five Rivers Lodge http://www.fiveriverslodge.com/ was seductive.
Now understand one thing. Whereas Montana has a strong dependence on the tourist dollar/pound/ euro (not at this time)…it is not the easiest State to reach. The State runs the airports, and all bar one are loss-making. So these are being closed, and the profitable one at Belgrade(Bozeman ) is being expanded and will serve the SW of the State. Fine, but expect a long ride to wherever you may choose to stay, and for the overseas angler, at least one transfer from your port of entry to the US, along with the interminable checks of a paranoid country, as well as the charges for bags, the lure of, and the late cost of more legroom, and the appalling in-flight fare (bit like RyanAir, you might respond?).
But back to Five Rivers Lodge.
Jay Burgin runs the show with his wife Mary, who is the shuttle driver who meets and greets you at Belgrade and ensures your safe arrival, but only after sharing huge amounts of information about her home territory, as well as very interesting facts about Lewis and Clark (look them up!), and a calorie stop at Wheat Montana, an enterprising business at the junction of Highway 287 and I90 at Three Forks, where the Folkvord family have added retail to their production and processing business, and branded their own products for sale, but more importantly, added a cafe serving a huge variety of foods of their own making…it is tasty, fast, inexpensive, and a clever marketing tool.
But back to Five Rivers Lodge.
OK….like so many websites, it needs some updating. But what you get when you arrive is largely what you see on the website. Host, Jay Burgin greets you on arrival, and his entire raison d’etre is to ensure anglers have the best fishing experience, so the introduction to one’s room waits until after some preliminaries around river conditions and hatches, and a visit to the Lodge Fishing Shop…forget the creams, shirts and hats, and gismos….checkout the fly selection. At 2500+, he claims it to be the largest collection in the world! Not sure why, in a small lodge, but ‘Heh, someone has to’, and Jay has…it is as spectacular as it is confusing ! (a bit like trying to select a meal in a restaurant offering a five page menu!)
There were six parties (twelve people) there during our stay , and with ten of them Americans we final two were soon referred to as, ‘The Brits’. Hors d’oeuvres, and cocktails poured from gallon jugs of spirits brands all Readers would know, and then a four course meal of very generous proportions (of course)….the evening pattern was set, and the belt was loosened.
After breakfast and the construction (daily) of a packed lunch (“you’re in a drift boat all day, and there are no bars on the river where you’re going”) it was time to meet the ’unfortunate’ who was to be our guide for the week.
Boy did we strike lucky….time for me to introduce Will Fenoglio,
very part time builder, and very full time guide – fishing in the summer, and hunting in the winter. Will did more than he can know, to ‘make’ our week. Relentless in his search for the flies which would work, and ready to change and re-tie in an instant; patient with our early, rather poor attempts to cast weighted rigs; always seeking out fishy runs and advising us – “I like the left here”; sympathetic with our tangles/ snares and snags; quick to jump out into the shallows to net our many fish; fit enough to manoeuvre our boat through tricky runs of the rivers we enjoyed; and knowledgeable about his State, his rivers and the environment as a whole to engage and interest us, for the whole period. Super guide, and if you visit Five Rivers Lodge, or need a guide for Yellowstone, grab him!!
SW Montana rivers are either freestone, or tail waters – the former are spring fed and augmented by snowmelt, the latter emanate from the bottom of a dam, and flow is regulate-able, the temperature cold and consistent. At this time of year, they were coloured, a little, in deeper runs, but clear in the margins.
The fish are wild, and there has been no stocking for over thirty years. The browns are rich daffodil yellow, with black and red spots; the rainbows have dozens of small black spots; we caught no brookies so cannot comment; but caught one other salmonid, a scarce fish, of which more later; and quite a few whitefish, which is also a salmonid, but not what we came for. A poor relation of the noble salmo truta, with a small soft mouth, pointing down to the riverbed, silver scaled and pink finned, and which fights hard, but without the aggressive surges of a trout, and rather a nod, nod of the head in resignation of a fate which no game fish would consider.
All of our fishing was from drift boats, an unusual experience for UK fishers used to Yorkshire spate streams or our wonderful chalk streams. But on the wide and fast, but not deep, Montana rivers, where, frankly, through their scale and distance from humanity, a wade would be exhausting and short, for it would take a while to reach anything wade-able, after diverting past the odd bear, a possible moose, and the very strict code by which bank side landowners enforce their rights, prohibiting anglers from stepping above the highwater mark on their land. And drift boats are fun!
But, beware… there is a protocol to their use. Convention has it that the angler at the front of the boat has casting access first to all fish encountered on the downstream meander. So, and while this was not proven on our trip, alternating is seen to be ‘polite’.
Time to talk about the fishing…!!!
We fished three rivers –
A tailwater fed by the Clark Canyon Reservoir, which a sign informs, sits on the 45th parallel, exactly half way between the North Pole and the Equator…how precise! We fished it twice, and in very different conditions. The first time, our first day, it was very sunny and hot, and on our morning drift from Henneberry, on my very first cast from the bow position I hooked a fish!
My first thought was…’either this is very good luck, or very bad luck!’
The thing is, drift boats cannot be stopped at will, and only yards below the bend there was a concrete bridge, where the track from the launch slip went over the river up into the cowboy hills. And having to bend double to avoid decapitation and whilst trying to net and picture my first Montana trout, was an interesting challenge. But as we were soon to find out, the blighters, once in the downstream flow, have little choice but to follow. That is, so long as they are smaller blighters. He was netted downstream of the bridge, and I was chuffed!
Will identified PMDs (pale morning duns) and yellow Sally’s coming off the water and tied appropriately. The rig he applied was, for me, a first. A bobber, attached to the leader just below the line link, with two nymphs tied to very short droppers, twelve inches apart, and the lower one, about twelve inches above two heavy shot. Heavy enough to get down to the bottom quickly, but leaving two flies to attract fish on and just off the bottom. Clever, but difficult to cast, until the realisation that distance is not important, but accuracy is, and slowly does it! And it must have worked, for the morning drift to Organ Pipe,
saw us both bringing fish to the boat – browns, rainbows and whitefish.
In the afternoon, we drove to the dam and fished down to High Bridge. We did this on the afternoon of day five, too, and the experiences could not have been different. On the first, in sunshine, we hooked, and hooked, and lost and boated…but lost too many (including a monster brown, which sat in shallows, just yards from the boat, and when he decided enough was enough, just took off, and snapped me…a fish of between four and five pounds we estimated), but while we were disappointed, an unsurprised Jay told us that a net rate of one in five, in this big fish reach is the norm. Surveys, he revealed, suggest there are 1500 fish of over 24”, per mile below the dam.
On the second visit, we both hooked within sight of the launch slope, which is apparently rare, and the netted/lost ratio was OK-ish. And then it rained, and rained, and rained, but such was Will’s fly selection, that we continued to hook, and whilst other anglers looked fishless, we boated, and some remarkable specimens, too, in atrocious weather, and during an astonishing PMD hatch, which left none of them with any hope of carnal delight. I think I may have hooked the monster which defied me on day one, but this hook up was another ‘loss’ and when retrieving to check the leader, the upper fly was straightened at the bend! And there is nothing to be done about that.
I could not decide why, other than superior feed stuff, the fish near the dam are bigger, nor why they do not migrate downstream, but Jay offered, sagely, that we returned so many 16”- 18” fish below High Bridge, that they should grow on in a year or two. What sport that will offer.
We fished the beat between High Bridge and Henneberry, too, and caught continuously, until our morning was ended after rescuing two Summer camp kids who had lost their canoe, which had capsized in waters higher and running faster than on our first visit…we surmised that the dreaded ‘Elf & Safety’ has not reached Montana…either that, or the pioneer spirit prevails, and ’what the hell’. Either way, the river warden was not concerned even if the girls involved were traumatised, although that might have been fear of what was to come, because the canoes were hired from one of their father’s business, and at a cost of $600 a pop, and her’s was not recovered. Two other canoes were seen capsized above the exit ramp.
Forget this meandering…the Beaverhead is a FANTASTIC trout stream….as good as the Laxa, and that’s saying something!
Now this may confuse you. It’s a free stone river, but upstream there is a dam, but it’s so far up, it’s a free stone (in character!) (dont’cha just love Americans!?)
We fished from Varney Bridge to Ennis, known to the locally as ‘the 15 mile riffle‘
There were boats and floats, aplenty at the launch, and in theintense heat of the early day, we waited our turn. This world famous river is at this point, very wide, and for the length of our drift was rarely more than five feet deep. Casting to whatever was a challenge…where are they? We needed Will to help us, but even he was, at times a little flummoxed.
Will’s rig for us for a heavy stone fly, and a small nymph tied, NZ style and lurking a foot and a half, or so lower. Wide but fast, and after only a few minutes I was snagged. With the boat still moving, I pulled horizontally to loosen the trapped nymph, and reset the leader, which is bound to snap under the strain of the flow and the pressure from me. The only precaution has to be that the pulling action takes the flying rig to one’s side, or else, depending where the knotting goes, a piece of fly/sinker comes hurtling your way! But on this occasion the ‘snag moved’!!! And pulled, and resisted, and felt like a good fish, and was off….Ha!
Our day was spoiled at one level, to see a rod case float by us, when anchored for one of many reties. And then a life jacket, and then some more debris. It was obvious that there had been a capsize…but news travels fast up and down a river, as the concerned happily shared the better news as we were passed by more floats, that ‘yes, and they’re OK!’ It is a rather alarming sight, because you know they are fishers. But after what I described of the Beaverhead, it does make you wonder about personal responsibility, and question whether there is a carefree attitude to ‘stuff’, or an ignorance about the power of nature…who knows?
The fishing that day was slow, and other than a few juveniles and a few of the dreaded whitefish, only one decent fish came to net.
But the compensation was a succession of fabulous views, and a beer ‘en retour’ in a bar in the cowboy (and old mining ) town of Virginia City, whose most curious exhibit was the rafter where the naughties of the 19th Century were hung!
The Big Hole
The Big Hole is 153 miles long and joins the Beaverhead at Twin Bridges, to form the Jefferson River, named after ‘you know who?’ and the Jefferson flows 80 miles before joining the mighty Missouri.
The Big Hole is a ‘blue ribbon’ fishery, with trophy fish which make it very popular throughout June and July. We fished two rides, from Divide to Melrose, and from Melrose to Glen, where there is a bar which makes and serves the best Bloody Mary, I have ever tasted, and its right next to the fishing shop! Whist there were many drift boats about on our two runs on the Upper river, the river is so big that it never felt crowded. Maybe that was because we just enjoyed the canyons, cliffs, cotton wood trees, and the constant anticipation of a good fish, and there many, including the ‘rare’ salmonid I mentioned earlier, the illusive, cut-throat trout,
so called because of the reddish slits protruding backwards on both undersides of its mouth.
The fishing was made memorable by the appearance, mid morning of the famed and distracting, ‘bikini hatch’, and concentration was necessary to get our double weighted fly rigs out to the fish, we knew were all around us. In fact on this river, it felt as though they really were, and casting to the bank was no more productive than through the middle of the river, and the etiquette of changing from the front of the boat to the rear seat, was never needed. And we caught fish, in equal numbers, on the dry, too, and mostly on bushy caddis patterns of some size (14’s and bigger, as is the ‘mode’ on this river)
But, a stormy time of year, our first run was interrupted by the decision by Will to try to outrun/outrow an approaching storm which showed as the darkest clouds which turned the bright afternoon into a mirky dusk light, that is, except for the fork lightning of a brightness, danger and intensity which made me reconsider my approach to life insurance. Whatever, and being at least four miles from our destination, try as hard as he did, we could not, and I live to record the fact that the hailstones which hit us were the size of blackbird eggs, and hurt…we were soaked to the skin, literally, and only another Bloody Mary could redeem the good spirits we were in at the start of the day!
But, the beauty of this river cannot be overstated. Deer, nesting swallows…rich pasture lands near the towns, and the sight of ‘old America’….the seldom used rail road running along a significant part of this run’s sixteen miles, the logging tracks, the old girder bridges, the pines…simply stunning.
We were lucky, and caught fish on every drift on all five days. A mix of handsome Browns (to circa 3lbs), sparkling Rainbows (to 5lbs), Whitefish (to 3 ½ lbs) and a solitary cut throat. Fraser caught the specimens, including this magnificent ‘bow,
and maybe I caught a few fish more….but it is the memories of time spent with a great chum in a special place that will linger. Next year, its Iceland, again!
Jay and Mary were very hospitable, and the folk we met at Five Rivers Lodge were good companions for the week, and our thanks to Michael and Marge, John Michael and his new friend, Cardinal Poof (!), Rick and Robert, Kevin, Roger and Ted, and Kate and her noble Vet Husband (respect what these guys have to endure in Afghanistan, and just how Project Healing Waters is helping them) ….and especially to Will, our fantastic guide.
Go to Montana! It will be worth it, and you will never regret it. And we did not fish the Ruby River or the Jefferson, so five days may not be enough!