Fly Fishing Small Water Around Montana
I can remember as a boy spending many a summer day riding my bike to a local fire station that had a small pond behind it. There I would spend hours catching mostly sunfish, but also the occasional bullhead or bass on a worm below a bobber. Behind the pond was a small stream that I paid no attention to other than that I crossed it every time I rode to the pond. One day, I noticed an elderly man working his way up the stream with a strange long rod. He could have come straight off the cover of an old L.L. Bean catalogue, dressed kind of funny and carrying an old wicker creel. I watched as he dropped a fly along the bank in front of him, and quickly caught a fish that came up and took it. I will forever be in debt to this man’s patience, as I was instantly by his side pestering him with questions, and he very kindly took the time to show me what he was doing. The fish was a brook trout, the first I had ever seen, and it was simply beautiful.
He explained that he was fishing with flies, showing me the Royal Coachman that he was using, and explained that the trout would come out of hiding thinking it was a tasty bug they could eat. On hearing me proudly exclaim how I was catching sunfish in the pond, he suggested that I could actually catch some of these trout if I took off the bobber and sinker, and just let my worm drift under the overhangs along the bank. He also suggested that lighter line than what came on my Zebco 404 would work better. I never saw the man again, and don’t know if I even thanked him properly, but I sure hope I did. That chance meeting forever changed my life. Overnight I became an explorer of the many small streams that criss crossed the part of Connecticut where I lived. I learned to catch the native brookies that were still in some of them, and the stocked rainbows and browns that were in others. Soon I used money from my newspaper route to buy an ultralight spin casting outfit, and within a few years owned a fly rod. My first trout on a fly came from a stream about ten miles North of that fire station. It was an eight inch brown that took a Royal Wulff (which the man at the local fly shop said was even better than the Royal Coachman) and promptly swam through the nylon webbing of my net as I removed the fly. I still have such a vivid memory of that pool, the excitement of hooking and landing the fish, and my dismay at watching it escape.
Over the years, I think it is safe to say that a large percentage of what I know about fly fishing came from time spent on small streams. At first, these small streams were my only option given that I was limited to places I could ride my bike to. Even after I was able to drive I still seemed to gravitate to the streams over larger rivers. I think that small water is easier to figure out, and I could often see the fish, and watch what they were doing. It also seemed that a lot of the time fish were less picky in these streams. While I have certainly seen my share of highly selective trout in skinny water, on average a good presentation will be rewarded more consistently on the smaller stream. Over time, as I started fishing larger rivers, I would look at them in segments, and fish water and current structures that I could recognize from my time on smaller water. As an aside, this is still a great way to break down larger rivers to figure out where the fish might be hanging out.
Back in the 80’s, when I lived in Maine, a good friend and fishing buddy, Stephen Mace, used to tell me stories about fishing with his grandfather when he was a boy. His grandfather lived out in Montana, and for many summers Stephen got to go out and spend time with him, getting schooled in the art of fly fishing and having fun outdoor adventures. Most of his fishing was done on the small streams “in the back yard”. Although by then I had done some fishing in the west, Montana was in my mind still more myth than reality, and I was jealous of all the time he got to spend out there.
Fast forward to this summer. My wife Lea and I got to meet up with Stephen and his wife Karen at “the cabin”. While the place is not far from several of the more storied rivers in the state, which by now Stephen and I are well acquainted with, the theme for this visit was fishing in the “back yard”. Over the next few days, Stephen and I (at times along with Lea and Karen) visited many of the locations that had been the setting for the stories from so many years ago. There were also newer stories. Stephen has a son who also grew up fishing these waters. Now he has a biology degree and is living in Alaska. We walked up streams together, taking turns fishing, having as much fun watching the other get a great take as we did catching our own fish. We visited places where after a short walk in, we felt like we were the only people on the water. The fish were plentiful, and most of the time very wiling. We caught cutthroats, browns, brookies and rainbows. Many were small, but enough were larger than expected. This was particularly true on the smallest stream we fished. While he still lives in Maine, Stephen tries to come out every year, and works to maintain relationships with ranchers and landowners that he has come to know over time. These friends gave us access to what looked pretty much like a drainage ditch that meandered across some agricultural land. But appearances can be deceiving!
Keep your eyes open for rattlesnakes he warned as we walked across a field. At the stream, we had to carefully crawl down a steep embankment, and could only move forward by walking up the channel. The banks formed a kind of canyon if you would, with overhanging plants on each side in many places allowing only about 3 or 4 feet of room for your cast to land. Someone standing in the field just a few yards to the side would never know we were there. Yet as soon as my feet hit the water I knew that this was someplace special. The water was slow moving, deeper in most places than I expected, full of vegetation, and had that ice cold feel of water that is coming out of the ground. A tiny little spring creek! Hoppers seemed the logical choice, and the first one to land on the water in front of us was greeted by a sixteen inch brown. So was the second one, and well, pretty much every cast after that. There is nothing more exciting than a large fish in small water. Kind of like hand to hand combat. Yes, there were casts that never hit the water thanks to all the overhanging vegetation, and we spent plenty of time retying or untangling, but Stephen had taken me to small stream Nirvana.
It can be like that on streams. While this place was certainly the exception, it is not the first time I have found large fish in small water, and most certainly won’t be the last. On this day I was taken to a special place by a friend, but I spend a lot of time just exploring on my own. The famous rivers in Montana are famous for good reason, and I put my fair share of time on those waters, but as the rivers get smaller, their fame tends to decrease. There are simply too many small streams and rivers in the state for them all to be well known. That doesn’t mean the fishing can’t be great.
All it takes is a sense of adventure, and a willingness to explore. There are lots of streams on public land, and there are still some places where landowners will say yes to a polite request. Fly boxes can be light and simple. A few wulffs, humpy’s, maybe parachute adams, and of course hoppers should cover the dry’s. Hares ears, pheasant tails, small stoneflies and zebra midges can round out the nymphs. Not every stream will be full of fish, but a good many are. On a recent day earlier this summer I was “researching” some small tributary’s to the Clark’s Fork. The first stream I fished was already low, and most fish were small and spooky. I was surprised to catch a little brookie on a nymph, and enjoyed seeing a brown come out from under a bank for my hopper, but that was about it. A few miles down the road and another stream held a bunch of modest but hungry cutthroats. Then an eighteen inch rainbow came out of a riffle and put on a show. I can’t wait to return to that one!
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images
Excellent article – thanks for sharing.
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