Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Marvellous 'Mo' - USA 2015

The Missouri River is a big river, indeed the widest I have ever fished. I could throw a pebble across to the opposite bank of every other river I have fished, but not the Mo (as she's affectionately known). When I caught a first glimpse of her from the interstate highway I was a little unsettled by her sheer size but after two days of wade fishing I came to realise she is just a big pussy cat. The Mo is more meandering than mighty.

An angler wades into the Missouri at the 'Bull Pasture'

I cut my losses in western Montana and made for the Mo in central Montana because the 30 mile stretch of water immediately downstream of Holter Dam is a tailwater fishery. The volume of water released from the dam is controlled and it's always clear which at the peak of spring runoff in Montana is a good place to be. Even better, the Missouri in this section is a giant version of a spring creek or chalkstream. The river is mostly shallow, crystal clear, smooth flowing with no white water in sight, and has a gravel and silt bottom which crunches underfoot when not stepping on the sub-aquatic pastures of fertile weeds. If you let your imagination run wild as I did you could almost say the Mo is a gargantuan version of the hallowed River Test, the king of chalkstreams.

Before I got there though, I skipped most of the interstate highway from the town of Helena and took a gravel back road which followed the Little Prickly Pear Creek through a narrow valley of ranch lands. How could anyone not want to cast a fly in a creek with such an unusual name?  I stopped at a bridge and caught two identically sized brown trout on nymphs before dark grey clouds rolled in and were shortly followed by lightning, thunder and hail. Fortunately the hail was no larger than pea size and my rental car escaped unmarked. There has been an afternoon thunderstorm pretty much every day since I arrived in Montana, so the premature end to my fishing fun was not wholly unexpected.

One of a brace of browns from the Little Prickly Pear
These sullen horses turned their backs on the driving rain and wind
I eventually joined up with the interstate again and made the short hop to the small fishing base of Craig. The town, if it's even that, has a small smattering of houses and fishing cabins and the main street consists of a restaurant and bar, a burrito stand, three fly shops and nothing else. I can't think of anything else a serious fly fisherman would want. Of course there are no traffic lights but the multitudes of reversing or turning pickup trucks with boat trailers keep you on your toes. I set up my tent in the town campsite on the banks of the Missouri and headed to the fly fishing stores for advice and a few flies. I left with that and a beautiful Brodin Ghost Gallatin net. I'm a sucker for financial punishment in fly shops but I figure the Brodin will make a nice keepsake from the American leg of my trip.

I love Brodin nets!

The view from my tent site

While they are busy casting large attractor dries and stonefly nymphs (#4-8) in other parts of the state nothing larger than a #16 fly will deceive the Missouri's trout. For such a large river it produces tiny invertebrates. The fish are also prone to lock on to a particular hatch to the exclusion of everything else and I experienced this on the second day. I had just caught a rainbow and then a brown in rapid succession, both sight fished, and began to think the day would be easy. Then, I came to a rainbow feeding enthusiastically on nymphs very close to the bank. I watched it feed and swing out to the right and left to catch its prey and I reckoned it would be easy game for the green #18 nymph which had just accounted for two of its river mates. Wrong! The fish ignored it and fastidiously ignored every other offering I sent down in its path, yet still continued to feed with apparent urgency. In other words, I hadn't spooked it. Baetis had started to hatch and I grabbed an adult mayfly from the water's surface and compared it to my nymph. My #18 nymph dwarfed it and a #22 or #24 hook would probably have been more appropriate. I had nothing that small in my box. Fish after fish ignored my #18 and #20 patterns until, two hours later, a slightly less selective brown trout took pity on me and decided a #18 nymph was good enough. Two hours of fruitless casting and refusals - the margins are that fine on the Missouri.

This was also my first real experience of fishing in a river with plenty of drift boat traffic. Wading anglers have right of way and every boat was politely steered away from me. I was impressed by the strict adherence to etiquette but I wonder if boat anglers realise just how far their voices carry over water? One man was telling his boat mate about an affair he is having with a 22 year old woman.

The nature on display was spectacular. Ospreys and Bald eagles circled in the sky screeching to each other. Pelicans and geese floated on the water and the bank side brush teemed with colourful small birds ready to defend their patch from marauding magpies. I saw a beaver for the first time and plenty of muskrats. My favourite were the curious little gophers which tunnelled in the river's banks. Their panicked 'thweet' of an alarm call would announce my presence and send them scampering for their holes, only to poke out a head to watch me pass. At one stage the ground shook as two huge lumbering Hercules C-130 aircraft flew very low down river. It would have made for a great photo but I was so awestruck watching them rattle overhead that I forgot to think about reaching for my camera. I later learned there is an air force base not too far away.

I heard various estimates of between 4,000 to 8,000 trout per river mile in the section below Holter dam. Whichever number you pick that's a lot of trout. With the water so clear I spotted a few too. With that said, the fishing was never easy and fish brought to the net would not be described as bountiful - I caught seven in two days (four rainbows and three browns). Not that it's a competition or anything but the guys I spoke to on the bank or at my camp site seemed to be catching similar numbers or even fewer so I concluded I was doing okay on a new river. In fact, I would go even further and say I was pleased as punch and I think a major reason was, to my surprise I guess, down to actually enjoying myself so much on such a large river. I'm most in my element on a small stream but this river opened my eyes to another world of river fishing altogether and I had fun.

The best licence plate ever?

If you've seen the ridiculous Hank Patterson videos you will get this...

The most memorable catch of the lot was the brown trout which was persuaded to take a dry fly, the only one of the seven not caught on a tiny nymph. And you know what, we go on at length about how selective trout are in a river like the Missouri and how precise the fly pattern has to be to match the hatch. I think we want to believe that trout are more intelligent than they are because that adds flesh to our pursuit and justifies the times we don't catch trout. But this trout was finally flummoxed by an egg laying Pale Morning spinner. My guide book tells me that PMDs don't hatch until late June and I didn't see any of them either. Nobody bothered to tell this to the brown trout though!

I spotted the trout and a few others rising immediately below this cliff vantage point

By the time I had finally nailed it note the storm clouds which had rolled in

This was a great experience and a wonderful three nights camping on the banks of a famous fly fishing river. If you're in Montana and faced with muddy water, get yourself to the Mo.

Post edit: I caught two of these perch looking fish from a deep pool through which I stripped an olive woolly bugger. They happen to be my first river caught fish on a streamer type fly. Could they be walleye? I'm hoping someone can ID them for me.


  1. Great post again Justin! Really enjoying reading your updates on this amazing trip. Unfortunately I can't help with the fish!

    1. Hi Nicholas, thanks so much for the great feedback!

  2. Justin
    You are one lucky guy to get to fish all these outstanding waters. Thanks for sharing another great adventure.

    1. Hi Bill, I'm counting my lucky stars!

  3. Yup, it's a perch. Darned nice one at that, they are really good eating. And those trout? They sure give you a workout don't they?

    1. Thanks for clarifying Lester. The trout packed a punch!

  4. Looks beautiful out there!

    1. Every bit of Montana so far has been drop dead gorgeous. You'd love it out here.