Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mountain Creeks and Brook Trout

Charley casting to brookies with Flicka supervising
Our southwestern Montana rivers are finally dropping. They’re still high by normal late July standards, but there finally seems to be a light at the end of the runoff tunnel.

Right now, conditions are about prime for floaters on the Big Hole River and if our last weekend on the river is an example, people are taking full advantage of water conditions more typical of late June than late July.

Still, I’d bet that we’re still a good week or so away from good wade-fishing, and if you do find a good spot to walk along the edges of the river, you’ll be facing a long parade of drift boats and rubber rafts coming your way.

An alternative might be to explore some of those many squiggly blue lines on topographical maps, those high country creeks that have been pouring all that water down to our rivers the last couple months. That reservoir of melting snow is finally diminishing and the creeks are dropping.

Our friend, Charley Storms of Evansville, Indiana, joined us this past weekend for camping and fishing. He and a cousin from Philadelphia had spent the week at an area fishing lodge, enjoying good float fishing, but when I suggested exploring some creeks, he was ready for new adventures.

The first creek we tried didn’t pan out, though the drive up the valley was worth the trip from the standpoint of wildflowers. The mountain meadows were a riot of color from a profusion of wildflowers. The creek, however, was still too high for flyfishing.

We moved to another creek and had some action, catching a couple fish plus getting a few more rises. Still, the lower part of the stream had more water than desirable, so we drove farther up the valley.

At higher elevations, conditions were about perfect. There was plenty of water, but it was easy wading up and down the creek. The biggest challenge was finding runs that weren’t choked with willows. By walking around, however, it was no problem to find runs and pools where there was casting room.

Creek fishing is flyfishing simplified. You don’t need fancy equipment or hundreds of different flies to match the hatches. In high country creeks, the growing season is short so fish can’t afford to pass up too many tidbits of food passing by. A small, bushy fly, perhaps one already chewed up on some other trip, is just about perfect.

For better or worse, most high country creeks are overrun with small brook trout. I think of them as the knapweed of trout. They’re not native to the West and they outcompete our native cutthroat. Ironically, on many eastern waters where brook trout are native, rainbow trout, originally imported from West Coast rivers, are the evil alien invaders. On the bright side, brook trout are abundant and if you’re hungry for a fish dinner, go ahead and fill your creel, and if you don’t have a creel a plastic grocery bag or forked willow stick will work almost as well.

I have a friend in Idaho, Chris Hunt, who is a writer and a staffer for Trout Unlimited. He has a website titled,, and a slogan, “Save the west; eat a brook trout.” If you need an endorsement for guilt-free fish munching, go no further.

The fish Charley and I caught weren’t trophies, unless you consider an 8-inch fish a trophy. Despite their diminutive size, these brookies are mature fish and one of them was even full of eggs developing for fall spawning.

The final reward for a fun-filled day of fishing, however, was back in camp. I spritzed the fish with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper and put them on the charcoal grill. In a few minutes the fish were perfectly done and we ate them as appetizers while venison steaks took their turn on the grill for our dinner’s main course.

I’m looking forward to fishing the Big Hole and other waters during what’s left of summer, but I’ll reserve more time for some of those headwaters creeks.

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