Every angler's fantasy

Your own wild trout stream
freestone trout stream Montana
Photo: Brett Holmquist

Molly and I closed on our new property in early March, but the tail end of winter turned to spring, and then spring to summer, and I still hadn’t fished the creek that bordered our land to the east.

Wolf Creek.

It flows down out of the Swan Range, cold and clear like so many Montana freestones, a little gem twisting between spruce and birch-lined banks. Yet while I’d managed to spend time that summer visiting famous rivers like the Henry’s Fork and the Madison, as well as the Elk up in BC, Wolf Creek was elusive. There always seemed to be something urgent, some gotta-get-it-done-right-now task that kept me sweaty and sore-backed while the creek went from perfect in May, to blown out in June, to perfect again in July, and then low and clear in August.

When September finally rolled around, still hot and smoky, I was square in the middle of every angler’s fantasy. We actually owned land hard up against a beautiful Montana trout stream. Yet I hadn’t even cast a fly on its waters. That’s pretty damn pitiful.

The tenth of September was a Sunday, and it dawned clear and cool, a welcome breeze chasing a couple week’s worth of smoke out of the Flathead. By mid-afternoon, when I probably should have been cranking up the chain saw and getting in another load of wood, I found myself thinking about the creek. Around four, with the temperature in the mid 70s and the sun angling toward the west, I finally gave up on the idea of firewood and decided to go fishing.

A half hour later I found myself walking down a trail I’d cut in a few months back, crunching on the yellowing birch and cottonwood leaves that lay scattered here and there on the forest floor. I was wearing my waders—while the water wasn’t deep, it had stayed icy cold all summer long—and I had my favorite rod, an old IM6 4-weight from the good folks down in Twin Bridges.

Amazingly, the springs that well up on the east side of our land were still running full bore. As I crossed one of the rough-hewn foot bridges I’d built back in June, I decided I’d better whistle. No point in walking up unannounced on a bear. I’d seen griz tracks on the creek the week before, and I’d run into an aggressive black bear and her young cubs in the same general area just two days earlier. With the lush vegetation acting as a magnet for every bear in the general vicinity, discretion seemed the better part of valor.

I guess I was lucky, because I didn’t bump into anything more perilous than a flock of wild turkeys.

When I finally reached it’s banks, Wolf Creek was dead low and the water—what there was of it—was damn near as clear as the air. The riffles were jump-across wide and even the largest pools weren’t more than a couple of feet deep; absolute perfect conditions for a skunking. You know the drill. Small stream trout are paranoid under the best of conditions. In the fall, when the water’s skinny and the skies are bright, they’re damn near impossible.

I got down on my hands and knees and crawled up along the bank, knowing that I had to take my time. I certainly wasn’t going to get a second chance. The plunge pool just around the corner wasn’t much bigger than a good-sized hot tub and the half dozen brook trout who lived there were wild fish, afraid of shadows and swaying branches, much less heavy-handed fishermen.

I stopped in a little opening a couple yards shy of the bend and sat on the bank with just barely enough room to throw my fly up around the corner. Just barely. There were trees overhead and bushes to either side, and if my line ever climbed more than a few feet above the water, it would collide with a branch. Yet theoretically, with a tiny bit of skill and a whole bunch of luck, I could pull off the cast.

But not with the twelve foot leader I’d tied up for the afternoon. My original concept was sound—I needed a long, light leader to avoid spooking the fish—but given the tight corners and the funky angle, I couldn’t close my loop enough to hook the fly around the corner. To make matters worse, my Royal Wulff wasn’t particularly aerodynamic. I suppose my first couple casts weren’t too bad, but they still landed in the shallow water on the far side of the pool. In the end I had no choice but to take eighteen inches out of the middle of my leader, swallow hard, and try one more time.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised—as my Dad used to say, even a blind hog finds the occasional acorn—but every once in a while life turns out exactly the way it’s supposed to. It happened when I married Molly, and again when Kian was born, and it followed the same general script on September the 10th. My line slipped back and forth under the branches, perfect for the handful of seconds it had to be perfect, and then my fly, one of Lee Wulff’s enduring contributions to our sport, settled down at the top end of the pool with nary a plop or a splash. And perfect lasted for just a bit longer, because a brook trout of eight inches or so, a glorious, color-splashed brookie with pumpkin orange sides and fins tipped in white, charged up and grabbed my fly.

Call it what you want. Luck. Skill. Whatever. It was a gift. As is the creek itself. Never, not in my wildest dreams, did I ever expect that we’d own land on such a beautiful stream. Not that I’m under any illusion that the property is really ours, at least not in any genuine sense. We may pay the taxes and hold the paper, but the truth of the matter is that we’re simply doing the Good Lord’s work, acting as stewards and caretakers until our time here is over and someone else comes along to pick up the mantle.

In fact, that might be the most any of us can hope for as we walk through this world; a life close to the land, a life filled with meaning and purpose. And when those special moments do manifest themselves—in the loving kiss of a spouse, or the shining eyes of a child, or the sheer luminance of a brook trout grown strong in pure mountain water—we need to take the time to notice, and to offer thanks for gifts we don’t always deserve.

Our little creek falls square into that particular category. Its waters are cold and clean, its trout are wild, and when it finally drops down out of the Swan Range, it’s been steeped in the essence of a landscape as vibrant and alive as any I can imagine. I don’t know why Molly and I merit such good fortune, but Fate, fickle mistress that she is, has blessed us with 27 acres that border a gorgeous Montana creek. That’s a gift I honestly never expected, albeit one I can’t help but treasure.


Your writing took me there. Thank you.