Gravel roads don’t have the adventurous chops of a two-track. Still, turning off of pavement stirs that part of the brain which knows wilderness. When the road disappears into a river-scoured canyon, even the weariest traveler can sit up and take notice. I was weary. I was also watching.
Four days of Big Sky and big waters had left me depleted. But there was something more. Deep in my gut, a microscopic organism was preparing to attack me. In the morning it would give me misery but for now it just made me feel sour and sleepy. Also, I was fished out.
I know you're rolling your eyes, but I was done. Sometimes, on a small stream, I can find such bliss after one small, wild trout comes to hand. Mostly the feeling comes after an early spring hatch. Bountiful, large mayflies sailing on the surface bring dormant trout up and the fish come to hand with surprising regularity. But neither magic nor bounty, brought me to my current state. It was likely the combination of fresh air, hard fishing, and ample pours of Irish whiskey that manifested this feeling of satiation and exhaustion. Regardless of the cause, at that moment, the fishing was out of me.
Four days earlier, landing in Idaho Falls, I had game. Chris and Mike are fishing buddies that make trips easy. Good conversation. Willing to fish until the fishing is done. Able to handle a couple of drinks without getting out of hand. Ready with a joke or tale at the right moment. No need to fill quiet moments with senseless rambling. Camaraderie that men have trouble finding words for but that exists deeply nonetheless.
We were fishing our way to Craig. It should have been easy, pre-runoff fishing. Unfortunately, winter was being quite the prick. Hanging on long after he should have packed and gone, the next morning he bedazzled the dandelions on Chris’ lawn with a light dusting.
Up on the plateau, a foot of fresh snow blocked our way into the canyon of the Henry’s Fork. We drove in slightly beyond where good sense should have stopped us but someone else had been there before us so the venture seemed foolish but not reckless. When the tracks ended, so did our progress.
The new snow was melting rapidly and the streams were up. Back down in Ashton, we turned up the Henry’s Fork to find water to deep and fast for wading. The Dead Moose stretch of the Warm River was more hospitable and fish came to San Juans and yellow Wooley Buggers. The fishing wasn’t good but it wasn’t miserable either and at the end of the day the hot tub on the deck at Eagle Ridge Ranch soothed the discomfort of hard fishing.
A few miles north, the ranch provides access to some "private waters" along Sheridan Creek. Montana's river access regulations favor the angler and access to Sheridan Creek is only "private" in the sense that you can't trespass to get to the river. Anyone could drop in where the road crosses the stream and fish down. We were lucky enough to be able to drive in to where the willows mark the creek's progress across the plain.
Sheridan Creek is a picture postcard western creek. It comes off the nearby mountain and meanders through a meadow. Snow-capped peaks line the horizon. Deep cut banks hold trout. Big trout. Chris and I got a few respectable-sized rainbows but I wasn't surprised when Mike reported a handful of trout that strained his net. And this was on a day when the fishing seemed off.
Overnight in Helena, we were in Craig early. Craig is a fishing town. Out east you have locales like Roscoe and Townsend that have strong fishing cred. They have their fly shops, but you're more likely to see a local farmer or insurance salesman at the breakfast joint than a fly angler. These eastern towns exist for purposes other than angling. Angling is their side hustle. Craig exists purely to serve the vocation.
Between the highway exit ramp to "downtown" Craig and the Missouri River there are three hundred yards of blacktop. Along the right side of the road there are four businesses. Fly shop. Fly shop. Fly shop. Restaurant (not open on Mondays). The third fly shop, Headhunters, is where we met Todd and Pat. It's also where we picked up our boats for the day’s and the next’s float.
The river was high. Bank high. Not testing it’s banks, but full. Off color. Lots of bugs. Not a single, fabled Missouri River trout moving on the surface. Those who had fished the river before talked of what it was like the last time. I was blissfully unaware of the quality experience that I was missing. The river looked fishy enough and if they were there I believed they’d respond to a little split-shotted nymph or a large streamer behind 150 grains of sinking line.
Day one fishing was tough. We didn't find reliably fishy water in the high flow. My big river casting was out of sync with what was necessary. Chris worked the oars to try and put us in the right places, but there were few right places. We got into enough fish to make it interesting but not enough to make it seem worthwhile. Mike, Todd and Pat had similar results in the other boat. A generous pour of whiskey at sundown helped ease the pain.
On day two, we moved downstream. Despite even higher water, we had dialed in the fishing program. Streamers and nymphs produced where you’d expect. We even found a pod of slurping browns in a back eddy. Chris brought several nice fish to hand while I positioned the boat in the slow swirl.
On the way home the next morning we fished a small but storied water. It was a pretty creek that meandered through pasture and willow. It was one of those magical days when you found fish everywhere you wanted them to be and could take them on a dry, a nymph or a rapidly stripped streamer. The whole thing felt both decadent and illicit. Around noon, Mike hailed me from upstream. It was time to make tracks south.
Drives in fish country, no matter how weary I am, make me sit up and pay attention. I eyed each stream crossing. Chris shared details on the notable waters. We talked about streams that we’ll cross down the road. Idle talk turned to scheming. We consulted the fishing regulations. Our energy was low but we were intrigued. We don’t have to fish, we told ourselves, but why don’t we just go look.
From the highway the land looks flat until it hits the mountain's gentle shoulders; foothills appear rolling and soft. But up close, the topography is craggy. Irrigation ditches bisect fields of pronghorn. The back sides of slopes have been carved by moving water and yield deep canyons with steep walls and sexy slicks. The water, slightly off color, is just right. Weeds sway in the current. My mind is beginning to see the possibilities but I’m having trouble getting my body in the game.
Parked just upstream of a bridge, the creek hurries under a sheer canyon wall ten yards from where I stand. Bank swallows enjoy a middling hatch. Mike and Chris are on foot up ahead walking to the next bridge to scope out the water. For a bit, I’m faltering in indecision but all it takes is the rhythm of setting up a fly rod to break my stupor. Chris mentioned there were west slope cutthroats in the stream, so that helped too. My small stream game is a beefy dry above a San Juan.
I hooked three and land two in the slot above the bridge. Being too lazy to put on waders, I crossed the braids barefoot with my boots stowed in my net. Frigid water numbed my feet enough that I didn't feel the dozens of thorns and thistles from last season's matted foliage embed themselves in the soles of my feet. No more fish came to hand but enough took a swipe at my rig to stir the joy one finds on small streams in the waning light of a day. These are the last casts of the trip. I was asleep in the truck before we exited the canyon.
At my connection in Salt Lake City, I decided to spend the night to give my gut time to heal. Well-worn airport hotels are usually small comfort, but in my state I was happy just to be horizontal. Late at night I awoke to rehydrate. I discovered and plucked a few more of thorns from my foot. As the morning's first flights departed overhead, my thoughts turned to gravel roads and mountain creeks. I was weary but my spirit dreamed of small adventures in special places.