Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Drifting the Missouri with a Headhunter

Gray clouds filled Montana's famed Big Sky and pressed down on the Big Belt Mountains to the south as I drove I-15 from Great Falls to Craig; the place that the NY Times called the "World's Best Trout Town" back in 1999. My destination: Headhunters Fly Shop, which wasn't even open back at the turn of the century. Craig is home to three fly shops. The shops fill about half the commercial buildings in the tiny town on the west bank of the Missouri River. All of the shops come highly recommended. Greg Senyo, a guide/fly tier who knows how to have a good time, told me that the guys at Headhunters are great fun to fish with. That was enough for me. I don't fish with guides very often, but I've learned from experience that some guides take themselves way too seriously. I prefer guides who laugh a lot and don't get frustrated spending a day with an angler like me, more enthusiastic than skilled.

I started looking into the fishing on the Missouri River early last year after our son learned he'd be stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. He moved there in October and he's been teasing me ever since with stories about the beautiful river valleys he flies through. Ohio's arctic winter gave me a terrible case of cabin fever that I decided to treat by taking a solo trip west. After a great weekend of hikes and back-country drives with my son and daughter-in-law, I headed south to Craig on Monday morning. The temperature gauge said 36 degrees, and wasn't moving much higher all day. Thankfully rain and snow had been dropped from the forecast and the wind was a modest-for-Montana 10 to 15 mph, much less than the previous two days.

Craig is located about 10 miles downstream from Holter Dam, which turns the Mighty Mo into a giant, albeit artificial, spring creek beloved by fly fishermen for its massive hatches and selective trout. On a cold, gray March day the bugs promise to be sparse and the fish lethargic. But I don't mind one bit. I haven't fished since Christmas eve and I need a fix. My guess is the fish won't be overly picky about eating a drifted nymph, and if I'm lucky a mid-day midge hatch will bring a few of the legendary heads out of the water to sip dries on top.

After turning off the highway, I spot the town's two larger fly shops and drive right past the small shack that is home to the folks Jess McGlothlin, aka FireGirl, calls the Missouri River Rowdies. I pull a U turn and park in the small lot in front of Headhunters. Inside I meet Dewey and others on the team. I purchase the obligatory trout shop ball cap featuring the Headhunters slick logo and pay for the guide trip. A few minutes after my arrival, Ben Hardy, the shop's head guide, arrives and asks me the question that assures me that I will have a good day: "Chris, what would you like to do today?" Some of the guides I've fished with prefer telling their clients what they'll be doing. Ben made it clear from the jump that his goal was to make sure I had a good time.  I said I was up for anything, but really hoped to get a few shots at fish on a dry fly since I rarely get the chance to fish on top. Considering the weather he made no promises, but he said we'd make sure to give it a go.

We hop in his truck and pull his drift boat up to Holter Dam. The plan is to spend about 8 hours drifting back down to Craig. A few bald eagles fly overhead as Ben rows us out into the main current. The river is about 40 to 50 yards wide and is flowing at about 4700 cfs. Ben rigged up a Helios 2 rod with two pinkish scud patterns and a split shot hanging beneath an orange thingamabobber. Not exactly the most elegant of rigs, but very effective. Within the first hour I exceed my expectations, landing a half dozen or more rainbows in the 14 to 20 inch range. I stopped counting fish a long time ago; after the first few I just relax and enjoy the experience. I know I lost a few. But most of the hooked fish are landed thanks to Ben's swift net work. Some of the fish are indeed lethargic. But a few leap from the water and make reel-screaming runs. They all put a nice bend in the rod. The rainbows range from silver with light pink stripes to dark with deep red gill plates.
The first of many rainbows to find the net.

Nymphing from a drift boat is a very effective way to catch trout. Casts are short. A drag-free drift is relatively easy because the boat is drifting along at about the same pace as the flies. Of course Ben had to remind me to mend about 50 times and my sloppy casts didn't help much. But the hook ups are pretty steady. Ben would row us back upstream to take a few extra shots at particularly good runs. And Ben knows the river well, breaking the big water down into smaller sections and pointing out the slower seams to the uninitiated. He's been with Headhunters from the beginning and this is his ninth season on the river. He's an East Coast guy who loves the mountains of Montana. He's also a brand new father, so we trade stories about our families and rivers that we've fished as we do our best to stay warm. I'd spend time checking out the Golden Eye ducks, the beautiful cabins that line the river and the other scenery, and then Ben would inform me of the strike I had just missed.

About two hours into our trip Ben rowed the boat near the bank on the inside portion of a bend so that we could land a sturdy rainbow in the slow water. After a quick release, I look upstream and see the unmistakable rise of a trout in the slack water. A second rise quickly follows, then a third. Ben had rigged up my 5 weight St. Croix rod with a small parachute midge pattern and he encouraged me to take the rod and hop out of the boat to stalk the risers. As I slowly walk along the rocky bank, I laugh out loud at the site of fish heads rising out of the water. After inhaling a midge, the trout's shoulders and then their tails would emerge as their heads tipped back underneath the black, glassy surface. The trout were rising just like I had imagined. The hatch was meager, but sufficient to keep about a dozen fish feeding steady within a 20 yard stretch tight against the near bank.

Missouri brown trout
I am very thankful that it's early in the season because the trout aren't overly picky. I struggle to get my fly to land anywhere close to the desired spot, but every once and awhile the wind dies down and my casting stroke stays tight and the fly drops in the feeding lane. Ben helps me keep an eye on the tiny fly as it drifts back toward us. After what seems like an eternity, but is probably less than 10 minutes a fish rises, inhales the fly and I gently set the hook. I fight the fish for a bit, but he gets off as Ben ran back to the boat for the landing net. But several others come to the net over the next hour or so, including the day's first brown trout. Expectations exceeded again.

We stop for lunch (fresh from the Yeti cooler), and then resume drifting downriver. I fail to entice any fish to the surface while drifting, but
nymphing remains effective. My back aches and my finger tips are numb, but I could stay in the boat forever watching the Montana landscape slip by. About 5 p.m. I land the second whitefish of the day -- the Missouri's native fish. And then we call it a day, pulling into the Craig boat ramp.

We fished for about eight hours and saw four other boats and three fishermen wading. Ben said that in the summer there can be more than 100 boats on the water. I prefer the solitude of March, but want to experience the summer hatches, too. I look forward to my next trip back to Headhunters and the Missouri River.

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