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.
|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|
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
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.