Fly Fishing in Montana
A father and son from the East Coast test their fishing skills in the West, in a luxurious setting.
“This landscape! It’s unbelievable!” Dad had his first aerial view of Montana the day before on the flight in from Denver, but it wasn’t until we were on the road the following morning, driving southeast from Missoula, that he started raving about it. At 76, he’d just joined that not-so-exclusive club of East Coasters who’ve gone west and been bowled over by the scenery—the hulking slabs of sun-burnt rock, the woolly sagebrush flats, the somber herds of grazing cattle framed within their generous enclosures by barbed wire and round-rail fencing.
Things were only going to get better. We had a four-day fishing trip ahead of us.
Dad has fly-fished all his life. In the 12 years since he retired, it has become his main pursuit—a mental one more than anything, for he spends more time thinking and talking about fly-fishing than he does actually casting a line.
When he does fish, he prefers his home waters of the East Coast, because he’s an Atlantic Salmon buff. So while he’ll happily drive all the way up to Quebec or New Brunswick for a few days of DIY fishing, he had never known the pleasures of a first-class guided trip out West, let alone one in Montana’s world-famous trout waters. We were both excited.
Southeast of Missoula, Route 1 took us past weathered barns and fields lumped with piles of late-summer hay. We turned right just after the old mining town of Philipsburg. A half-hour later, a stream-hugging driveway brought us to the reception area at the Ranch at Rock Creek, where a valet whisked off our bags and rental Subaru. The full-service part had begun.
At the pristine spa, a Fisherman’s Facial was among the treatment options. Dad laughed out loud at that one. But his skepticism evaporated once he saw our luxurious cabin-tent kitted out with a gas stove and Frette linens. “I wonder if I can take this home,” he mused, fondling a faux-sheepskin robe from the closet. I steered him toward the complimentary pinot noir instead.
The ranch sprawls across 6,600 acres. We, of course, were really only concerned with gurgling Rock Creek itself—where, not long after changing into my waders that first afternoon, I landed my first-ever cutthroat. Struggling to see his dry fly in the current, Dad took a little longer to bring in a whitefish, a bottom-feeder of sorts.
The next day, our guide, Chapin, a spirited 19-year-old from Maine, drove us along a winding national-forest road to float the Bitterroot River in a three-seat raft. It was decent fishing, even if the low August flows made it harder to land the big trout for which the Bitterroot is known.
We were back at Rock Creek in time to catch the property’s weekly rodeo, complete with professional bull riders. A jovial barbecue followed. But I wasn’t done fishing quite yet. Before saying goodbye, Chapin had recommended a spot about a quarter mile upstream from our cabin that had barely been fished all summer. I trudged over in the fading light, sated with baby-back ribs, and landed two more cutthroat. It felt like the right note on which to end our stay.
Most of the guests we saw at Ranch at Rock Creek were riding bikes, going trap shooting and walking around in old cowboy boots, which the lodge very cleverly lends out. With our single-minded pursuit of trout, we’d felt a wee bit like misfits there. And so, for the second leg of our trip, I was glad we had booked two days at a devoted angler’s retreat.
When I’d called the experts at Frontiers, the granddaddy of destination-fishing travel companies, they’d suggested southwestern Montana’s Big Hole Lodge. The Big Hole River still fishes well in August, they’d told me, and Craig Fellin—who’s owned and run the place for 30 years—is one of the most respected guys in the business.
The differences between his specialized lodge and Rock Creek were evident right away. Our oversized cabin was an outdoorsman’s dream—double-wide leather armchairs, Navajo blankets, piles of fishing books and magazines on the living room coffeetable, and a fridge stocked with cold beer. There was even an old dog named Gus.
Our guide for the first day was John, a Massachusetts native who’d fallen for the West the first time he skied Jackson Hole. He took us on a six-mile float down the Big Hole, a beautiful stretch of rock outcroppings and root-beer clarity. The water was bony, even by the usual August standards, which meant we had to get out of the raft a couple times and wade.
It was during one of these get-outs that we had an incident. Dad, trying to get back in, hoisted a leg up onto a gunwale, and before the rest of him could follow, the raft moved and he went tumbling backwards into the water. John, helping him up, declared it a “Montana baptism.”
Luckily, Dad was able to dry out in the sun. And the river gods, having had their fun, apparently experienced a change of heart. He plucked a beautiful rainbow out of waters positively exploding with feeding trout, while I failed to convince a single one of them with my awkward drifts.
The next day we floated a shorter stretch of the river. Matt, our guide, has been taking clients onto the Big Hole since 1989 and suggested we focus on a few key spots. I had pretty good luck with brown trout, as I had the day before. But Dad positively killed it, landing half a dozen rainbows. Two of them were caught in the usually slower period after lunch. His biggest of the day—our biggest fish of the trip, in fact—was just shy of 20 inches.
That night, Craig Fellin presided over dinner. A slow talker with a lean, chiseled look, he seemed as authentic an embodiment of the Montana life as anything we’d encountered all week. Over dessert, he told us he was planning a fall trip to New Brunswick, to try his hand at Atlantic salmon. Dad immediately obliged: “I’ll email you some info!”
But after these four glorious days, neither of us was ready to go back to thinking about fishing on the East Coast quite yet.