The Big Blackfoot

Don is a good friend of mine who lives in Missoula, Montana. He’s rather large and has a great laugh, a scruffy beard, and often wears plaid shirts and blue jeans. He drives a beat-up 80s GMC. He’s also native to the state. And that isn’t too hard to tell, either. Most out-of-staters who can afford to live among the natives generally come from the left or right coasts and they drive shiny new cars. Most Montanans, knowing the weather will be at times quite brutal, are quite content to let their vehicles take the brunt of the seasons, of which there are only two: winter and road construction. My brother, who also lives there, says you can tell by the license plates where people come from as well. He sees them pull up to creek sides when fishing. Well-to-do fly fishers arrive in Escalades, Lexus crossover SUV’s, and the other ne’er-do-wells–the natives and trout bums–drive up in their ’88 Toyota Land Cruisers (of which I’m a proud owner of one) and rust-eaten pickups.

Since my wife is from Big Sky Country we try to get up there as often as we can. Sometimes that’s in the Summer and sometimes that’s in the Fall or Winter. Fall is my favorite time. Don, like all true Montanans, is an outdoorsman. So one Fall, I ask him, “when are we going to go fishing. You’re a native. Take me somewhere where we can catch some trout.”

He reflectively looked up into the sky as if to get permission from the fishing gods of the state (or maybe someone from the Department of Fish and Game) and said, “Yeah. I’ve got a good place. Can you be ready by 5:30 tomorrow morning?”

You know that you’re with a fisherman when he says those magic words that equal “before daybreak.” I told him I was on board and so we left the next morning.

We puttered up Highway 200 and talked about life and fishing and God. It was dark and driving through the canyon, which follows the Big Blackfoot, there really wasn’t a lot to see. So we drove until the sun began to rise above the shoulders of Trapper Mountain. North of us was the gateway to the Bob and nearby a couple of lakes existed, Kleinschmidt and Brown’s Lake. The latter was our destination.

We pulled up quietly and noticed that there were a few early risers with their lines in the water, some boaters trolling and us. We unhitched our boat, quietly slipped into the water, and puttered over to a promising looking spot near some downfall and tree limbs. My friend rigged up a small spinner and I did the same. I’ve got to be honest. It wasn’t quite what I expected. I’m not that good of a fisherman and the idea of doing some spinning for trout kind of reminded me of going after bass, back in my homewaters of Missouri. I know that sounds kind of snobbish and it isn’t intended that way. It’s just that I’m in Montana, for crying out loud, and I want trout. So we trolled around for a little bit, probably about an hour, and we had the first fish on. It was getting close to noon and suddenly the action heated up all around us. I looked around at others on the lake and I heard laughter and splashing as trout after trout were being taken in. Granted, these are all stocked fish, but we had fun and we must have caught and landed a dozen or so each. We fished until about three when Don said, “I”ve got one more place for you.” Then he gave me a little bit of lore. “The Blackfoot is a busy river in the Summer. There are a lot of rapids and canoers and kayakers as well as fisherman have to share the river. But after that first cold snap, the swimmers get off of it and that is the best time to hit it. The fish are looking to spawn and they are active. And if you get lucky, you’ll be into some nice fish. I’ve got a plot of land up here by the river and we can get access.”

One of the best things about being in Montana is that there are very few people crowding the waters. There are also abundant rivers and feeder streams that can keep any fisherman happy in three lifetimes and still the resource wouldn’t be exhausted. You can go after ‘Bows, Cutts, Bulltrout (although not intentionally), and Browns all in the same day. It is as close to heaven as I’ve been here on earth, speaking as a fisherman, of course.

We arrive at Don’s place about 20 minutes later and he points me to an access point almost 200 yards from his property. “I’m going to go get the boat and hook it up and I’ll be back in about an hour.” He smiles at me then gets into his truck and in a cloud of dust motors off. Then I just stand there and listen to the music of the River.

The Big Blackfoot is an incredible River and arguably one of the most scenic in the state. Its headwaters are right between Rogers and Stemple Pass on the Continental Divide. From there it tumbles and flows wildly and playfull like a little child over boulders, digging out pocket water and flowing crystal clear as it hits the valley floor. Flowing through canyons, it finally reaches civilization in Milltown where it meets up with the Clark Fork of the Columbia river. Its native species of fish is the Bull Trout. But the habitat has been damaged because of dams and the like and the populations of this aggressive member of the Char family have dwindled putting it on Endangered Species list. As fry, this salmonid feeds on insects and as they mature their interests quickly move to other fish, and they often get them. They grow to enormous sizes and can top the scales sometimes in the 40 lb. range. Frighteningly beautiful fish.

At riverside I again pause to scout out where and how I’m going to fish. Being October, the water is a little and low, but it is clear and cold. I see a seam that look’s promising out almost 10 yards away from me. I quickly tie on a tan Elk Hair Caddis and cast up from the seam and let the fly approach as quietly as possible.

Sometimes you get a connection that is just right. Your line lays out perfectly, the fly lands delicately and the trout simply sips and that’s it. It doesn’t get anymore complicated than that. I watched my EHC get taken. I lifted my rod and set the hook. It wasn’t dramatic. It was a gentle sip and the fight was on.

My rod almost immediately bent over double as I saw the fish out about twenty yards when it made its first run. My heart started pounding and the adrenaline started running. My Trout Fisher Training took over. Turn the rod to 45 degrees. Tire it out gently. Don’t horse it. Play the fish. It’s a living thing. That’s it, let it take another run. After a few minutes I had brought to hand a beautiful Cutt. Gently I held it in the water and knew I had to get a picture. My heart was still racing and my hands were shaking. It was like taking liquid gold from the water. With the fish still close I walked over the the bank and quickly took a picture and released it back into the water to grow even bigger. Boy was I grinning. The fish measured out around 20 inches. It was the biggest fish I had taken to date. The picture I had taken turned out OK. I was so excited that in the shot I had cropped the tail off. I didn’t know if I wanted to fish anymore. It was, quite honestly, a holy moment. The sun was shining through the Douglas Firs and the water seemed to be singing again, and I felt like I was part of something really beautiful and fleeting all at the same time.

I did cast my line in the water again. I caught six more fish, all ‘Bows, and they averaged around 14 inches and bigger. That almost sounds like it became boring. It wasn’t, really. It was just that good of a day.

As promised Don did come back about an hour later. He looked at me, smiling. “Good spot, isn’t it?

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