COL Big Sky, bigger trout

Rochester anglers find slice of heaven in Montana

By Wayne Bartz

CRAIG, MONT. -- Thousands of bugs covered the water, a sight a fly angler lives for. Forty feet in front of me, at least 20 large trout were feeding, heads coming out of the water in a steady, rippling rhythm. I picked out what I thought was the largest of the bunch and made a cast.

Nothing happened. Picking up the line, I cast again, and again, and again. The trout completely ignored what I thought was some great casting.

After I don't know how many casts, my fly disappeared and I set the hook.


And they call this working?

Well, maybe not in the normal sense of the word, but work, in theory, is what brought me to Craig, Mont.

Teacher's dream

I had driven south from Great Falls, Mont., on I-15, through an unremarkable, grey-and brown landscape. The hazy outline of the Big Belt Mountains loomed on the horizon for a while before the object of my journey appeared: The clear blue waters of the Missouri River.

The Missouri is a tail-water fishery that holds trout because of the flow of cold water from the bottom of Holter Lake, which is formed by a dam on the river. I have fished this water for 10 years and have come to know and love it as much as the trout streams I fish around here.

This time, I had come to help instruct in a fly-fishing school put on by Midwest Fly Fishing magazine. The school this year didn't have as many students enrolled as it has in the past, so I had plenty of opportunity to wet a line myself and enjoy the hospitality in Craig, a town nestled on the banks of the Missouri just a few miles from Holter Lake.

Two former Rochester residents and Mayo High School graduates, Chris Goodman and Jerry Lappier, own and operate Missouri River Trout Shop and Lodge in Craig. Goodman, a geology major in college, came to Montana to do mining exploration and decided to try fishing the Missouri.

Not having much luck the first few times, he met up with Pat Elam, a famous guide and fly tier from the area. They developed a friendship and in 1989 purchased an old mercantile store that had been built in 1887.


They opened a fly shop, simply because the area needed one. Goodman and Lappier had been friends since high school, and in 1990 Lappier became a partner in the shop. Pat Elam died in the early '90s, and Goodman and Lappier became equal partners in the business.

The first time I saw their fly shop was in 1990, when they just sold a few flies and had some guides working out of the shop.

How things have changed today. The lodge has seven guest rooms that are almost always full during the fishing season. There is a restaurant that stays open as long as anglers keep coming off the river at night, and more important, there's a fly shop that offers all of the equipment one needs to fish the river. Included among the shops wares are flies tied locally by Lappier's wife and the various guides who work out of the shop.

It's a small world

There seems to be something that draws people from the Rochester area to Montana and the Missouri River. It might be the mountains, the lure of the Old West, the chance to catch large trout, or a reason to escape the heat and humidity of a Midwest July.

One afternoon while loitering in the fly shop, something all fly fishermen will understand, I heard my name called out and saw Charlie Cohn, also from Rochester. He was in the area, guiding for three days. There were also at least two other people from Rochester fishing the river at the same time, and I know of at least four or five other people who fish the Missouri on a regular basis. My guess is there are many more.

Still, the Missouri River isn't easy. The first time someone from this area sees it, they look at it and wonder, "How in heck am I going to fish this?" It is so different from the streams we have around here. Instead of well-defined runs and riffles, the Missouri is flat in the upper section where most people fish, with no distinguishing features at all.

In this fly-fishing school, the first things taught are casting, knots and fly patterns, the basic stuff taught in all such schools.


On the Missouri, however, reading the water is different. On a featureless river such as this, nymph fishing isn't easy. Therefore, dry-fly fishing is what the Missouri is all about.

Trout in this river like to pod together when they feed. From a distance it can look like there is a riffle, but when you get closer, you see that the disturbance is the heads of feeding fish. It is a sight that makes any angler's heart pound.

The abundance of fish, however, can be a problem. When a person is fishing this river for the first time, the tendency is to "flock shoot," to just get the fly out there and hope for a hit.

This is a great way not to catch fish. Just like a hunter shooting at a flock of ducks or a covey of quail, the angler must pick out one target and try to present the fly to it.

Casting accuracy is always important when fly-fishing, but seems to be even more important on the Missouri. When the trout are feeding on the surface, there are so many bugs coming down the river that trout don't have to move more than an inch to get all of the food they need.

The Missouri River is an insect factory; there are incredible numbers of bugs hatching. The most prolific at this time of year are the tricos. These are small, size 20 and 22 bugs that hatch in numbers that boggle the mind. When you are among them, they can be as thick as snow during a blizzard. When this happens, the fishing is both demanding and spectacular.

The bad news

No matter how pristine western trout rivers seem to be, there are some problems. While fishing the Missouri in July, I experienced some of the most crowed conditions I have seen. Every year more people are fishing the Missouri, especially in July and August.


Another problem, whirling disease, has reared its ugly head on the Missouri. This disease is carried by a parasite that affects young rainbow and cutthroat trout. Brown trout seem to be immune, probably because they, like the parasite itself, came from Europe and have developed a resistance to it.

The parasite invades the cartilage of small trout and causes them to swim in circles, which is where the disease got its name. The trout die quickly after being infected.

Montana also is in the third year of a drought that has lowered water levels on most rivers. Lower water means increased water temperatures, which can stress trout.

Some rivers have been closed at different times in the past few years to protect fish, and others have had some restrictions placed on them. The Missouri is running low right now, lower than I have ever seen it, yet the fishing remains good.

An epic fight

Crowds, whirling disease and drought, however, were the furthest things from my mind when I felt the power of a big fish go pulsing through the rod. Hooking a rainbow in the Missouri is like being attached to a small car.

One rainbow in particular seemed to show no respect at all. Line screamed from my reel, the drag set light to protect the small tippet the fly was tied to. I noticed the white line of my backing starting to go through the guides and I yelled out, "I'm in my backing," the first and only time this happened on this trip. I wanted everyone within hearing distance to know it.

The fish jumped a few times on its run downstream, but the drag of the flyreel and the pressure of 90 feet of fly line wore it down. I pumped on the rod and cranked on the reel, slowly bringing the trout up against the current.


After a few minutes it came close enough that I unhooked my net. The fish made one more run, as Missouri trout are apt to do, then quietly came in. It was a thick-bodied 18-incher, one of the largest of the trip.

Missouri River rainbows are known for their fighting ability. This one, like many that came before and after it, lived up to that reputation.

Bartz is a Rochester angler and a field editor for Midwest Fly-fishing Magazine.

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