Montana Marathon

As we all know, 2020 was a tough year.  When my Brother Corey sent me a message asking if I’d join him in Montana for some fishing in August, there was no way I was going to turn him down.  Corey had been out there a few times hiking and fishing with his girlfriend, and you can find some of his Expedition reports on the website.  I really looked forward to seeing some of these opportunities that he’s found, but also was excited to go to a few areas where Corey had not been so we could explore them for the first time.

We left Minneapolis early on Saturday morning, and drove straight through to Billings, MT where we stopped at Cabela’s to procure our licenses.  The friendly lady helping us noticed we were from Minnesota and of course told us we should go fish in Ft Peck reservoir, where the walleyes are biting good right now.  Yes, there are lots of walleyes in Minnesota.  Right, we drove out here to fish walleyes.  Good one.  Our sights were set solely on salmonids this trip, and if everything went right I could add three to my lifelist.

After reaching our first area we found a pretty busy pay campground, but it was close to a spot we wanted to fish and it was already getting dark so we claimed the only vacant site. We quickly left camp and the first spot we stopped at was one Corey had fished a couple times in the past and found success.  A small mountain lake funnels down into an outlet here and the current gradually increases.  I believe Corey’s first mountain whitefish was caught here, and that is exactly what I was looking for.

Click on photos to enlarge. 

This was a gorgeous spot.  As I rigged up my 4 wt flyrod, my eyes were glued to a nice deep slot on the other side of a large mid-stream boulder.  It seems like mid-stream boulders are a good spot to try just about anywhere.  Though the evening light was fading, I swear I could see dark shapes milling around in the current.  A few small fish were rising to a late evening spinner fall here as well.  I finished tying on a small pink squirrel nymph and waded into the outlet carefully so I wouldn’t spook the fish.  Getting closer, I now saw clearly four good fish hanging in that current slot and began drifting my fly through it.  First came a small rainbow trout, then I got just the right drift and hooked a bigger fish.  It twisted in the current and sloshed – whitefish!  Bringing it into the rocky shallows, the fish took a few fast charges through the rocks and back into the deeper run.  I almost had him in my net, then the fish took one last run and the hook pulled out.  

Corey had caught a couple of rainbows below me, and now set hooks into a whitefish.  He played it well and netted the good-sized fish.  

I continued to fish as darkness fell, and soon hooked up again.  This time the small hook held and my first ever mountain whitefish was in the net – what a cool fish and I was happy to catch a fairly sizable one!

It was really getting dark now, but Corey hooked another big whitefish.  These fish impressed me with their fight, and this one in particular gave Corey a great battle.  He landed it, though, and we snapped a photo in the dark.

 

Nighthawks were swooping around us on the river as we soaked up the success – it was a great session over the last 45 minutes before dark.  We headed back to camp to set up the tents, eat smoked pork sandwiches and get some rest before traveling to a new area.

In the morning, we decided to head for the West Boulder valley.  

There was a campground there at the end of the road just before the Trailhead, and we planned to stay a few days.  By the time we arrived and set up camp, it was getting pretty hot so Corey found some shade to relax and I tested the waters around camp.  Not much was doing in the heat of the day, but I did catch a couple small browns under a footbridge that marks the upstream boundary.  Above there the river runs through a private ranch for a mile or so, then the National Forest lands begin and it is our public Wilderness for countless miles.

    

I worked downstream toward camp a bit and found a little sunny riffle and spotted some fish holding.  I drifted a small nymph there and caught three mountain whitefish.  They were actively attacking my little pink squirrel in the quick shallow water.

The next morning we planned to hike up from the trailhead a few miles, looking to find some cutthroat trout in this section of the West Boulder.  Just as were beginning our hike, I snapped a photo of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness sign.  Corey took a photo of me standing next to the sign, then he said, “There’s a bear”.  

Sure enough, a grizzly was coming out of the woods into a clear spot about 30 yards away.  The bear quickly noticed us and scrambled off, moving through thick cover.  A few seconds later we saw it climbing a steep bank on the opposite side of the river, meaning the bear crossed it to get away.  My brother and I usually see a grizzly when we venture into the mountains, it seems.  You can actually see a small blur of Grizzly in the photo above, just inside the woods on the right side.

After we crossed a footbridge, the hike was all through a burned-off area, meaning there was no shade.  It was very hot and we were feeling it, but after 3 miles we came to the lower Meadows section where a few tall pine trees provided shade.  Here the terrain flattened out into a wide mountain pass and the stream also widened and became calm.  

We made some casts here, but saw no fish around.  With how fast and turbulent the river has been everywhere else, it was weird to see it so calm.  A few large trout were spotted just out of casting range, then it became marshy.  We followed a path that circumvented the boggy riverbank hoping to catch up with it in a few hundred yards, but instead it took us above the Meadows to where the fast water returns.  We really wanted to explore the Meadows more, but didn't want to backtrack and the river upstream was inviting.

At this point we picked a route and bushwhacked off the trail down to the river.  We found a fishable spot just above a logjam, and I began casting a big Wulff dry fly.  Corey found a little spot upstream of me, and began casting as well.  After a few drifts I let the fly skate across the tail of the run along the logjam and a fish slashed at the fly.  Fish on!  Soon after I was admiring my first-ever Cutthroat trout.  It wasn’t a huge fish, but it appeared to be a pure strain native cutt.  This would be the Yellowstone subspecies.

 
Soon after, Corey landed one of his own. 

We decided to hit the trail again, heading further up the valley.  We hiked a few more miles, stopping briefly to filter water at a mountain stream twice.  The trail was high above the river for the most part, and when it came close the water was very turbulent, cascading through boulders.  

     

It was tough to find an obvious spot to fish, so we kept hiking.  The trail got steeper, and the scenery was fantastic.  

Eventually we decided it was time to head back downstream and fish a few spots along the way then get back to camp before dark.  At the first spot, fast water came against a rock wall and a little current seam formed just down from it.  Corey caught a nice rainbow-cutthroat hybrid here, then a more pure cutt.  I tried a few drifts here, and I also caught a hybrid.

      
These were some cool-looking fish, and even though they represent a threat to the pure strain natives found here, the fish themselves are no slouch.

We found ourselves at a spot where the trail passes 100’ above the river, with a rockslide sloping down to the water.  It was tasty looking water down there, as the river plunged down through huge boulders into a slick, glassy run.  We began the descent, carefully making our way down and trying to avoid a costly mistake like a broken ankle or something.  Once at the river, Corey crawled into a fishable spot below the plunge and I worked into a tricky spot in the tailout.

 Corey let out a whoop right away and was into a good fish.  With downed trees and debris between us, I couldn’t see anything but he caught a nice cutthroat.  Corey had seen the fish swimming right between two logs near shore, and flipped his fly in there.  The fish took, and fought hard but somehow he was able to hand-line the trout into the net underneath the logs to land a nice cutthroat.  Sounds crazy I know, ask him about it some time.  This was the best Cutthroat of our trip.

 

Meanwhile I caught a small rainbow and a small brown.  By now we had learned that in these brief fishable spots between the tumbling water, casting a big buoyant dry fly was the ticket.  After tying on a sz 10 Adams Wulff I missed a couple rises, then a nice fish took the fly solidly and upon feeling the hook, he screamed across the river and held against a rock wall on the far bank.  After a great fight where the fish almost took me downstream into rapids, I managed to land a beefy brown trout of around 16”.  What a rush on the 4 weight!

With no more rises to our flies, I switched up to a large Stimulator fly.  My first drift over the heart of the run was met with a rise and splash from a large cutthroat- his colors were easily seen by both myself and Corey.  Unfortunately the hook didn’t hold though, and I missed my best chance at a larger Cutt.

 

This was our last fishing attempt on the West Boulder.  With the cooling long shadows of evening we hiked our way back South past the lower Meadows where the river was flanked by mountain cave entrances and finally returned to the campsite with sore feet right around dark.  We had hiked about 13 miles today.  Over a campfire and cold beer, we discussed our options for the upcoming days.  The mountains nearby held a mystery lake far off the beaten path which had promise of large Golden trout, but it would be a hellish march off trail.  The lake was last surveyed 2 decades ago.  It was decided that instead we would break camp in the morning and travel to a different valley to hike up a mountain in search of Golden trout in a more favorable location.  

Just before dark the next day we found ourselves at a campsite near the Trailhead for the Golden Trout lake, and it was raining steadily.  We had our backpacks packed fairly well for spending the next couple days on the mountain, and unpacking to camp in the rain would mean wet gear.  Instead of setting up the tents, we just slept in the car.  Our dinner was smoked chicken legs and Pringles tonight.  

Early in the morning we began the hike.  It would be around a 3000’ elevation gain over roughly 6 miles to the lake. The path went steadily uphill for the first half mile, a tough start but at least the sky was overcast and misting instead of hot sun beating on us like it had been.  Soon the trail began to switchback up the mountain and we zig-zagged our way toward the top.  

   

The switchbacks were lined with ripe huckleberries, and as we stopped for berry breaks it was cool to see the sheer drop down the mountain below us that we had already traversed.  

    

    

After the switchbacks the trail kept getting more rugged and climbed steadily upward.  We took a lot of breaks to hydrate and eat some trail food to keep us energized.

       

When we finally got close to the top at roughly 9400' elevation, there were no trees and it was a strangely barren dome.  I have never been this high before.  Hikers have placed a string of rock cairns up here to help find your way in fog or darkness.  

    

After dropping over the other side, we descended for a ways then climbed again toward the final approach to the lake.

  

My first glimpse of the lake was awe-inspiring.

 

There were tall mountain spires towering over the Southern end, which fell into a snowy bowl that the lake got its water from. The surface was calm and this side of the lake showed a beautiful shallow shelf, rimmed on the shoreline with large boulders and twisted, low-growing white bark pines.  We scrambled down a rocky path to the shore and dropped our heavy packs, right away seeing fish rising to insects.

The fish were taking tiny midges off the surface and could sometimes be seen cruising in the vodka-clear water near shore.  This was one situation that we were not very prepared for, having armed ourselves with sinking scuds and other wet flies and not anticipating a hatch way up here.  The tiny midges required a sz 20 or smaller fly, and everywhere else in Montana we had been using 10s with success.  Thankfully Corey and I had a few halfway decent midge impersonators tucked into the corners of our flyboxes.  I found a few sz 20 BWO duns, and Corey found a few small flying ants.

There were a good amount of fish here rising, and after about 5 minutes Corey hooked up.  Even though we knew Golden Trout were the only fish present in this lake, just seeing the flash of amazingly bright colors as the fish jumped was exhilarating.  He landed the fish and we both admired the beautiful creature for a second before sending it back.  

Success!  Last time Corey had trekked to this lake he was blown out by a bad storm, so this return was another chance for him, and he got his lifelist addition right away this time.

 
This lake is known for its very pure strain Goldens.  In fact, the State of Montana has for a long time gathered spawn from this lake to stock other waters in the surrounding states.

I didn’t find the instant success that my brother did, however.  This was my first time fishing an alpine lake for trout, and it wasn’t as automatic as you sometimes hear about.  No fish wanted my fly, and I struggled to place it in the path of a fish because they were cruising in erratic fashion.  Corey then caught another fish, a little 6 incher.  I reeled in and dried my little fly off really well, then placed a long cast to an area trout had been commonly rising out where you couldn’t see into the water.  

I let the fly sit for a minute, then waited another few minutes.  The little baetis pattern rode true on the surface.  I stared intently at the tiny speck of my fly, and in my periphery saw rises moving in from the side.  Suddenly my fly was replaced with a light dimple, and I set the hook – fish on.  The trout fought hard for its size, making quick runs back out to deep water.  When my net slid under the trout’s fire-red belly, I let out a whoop for my latest lifelist addition.

Onchorynchus aguabonita!  This was my 18th species of Salmonid.

The story goes that this lake was first stocked when a train carrying Kern river golden trout fry from California to the East coast broke down and the trout would die if not refrigerated.  So an intrepid railway employ hauled the trout fry in milk jugs up to the nearest Alpine lake which happened to be this one.  Any way you look at it, this would have been an arduous task with a climb of over 3000’ elevation and 6 miles on the foot.  The golden trout have thrived there ever since without interruption, and in fact are considered by some more pure than Kern river fish.

After this we set up camp right away in case the weather turned on us.  

We fished some more but the only fish we caught took a scud that I fished deep and slow. This Golden was another unique work of art.

     

We fished for a couple hours before thunderheads rolled in and we were forced off the lake.  Back at our campsite sheltered by the rock wall I put my raingear on in hopes that the storm would soon pass and we could cook the 2 trout we kept for Supper, while Corey crawled into his tentknowing that the rain would likely get worse.

 

The storm was powerful but not a serious threat, and I stretched out on a huge rock to enjoy the show for an hour or so.   The fast-moving thunderheads moved right across our mountain camp.  Eventually it really started pouring and then I crawled into the tent for a late jerky and dried cherry dinner before sleeping.

    
Early the next morning we crawled out of the tents and got to fishing right away.  

I caught 2 trout fishing with an orange scud, the larger one had a brilliant red belly.

However, we spent the rest of the morning casting to rising fish and found no success.  Some opportunities were missed, but the trout just got plain finicky under the bright sun and we couldn’t fool them.  Here, Corey casts to a riser atop a huge boulder along the shore.

Video of a nice Golden Trout cruising and rising to midges - 

 

Another storm was moving in, so we had to get off the mountain.  Before we left, we had an early lunch of boiled trout and vegetables to give us energy for our hike down.

 

I need to say this was the coolest place I have ever camped, so it was tough to leave.  Another day here would have been awesome.

The hike back down the mountain started out great as we were acclimated to the altitude and running strong.  After crossing the bald and barren crest and coming down the other side, my feet started to hurt.  I was wearing very light off-trail running shoes and during the ascent they worked well for keeping the weight balanced on my toes and making long strides uphill.  Now the 50 pound pack bore down hard on my feet with little support.  Hiking up a mountain is easier than coming back down for me I guess, but I managed.

Taking our time, and scavenging many berries, we made it down the slopes and switchbacks with no issues other than our dogs were barking.  Back at the vehicle we made a bunch of groans and relieved sounds as we stretched, shed the packs and sweaty clothing and let our feet breathe.  Corey cranked the air conditioning and he said he knew a great place to have a beer and a burger.  An hour or so later we sat in a chilly taproom enjoying local IPAs and huge cheeseburgers while we went through some photos and recanted this mountain adventure.  After six days of camp food it was an incredible meal.  

We had one last full day to spend in Montana, so plans were hatched to take full advantage.   One of the really cool things about South-central Montana is the availability of free camping right around the streams.  Lots of angling accesses can be found with campsites, plus Wilderness areas are available for anyone to use.  It’s a great situation for anyone traveling and fishing.  Tonight we decided to camp on a Wilderness area not far from town, 10 miles up along the West Fork.  We got there just before dark.

Great view from the outhouse on the West Fork.

The next morning, we rose early and headed for a new creek valley.  Let’s have some fun with some rainbows and browns.  Corey had many waypoints marked to explore along our chosen stream, and we just started hitting them.  Our plan was to find some lower gradient water here, some smooth wadable runs and maybe a hatch would come off.  

Today became noticeably hot real quick, even after the heat we’d seen so far.  We checked a few spots and they looked pretty good, but not many fish were around. 

Finally we found a small access tucked away back in the woods and gave it a look.  There was some nice water here, the most approachable from a wading and fish-holding perspective that we’d seen all week.  It was reminiscent of my home streams in the Driftless - mellow, not the tumbling mountain torrents we had been fishing.  A few brooks, browns and ‘bows were caught as we explored upstream, nothing spectacular but good action.

The river here dropped over a series of shelves, each shelf with multiple channels coming off.  These channels and shelves combined for some interesting water features.  Above this area, we came to a beautiful deep run that ran along some downed jackpine.  We each plucked a couple good rainbows here on caddisflies and then backed off, intending to return soon and fish it hard.

    

 We decided to go back and make camp before the evening’s fishing, because there was only one spot back in some tall grass to set up tents and we didn’t want to risk somebody beating us to it.  We had a very good feeling about the run that we found, and with a few PED mayflies and caddisflies fluttering around already this afternoon a good evening’s fishing was in store for us.  We knew it.

Right when we started getting the tents and gear out, a truck pulled up and a Dad and his 3 sons hopped out with vests on and flyrods ready.  They asked how fishing was and even though we lied to their face saying there were no fish here they headed to the river trail anyway.  Driving a beat-up truck with Montana license plates, it looked like they probably knew what they were doing and damn it our last evening depended on that fish-filled run upstream!

I looked at Corey and said, “I’ll go hold the water.  Just bring a couple beers out when you come.”  See, Corey and I had found our way to the river when we first got here without knowing about the river trail.  We only saw that on the way back. Because I knew a very quick shortcut down to our spot, I grabbed my fishing essentials and fairly sprinted across two dry creek beds, some trailer’s back yard and a swamp before arriving at the riverbank.  I didn’t see anybody around at first, but then down around a bend I caught a glimpse of the Dad.  He saw me, I saw him, so I made a long serious cast downstream through the tailout between us and he turned to walk back downstream.  I caught a brookie on that cast.


I fished for an hour or so around the stepped area I mentioned earlier while Corey set up camp and  found tricky currents and trout lying underneath bankside brush in the hot afternoon sun.  I caught a handful of trout, nothing over a foot but had a blast dissecting some very cool water. There were more and more evening duns hatching, and swinging a sulfur imitation was the ticket. I made sure to stay below the run we intended to fish and after a while Corey came down and met me with a cold beer.

Shadows were starting to grow long, and we made our way upstream.  The next couple of hours were very fun, as Corey and I took turns catching rainbow trout from this deep run along the fallen jackpines.

 
With a multi-hatch going on there were two riseforms occurring, some trout keyed on mayfly emergers with their snouts barely bulging the surface and others slashing violently at fluttering caddisflies.  I chose to target the mayfly-eaters with a mayfly klinkhammer, and Corey would then step in with a curveball caddis.  The rainbows were 12-16”, and took to the air often.  This evening of fighting bows with my brother will not soon be forgotten.

Here was my largest, caught on a size 16 mayfly klinkhammer.

 

Corey caught the largest rainbow of the trip.

This whole expedition was an awesome experience, and I can’t wait to get back to the mountains for some more adventure!  Corey and I were extremely mobile and camped with minimal gear, yet we didn’t feel like we were missing anything (except midges).  Only once did we spend multiple nights at a camp, so we got to see a whole lot of country but a few more days would have been sweet.  Just hiking in the mountains was fantastic, and the fishing was an added bonus.  A few weeks would be even sweeter.
 

Species List:

Comments

TonyS's picture

Sounds like an awesome trip, congrats on the cool fish!

Outdoors4life's picture

I love that you guys still get out on trips together.  Thanks for sharing the trip with everyone.

It is all perspective!

Acer Home Inspections

FishingPals4Life's picture

That's really awesome, what an amazing trip you guys had!  I'd like to do that someday with my brother, my dad and grandpa have snowmobiled up there, but I've never gotten a chance to go yet.  Congrats on the amazing lifers and a cool adventure of a trip!

BradleyR's picture

Thanks for sharing your adventure, sounds like it was a great trip! Thos Golden Trout are just stunning!

Cast_and_Blast's picture

Them are some beautiful Goldens. Looks like a nice trip. 

SDfisher's picture

A great trip!  Thanks for sharing and keep it up!  

Marc Ohms

Treble Hook's picture

What a beautiful bunch of fish! One of my goals is to hike up to a mountain lake this summer and catch one or a few! I've been fascinated by them for quite some time after seeing pictures of super colored up Goldens. Looks like you guys had a blast!