Two Fishbrainers head to the Beaverhead River in Montana to fish for brown trout on the fly and regain what it means to be an adventurous angler.
Montana used to be a playground we explored every weekend. We dry fly fished countless clear mountain creeks for 12 inch brook trout and casted for cutthroats in the historic big rivers.
We spent nights sleeping on river banks and above the treeline, underneath the endless starscape you can only find in the mountains of Montana.
Then life slowed down and sped up simultaneously. Our exploratory trips are now far closer to home and fishing is spent with the weight of a toddler on our back. We make casts in between snack breaks and success is judged on just getting out and not catching a fish.
Fishbrain’s Jack Mckinney and I used to be cool and now we are dads.
Every once in a while, though, our kids are at daycare and our wives pick up our slack for one day. Every once in a while, a river is explored and fishing goes back to being about the fish.
Rain fell on the windshield just as we dropped out of the pine forests and into the sagebrush of the Big Hole Valley. Rain clouds hung ominously over the snow covered peaks, but our hopes stayed high for good weather, with just under 100 miles to go.
I’d driven past Beaverhead River for years, always admiring its snake-like bends, deep slow seams and overhanging brush. But I’d never got the chance to fish it. It’s an almost legendary streamer river for fly anglers with brown trout the size of alligators, or so I’d been led to believe.
We got our first glimpse of the Beaverhead as we rolled into the town of Dillon. Compared to the large and famous rivers in Montana, like the Missouri and Blackfoot, the Beaverhead looks more like an irrigation ditch. It’s narrow and winding, constantly double backing on itself.
We met our guide for the day and good friend, Keith in the parking lot of the local fly shop and headed toward the put in. The Beaverhead, like many other rivers in the area, is dammed for agriculture use and the base of the dam was our launch point.
The Beaverhead’s water was slow and clear. Keith took to the oars of his drift boat, I managed the bow and Jack the stern. The water was cold. Much colder than last year at the same time.
Last year, several rivers including the Big Hole, Ruby and Jefferson suffered heavy trout losses due to a combination of exceptional summer heat and heavy agricultural use of river water The die off forced Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to enact emergency rules on the river. The regulations changed the Beaverhead to catch and release only, restricting the rivers to single hooks and artificial baits only and a seven month closure to protect post spawn trout.
The wet spring and low temps made for favorable conditions early on this year, but the heat of summer and heavy irrigation use were still looming in the future.
The day we set adrift, the Beaverhead was only open for around a week.
We put on close to noon to try and avoid any guide boats that put on earlier and, despite the occasional bank angler, we had the river to ourselves.
From the bow I could see some of the largest trout I’d ever witnessed dart from the boat through the blue water. For all the trout we saw, however, the morning proved frustrating as trout after trout chased our streamers, but never committed to a full bite.
The midday sun wasn't doing us any favors with weary fish, but we finally found relief from an incoming rain cloud. Jack finally set the hook, as if on cue with the incoming shade. He held his rod high as the tip bent in half and soon we boated our first brown of the day. The water highlighted the dark, almost golden, color of the fish along with the telltale red spots.
Every angler knows the first fish of the day is the most important and we celebrated by pulling on rain jackets as the clouds that led to our first fish proceeded to open into a full rain. We couldn’t help but grin as the rainstorm brought back memories of past adventures and battles with the elements on mountain peaks, other rivers and vast Montana prairies.
In traditional spring fashion in Montana, the storm was short lived and we were back drifting through the rolling sage brush on either side of the river and casting streamers tightly to the bank.
The regulated clear water from the dam, eventually met with an incoming creek that was flooded from recent rain storms and snow melt and the blue waters turned to a less translucent coloring. The increased flow picked up speed and took us into the only whitewater of the day as the bow smashed into a wave spilling a bucket of water into the bottom of the drift boat. Keith set the anchor, pulled out a water pump and got to work draining the boat turned bathtub.
The drift boat wandered down the river, weaving through overhanging trees and double backing through horseshoe bends. The fish were scarce and the sun began setting on our day of river exploration with the next one nowhere in sight.
Keith opened his streamer box which overflowed with fur and feathers from pinks to blues to olive greens. We changed streamer patterns and colors frantically looking for the perfect combination. Keith tied on pattern after pattern with guide fingers that ran on auto pilot.
The sun sank lower as we casted as fast as possible into the brush banks. We furiously stripped our lines in furiously as if every river bend was our last.
Day gives way to dusk when one of Jack’s casts was met with an explosion of water as soon as it landed. The massive brown missed the fly, but the evening bite was on. As if a switch was flipped on, every cast that landed under an overhanging juniper was met with an aggressive take and splashing water.
I land my fly under one such juniper and with a splash and a hook set my rod doubles over. My first fish of the day came with only minutes left, but the 17 inch brown is everything I have ever dreamed.
We each hook and land at least one more fish before the boat rounds a bend and gently floats under a bridge and to our take out. The sound of speeding cars echoe under the bridge highlighting the end of a river day and the beginning of our journey back to responsibility and fatherhood.
We load the boat and break down rods, reels, fly boxes and waders, stowing them into the back of our trucks. We say goodbye to Keith, then Jack and I start the long drive back to the other side of the mountains, back to the days when fishing is about family and just getting out.
For the three hour ride home, though, we relive the best moments of the day and hang onto the fleeting feeling of being young, die hard anglers again.
Jack drops me off around 11 pm. I sneak into the house, hang up all my gear and tip toe into my two year old son’s room to check on him in his crib. I may not be a young die hard angler when I wake up the next morning, but I will be a fishing father and it's just as good, if not better.
Now let's go fishing. We'll bring our kids.
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