cline upper ruby 1

cline upper ruby 1Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT
After weeks of big river fishing with streamers, I needed a break. So on a cool Tuesday morning in July I set off early for the headwaters of Stinking Water River (better known today as the Ruby River) in southwest Montana. The Ruby flows some 76 miles from its origins on the flanks of the Gravelly and Snowcrest Ranges to its confluence with the Beaverhead near Twin Bridges, Montana. Nestled in the valley between the two 10,000 foot mountain ranges, the main stem of the Ruby starts at a modest 6800 feet just north of the remote Centennial Valley in a lovely, willow filled meadow. Dozens of small streams flow into the Ruby near its headwaters as it grows on its journey down the Ruby valley. The Ruby got its name in 1877 for the prolific garnet finds in the valley.

cline upper ruby 3As I left the main highway at Alder, Montana having just passed through Virginia City, my destination was a mere 39 miles south along the Ruby River road. Once past Ruby Reservoir, completed in 1938 and just a few miles south of Alder, the road turns to gravel. Lightly travelled, the road serves mainly the ranchers growing cattle and hay in the valley. Most of the upper Ruby in the valley offers very limited access because of private land and few road crossings. However, once you reach the National Forest boundary, near Vigilante Station, access become much easier. The upper Ruby is well known for excellent trout fishing, especially for well healed anglers frequenting the few luxurious and expensive guest ranches in the upper valley. But I was headed for free, public water to catch a few rainbow/cutthroat trout hybrids and possibly a few grayling. Before prolific stocking of rainbow and brown trout in Montana began at the end of the 19th century, west slope cutthroat trout and Montana Arctic grayling were the native fish in the Ruby. Pure cutthroats are gone and the grayling were extirpated from the river sometime in the early 20th century. Today, Montana Fish and Game in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service have re-established a small grayling population in the upper Ruby. I was hoping to tangle with one on this day.

cline upper ruby 2As I reached one of my favorite sections, just a few miles from the river’s origin as the sun was peeking over the Gravelly Range, my anticipation grew. This is classic, small stream dry fly water. Some sections are rocky with a moderate gradient, while others are deep and slow.

Fish here are hungry, not terribly large, but in the thin water, they can be especially wary. A #10 stimulator, elk hair caddis, foam ants or hoppers will generally draw strikes from aggressive fish. Today I brought one of my three weight fiberglass rods to maximize the enjoyment of catching 8-12” cutbows in small water.

cline upper ruby 4The headwaters of the upper Ruby will always surprise you with a few really nice fish. I know of friends that have landed fish over 16” from some of the deeper meadow runs. My largest fish of the day was a fat 12 incher that came early on a stimulator. Fun stuff on three weight glass. Unfortunately, no grayling came to hand.

I fished completely alone for about five hours, covering a couple of miles of meandering stream. The catching, as they say, was good. But catching feisty trout is merely a secondary reward when you fish the headwaters of the Ruby. The beauty, remoteness and grandeur of southwest Montana are the real reward.


  1. Mike Cline has done a very well written and detailed account of the river, Montana, equipment used and the personality of the trout to catch. He is a skilled writer and should be a regular feature in many publications related to fly fishing. I really enjoyed this piece.

  2. I too greatly enjoyed this piece Mike. I appreciate all your writing, for that matter. The photos you provided of the Ruby Valley were well chosen as well.

    > about five hours, covering a couple of miles of meandering stream

    You certainly seem to cover a lot of ground in a few hours’ time…is that because in this case the river is shallow overall and the better fish-holding holes are spaced out a bit? I tend to only get to a couple of likely spots in that amount of time, but I’m always curious about what “movin’ on” pace works for other anglers.

    I do like the shallow riffle-dominated streams, I have to admit. Anyway thanks for sharing what sounds like a great morning.

    – Mike Vorhis

    1. Mike

      “You certainly seem to cover a lot of ground in a few hours’ time…is that because in this case the river is shallow overall and the better fish-holding holes are spaced out a bit? I tend to only get to a couple of likely spots in that amount of time, but I’m always curious about what “movin’ on” pace works for other anglers.”

      A great question. The answer to which is multi-faceted. Even though I am now approaching 67 years of age, my mother told me that I went from lying around as baby at age 8 months, got up and started walking, completely skipping the crawling stage. From a personality standpoint I consider myself somewhat restless on the river, always have been. A second factor is the success I’ve had applying this piece of advice laid out in the 1959 book I mentioned in my intro.

      “Be constantly on the lookout for such second-best opportunities. You must find them if you want to do better than average. Many other anglers are making the obvious approaches, fishing the obvious hides. What you want in heavily-fished streams is the less-obvious setup. Be a piscatorial rebel who refuses to follow the flock. It pays off.”

      A third factor is that I really embrace the “Cover the Water” approach to fishing rivers. This Phil Monahan piece epitomizes that approach:
      On the upper Ruby, the water is so thin and clear by mid summer that you only get one shot at each lie. If you don’t get a rise or hookup, you “Move On” as you say. It significantly raises the probability of catching more fish by the end of the day.

      1. Thanks Mike. In particular I like your “seek out the second best spots” philosophy–fish the “water less hassled,” so to speak. On my usual stream, I tend to wade past the line where I see spinning lures hanging from trees, knowing that the water beyond is not “dragged” so much by treble hooks. 🙂

        And I know what you mean about personality having an impact; I have two friends who learned hang gliding together, then skiing together. One was patient and cautious by nature, the other far more prone to charging in. The patient one became an extraordinary cross-country pilot while the bold one spent years learning the required sense of calm; but the bold one excelled from the outset at skiing while the patient one progressed much more cautiously.

        Myself, I was always more like the bold one, and many was the day I flew myself to the ground a paltry dozen miles out because I did not wait for a breath of lift. Strangely though, on the river with a fly rod in hand, I’m the opposite–I tend to patiently try many dozens of casts with my first fly, then switch to another and work that one until it falls apart too…all in the same short stretch of water. I guess if nothing is working I assume I’m doing something wrong rather than that I need a new batch of fish.

        Maybe my way is okay if the water has some color, but I may begin to try your method when it’s very clear–go in making my best first impression, and–win or lose–move on.

        Thanks again for a great article; I’m still gazing at those photos when I’m stuck at work.

        – Mike Vorhis

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