Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

lewisclarkMy work takes me to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a lot over the course of a year. I’ve gotten to know the city pretty well. But I must admit I am a little weak on its history. Although I know from Wikipedia that it was founded in the 1770s, I just don’t have any sense of its history as I drive through the town. But such cannot be said of SW Montana where my day trips to local rivers are enhanced by knowing something about what happened along the way in centuries past. Unlike the history of much of the rest of the U.S., Montana is very young but the state’s history is rich in the exploration and exploitation of the West. Today found me on day trip to the lower Beaverhead River just outside Twin Bridges, Montana.

Montana became part of the U.S. when in 1803 France sold us a big chunk of un-charted territory called Louisiana for 4¢ an acre. Of course what followed has been characterized by historians as the equivalent of 1969 Apollo 11 Moon mission. Between 1804 and 1806, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and a group of 38 volunteers known as the Corps of Discovery explored the upper Missouri and Columbia River basins (the Moon) and returned safely to the East (the Earth) with only one casualty. Many of my day trips pass through the same regions that Lewis and Clark did. But no day trip gets closer to Lewis and Clark than the lower Beaverhead.Although the Beaverhead River is now dammed at Clark Canyon south of Dillon and the upper river is essentially a tail water, the lower Beaverhead remains a meandering valley stream to its confluence with the Big Hole River near Twin Bridges. Clark Canyon reservoir now covers the site of Camp Fortunate where Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark met with the Shoshone prior to heading West over the Bitterroot Mountains. The trip from Bozeman typically takes me west along I-90 through the town of Three Forks.

oldcarIn 1805 just north of the town, Lewis and Clark encountered the confluence of three rivers which they named the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson to honor their nation’s leaders. They chose to follow the western most of the rivers–the Jefferson. At Three Forks, I-90 leaves the Jefferson for about 20 miles before encountering it again near Caldwell. At Whitehall I turn south to follow the Jefferson River valley to its headwaters. Of course today the valley is a patchwork of cottonwood groves, farmland and ranches. I try to imagine what it might have looked like in 1805. Along the way, Pronghorn are common sights, a species that Lewis and Clark discovered and described for the first time during their expedition.

The Beaverhead flows some 70 miles from Clark Canyon Dam to the confluence with the Big Hole. However, as the crow flies, the meandering river covers just 45 miles between Clark Canyon and Twin Bridges. Although access is good in its tail water upper reaches, such is not the case lower down where limited road crossings and private land severely limit access to many miles of the river. Twin Bridges is the last public access before the Beaverhead reaches the Big Hole a mile or so north of town. The 10-mile tail water section of the Beaverhead from the dam to Barrett’s Diversion dam is one of Montana’s blue ribbon streams and gets a lot of interest from out-of-state anglers. It is renowned for large and difficult brown trout in fast, clear and insect-rich water. It is a very busy stretch of river for floaters and wade anglers alike. When you hear someone talk about fishing the Beaverhead, it is usually this section they are talking about. As the river flows through Dillon, Montana and into the long and flat Beaverhead valley, access become difficult, irrigation demands and ranchers trying to stabilize banks have taken a toll of the esthetics of the river. Additionally, this lower section is a very low gradient stream dropping only 600 feet in the 45 river miles from Dillon to Twin Bridges. Despite that, the lower Beaverhead remains an exceptional brown trout fishery that few anglers take advantage of. Fortunately, a great many small spring creeks feed the river and provide excellent spawning sites for trout.

Local guides and outfitters in Dillon and Twin Bridges do have some relationships with ranchers that allow guided access to private stretches of the river, but such access is pricey and inconvenient for the everyday angler. So this whole lower section of the Beaverhead really doesn’t get much if any pressure which results in reliable opportunities to connect with large browns in a small stream environment for anyone who can find their way to the river. This August morning, I did just that. It had been over a year since I had fished the section just south of Twin Bridges. It was August 18, 211 years and 12 days since Lewis and Clark passed through this section of the Beaverhead on their way to what they believed were the headwaters of the Missouri River system. At the time they named the three forks of the Jefferson—Wisdom (Big Hole), Philanthropy (Beaverhead) and Philosophy (Ruby)–for the three “cardinal virtues” of the President and their benefactor, Thomas Jefferson. Names would change in later years but, in 1805, the river would have been clear, the banks lined with pristine willows and grass and the fish would have been westslope cutthroat trout and Montana grayling. But the meandering path the river takes today probably hasn’t changed much in 211 years since the Corps of Discovery paddled through on their way south. This is probably one place in the US where you could reliably say you were in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

sceneryI drop the kayak in at Riverside Park in Twin Bridges as the full moon descends behind the Highland range and begin working my way south, upstream through familiar riffles, pools and runs. As is typical of mid-summer, flows are decent (~100 CFS) because of releases from Clark Canyon and water clarity is average—about 2 feet. Irrigation returns keep the lower river a bit murky during summer months. I was hoping for a good hopper bite as it was going to be a sunny day but I had ill-chosen the day to visit the river from a dry fly perspective. I was in front of an on-coming cold front and a gusty northeast wind kicked up early. With very little bank-side cover from trees and such, the flat landscape of the lower Beaverhead valley provides little respite from wind. Even through there were tricos, other mayflies and caddis about, dry fly fishing wasn’t going to be very productive. My goal for the day was to reach the confluence of the Beaverhead and Ruby rivers, about 4 river miles south Twin Bridges. Unfortunately, the wind became so fierce, the goal was abandoned about three hours in.

bigbrownThis is fantastic streamer water typical of meandering valley streams. Deep pools at every turn with long undercut banks. Where the gradient steepens and riffles pour into the head of a pool, a big bugger will usually dredge up some large trout. This day, despite the wind, was no exception. Three of the browns I caught on the day approached the 19-inch range and were clearly fat and healthy specimens undeterred by the poor stream esthetics. For me it was a short day as the farther I went upstream, I knew that would be just that much more wind I’d have to fight floating back. Unlike the lower Big Hole river which flows just east of the Beaverhead and is surrounded by large groves of cottonwoods, the 360 vistas from the lower Beaverhead are vast and varied. The valley is surrounded by ranges, that in 1805 were yet unnamed—the Tobacco Roots, the Ruby range, the Highland range. The valley is rife with whitetail deer, eagles, osprey, and the ever present croaking of Sandhill Cranes who sail over the river like small airplanes. Despite the esthetic challenges that fences, riprap, siltation, etc., bring to the river, it remains one of my go-to choices if I really want to connect with some big brown trout. The fact that I will be paddling and wading in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark is just another added benefit to contemplate as I make my day trips to the lower Beaverhead.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks Mike, that was like taking a vacation without getting my feet wet, although I’d rather have the wet feet. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Like a free and wild stream, there’s nothing quite like History when you step into it. You feel its power when you stand in places like Gettysburg or Pompeii. My heroes were never the captains of industry, nor pop culture stage ornaments with their tinsel. They were Clark, and Lewis…Boone, Carson, Hudson, Smith, Fremont. Shackleton; Scott. And the countless rugged unsung…along with pretty much the entire continent of tough, capable, honorable native people of this continent, who over untold centuries knew the gem on which they lived, and loved it, and were an intimate part of it.

    And like a free and wild stream, it’s harder each year to find a current of history that remains untouched, unaltered. So much of it is mere “tailwater” now. Our habit of re-writing it is like applying shorings and buttresses and culverts to an untamed stream’s banks; it taints the natural flow and obliterates the subtle things we might have seen in it.

    The people who personally explored Montana and the upper Missouri watershed, and Colorado, and the Canadian wilderness, did it not with an eye toward subjugating it but with a feeling of individual wonder they couldn’t reign in. When you walk or wade or paddle their paths, the greatest tribute you can give them is to try to visualize having been with them, as you have described, Mike. I think they’d be proud to read your accounts, those “try to imagine what it might have looked like” words in particular.

    They were romantics…as are we. Let’s keep that particular current alive within the ongoing flow of The River History, if we can.

    – Mike

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