Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

The Spring-50,000-64,000 gallons per minute
The Spring-50,000-64,000 gallons per minute

As John Cleese of Monty Python used to say: “Now for something completely different“. Its mid-August, our rivers are getting lower and crowded. Fires throughout Western Montana and a few locally have smoked things up quite a bit.

Air quality around Bozeman reminds me of my childhood in Southern California. I needed to do something completely different. A 3AM wakeup, kayak and gear loaded, a small lunch of last night’s chicken wings and potato salad in the cooler, I headed northeast to Big Spring Creek (not the one in Pennsylvania). It’s a bit of a trip, but some good fishing, some solitude and some beautiful scenery there (well not in the dark) and back made the trip worth it.

Big Spring Creek is aptly named as it, unlike most rivers, doesn’t start as a trickle high in the mountains. It starts some six miles south of Lewistown, Montana at one of the world’s largest fresh water springs. The spring, which emerges from the Madison aquifer on the north slopes of the Big Snowy Mountains, pumps out from 50,000 to 64,000 gallons of 52 degree, mineral rich water every minute, 24/7, year round. The creek runs for 30 miles until it meets the Judith River, a major tributary of the Missouri River. Fishing in the creek is excellent for both Rainbow and Brown trout.

From Bozeman, the trip to the spot I would fish takes about three hours and crosses three major Montana watersheds. I head east on Interstate 90 to Big Timber on the Yellowstone River, where I head north to Harlowton, Montana a sleepy ranch town on the Musselshell River. The Musselshell valley was a major beaver trapping location in the early 1800s and later became the center of the open range cattle business in the 1880s. It’s still dark as I head north from Harlowton. As I approach Judith Gap, flashing red lights cover the horizon east to west in an eerie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” light show. I’d never seen the Judith Gap Wind Farm in the dark.

Big Spring Creek2Once through Judith Gap I dropped into the Judith Basin and headed east toward Lewistown, a village founded by Metis settlers in 1879 along the banks of Big Spring Creek. Lewistown started as a trading post on the Carroll Trail between Helena and the Missouri River. It quickly became a railroad town as the Milwaukee Road built spur lines and shops near the town. In the 1940s, an airfield was built just west of town as B-17 training base. With a population of 5900, Lewistown breaks into the top 30 most populous cities in the state. Today, Lewistown just might be considered a large Montana town somewhat isolated out in the middle of the Montana prairie as it is more than 100 miles in any direction to a town with more people. Great Falls is the closest at 106 miles to the west. Bozeman is 162 miles to the SW, Billings is 125 miles to the SE and (another candidate for the middle of nowhere) Glendive (pop. 4900) is 244 miles due east. Having made the long, lonely drive to Glendive once back in the 1970s today’s total population of 1100 in the only three towns in between—Circle, Jordan and Winnett makes it seem like Montana is getting crowded.

Early in the town’s history, Big Spring Creek became the official water supply for the town and in 1922; a fish hatchery was established at the site of the spring. The hatchery is still operated by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks producing Yellowstone cutthroat, brown and rainbow trout and kokanee salmon for stocking Montana lakes. As with a great many streams, industrial activity and agricultural diversion degraded the creek in the early 20th century. Today, through a lot of environmental and community stewardship, the spring creek is clean, healthy and has a lot of public access points. I had fished the creek a few times some 40 years ago when I was stationed in Great Falls but don’t remember much about those experiences. I do remember I’d never fished anywhere below (north of) Lewistown. Today I would.

A nice pool 15 miles from the spring
A nice pool 15 miles from the spring

I arrived at the Hruska Fishing Access Site just after sunrise. Hruska is the last FAS on the creek, 15 miles from the mouth at the Judith River. Although I’d surveyed the creek earlier in the year during runoff, I didn’t quite know what to expect once I got into the stream. After getting the kayak and gear down to the bank of the creek, I knew I had already misjudged the weather. I was expecting a bit more sun and warm weather, thus planned to wet wade for the day. Unfortunately the morning was extremely overcast and promised rain. With only a light rain shell, I got soaked head to toe once the rain started. In addition, I had not anticipated the cold temperature of the creek. Just 15 miles from its 52 degree source, the creek was still mighty cold.

As the adventure began, I quickly found out that the creek was different from most of the rivers I fish. The water was crystal clear and flowed swiftly from one very deep, blue pool to the next as the creek meandered in tight 90 degree bends. The deep pools and swift undercuts held the fish, not the riffles. Most of the stream was tightly lined with willows and birch making casting a challenge. The bottom was a mixture of small cobble, some solid ledges and sand. The current was swift, even in the pools as the creek drops over 800 feet in its 30 mile run to the Judith. Although I saw a few insects here and there, few fish were rising to them. I suspect it is not as insect rich as many of our SW Montana Rivers.

Are these spots bigger than normal?
Are these spots bigger than normal?

The best fish started coming from the undercuts if I could get my fly close enough without tangling with the willows. The swift water made life hard for the trout as well as they had little opportunity to dart out of the undercut as the fly sped by in the current. Did I miss a fish or did the fish miss my fly? I saw twice as many fish aggressively go after the fly only to come up short as the current swept it away. When I did connect, at least a dozen times, the fish were healthy, fat browns which (in my opinion) had rather larger than normal spots.

One of the highlights of the morning was occurred at a nice pool where a young great horned owl sat patiently in a cottonwood, chirping away and watching me fish. Horned owls aren’t uncommon and are usually fleeting sights along the rivers I fish but this young bird was more than happy to be entertained by my attempts to capture fish in his backyard.

The patient owl
The patient owl

After about three hours of fishing, I was wet, cold and had covered about 1.5 miles of river upstream from the put-in. I fished back down connecting with a few more fish. By the time I reached the put-in, I’d been on the river for four hours. With at least a three hour drive home, that was enough. On the way back to Bozeman, I detoured a bit to scout out the headwaters of the Musselshell another place I fished 40 years ago. It might be a candidate before the season ends for another “Now for something completely different” day trip.

 

7 Comments

  1. Hi: I am a Lewistown native stuck in the wilds of Ohio for the past 50 years. Have a friend who would love to fish Spring Creek. Tried to find outfitters or guides (Don’s is closed, I am told and Van’s seems gone as well). Are you aware of any outfitters who might take on a pretty decent man for a Montana fly fishing endeavor. I can’t vouch for his skill but he seems to know which end of the pole to hold.

    Thanks,

    James Leo Walsh (lived in Lewistown, College in Helena, and I can travel just about anywhere and not catch fish; but, I have a great time. Thanks in advance for your help.

    1. James,

      I am unaware of any specific individual that guides on Big Spring Creek. And, as you noted the fly shop business in Lewistown has gone under. You might want to checkout the fly shops in Great Falls as they are much closer to Lewistown than we are in the Bozeman region. Even if they don’t handle Big Spring Creek trips, they are probably much more well connected with guides that might. The one’s that come to mind are:

      North 40 (https://north40flyshop.com/great-falls-fly-shop)
      On the Water Flies (https://www.onthewaterflies.com/)
      Montana River Outfitters (https://www.montanariveroutfitters.com/)

      Good Luck.
      Mike

  2. James- To my knowledge, no one guides / outfits on Spring Creek. I myself live in Lewistown and am thinking of beginning a guide service on Spring Creek in 2019. I have a 2-man Flycraft raft which is perfect for the creek, unfortunately I am not in position to do so this Summer, but I will definitely be on it fishing myself and buddies!
    Brett

    1. Hi Brett

      I’ve been fishing Spring Creek since 1948, hope you start a guide service but don’t spoil Montana’s best kept fishing secret. As a kid I saw that “Grand Daddy of Spring Creek” displayed on ice. Such an awesome stream.

    2. There is a chance I will be looking for a day guide late May of 2019. Brett, if you end up guiding let me know. I am only in town for a short time and would love to explore the river.

  3. No way you’re taking a kayak down any part of the stream for fishing. Way to big and cumbersome, no matter how well you handle it. It’s a wading stream, get out of your boat for crying out loud. I’ve fished it hard for 20+ years. It has been devalued due to whirling disease and floods. You can still find nice fish but now you gotta look and pay attention. Try that in your kayak.

    1. Gotta love wading streams that have no boat traffic at all. Myself, I don’t think I could do a float trip on any river — one cast per great spot and you’re past it. That’d be so frustrating. I consider wading the pinnacle of fishing access methods — I’d rather work the water I can reach very well than reach miles of water but do justice to no spot on it. If water is unwadable, one does what’s gotta be done…but if it can be waded that’s the best there is. My humble opinions.

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