A Father-Son Flyfishing Trip In Montana

A Father-Son Flyfishing Trip In Montana

I’m gonna ferry across the river,” my guide said. “Some pocket water I want you to hit.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I gazed downstream. Montana’s Bighorn River is big water, but it was flowing higher than usual, and I hadn’t seen much of what I’d call “pocket water” yet. But I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut. It was too early in the float to question the guide. What I did see, however, was a dark gravel bar rising under the drift boat and a plume of water pouring over the ledge into a deep green hole the size of my front yard. I didn’t want to scuttle the guide’s float plan, but I wasn’t going to pass up a giant fishy-looking lair either.

I cast a white articulated fly my guide had handed me earlier, and dropped it into the billowing pillow of water above the gravel bar. The leechlike blob rode the flow like a kid on a pool slide—I could see why he called his creation the Wet Sock—but the second it sank to the green abyss below, a fish hit and bent the rod. Not bad when the first fish of the day is a Bighorn brown trout just a smidge over 16 inches.

“Heck yeah, man!” my guide hollered. “I’ve been thinking about that pocket ever since we put in.”

That’s when I nearly stuck my foot in my mouth. You call that pocket water? I thought. But the guide was my son, Jack, and we had gone a first hour without a fish—and to be honest, neither of us were sure how this day trip was going to pan out.

Jack had just spent a week at Sweet­water Guide School, a hands-on, dawn-to-dark boot camp for aspiring guides. It was his high-school graduation gift—learning how to row a drift boat and field-fix a jet outboard and calm down cranky anglers. Jack had fallen in love with flyfishing when he was 14 years old, wading Montana’s Gallatin River. Over the next few years, he pelted guides with relentless questioning from Maine to the Florida Keys. One June, on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River, he heard that college students worked Western rivers over their summer breaks, shuttling boats and guiding. That was the end of his future as a summer lawn-care consultant. With his Sweetwater course now over, he’d bummed a drift boat from an instructor, and I was his first real client.

“Thank you, Lord,” Jack said. “I’m not going to lie to you, Daddy. I was getting pretty nervous until you caught that fish.”

“You’re not the only one, son,” I said. “And we need to talk about your idea of pocket water.”

Wild West

When Jack walked out from under the tall Bighorn cottonwoods at the Sweetwater school base camp, I hadn’t seen him for a week, but I could tell from his loping gait that Montana had changed him—that a week on the river had given him passage of a sort that he could not yet understand but that I could not deny. He’d been bitten by the West, and wherever his river would run in the future, it would run far from home for at least a portion of his life. This is the cruel contract of parenthood: Give them roots and wings, then pray that the former hold as your child spreads the latter in relentless freedom.

With the monkey off our backs, we settled in for perhaps the finest afternoon of fishing I’ve ever had. Jack held me in the current seam as I worked the fly all the way down the gravel bar, cast by cast. We caught fish at Grey Cliffs and Suck Hole and Mike’s Cabin, and we whooped it up with every strike. Did you see that? Holy cow, man, did you see that?

Jack spoke of these places like he might describe the local parks up the street back home. He was fully immersed in the magic of Montana, the fish and the river and the wild country, as the wild dreams of a 14-year-old were coming true right in front of him.

It was just one of those days that leaves you shaking your head and checking your heart. We all get them occasionally, moments in the field when you know that this is one you will carry to your grave. The fish were biting like crazy, yes, and their runs seemed stronger and their spots more finely chiseled than ever in the Bighorn light. But more than the fishing, it was the first day that we’d floated as equals, and the sadness that came with the loss of my little boy was baptized in the gratitude that from this day forward, I would fish and hunt with this man in the boat.

Big Finish

By midafternoon, we didn’t have much longer to fish. Soon Jack would have to hit the oars hard; we had a six-hour drive to Missoula still ahead of us. But then he slowed the boat one last time.

“I want you to hit that log,” he said. “See it?”

“I think so.” It was a giant sculpture of twisted driftwood, 8 feet tall, at least. Who could miss it? But as my mouth opened for a wisecrack, my guide tucked me into range. My first cast brought a ferocious slash from the largest trout we’d seen all day, but the heavy water carried the drift boat too swiftly for a second crack.

Jack slipped overboard and pulled the drift boat 30 feet upcurrent. “I’ll hold the boat,” he said. “You just catch the fish.”

We pulled two more fish from the hole, the second one running wild like a puppy in the yard. The water likely spent, Jack pulled himself back in the boat, rowed clear of the swift current, then stowed the oars and leaned back, soaking in the sun, the moment, the river, and his future, which unfurled just about as far as the next bend in the Bighorn. If there is a finer thing than to be 17 years old on a Montana river, I can only barely imagine what that might be.

“I don’t know, Daddy,” he said, kicking his Chaco-clad feet on the cooler. He grinned over a grimy sun buff and stroked a 15-day-old beard that I could actually make out in the right slant of sunlight. “I’m thinking of keeping the ’stache, at least. Think I can pull it off?”

I started to taste my foot again, but caught myself in time. I reckon if there’s anywhere in this world that a young man can still dream, it’s Montana.

Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

A Quick Guide To Central Montana’s Rivers

A Quick Guide To Central Montana’s Rivers

The rivers of Central Montana are unlike those found elsewhere in the state. Flowing from the mighty Rocky Mountains and several island mountain ranges, the waterways then meander downhill, eventually meeting the Great Plains in their gradual journey eastward. This diversity of terrain lends itself to a variety of streams and rivers—from smaller rivers such as the Sun and Judith to the sweeping expanse of the trout-laden Missouri. Central Montana is tailor-made for adventurous anglers seeking a bit of solitude away from busier rivers.

When most anglers think of fishing in Central Montana, the Missouri River comes to mind. This storied river first came to true popularity in the 1990s, when editorial coverage began to draw visitors from across the U.S. and abroad, seeking to experience "Trout Town U.S.A."

The most productive fishing section of the river flows from the small town of Craig to Cascade, just south of Great Falls. In this 35-mile section, the river sweeps through craggy cliffs and canyons before opening into the lower section where the river greets the Great Plains, both widening and slowing before reaching the community of Cascade.

The Missouri is a prolific fishery, with as many as 2,000 rainbow trout per river mile in some sections. Despite the high numbers of fish, it can be a technical fishery with "educated" fish; visiting anglers are best served by connecting with a local guide and outfitter service to help find the best spots and techniques. Intent on heading out on your own? Stop at a local shop, chat with the staff, and buy a few recommended flies.

Most anglers venture to Central Montana dreaming of trophy trout, be it a colored-up brown or a football-like rainbow. Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

In Cascade, check out the Trout Montana shop for gear and guides. You’ll also find lodging options in town along with groceries, restaurants, and bars. Great Falls, just 25 miles from Cascade, has a wide variety of lodging and dining options as well. North 40 Outfitters and Montana River Outfitters are based in Great Falls and can assist anglers seeking to set up trips and learn more about local waterways. Visit with the locals and they’ll point you to some lesser known streams like the Judith near Stanford or Big Spring Creek near Lewistown. The fishing community in Central Montana is tightly knit and eager to help.

Looking for something other than trout? As the Missouri winds northward and then east past Great Falls, it acts as home to a variety of species, including sauger, pike, walleye, and catfish. Other rivers and lakes throughout Central Montana host everything from perch to whitefish and carp.

Most anglers venture to Central Montana dreaming of trophy trout, be it a colored-up brown or a football-like rainbow. Those seeking classic dry-fly action will find the best times to visit are mid-spring (April/May), in July for terrestrial fishing, or in October. (Terrestrial lovers will find themselves happily occupied July through September; the river’s grassy banks are ideal for tossing big, foamy hoppers.) Nymph fishing, productive for those seeking high numbers of fish, is most productive in late spring (May/June) and then again in the early fall. Streamer anglers should visit in the early spring and late fall, though many seasoned Missouri River anglers are taking on the winter season with streamers to great success. If you’re planning to visit in the winter, reach out to Headhunters Fly Shop, which has established itself as the region’s leading Switch and Spey (two-handed fishing) resource and can offer both instruction and guided trips.

Central Montana offers plenty of stunning waterways. Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

Many of Central Montana’s smaller rivers and streams are best fished on foot, allowing anglers to take their time and really work sections of water. However, for larger rivers such as the Missouri, it’s easy and effective to cover large sections of water via boat. Most local guides prefer hard-sided "drift boats," specially designed to allow anglers comfort and range of motion, and low-sided to not be pushed about too much by the wind. Rafts, pontoon boats, canoes and kayaks are also suitable for angling use—just make sure you have a savvy rower.

Whatever your angling style, Central Montana offers plenty of stunning waterways. Want to explore on foot and hike into small streams? Check. Keen to float down the famous Missouri River and chase fat rainbow trout? Check. Or maybe you want to get the kids out on Fresno Reservoir and simply let them experience their first fishing trip. That’s available, too. Central Montana is home to a high number of passionate anglers, eager to share their love for both sport and place.

Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated in partnership with Central Montana and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Todd Klassy/Central Montana