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The Missouri Nobody Knows

Excerpted from Fly Fisherman magazine May/June 1982. The Missouri Nobody Knows by Gary LaFontaine

Anglers have preconceived notions about the Missouri River. They picture a very big river, and this at least is true. Three great waters, the Madison, the Gallatin and the Jefferson, join near the town if Three Forks, Montana, to form the Missouri. Beyond that fact, it is hard to make generalizations. Is it a muddy river where fly fishermen use gaudy flies? Is it a clear river where fly fishermen use somber imitations? Is it one of the finest dry-fly fisheries in the country? Muddy or clear, deep or shallow, sluggish or swift—in different sections it is all of these.

The story of the Missouri River as a trout fishery would hardly be worth telling except for a series of dams on the river.  From its formation at Three Forks down to the first dam at Toston, the water is muddy. Usually it is like brown soup, There are trout in this section, but in comparison to other parts of the Missouri it is not much fun to fly fish. Anyone particularly found of turbid conditions is welcome to it.

The water below Toston Dam is also muddy most of the time. I never fish the river upstream from this small town. I fish the river downstream from it a great deal. The difference is that the area below Toston Dam is a fabulous place for trophy trout. On good days a fly fisherman can catch fifteen trout over five pounds. The fact that I fish this part of the river when it is prime proves that I am not hardheaded about disliking muddy water.

The next three dams on the river—Canyon Ferry, Hauser and Holter—create tailwater fisheries. The big reservoirs settle out the silt and spew clear water through their dams. At least in these three areas the Missouri River is not only big but also very fishable with standard tackle and tactics. But fisheries still differ—below Canyon Ferry the river is broad and sluggish; below Hauser the river is deep and swift; below Holter the river is relatively shallow and gentle.

These areas total up to an astounding mileage of prime trout water—over fifty miles of giant river strung around the city of Helena. There is little argument that the Missouri is underused, even by local fisherman. The number of visiting fly fishermen is miniscule. Both the instate and out-of-state fly fishermen who do use the river tend to fish it quietly, keeping this a vast resource to themselves. There is a big problem with us “quiet” fly fishermen, however. We take for granted that our trout paradise will always stay the same.

Right now two men, Pete Test and Bill Dunham, are trying to protect the Missouri fishery. They, at least, are spending as much time fighting for it as they are fishing it. As elected officers of the local Trout Unlimited chapter, they also represent a group of fishermen, but their task would be easier if they had support from fly fishermen all over the country.

After a recent meeting of the Trout Unlimited chapter, Pete, Bill and I went to a nearby tavern. We talked about fishing the Missouri . Pete told about the nine-pound brown he’d caught on a streamer at the mouth of Beaver Creek below Hauser Dam; Bill told about a five-pound rainbow he’d taken during the midsummer hatches on a tiny dry fly below Holter Dam; I recounted a sad tale of a trout I had hooked below Toston Dam but had never seen—a runaway submarine that stipped off a full fly line. For nearly an hour we described our favorite areas on the river and never mentioned the same spot twice—that’s how much water there is.

Below Toston Dam: Large Flies on the Bottom

Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, this stretch of river can be either very, very good or it can be horrid. The dam at Toston is relatively small and does not really create a lake as much as a widening in the upper river. The water below the dam runs muddy all year: visibility varies between zero and twenty-four inches. Occasionally the insect hatches are heavy enough to bring trout to the surface, but fly-fishing here usually means large flies worked on the bottom.

The river from toston Dam downstream to the upper end of Canyon Ferry Lake does not support many resident trout. The electroshock data collected by the state biologists indicates a spring population of 321 brown trout per mile. This figure is extremely low for such a large river, reflecting problems with high temperatures and dewatering from irrigation during the summer.

When is it worth fishing? In the fall hordes of spawning brown and rainbow trout run upstream from Canyon Ferry Lake. These big, strong fish stack up in prime spawning areas from the head of the lake all the way to Toston Dam. At the dam, trout up to fifteen pounds try to jump this barrier, putting on a show for awed spectators.

The best water is where the Missouri braids, splitting into easily wadable channels at the head of Canyon Ferry Lake. The days from October 5 to October 20 are the most productive times to hit rainbow spawners in this area. Farther upriver the peak angling for spawning browns can be anytime from October 15 to mid-November. The rainbow trout are seldom larger than five or six pounds, but the brown trout can weigh as much as twenty pounds.

The existence of fall-spawning rainbow trout is not some of natural rarity. These fish are hatchery stock and most streams and lakes in Montana with stocked rainbow produce substantial fall runs. The source of the Toston area run is the 650,000 fingerlings stocked in Canyon Ferry Reservoir each year. The spawning times are scrambled because in the past the hatcheries have manipulated the populations to produce four- to six-inch for spring stocking—fall-hatched eggs grow to the required length by late spring, but the spring-hatched eggs do not. In the natural environment these fall runners rarely spawn successfully. Even when they do spawn, the eggs hatch during the inhospitable months of December and January. For all practical purposes this fall run is a put-and-take phenomenon.

The brown trout population, however, is self-sustaining. The fish from the lake are fat and strong: A twenty-inch trout before spawning usually weighs five pounds. But a five-pound brown is not an especially notable catch. Even a ten-pound brown creates little fuss around the jaded devotees of this part of the river.

As with any migratory fish population, the first problem is to find the concentrations. The second problem is to be there when the concentrations are in a hitting mood. The fish congregate over gravel shelves, at the lips of pools, and in midstream slots, much like steelhead or salmon. They strike best at dawn and dusk on sunny days, or all day during rainy or overcast weather. The most popular fly is the hot orange Marabou Egg Sack, but very bright steelhead patters are also effective. When this area is generous it can spoil a fishermen.

My days guiding on this water have not been any different from my personal fishing experiences—when it’s off nobody will move fish; when it’s on even a beginner will reap the bonanza. Frank Van Dael came with me on the a float below Toston Dam for his first day of fly-fishing. He caught twelve brown trout ranging from twenty-two inches to twenty-seven inches that afternoon.

The next day I guided him again, but the fishing was not quite as furious. After a half hour he finally hooked his first trout. He worked it close and I netted a brown, a beautifully colored nineteen-inch male. Frank frowned when he saw the fish: “They’re running kind of small today, aren’t they?”

Below Canyon Ferry Dam: Drift-Fishing with Wets

Some sections of the missouri are well-known, and justifiably so. But there are other sections with equally good fly-fishing that are seldom fished, even by local anglers. The water below Canyon Ferry Dam is virtually ignored. Autumn fishing for spawners is as good here as in the Toston stretch. The water, filtered through a large settling basin (the lake), stays clear most of the year. Rainbow and browns even seem to be a little larger. The tailrace section below Canyon Ferry is not well-known, perhaps because on the map it looks as if the outflow dumps directly into Hauser Lake. Actually there are some seven miles of current below the dam, and for the first three miles below Canyon Ferry there is a distinct river channel. This leaves little distance between the lakes, but as a result, all the spawning trout from Hauser Lake, a fine stillwater fishery, jams into this area.

A fly fisherman needs a boat to cover this water effectively. You cannot wade this section, and the old riverbed with its sunken gravel bars is too far away to reach from the banks. In a boat you can drift with the main current,  working big sculpin or sucker imitations near the bottom.

Below Hauser Dam: Wet-Fly Fishing

The largest trout in the river, and possibly the largest trout in the country, live below Hauser Dam. The angling record for this sections is twenty-nine pounds seven ounces, the second heaviest trout ever caught in Montana. But there are bigger fish than that here. In the spill-basin directly below the dam there are brown tour that feed almost exclusively on the rought fish chopped up by the dam turbines. These slob trout, their weight estimated by scuba divers at between thirty and fifty pounds, are safe from fishermen as long as they stay in the turbulent water near the dam, but occasionally they drop downstream a few hundred yards to the tail of this giant pool and roll ponderously on the surface.

Can these fish be caught on a fly rod? They can be hooked. In fact, my specialty for years was hooking them. On some evenings I would lose as many as ten fish in this water. It was not light-tackle angling either. My gear consisted of a graphite rod for a 12 weight line, a lead-core shooting taper, a short leader testing 12 pounds at the tip and a 3/0 Hair Sucker fly. Even with this equipment I could not stop the bigger trout from running into the churning water where the undertow would tear the fish free. Once I was within a few seconds of landing an exhausted, twenty-pound brown when the hook ripped loose from its mouth. My best trout ever here was a fourteen-pound, which was about the maximum size I could handle consistently. On the same drizzly October day the tally included an eleven pound brown, an eight-pound brown and a couple of five-pounders.

Another excellent spot for fly fishermen is the water at the mouth of Beaver Creek, a tributary that enters the Missouri a few miles below Hauser Dam. A great spring run of naturally spawning rainbow stacks up at this stream. These fish from Holter Lake, the downstream reservoir, weigh up to ten pounds, but three to five pounds is the average weight. In the autumn there are also a heavy run of brown trout and a smaller run of fall-spawning rainbow.

Many anglers fish a the mouth of Beaver Creek, but most catch little or nothing. The secret is knowing the water intimately. There is, for example, a shelf and a gravel sluice out in the river downstream from the creek. This prime area is only about five feet wide, but it winds snakelike for almost two hundred yards. The big fish congregate over this ribbon of gravel. When they are ready to strike they can be caught, but the problem is presenting the fly precisely. If the drift is a foot away from either edge, or a foot too high in the water, the effort can be useless. There are many hotspots like this in the river, some not much larger than a spawning bed, that can be discovered only through hours of casting and searching.

There is a continuous debate among the regular anglers about which flies are more effective—bright steelhead patterns or drab bucktail imitations of sculpins and suckers. Pacific Coast favorites such as the Chappie, Thor and Lady Godiva account for many trophy trout in this stretch of the river; yet in recent years the balance of opinions has moved slightly toward matching flies such as the Spuddler, Bullhead and my own Hair Sucker. The days and nights of friendly disagreement on the river and at local taverns are part of the Missouri River tradition by now. The fickle nature of spawning fish guarantees that the argument will never really be settled.

A fever used to hit me every spring and fall. One season I spent fifty-seven days on the stretch below Hauser (and these were fourteen hour days). My craving for trophy trout has simmered down in recent years; now I only fish this old love of mine about ten days a year. Now I am too apt to slip away to another, much different part of the Missouri.

Below Holter Dam: Dry-Fly Fishing

Below Holter Dam, the Missouri changes. The landscape spreads out into plains and hills; the river spreads out and it is surprisingly slow-moving and shallow considering the volume of water. Although there are occasional holes as deep as fifteen feet, in places it is possible to wade all the way across.

The fishing also changes. In the upstream areas fly fishermen mainly try to hit the spawning runs, using sinking lines and big flies to sweep the bottom. Below Holter Dam such tactics are worthless much of the summer because of luxurious weed growth. These weeds and the profuse aquatic insect hatches are an indication of just how rich this water is. The abundant resident browns and rainbow, so well conditioned that the fat along their backs makes them look hunch-shouldered, feed consistently on the surface insects until they are over twenty inches long. This gentle stretch—almost totally unknown except to local fly fishermen—ranks among the best dry-fly water in North America.

Below Holter Dam there are significant hatches whenever the air temperature rises above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and stays below 80 degrees, the day-to-day timing depending as much on light intensity as anything else. Because of the dam’s moderating influence, water temperature here is less influential in controlling the hatches than on freestone rivers.

From late fall through early spring Diptera midges provide the hatch activity. They come in many colors—black, green and red are the most prevalent. Some of them are so large that imitations must be tied on #14 and #16 hooks. The pupal stage is most important, and during emergences, which are especially heavy on overcast days, trout porpoise as they feed steadily on the drifting naturals.

Caddisflies are extremely abundant in the Missouri. From late May through July, eight different species overlap in a continuous emergence. The two most important species, Hydropsyche occidentalis (Spotted Sedge) and Cheumatopsyche campyla (Little Sister Sedge), congregate in the evening, each in its own swam, and fly resolutely upriver. Any of the important species can cause trout to feed selectively in the water below Holter Dam, a problem compounded by the fact that the fish may concentrate on either the emergent state (the pups) or the egg-laying stage (the female adult) of a species. A fisherman must be extremely alert to what is happening during these specific caddisfly months.

Various mayfly species also emerge during the late May to July period, but even when they are abundant they are overwhelmed by the caddisfly activity. In late summer and early fall, however, two mayfly genera appear when there is very little competition, and they inspire some of the heaviest surface feeding of the year. The emergence and subsequent spinner fall of the Tricorythodes peak between August 25 and September 15. On sunny and windless days the spinners start dying over the water at 7:30 AM, and continue until at least 11 AM, falling in such numbers that mats of spent insects cover the river. The dead spinners not eaten collect in the backwaters, where it is not uncommon to see twenty-to twenty-eight-inch trout rolling and chomping—each gulp capturing hundreds of the Tricos. Hooking these huge fish is mostly a matter of chance, but during the main spinner fall there are plenty of trout up to twenty inches feeding regularly on individual insects in the open current.

The Slate Wing Quill (Baetis) hatch begins as the Tricos peter out and remains important though October. The duns emerge best on cloudy days. The early stragglers appear at about 11 AM, but the height of the activity occurs between  1 and 3 PM. These mayflies ride the surface for so long on damp days that the trout can sip them as leisurely as they do dead spinners. As a result, the fish demand a perfect, no-drag presentation during the Baetis emergence.

More than thirty miles of this fabulous fishery, resembling a giant spring creek with its insect hatches and free-rising trout, exist below Holter Dam. Access is easy—there are paved roads paralleling the river most of the way and there is enough river to accommodate hundreds of fly fishermen without undo crowding. Even on weekends it is unusual to see more then five fishermen, and a few bait or lure fishermen who work this water due to lack of weeds. This lack of angling pressure has long seemed a blessing to me and my friends, giving us the fishing benefits of private water for free.

Success here cannot be measured in fish caught, either numbers or poundage. Even the best fly fishermen only land about a dozen trout a day when they are matching the hatch with appropriately small flies and light tippets. Feeding selectively, wild rainbow and browns are difficult to fool,  and they are so powerful that in the weedy water the chances of landing a hooked trout are not better than fifty-fifty.  Patterns must match the hatch and presentations must also match the insect’s behavior. The river is special here because of its fishing difficulties, not in spite of them, providing as it does the opportunity to test skills against rising trout.

These were-to-go descriptions cover only the river sections in my area. There are other great tailwater fisheries below dams in eastern Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Below giant Oahe Dam, for example, there are not only spawning runs of rainbow and brown trout but also runs of chinook and coho salmon. Fly fishermen have not discovered the cold-water trout fishing in these areas.

 

Gary had one more section in this article, The Future. It was his thoughts on the future of the Missouri and this was 1982. Along with this final column will be a PDF of STATEWIDE FISHERIES MANAGEMENT PLAN for the Missouri and for the Drainages: Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, Smith. It is interesting to compare what was the Missouri in the early 1980’s to today. The Missouri from Holter Dam is not the “under used” fishery that Gary experienced, but I believe the river holds even more fish per mile than when Gary wrote this article so one could say the Missouri River has survived beautifully.