An Irish Anglers World

Big Skies and Stoneflies

Jefferson Trout

Montana, USA, Summer 2009

Do all the best stories start in a hotel bar? I can’t say for sure, but this one certainly does. Marlborough, MA, USA, and this writer was unwinding over a few Sam Adams with Mark Corps and Rory Sheehan, work colleagues from the Irish Fisheries Board. Attending the Marlborough Fly Fishing Show with a view to highlighting and promoting Irish angling, a busy day at the office had morphed into a full blown sing song by late evening. The spontaneous Irish warbling attracted various resident guides, outfitters, and related show exhibitors, all intent on adding to the cultural exchange. Deep in the heart of the songs, harmonica playing, banter, and jokes, was one Dan “Rooster” Leavens, a fishing outfitter from Montana. Small in height and big in stature, there is no doubt that Dan’s stories and joke telling were a major contribution to what became a long and memorable evening.

Dan “Rooster” Leavens runs the Stonefly Inn, a fly fishing outfitters based in Twin Bridges, south west Montana, USA. Aware of rivers such as the Great Blackfoot, Clarke Fork, Big Hole, Madison, and Gallatin, through the writings of Mike Weaver and of course the film “A River Runs Through It”, thoughts of fly fishing in Montana had more been in the realm of dreams than reality. Sort of, “one day when the kids are reared I will do that”, never considering that the opportunity would eventually materialise. However, circumstance in 2009 intervened. A trip had already been planned and booked to visit relations in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. With the US border and Montana state line only 160 miles from Calgary a seed of possibility was sown. Hire a car in Calgary and drive to Twin Bridges, it’s only 600 miles give or take. With Mandy, my wife, in agreement a car was hired, contact made with Dan, and arrangements sorted to stay at the Stonefly for two days fly fishing (Myself) and horse riding (Mandy) in late June early July 2009.

Montana view

It is true, the earth is flat, well north Montana anyway. Travelling on highway 15 towards a planned overnight stop at Great Falls, the prairie stretched for 360 degrees as far as the eye could see. The sky hung like a blue and white hemisphere, blue merging into scorched green. Occasional farmsteads with silver silos rolled by, grass swayed in the breeze like a sea, and as we neared Great Falls flat topped buttes carved by wind and water began to appear. Mandy and I were now entering Lewis and Clarke country and would soon spy the Missouri River which would become a constant companion for the remainder of our journey to Twin Bridges. Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke led the third recorded transcontinental crossing of North America, the expedition working its way up the River Missouri between the years 1804 – 1806, subsequently laying much of the groundwork, for the future western expansion of the United States.

Leaving Great Falls the next morning, again on highway 15 we headed towards Helena, progressing to a small town called Boulder; from hence the final leg of our journey to Twin Bridges would be on country roads driving at a leisurely pace, while taking in a couple of touristy stop offs. Blue skies, settled weather, and temperatures in the high twenties had been with us since Calgary and were to stay for the remainder of the trip, a wonderful respite from the monsoon Irish summers of the previous two years. Highway 15 meandered through a valley cut by the mighty Missouri south west of Great Falls. The landscape, mountainous and covered by pine forest, widened and levelled out as we approached the city of Helena. With the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness to the east and Helena National Forest in front of us we said goodbye briefly to the Missouri River and journeyed on to Boulder where we got a first real sense of the American west.

Missouri River

From Boulder the first of two planned deviations found us heading towards the once prosperous mining town of Elkhorn, which went into decline after the gold and silver mine was closed in 1899. A real live ghost town twelve miles up a forest track, Elkhorn is isolated, well preserved, and still harbours one full time inhabitant, a Vietnam vet with an interesting life story. Taking in also the spectacular Lewis and Clarke caverns, towards evening we reacquainted ourselves with the Missouri River close to its confluence with the Jefferson. From there a twenty mile hop brought us into Twin Bridges.

Twin Bridges is a small town on the eastern edge of the Rockies located in a wide elevated river basin sandwiched between the Tobacco Root and Pioneer mountain ranges. The early settlers as I understand it called these river basins “holes”, and that is probably how the Big Hole River got its name. The flats appear to be fertile with ranching and farming quite evident. Water abstraction and irrigation I am sure are a constant management issue here. A distinctive feature common to the area are cottonwoods that follow the line of the rivers due to their requirement for water, and which mark the various streams and rivers out from a considerable distance.

Stonefly Inn

The Stonefly Inn is off the main drag on the right as one enters Twin Bridges from Whitehall a town located twenty miles to the north. Pulling in we spied Dan walking across the yard. “Just in time for dinner, grab a beer and make yourselves at home”. Within five minutes Mandy and I were tucking in to seafood pasta, quaffing red wine, and talking to guides, staff members, and lodge guests as if we had known them all our lives. This as we learned was the Stonefly way, fish hard all day, then relax and unwind with staff and guests of an evening in “The Roost”, a communal dining and social area. Later we were shown to our lodge, named after one of the rivers in the area, twin double beds, and ensuite bathroom, very homely and comfortable. Dan then set out our itinerary for the following morning and with that tired after our long day’s excersions we hit the hay.

After a self service breakfast where nothing is left to chance, in fact let it be said now, dining at the Stonefly be it breakfast, packed lunch, or dinner, especially dinner, is a first class experience. Eric the resident chef is passionate about his food and sources only the best of ingredients. Everything from spit roasted pig outdoor BBQ’s, to various Italian antipasti is fair game, and as for the desserts, Eric’s baked blueberry cheesecake is magic. Mandy, also a top grade chef, instantly recognised the talent and especially passion that Eric has for food.

Drift Boat

I digressed, after breakfast my first day on the water was to be spent with Dan floating the Jefferson, a wide fast flowing river created by the confluence of the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Ruby rivers. Leaving the lodge at 08.00am in Dans large by our standards 4×4 towing a clackacraft drift boat, we drove a short distance out of town before driving off road through a few fields to reach the river. Disturbing a couple of white tailed deer on our approach, five minutes had the boat in the water launching down a steep bank into a back eddy, then we were off.

The day was already hot, and wearing a wide brimmed Montana hat to keep the sun off fishing commenced. The Jefferson, post snow melt, was running a little high and Dan instructed that I would dead drift deep sunk nymphs through fishy pockets and along likely seams as he controlled and positioned the boat. Dan also stated that periodically we would pull in and bank fish likely areas, and that our drift would take us about ten miles downstream. A bite indicator was attached above the trace which contained a large stonefly imitation and a zonker type lure. Dan adjusted the depth, size, position, and type of fly/lure throughout the trip. He was always attentive but never in your face. In fact allowing for the guide/client professional aspect, the general atmosphere was like a day spent fishing with your best mate.

Dan "Rooster" Leavens with that lunker Trout

After twenty minutes of I will admit struggle to get to grips with the method Dan pulled in for a spot of fishing along a likely pocket. Casting a line from the bank the indicator went down and I set the hook into my first Montana trout, a wild Rainbow of about a pound and a half, a fine fish but small by Jefferson standards, as I was to find out. Releasing the fish Dan motioned for me to come over change flies and run them through a seam in front of where he was standing. With the thrill of catching the fish and finally getting to grips with the set up, I asked did he mind if I persevered for another few moments. “Not at all”, and with that Dan picked up his rod cast a line and wallop the rod buckled over.

He was fifty meters downstream and the current was flowing hard. Spray whipped up from the line as the reel sang and the fish tore off down river. In these situations and having seen the take instinct takes over. Before you could blink I had my line wound in, rod discarded, picked up the landing net, and was well below Dan who at this stage was fifty meters down stream from where he connected with the fish, ready to do the honours. There was no doubt this was a biggie and there would be no second chance. A slight bend pushed the flow towards our shore, the fish followed, in went the net and call it luck or chance but the most enormous, broad shouldered, golden, brightly spotted trout, I had ever seen was safely inside as I lifted.

Jefferson River Trout

Dan was shaking, “that’s a PB”. Damn it I was shaking too, and can genuinely say that if I saw no more fish for that day it would not have mattered, for this was special. Going ten pounds, the images do not do it justice, for this was “the” most superb wild Brown Trout. To have been not just a witness, but to have played a large part in its capture will stay with me for ever. Hands were shook, whoops and congratulations exchanged, and photos taken for posterity. Then it was off again. The day got hotter and with Dan’s encouragement and advice my fishing improved. At days end I landed 15 fish to include, Rainbow, Whitefish, and Brown trout to close on five pound. Tired but happy I helped Dan retrieve the craft and we headed for home, a few beers, and another gourmet delight thanks to the skilled hand of Eric. Mandy meanwhile had enjoyed a fine day hiking with Dan’s wife Dayna high in the hills above Twin Bridges. Two satisfied customers and that was only day one.

Day two saw Mandy heading off for a spot of trail riding on a local ranch. On return she was delighted as the rancher gave her a fine animal and more or less left her to it. This suited Mandy down to the ground as she is an accomplished horse woman and does not like controlled situations. She was able to explore and that is what she did. Meanwhile Dan hooked me up with Greg Bricker, a guide originally from Pennsylvania, who splits his work time between Montana and Chile. A wad of tobacco wedged in his cheek, we headed off early towards a get in point on the Big Hole River somewhere near a place called Divide. The river flows south here through a semi arid valley flanked by the Pioneer Mountains to the west and running parallel with a section of highway 15 to the east. The location is beautiful, cottonwoods are a constant, ranches, low scrub covered cliffs, and always in the distance “The Rockies”. A wide river, clear with a brown peaty tinge, combining in this section fast running flats interspersed with riffles, the fishing I can only describe as superlative.

Angling Guide Greg Bricker on the Big Hole River

Greg, sporting a similar 4×4 and drift boat set up as Dan, fairly rocketed along the roads to our start point, filling me in on the fishing to expect and methods we would use that day. We discussed the relationship between guide and client. Essentially, the less fishing advice given as the day progresses and the more discussion on topics other than fishing usually denotes a successful outing. How that proved to be. Greg set me up with a similar rig as the previous day but included a small nymph called a yellow sally along with the streamer type lure. Like the previous day Greg also worked the boat back and forward across the river seeking out various fish holding lies. Small feeder streams, runs, seams, pockets, he knew them all. Initially “set” was Greg’s mantra every time the bite indicator sank until ten minutes in I got the message, and we never looked back.

The day went in a blur of constant activity, Greg working the boat and I responding to his encouragement and advice. We set targets, joked, conversed, and at days end, well, without doubt it was the best days fly fishing I have ever experienced. Five species out of the six native to the river, Brown Trout, Brook Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Whitefish. 41 fit, healthy, and hard fighting fish averaging two pound weight netted and released, and to cap it all a get out fish, hooked as we were beaching the craft at the end of the trip, the tradition being to play it from the bank, which I did. Greg had joked about giving me the trip for free if I landed the sixth species, a Grayling. This led to some leg pulling every time a fish was hooked, especially in relation to the get out fish. The Grayling however did not materialise, and who cares, the partnership resulted in a fine haul and Greg deserved his wages that day, and some. The journey back to the lodge under a warm evening sun went in relative silence after the exuberance of the day. Tired and deep in thought I knew that Montana, its blue ribbon rivers, and glorious expansive vistas would draw me back before too long.Big Hole Brownie

That evening over dinner I thanked Greg for a wonderful day. “You can fish with me anytime Ashley. Good luck for the rest of your holiday”. The following morning Mandy and I got up early to bid goodbye and thank you to Dan, his wife Dayna, and their staff for their professionalism and hospitality during our stay. The sun shone down from a cloudless sky as we pointed the car south towards the town of Dillon and highway 15, from there to continue our Montana adventure northwards towards Glacier National Park and eventually back into Canada. But that is another story…

Fact file: The Stonefly Inn (Fly Fishing Outfitters)
409 North Main Street
Twin Bridges
Montana, USA
Contact: Mr. Dan “Rooster” Leavens
Phone: (406) 684 5648

Ashley Hayden © May 2010