San Diegans chase trout along Montana’s storied Missouri River

Jim Brown, of the San Diego area, picked up a 21-inch brown trout this month on the Missouri River near Craig, Mont.

CRAIG, Mont. — One summer in early June, Montana trout fishing guide Zach Scott rowed his drift boat around a bend in fast-moving Rock Creek southeast of Missoula.

What awaited tested his reaction time — and cardiovascular system.

“We were in a small side channel, and we were on top of a big bull moose,” said Scott, 28, in his seventh season working the meandering waterways of the western part of the state. “He wouldn’t get out of the way. We were like 20 yards away, and the water was moving pretty good.

“I had to row as hard as I could so we didn’t run into him and get trampled. It was like a slow-motion car wreck with my raft and a moose, but he finally ran off.”

In Montana, the fishing experience isn’t limited to what’s in the water. It’s also what’s around it and, sometimes, on top of it.

The snaking rivers and streams romanticized by the 1992 movie “A River Runs Through It,” wind off in all directions, across one of the least populated states in the nation. Only Alaska and Wyoming claim fewer people per square mile.

The abundance of aquatic wealth staggers. Scott, of Missoula Fly Fishing Outfitters, said there are 300 miles worth of floatable water within an hour’s radius of the company’s namesake city.

“Our access to the water is unique,” he said. “The stream access law allows public recreation on any (navigable) of water in Montana. As long as you’re in the stream bed and you got into the river through a public access, you can fish anywhere you want.

“You can’t go through someone’s yard or property, but you can fish it as long as you stay in the stream. In Colorado, there’s a lot of private water. Not here.”

As the state shook off its winter slumber this month, a group from San Diego County explored just eight miles of all that bewildering beauty. Kevin McNamara of Poway, Calif., and Jim Brown of Tierrasanta, Calif., joined me, along with guides Russell Parks and Scott, on a section of the famed Missouri River from Craig to Mid Canon.

McNamara, 69, experienced the potential of the river in one jarring moment.

Just after lunch on the shore of a small island, he flipped out the fly-fishing setup — a strike indicator, split shots and two spaced flies in just a couple of feet of water.

The moment was over almost as soon as it began.

“The viciousness of that strike, it tore my leader off the line,” said McNamara, a semi-retired real estate manager, broker and veteran of planning committees in Poway and Rancho Penasquitos among other county projects. “I’ve never had a strike like that by a trout in my life.

“It took everything. The whole setup. Pretty cool.”

The bruising brown trout jumped out of the water, trying to shake away the gear — a taunt Scott jokingly labels as a fish “giving you the middle fin.”

The float began in Craig, a sneeze of a community that only has breath in its lungs because of fly fishing. The road through the unincorporated area features six businesses — half of which are fly shops. A place called Joe’s Bar opens at 6 a.m. When you ask if there are customers at that time, the spitfire of a bartender grins.

“Honey, it’s Craig,” she said.

At this time, a place like the Missouri is one of the few fishable places in the region. Snowmelt roaring through the area makes almost all other waterways unfishable. This section of the Missouri, however, is a controlled tail water flowing from Holter Dam.

Scott, an Oklahoma guy who chose the University of Montana because of fishing opportunities at its picturesque doorstep, hunts for seams in the flow, riffles and slightly quicker water.

On a 5-weight fly rod, I landed eight rainbows and four whitefish. Among the fish Brown boated, one was a hybrid “cut-bow” — an intermingling of rainbow and cutthroat trout.

Nymph fishing produced, but so did spinning gear a day earlier. Brown hauled in a mix of trout walking the Missouri’s shoreline — including a rainbow and brown in excess of 20 inches.

“I think I was struck by the fact that I only saw one fish under 16 inches,” said Brown, the retired manager of the San Diego City Lakes Program. “When Kevin caught it, our guide just held it and said, ‘I’ve never seen (a small) one like this here.’ ”

McNamara, who until recently owned a Montana ranch neighboring the National Bison Range, estimated he has fished 15 to 20 waterways across the state. Even as we battled some rain and wind, the potential bubbled.

“You know what, the Missouri on a spring day in decent weather has to be one of the best rivers in the country,” he said. “We got bad weather. Can you imagine what it can be like on other days?”

Keep your eyes peeled — for the riffles, and the moose.

Miller writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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