Wild Fish Montana

In the late 1960s, Montana experienced declining trout populations across the most popular rivers in the state. A young biologist named Dick Vincent was tasked with finding the cause. In his studies, he found that the population declines were most precipitous wherever the state was planting hatchery trout to supplement the fishing. It turned out that adding more fish was actually resulting in less fish to catch. It was so counter-intuitive that many people couldn’t believe his findings and he waged a lonely battle to stop the hatchery planting. In 1974, the state of Montana finally listened to Dick Vincent and the science, and canceled trout hatchery plantings in rivers statewide. The effects were immediate, profound, and fortunately for us, long lasting. Within four years, trout populations were up 800%, and trout biomass increased 1000%.

Today, Montana is the crown jewel of American trout fishing, and the beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars in annual fishing tourism. As participants in that wild-fish-tourism economy, the kids and I are thankful for the decision the state made back in 1974, and thoroughly enjoy the results. As these pictures from our visit last week demonstrate, the cold-water fish of Montana are healthy, gorgeous, and thriving. Not to mention valuable.

At the very top, a 25-inch native Yellowstone Cutthroat from a small, winding, high-elevation creek. Second from the top, one of the more than 5,000 incredibly strong trout per mile from the Madison. And just above, a gorgeous little brookie from a boulder-strewn tributary.

Another of many feisty, bright rainbows we found. The health and vibrancy of these fish is spectacular.

Watching these native grayling track and attack dry flies in clear water and bright mid-day sun is something we’ll remember forever.

Same goes for the jewel-toned native cutthroats that seem to fill all of the smaller creeks we explored. We also landed good numbers of buttery-yellow, heavily spotted brown trout and native whitefish, too, but didn’t snap any shots. So we’ll wrap it up with yet another luminous Madison River rainbow. Here’s to wild fish!


Montana 4: Evenings

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Where was I? Oh, yeah…Montana. Every day was a new adventure; one day we drove down into Idaho and fished a gorgeous river near Ashton. On another, Yvon, the kids and I started fishing the Gallatin up high in the park where it’s a meandering meadow creek, then followed it north to where it turned into a medium-sized freestone river. And on yet another day, we took a break from fishing and headed into The Park to brave the circus around Old Faithful (it was 10 minutes late, crowded, and still spectacular) and look for wildlife (spotted bison, elk, bighorn sheep and a moose). Of course, we did have to stop for a few casts 0n the Gibbon and Firehole on the way back…

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Wherever we went, though, we wrapped up each day back on our “home waters” of the Madison. That’s Skyla watching and waiting for the evening hatch to start. I loved sitting with her in the warm evening light, feet dangling in the water, listening to the excitement in her voice when she spotted a rise.

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We often fished until almost pitch-black night, with bats swooping through the air, and that spooky feeling–a tingly mix of excitement and dread–that comes from being in a river in the dark. That’s Weston and Craig with a fat Madison River rainbow that chased down a big waking dry fly. I think the look on Weston’s face says it all. A huge thank you to Craig, Jackie and Yvon for kindness, patience, generosity, wisdom and just being plain fun to hang out with. We made the long drive home stoked on gratitude and memories that I know will last forever.


Montana 3: Rhythm

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One day we fished a medium-sized river flowing through potato and wheat fields. Once Yvon had Skyla rolling on her own with the tenkara rod (no reel), he helped Weston wade into position to try the same techniques with a regular fly rod. Soft-hackle wet fly, downstream swing, small twitches along the way and…FISH ON! I think each kid must have landed at least 20 fish in an hour, with lots of laughter, high fives and huge smiles.

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Another day we hiked around in The Park, searching for high-elevation brookies between waterfalls and in creeks meandering through glowing meadows.

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Once we found our rhythm, we started each day the same, with Weston washing the breakfast dishes and Skyla packing our lunch while I loaded gear into the car for our next adventure.

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But wherever we went, we ended each day back “home” on the Madison. Skyla, below, showing off her new tenkara skills. After yet another fantastic dinner at Craig and Jackie’s, we’d wader up and hit the 50-mile riffle ’til dark. That’s a rhythm I could really get used to.

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