Around Christmas of 2015, I started making a list of what I wanted to do in 2016 and what I feasibly could do. Of course, we’re talking about going on fishing trips.
After taking up the sport of fly fishing while working in Roanoke, Virginia, I’ve become quite hooked on it (no pun intended) and have used my former career as a journalist to write and tell some stories about it now.
One of the trips that came across my radar was a hosted trip with Dan Pribanic and the crew at Chagrin River Outfitters to Twin Bridges, Montana. Since I moved home, CRO has been home base for me thanks to their outstanding customer service and local knowledge of fishing here in the Midwest. Going there is more of a central hangout than walking in and out with someone saying thank you for buying this and that from us.
When first looking at the price of a 6-night/5-day trip to Montana, I was a little bit intimidated. I’ll be 27 next month, so at my age I’m used to flying economy on Frontier or some cheap airline, staying and someone’s cousins/friends/uncles place and doing a trip as economical as possible. But when my company announced it was being sold, a new wave of opportunity found worked its way into my life which allowed me new
perspective on what I should be doing in my mid-20’s.
I talked the trip over with Dan and the staff at The Stonefly Inn in Twin Bridges, MT and knew I had to pull the trigger. After writing this piece and reflecting on the trip, I can honest to God say, it was an experience I’ll never forget. The price was well worth it.
Six of us from the shop met Sunday July 10th in Bozeman and shuttled in a Suburban down to Twin Bridges, where we were greeted with cooler weather that felt like steelhead season, but enjoyed a nice dinner and several Moscow Mules that night in front of a campfire. When you get in, there’s a welcome sign for your group and a menu as what’s coming for dinner. Guide assignments and itinerary for the next day are already scheduled with times for breakfast and departure. They are very organized at the Stonefly Inn.
Monday morning was extremely cold as the mountains received measurable snow the night before. Yes, the mountains get snow 12 months per year there. Breaking up into our groups, with some heading to the Big Hole River and my group heading to the Madison River. I brought my 5, 6 weight rods knowing we’d be throwing nymphs almost all day. The guides have all the equipment needed to be successful if you’re missing something and backups in case you break a stick. Oh and they have plenty of flies and leaders, so do not worry about terminal tackle if you forgot something.
The cold weather brought the Whitefish out in masses on the Madison that morning. I believe our boat hooked almost a dozen before we found our first trout. But it wasn’t long before the trout started hitting and the water began to heat up a bit. We brought some beautiful rainbows and browns to the net and I landed an 18” beauty, probably my biggest bow to date. Yes, I know, I need to get out more if that’s my biggest bow, but it was a beautiful fish nonetheless.
Other guys on the Big Hole, had a successful day, and it was a bit warmer on that end of town not having to drive through the pass to Ennis through Virginia City, which is the definition of a western town right out of a Clint Eastwood movie. I nymphed on the Madison all day, whereas some of the other groups threw some dry flies. After day one, everyone caught fish and was in good spirits as another night of eating, drinking and fishing stories approached.
Day two, was a different animal. Dan and I teamed up and got to fish with Dan “Rooster” Leavens the Stonefly Inn owner. If you don’t know Rooster, look at any angling magazine and he is probably in some photo or advertisement including last months cover of American Angler.
We took a different route on Tuesday at Rooster made the call to hit Ennis Lake. I had heard some great things from him about this lake the previous two days, and to be honest lake fishing doesn’t bother me like some traditional fly fishing purists. Needless to say, we got on the lake around 8:30am and had fish rising around us literally all morning. Dan and I stuck some beautiful rainbows and had a great morning.
Eating lunch, the wind began picking up so Rooster made the executive call to find another stream, as the Callibaetis hatch which we were hoping to fish, never really got going. Being relentless, Rooster found water for us to fish and it did not disappoint. Even with Hoot Owl regulations on (some stretches of river closed at 2 pm), we had a great afternoon, with myself bringing a beautiful 16” Brown Trout to hand. The shock of hooking this fish generated a few “Holy Shits”!! out of my mouth, but thanks to Dan I was able to calm my nerves and land this fish! Spring creek fish are beautiful and this guy was no exception.
We got home and heard some great reports from other rivers and the other guys in our group really had an enjoyable Tuesday too. Reports from the Beaverhead were stellar as were reports from the Madison again. Alan Drennan of our group skated on Tuesday bringing a 20″ to hand on a Pale Morning Dun dry fly! Way to go! After two days, it was sure shaping up to be one of those weeks you tell people about for years to come.
We cashed in that night with some drinks, bonfires and s’mores prepared by Rooster’s two daughters. Needless to say, they were loaded with marshmallows and chocolate.
Wednesday the guides put their heads together and we headed to the Big Hole river. Our entire group spent that day there and it started out with a lot of fish hitting the chubby’s on top. As it warmed up though, the bite slowed, but we did have a good day of dry fly action and did bring a few decent fish to hand including a pure Yellowstone Cutthroat trout, first I have ever caught.
Double dry action, dry-dropper seemed to be the norm. While the fish were not the biggest on Wednesday, everyone caught fish and had some good dry fly action with risers almost all day long in spite of the temperatures getting into the 80’s.
With the cooler weather earlier in the week, the Hoot Owl regulations were lifted come Thursday. Only the Jefferson River was locked down due to warm temps and moss growing everywhere on the bottom. The other four rivers in the area were wide-open and we used that to our advantage to see some areas of water that hadn’t had the fishing pressure the past few days.
Our guide, Ryan took Dan and I over to the Madison River which upon arrival was already a better day than Monday seeing the snow had melted and it wasn’t low-40’s when we launched.
The day, did not start out well. Neither did Alan and Peter’s day who were on the same float as us. Both boats brought a few dinks to hand on the first stretch of the Madison but nothing to write home about. We decided to take a quick break, stretch out and let the water warm to get these trout moving.
Around 11 or so, we began picking up some fish just past the Cameron Flats area on the Madison, right at where the locals dub it the “Miracle Mile.” Just before lunch I tied into a nice 16” bow out of a riffle, which took me all the way to my backing. Streamside lunches are always good to recoup and get ready for the afternoon rush. Turns out Dan and I would need it.
Dan stuck a nice Brown Trout just a few minutes after lunch, as things started heating up. Ryan, knew exactly where all the buckets were and my God we stuck a fish in each hole including a few doubles. Having a good guide is essential on that river, especially since from bank to bank it is one constant riffle and maybe 2.5 feet deep consistently. To find drop offs is essential and Ryan knew where those were. That’s another great thing about the Stonefly as an outfitter, the guides are top-notch and know these streams like they are their own.
After a slow start, it turned into quite possibly the best fishing day I’ve had. From a quantity and quality standpoint there have been few days better in my young fly fishing career. Fish after fish were brought to hand and it was all in good company.
We weren’t the only ones that brought in big fish on Thursday. The Chagrin River Outfitters group had plenty of good action across Southwest Montana.
Friday, I tried a new technique of casting lead and bottom bouncing on the Beaverhead. It took me a minute to get warmed up, but Alan had no issues bringing some monsters to hand on the lower section by the dam. Jim, another member of our group was floating with Stonefly Inn guide, Gray, and every time Alan and I looked over Jim was hooked up with a fish.
Dan and Peter hit the Big Hole in hopes of dry fly action on Friday and came away with some fish. With the warmer temperatures everything came a bit early and dry fly fishing wasn’t as prolific as some had hoped, but we still got some, as there were great PMD and Yellow Sally hatches throughout Southwest Montana.
The final night ended with a steak dinner and some more campfire fish stories as the 2015 trip came to a close. For my first fishing trip out west and first real trip I actually had to board a plane for, I could not have asked for more.
The folks at the Stonefly Inn are first class and the group and clientele Dan Pribanic and Chagrin River Outfitters sets up made the trip enjoyable well beyond the fishing. Waders were not needed, we did wet wade for a few hours one afternoon, but most of the time, long-sleeved fishing shirts,
pants and a wide-brimmed hat were enough. You don’t need an Urban Sombrero, but something to keep the sun off your face. Shade was your friend after spending a full day baking in the hot sun. Layering is key to being comfortable in Montana. The low temperatures were in the 40’s and the high’s in the 80’s. Packing isn’t easy because of the variable temperatures, but a good base layer, fleece and fishing shirts and pants will do the
Some days that started with hoodies or fleece jackets ended up in shorts and rolled up sleeves. A dry bag to carry with you is essential so you can carry all your stuff with you while on the river.
If you are like me, I’m very indecisive and struggle in making decisions on what to pack. Shoes with vibram soles, Simms/Keen made a good set of shoes, layers and 5 and 6 weight rods are all you need. I used a 4 weight one afternoon on a spring creek with Rooster but other than that, the big water and potential of wind, made it a bit more difficult to get the fly out there on a lighter stick.
With all the fish we caught, the camaraderie and great hosting from Dan and the crew at the Stonefly, this trip will probably be an annual visit on my end. There’s no price tag on the experience I gained and the relationships I built on this trip. Sure, I was the youngest on the trip by 15 years, but that didn’t bother me. For those that love to fly fish, we know it’s not a younger mans game. I’m doing what I can to get younger men and women involved in the sport, but it’s tough.
If you are a trout dork like myself and enjoy catching trout in PA, NY, MI or any of the Midwest states, then this trip is for you. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for East Coast trout fishing. In fact, I think it’s more technical and irritating some days than the experience in Montana. But, there’s no place better than Twin Bridges, where you can experience a different type of fishing every day with different conditions, different water and different applications. It truly is a world class fishing experience in what many regard as the “Mecca” of fly fishing.
What separates Twin Bridges from your other western destinations and why I will continue to make this trip in the future is the wide-array of fishing you can experience. While the Jefferson River was out of commission with warm water temps and mossy bottom, we had plenty of other options for quality western US fly fishing. I can’t think of a location where you can be at numerous blue ribbon trout streams or lakes within an hour drive. Rooster’s guides and the local knowledge they possess make this not only a great trip but give you a quality product in return.
The rivers in Twin Bridges are not a total circus too. Access is easy and there are a lot more fish than people. If you go to Montana during the Salmonfly hatch, that’s on you, but I spent a few days around Montana after the trip and ended up visiting the Big Horn, east of Billings, and saw more drift boats and people than a Saturday morning at Helen Hazen on the Grand River steelhead fishing.
Next years trip with CRO is July 9-16, 2017. Had I not gone this summer, I would have always asked myself, “What if?” Moving forward, I’ll never have to ask that question again. When I’m married with kids, this week won’t ever be a regret. It’ll be a story I tell my family and encourage them to visit and fish Montana while they’re young and have the ability to do so.