Moods of Missouri
Welcome to Craig, a central Montana town consisting of three fly shops, a bar, a restaurant, and a mechanic. This is the land of trout, where flies and tippet are the talk of the town.
Words & Photographs: Jess McGlothlin
Montana's Missouri River, bisecting the northern Big Sky State, is storied around the globe for large brown trout, feisty rainbows, and a cowboy attitude. This is where keen anglers come to play, fishing under the depths of a cerulean-blue sky and basking in legendary hatches thick enough to coat vehicles and determined enough to survive the Great Plains wind.
The rhythm of the river replaces the nine-to-five routine of a normal workday; hours can be kept by the daily ebb and flow of fishing guides in and out of Craig, the epicentre of fishing in central Montana. A small village of 30-odd year-round residents, Craig consists solely of three fly shops, one bar, one seasonal restaurant, and one mechanic. This is the land of trout, where flies and tippet are the talk of the town, and a new drift boat is worthy of an honorary round at the bar.
While some people come and go, fluxing with the season like migratory waterfowl, a select few remain throughout the Montana winter, trading dry flies for articulated streamers and 5wts for switch rods. Flip-flops disappear, replaced by waders and an endless supply of base layers. For those who choose to make their home on the Missouri River front, living by the seasons and the river, trout fishing is both a language and a lifestyle.
The Missouri is an unforgiving mistress, harsh in the simmering summer heat and the dry wind that gusts from the Rocky Mountain front. Winter brings white snow that seemingly has a penchant for travelling on a horizontal plane, and night-time temperatures that can fall well below -30˚C. The shoulder seasons, as short as they are, can bring some balance between the two – spring-warm days with light winds are akin to nirvana, and as welcome as a shot of sturdy whiskey after a long float.
The river is known for trophy brown and rainbow trout; browns painted with rich colour, rainbows stuffed so chock-full of tricos the insects spill from their mouths when brought to the boat. The average fish size is an impressive 14 – 18", with brown trout caught each fall that top the 30" mark.
Anglers most commonly choose to face the legendary hatches and determined breezes with 5 and 6wt rods. In the chill of early spring and late autumn, when streamer fishing is at its peak, heavier switch and Spey rods have become more and more commonplace, their length allowing access to promising runs on the far side of the river. Summertime, with its nearly Arctic-length days, is a fisherman's paradise, though exceptionally warm seasons generally mean a temporary August lull.
Fly selection varies; during the peak summer season caddis and trico hatches are impressive, and locals swear by the Buzzball, a rust-coloured iteration of the Griffith's Gnat, as an all-purpose searching dry fly pattern. Other dries, such as the Purple Haze, Last Chance Cripple and Sparkle Dun, can also be found crowding guides' fly boxes. If the fish are not up-top, nymphing is a predictable way to bring fish to hand. Czech nymphs, Lightning Bugs, Pheasant Tails and Zebra Midges are all dependable options with which to stock one's box. The Missouri is also home to a healthy meat-eating brown trout population, and streamer patterns such as the Home Invader reign on overcast, chilly days. It's tempting to overthink fly selection, and an arriving angler's best option is to pop into a local shop and see which patterns are working.
At the close of the day, however, it is the river herself that is the veritable star of the show. With trout numbers continuing to rise every year, the fishery draws ambitious anglers from across the world, eagerly hoping to connect with a burly Montana salmonid. Come mid-summer, pillar-like swarms of tricos form impromptu architecture along the grassy banks, and caddis coat trucks, jackets, buildings, and the water itself. Mountain goats play along the rocky cliffs that adorn stretches of the river, and birds of prey regularly put anglers to shame with their own angling prowess.
Montana is a region reputed for its wilderness, for its light, for its magic. The Missouri River front disappoints on no count. Sunrises are painted a glossy golden, the light illuminating the water with modest patience. Sunsets are a blend of purples and pinks and oranges, cresting escalations of colour bright enough to challenge reality.
All said, the place is like something out of a movie. The land seems too scenic, too wild to still be in existence. The people are wild in their own right; personalities too large to be captured on film. And the trout – the true stars – are the poster children of it all: healthy, happy and existing in mind-boggling numbers. Listening to the quiet sipping of trout played against the soft rustle of the tall grasses, it's easy to imagine the Missouri as a place untouched, existing as it did hundreds of years ago. Long before stacked drags, graphite rods and breathable waders, the fish were here.
It is their water, a crisp statement they have no trouble in making.