There are two classes of water which make the highest appeal to the imagination and the emotion. There are those which are unknown and unfished, whose mysterious depths may contain anything, and which you are the first to explore. Everyone who has fished such knows with what expectation and awe you draw near. But an emotion equally strong, though different, is given by fishing a river which has been fished for centuries. As I walk its banks I like to think of those who walked before me.
—John Waller Hills in "A Summer on the Test"
When I was asked to write about a "dream creek" I thought immediately of several, and to choose among them I imposed some criteria known to be of interest to experienced dreamers.
It must be old enough to satisfy Sparse Grey Hackle's condition that angling is tradition; anglers of taste and intelligence must have walked its banks for at least a century. Contrary to Sparse's doctrine, however, it must contain an average run of good-sized trout and not a few monsters, and yet the largest fish must take an interest in only the smallest flies. It must be a dry-fly creek par excellence and, of course, good as well for sunk fly and nymph. And there must be something unexpected about it.
The first time I came upon Armstrong's Creek, in the Montana valley called Paradise, I was startled by what I saw and unaware of its significance. To the west lay the foothills of the Gallatin Range; to the east, rising sharply to an 11,200-foot peak, the Absarokas, "land of the raven," named for a noble race of hunters and fishermen, the Crow Indians. My friend Dan Bailey and I were looking for ducks. It was December and 23° below zero. On our way across a plain of snow that lay over the land we came on the creek, cutting its clear, green way through banks of ice. As we stood there, guns under arms, gazing at this wonder, a trout rose and slashed his tail as he turned down. Then another and another. The creek was boiling. I never saw the hatch but Bailey told me about the snow fly, a tiny Diptera, or true fly, that hatches in the winter and is named not for its own color but for that of the landscape into which it usually emerges. The snow fly is gray to near-black and may be represented by the Black Quill or Mosquito No. 18, or No. 16 with a short-shank hook. What I did not immediately realize was that I had seen the reason why this creek is one of the finest and "oldest" trout streams in the United States, and a creek upon which nature and custom have imposed the most rigorous conditions of fly-fishing and conservation.
April 7, 1958
SUMMER IN PARADISE
It was several years before I saw the creek again and then it was summer, and paradise. From the meadow through which it flows the snow still showed, as it always does in the high crevasses of the Absarokas. Beyond them, the wilderness, the proximity of which one never forgets. Around about lay the great, green-yellow, half-irrigated, half-prairie-like valley, western in its vastness—15 miles wide, 40 long—through the center of which winds the Yellowstone, the stateliest of western rivers. Overhead, phantom storms gather, blacken, blow and vanish. The creek, a tributary of the Yellowstone, is just one mile long and, fortunately, too low to be tapped for irrigation. It starts from the ground in one great gush and flows gently, steadily, constantly and firmly, 100 to 200 feet wide and waist-deep, on its brief course to the river. Thickets of tall grass, shrubs, river willows, wild roses and myriad growths hedge its banks. Hereford cattle of the Armstrong Ranch, one of the finest herds in Montana, grunt their pleasure as they graze in the meadow or stumble across the fords and into the cottonwoods. Here and there mallards, blue heron, porcupines, families of pretty skunks; innumerable small birds streaking from cover to cover. There is shade in which to lie and rest or write a letter. In the still evening, the watery clump of the otter, the slap of the beaver, the slow glide of the muskrat—a river-jungle oasis in a sub-arid air and an angler's pastoral.
Spring creeks are a peculiar species of water. The essence of their peculiarity lies in their stability: their mean temperature favors constant growth in the life within them the year round; neither ice nor flood scours their bottom. And so they are unusually productive beyond all measures based upon other kinds of water, and yield hatches of flies even when the air is below zero—though I can't imagine how the flies like it after they emerge. Armstrong's flows into a great river, yet its trout run on the average larger and are relatively more numerous than those of the river. It is a poor creek for spinning tackle, for the rig tangles in its grasses; only fly rods are seen in the creek. Along its edges, the fly-fisher wades through beds of water cress. In the center of the creek the grass grows long and thick and supports pads of moss on the surface. Across any 40 feet of line many currents of different widths and speeds will torture the fly from its natural course and put down a rising trout. A thousand tiny whorls animate the surface, some made by convoluting currents, some—easily distinguishable—by the unseen twisting motion of rising trout. So silent is the creek that one can hear the sip and suck of the trout when the hatch is on, as it is likely to be between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon; and from the size of the rise, typically smaller than a tulip, there is no way to tell whether the trout is a 10-incher or a four-pounder.
LARGE TROUT, SMALL FLIES
For reasons I do not know, the duns that emerge, flutter over and sail down this water in fleets of hundreds of thousands are small, and the trout like them even smaller. Your No. 14 Light Cahill, riding between two stretches of moss in the direction of a ring where flies steadily disappear, looks like a flagship, and the trout appears to think so too, for he stays down a while after it passes over him. No. 18 the trout likes, and when he goes off with it into the grass, he usually makes short work of the 5 or 6x leader required of so small a fly. Some anglers indulge themselves with a No. 20 hook, and if it is not tied with feathers appropriate to larger sizes (as it often is), it is a great delicacy, much enjoyed—and safely—by the trout. The optimum size is No. 16, small enough to be reasonably attractive, and large enough to take a leader with the strength to hold the fish. Often it is better to trim a No. 16 before going to a No. 18. Although the trout are extremely shy of leader and drag, they are almost indifferent to the angler when the hatch is on. The observation of a number of anglers who fish the creek is that drag is the overriding consideration. It calls for a short float and intensive casting.
A pale yellow dun, represented by the Light Cahill, is the fly most often seen on the creek, but they are all there, from olives to white. There is a very pale, almost white fly, called the "Meloche" after Gil Meloche, a great angler of the region. It is a fly to remember. And at times there is a range of dark duns, represented by the Quill Gordon and the Adams.
It is to the rise that one must usually fish. But there is no one best way to approach the trout. I have seen Paul Stroud of Marshall Field stride down the center of the creek, careless of movement and splash, and cast his fly quickly to one bank and then the other, to the rise or to a likely place, and the trout tumble over themselves to get on his hook. And I have seen the methodical retired Minnesota sportsman Phil Fjeldman, a habitué of the creek, work the water slowly, carefully and thoroughly, and bring the big ones to his fly.
The easiest way to reach the creek is from the main ranch road, 200 yards beyond the first cluster of ranch buildings. A dirt track to the left another hundred yards across a dry meadow brings your car up against a fence, where you leave it, or you may turn right a couple of hundred feet and leave it under the trees, in either case only a few steps from the creek at about its mid-point.
I am able to distinguish six major sections of the creek, three above and three below this point; in a pinch the creek could contain six rods, one to each of these sections. Upstream through a couple of meadows and beyond a labyrinth of corrals is a ranch bridge over the creek. Above the bridge, where the creek rises, is a pool which fishermen, at the request of the owner of the ranch, Paul Armstrong, leave to him. It is the only place on the ranch that is posted. Trout can be seen lying under the bridge but they are all but impossible to cast to. Below the bridge is a shallows, not good. The second good section follows. It is a long pool, or slow run, as you wish to call it. One rod is good there for a day. A short shallows drops the creek into another long pool, a little wider and a little deeper and more heavily hedged. This pool I break arbitrarily in my mind into two parts, one above and the other below the cattle—and man—ford where the car was left standing. From there downstream an eighth of a mile is one unbroken beautifully running pool, which ends in a steep, narrow rapids. All the water from the bridge down to this rapids offers fly-fishing problems of the kind so exhaustively treated by the English writers—Halford, Skues, Hills and the like—from which I conclude that though the sky and mountains are western, the water and its conditions are universal and its problems international.
Below the rapids is a narrow fast run, the fifth section, where the wet fly is more often needed and larger and coarser flies have their place. An almost still branch of the creek enters here from the east. Below, the creek widens to where a fence lies across it. Below the fence, the sixth section of my count, the creek widens further and grows deeper; here is the last chance to cross over, just above the point at which a small branch of the Yellowstone joins the creek. From there on for 300 yards to the main river, the water is deep and slow. At the confluence of the creek and the swift, wild water of the river there is the turbulence of a great and violent event.
Where do the trout of Armstrong's Creek come from—are they native to the creek or migrant or mixed? It appears that they are mixed, for some appear to live there at all times, and Paul Armstrong for 60 years has seen big ones come up to spawn in the feeder brooks around its source. The creek, with its perfect year-round conditions, is clearly a breeding ground for the big river, and this fact causes its charm to be like that of unfished water "whose mysterious depths may contain anything." No matter how often one has fished it, the creek retains this mystique. Is the dimple on the water a little one-, or two-, a three-, or a four-pounder, or better? Is he a Loch (brown), a rainbow, a native (cutthroat) or a rare brook or, in the lower regions, merely a white-fish? Will he disappear in the weeds or stay in the clear? One expects only surprises.
Last year I had a surprise. It was mid-July, the second-last day of a brief visit. I fished down the creek to the river and took to the down side at the confluence. From either side of the mouth of the creek the longest cast could not reach to the center, where the main bodies of water meet and rip and roil. Out there, out of reach, this day, disporting themselves was the largest congregation of big, rising trout that I have ever seen anywhere, a veritable convention of the giants of the Yellowstone, rising like salmon shaking lice, in high twisting leaps and landing back down like logs. Futilely from below I cast out toward them, and caught a dozen trout up to a pound and a half, not exactly Sparse's idea of a fishless day but at this time only the measure of failure. Occasionally an island of the center water, by virtue of the freak currents, would sweep down in front of me carrying its cargo of great trout, one or two of which would rise within reach but none of which would take the fly, though I offered it dry and wet and in the form of the nymph and the streamer. The following day I returned with Dan Bailey and together we had the same experience, from which he concluded that they were not rising to flies, and both of us surmised that they were river trout performing some piscatory ceremony preparatory to going up the creek. So prevalent was this view that I could persuade no one around the fly shop in town to make the effort of trying to catch them after I left.
Very well, but what about the tradition, those who have walked these banks before me? I shall tell you as Paul Armstrong has told it to me.
Long ago, when the Sioux were driven west, they drove the Crow before them, until they came to the mountains. In the summertime the Sioux, around what is now Miles City, Montana, went farther up the Yellowstone, as far as what is now Livingston. There the retreating Crow took Route 89, as it is presently designated, to the south through a canyon, into Paradise Valley. The valley lies just north of Yellowstone Park, whose geysers the Sioux regarded as evil spirits. Hence the Sioux would go no farther than Livingston, and the Crow, less afraid of the spirits than of the Sioux, found the valley a summer haven. Knowing good water when they saw it, they pitched their conical tepees not far from the spring creek and went fishing for the big blue suckers that lined the bottom as well as for the trout in the grassy pools. No doubt there were fishermen there before the Crow, but the Crow established the tradition of the creek as a great fishing water.
Two of the first white settlers in the valley, Fred Butler and his brother, found this out when they came through in a wagon in the year 1869, camped at the head of the creek and concluded that this was what they had gone West for. As they set up camp, however, they observed the Crow gathering for a powwow on a nearby ridge, an unfriendly sign from the usually friendly tribe. The Butlers were soon given to understand that friendliness did not extend to poachers. That was the year the first cattle arrived in Montana, from Texas, 20 years before Montana became a State of the Union, two years after John M. Bozeman, who built a gold-rush road through the Gallatins, was killed by the Piegans on Mission Creek east of where Livingston was founded, seven years before Custer's last stand against the Sioux to the southeast on Little Big Horn. The Butlers planned to live near the Crow and so the Crow kept the creek and the Butlers went up the valley and settled below Emigrant Peak, where Fred's son Floyd now lives.
SOLDIERS AND SETTLERS
How then did Armstrong get the creek? The Crow left the valley and went to settle on a reservation elsewhere. In the late 1870s a Major Pease stationed at Fort Ellis (Bozeman) came over the mountain and squatted at the head of the creek. Not long afterward, a General Brisbin bought out Pease and, what with homesteading and desert land claims, set up a 1,100-acre ranch. Many fish were caught in the creek and taken over the mountain to Fort Ellis in the Gallatin valley. In 1886, two sportsmen, James and Win H. H. (Doc) King of Jacksonville, Illinois, bought the ranch for a hunting and fishing lodge. James was a merchant, Doc was a surgeon. A rancher, O. T. Armstrong, who had come from Missouri in 1878, rented the ranch from the King brothers and worked it while the sportsmen brought hunting and fishing parties out from the East. In the 1890s Armstrong bought out the King brothers, and put their land together with his own 400 acres and so made the 1,500-acre ranch of today. O. T.'s son Paul, the present owner, was born on the ranch and grew up fishing the mile-long creek. Paul is a tall, weathered, gentle, statesmanlike rancher who changes to clean overalls in the evening. One could easily imagine him a worthy member of the U.S. Senate. His ranch house sits above the spring that gives rise to the creek, and each night he falls to sleep to its tumbling music. He likes to fish and he likes fishermen—a tradition of the ranch continued by his son-in-law and present operator of the ranch, Allyn O'Hair.
The fisherman respond in kind. Never is a gate left open or a piece of paper or a tin can left behind. The cattle are undisturbed. Most of the fish are caught on fly and released, though there is no objection to one's keeping a few. It is a good creek for the experienced angler who would walk the banks which the Crow, the soldiers of the outposts, the early settlers, sportsmen and ranchers have walked before him.
6 WIDE DEEP WATER POWERFUL CONFLUENCE WITH RIVER
5 FAST WATER STRONG CURRENT ON EAST BANK
2 SLOW RUN SHALLOWS, NOT GOOD
1 PRIVATE RESERVE ABOVE BRIDGE
HOW TO GET THERE
WHAT TO BRING
Route to Armstrong's Creek. Armstrong's Creek, surrounded by private land, extremely difficult to fish and bound by the convention that its trout are usually to be played but not creeled, is recommended only to the most experienced and intrepid fly-fisherman. It has particular merit as a dry-fly creek and it takes high capability to get a fish out of it. However, it flows into the great Yellowstone River in the heart of a great trout-fishing country, not far from the Gallatin, the Madison, the Missouri and other incomparable fishing waters worth traveling a couple of thousand miles to reach.
The creek is about eight miles south of Livingston, Montana. Livingston is on Route 10, a regular stop on the Northern Pacific Railroad. It can be reached by air taxi from Billings. By car out of Livingston, take Route 89. At about 4½ miles is Carters Bridge. Leave Route 89 and continue straight on a dirt road (in 1959 this road will be the main paved road). About three miles down this road is a sign "Armstrong's Ranch," and a ranch road left. Take this road to the first group of ranch buildings, stop and say hello to Mr. O'Hair, then turn right 200 yards and then off the road through a meadow a hundred yards to the fence. Leave car there. The creek is just beyond.
Tackle recommendations. A light, delicate, limber rod, fine leaders and small flies are essential. A conventional eastern stream rod, 7½ or 8 feet long, weight 3½ or 4½ ounces respectively, is commonly used. Leaders: 4, 5, or 6x, 9 to 14 feet long. Fly sizes: Nos. 16 to 20; No. 16 is optimal. Flies: Light Cahill, Adams, Quill Gordon, Meloche and indeed the whole spectrum of artificial May Flies and other flies and nymphs. Bailey's Fly Shop in town, one of the finest in the country, has what it takes, including information.
Licenses and laws. A nonresident season fishing license in Montana is $10; a six-day license is $3. The limit (not relevant for the creek, where few are taken) is 10 fish if they are rainbows and cutthroats; an additional five browns (Lochs), or if they are all browns, 15. The limit is also specified by weight: 10 pounds plus one fish. Next year (1959) the limit is expected to change to a unique computation by total number of inches of trout laid end to end, with no computation by numbers or weight. The fisherman next year may be allowed 84 inches of trout, which will be a drastic cut in the present limit.
The basic Montana season for trout this year is May 25 to November 30, and this goes for the creek. Certain rivers, however, are open all year round. Among them are the Yellowstone, the lower Gallatin and the Missouri. Strangely, there is good fly-fishing in these rivers in winter when the weather is good. This year, when it was so cold in the East, fly-and spin-fishermen were out on the Yellowstone every midday in air temperatures above 50°, and catching fish.