Montana, 6th - 21st August 2013

After the rain drove us out of Colorado, our first stop was on the Bighorn River at Fort Smith on the Crow Indian Reservation. On our first evening we strolled along the riverbank, spotting the largest snake we'd ever seen in the wild and giving it a wide berth!

No I'm not hiding up here from the snake!

Fishing below the dam at Afterbay

Got another one!

We spent the next two days floating down the river from Afterbay to Three Mile Access. The river seemed to be much busier with boat traffic than on our last visit in September but less busy with fish!

First we dawdled near the dam, chasing the large fish hanging around in the swift water. We fished as we drifted downstream, jostling for position with a large number of float boats piloted by professional guides. Once we'd drifted downstream a stretch, Christine would frantically paddle back upstream, so we could repeat the drift. We soon realised that paddling against the stream was considerably easier without the fisherman, who was one and a half times the paddler's own weight, sitting in the back. Phil would disembark and hike back up the river on foot. This spectacle kept the professionals entertained, particularly when Christine would stop to sup from her cup of tea in between trips.

Finally we abandoned the dam and continued our three mile float downstream, landing nine fish en route before being reunited with Harvey, who had been efficiently relocated by the vehicle shuttle service.

Our second day of floating didn't go quite so well, mostly due to a massive thunderstorm that struck when we were half way through. The rain was so heavy that we had to haul the canoe from the water and turn it upside-down to stop it filling with water. Meanwhile we tried to shelter beneath some very sparse bushes on the river bank, eating our soggy sandwiches.

It wasn't long after seeking refuge that we discovered our rain jackets were no longer waterproof. Once the rain stopped we continued our paddle, the paddler a little reluctant as she shivered in the front of the boat, still trying to dry out in her sodden clothes. The fisherman valiantly continued his pursuit of the fish and had landed three before the paddler announced she was headed for home, if he was interested in a ride!

Next day we headed for the “big city lights” of Bozeman, camping at a noisy Walmart store, before pushing on to the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. Our route took us over some isolated roads and there was a small panic about fuel on the way. Luckily we managed to track down a small general store with a fuel pump outside, just in the nick of time.

Is there any room under that shrub for me?

At Rombo Campground, our favourite campsite, number two, was occupied, so we gave number six a try and realised that we like it even better. It had the added advantage of being located directly on the river, allowing the fisherman to make a cast whenever the urge came over him. This usually turned out to be when he was ill-prepared, just trying out a new fly he'd tied on. Invariably he'd hook a fish at these times, requiring the help of the fishing assistant, who would scramble through the fallen trees, balancing precariously on the edge of the river, over-extended so the landing net would reach the water. One one such occasion Phil even managed to hook a fish on each of the two flies on the one line, causing chaos! Two different species, a rainbow and a cutthroat on one line, what were the chances?

There are worse ways to spend your birthday!

What's the chances?

Our bike excursions up the West Fork of the Bitterroot landed plenty of fish, hunted from the bank of the river, beside the road. However, the biggest fish seemed to hang out just behind camp site number six!

Despite our vow the previous year to never float the West Fork of the Bitterroot in our canoe ever again, one morning we found ourselves doing exactly that, after the kind camp ground host, Rick, gave us and our canoe a lift upstream. About a half hour into our trip we began to wonder just what we had been thinking to carry out this hare-brained idea again! We hurtled down rapids, squeezing between large rocks strewn in the shallow river, often just below the surface, effectively making them invisible. These conditions weren't the best for fishing from the canoe and only one fish was landed. We arrived back at camp site number six, soaked by a wave we'd taken over the bow and renewed our vow not to repeat this madness!

It was only on our return visit, a few weeks later that Rick, the host, pointed out what he referred to as “the widow maker” in our camp site. Hanging precariously above our RV, a large fallen branch was caught up in a lower branch, waiting to drop down on the unsuspecting campers below. As soon as we'd left, he quickly closed off the camp site until the Forest Service could deal with the errant branch but “hadn't liked to move us when we looked so settled!” Gulp.

West Fork Bitterroot

Hunting fish by bicycle.

Our next stop was another repeat of a reckless an adventure from the previous year! We headed to Ennis for a rare night out at the Gravel Bar, where we enjoyed live music from a local musician and ended up with hangovers reminiscent of the previous year. We did manage to move on to Raynolds Pass fishing access on the Madison River the next morning. On the way we gave a lift to a French Canadian Hitchhiker, we entertained us for the trip.

Phil was on the river early the next morning, landing six fish before breakfast. Later we headed downstream, without much success until on the return trip, a 16” brown trout took the large grasshopper fly Phil tried. Another three trout like the pink “San Juan Worm” he offered up later in the day before a whopper broke his line just before dark.

Walking the river bank was always an interesting wildlife experience and at one point the fisherman called the photographer over to take a look at something interesting. Christine immediately set to work, snapping pictures of the long snake lurking in the edge of the river. Apparently the snake which he hadn't spotted wasn't the reasons for Phil calling her over and he pointed out an intriguing caterpiller in the bushes nearby. Two photos for the price of one!

Brown with a taste for grasshopper.

Madison River wildlife safari!

Madison River view

Sunset and smoke

As we made our way back upstream, a wall of smoke from forest fire a few miles away, advanced on us and plunged us into a sudden and surreal fog. Fortunately later in the afternoon the wind changed direction, allowing us to enjoy the views again.

Kelly from the Slide Inn Fly Shop suggested we try fishing at Quake Lake, five miles down the road, so we took a camp site there. Reaching the lake from the camp site was no mean feat, involving a walk down a very steep and slippery trail to the water. On seeing this we decided that the next day's fishing float would be on the one man float tube rather than the canoe as this would be easier to carry down the hill! Quake Lake was a real gem, with abundant wildlife and during the evening fish from the shore, we were entertained by beavers, slapping their tails in annoyance at our presence. Even from the shore, Phil managed to land two large trout.

Quake Lake

Floating through the hatch.

In geological terms, Quake Lake was just a baby, having been formed in 1959. A very strong earthquake caused a massive and deadly rockslide, damming the Madison River to form the lake. The trees which had been located on the original riverbank, now stood eerily, their skeletal trunks emerging from the lake. Phil enjoyed the hatch which was well underway while he floated on his float tube, catching three good sized trout. Meanwhile Christine watched the spectacle of a bald eagle trying to take out a large grey heron, without success. The resulting “Mexican stand-off” between the two large birds was a noisy and stunning spectacle.

Guess the hatch is on!

The fishing was so enjoyable that Christine volunteered to head back to Harvey and bring lunch back down, so Phil could carry on fishing. This turned out to be a major mistake as the journey involved a dodgy crossing of Beaver Creek on top of a slippery fallen tree trunk. It was on the return trip that Christine took an unplanned dip into the icy water. Everything on her person, except for the sandwich, safely sealed in a zip lock back, was sodden, leading to an interesting strip tease on the river bank. It seemed we would be camera shopping when we returned to Bozeman next day to pick up our friends at the airport......

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