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Vt. angler tests Montana waters

The second thing I noticed about the river was the incredible color of the stones beneath my feet. Though the dominant hues were various — dark and light shades of lavender, violet and magenta — there were also hues of green, blue, gray, yellow, red and brown. Most of the stones were solid colors, ranging in size from a pea or marble to the palm of my hand to a men’s size 15 workboot. But there were striped, mottled and speckled rocks as well.
That, as I said, was the second thing I noticed. The first was the temperature of the water. It was a chilly 47 degrees and my first step into the stream came as a bit of a shock. I had just spent two and a half days fishing in eastern Oregon on the Wallowa River where the water was about 72 degrees. My first afternoon there I had worn chest waders and had nearly baked. I learned my lesson and spent the rest of the weekend in Oregon wet wading.
Sunday evening, after our fishing trip, Marshall Curler dropped me off at the Tri-Cities airport just across the Columbia River in Washington and I flew to Missoula, Mont. I settled into another cheap motel near the edge of the city after midnight, arose at 7 a.m., got coffee and started the 90-minute drive east to Lincoln, where I would visit my old friend Keith Kelly, who was expecting me at 9 a.m. I was only a few miles along Route 200, heading upstream along the Blackfoot River, when I found myself on the edge of a flock of 20 or so bighorn sheep feeding on grass beside the road at the bottom of a steep scree in a canyon. I stopped and took pictures. I assumed they were there all the time. Only later did I learn that Keith had driven that road hundreds of times and never seen them. I felt fortunate.
Keith grew up in eastern Montana and worked as a professional guide before moving to Vermont for college in 1990. He graduated from Middlebury in 1994 and then stayed in the state for two more years working for Orvis in Manchester. We became good friends during that 6-year period and have stayed in touch over the intervening years after he moved back to Montana to take over the family fishing and hunting lodge and then went on to graduate schools in Michigan and Missouri and a faculty position in Pennsylvania. He’s now an English professor in Georgia, but his parents still live in Montana.
We met at his parents’ house in Lincoln. After unloading my suitcases, we went into town, bought my license and then hit the Lander’s Fork just upstream of its confluence with the Blackfoot, which was made famous by Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” Lander’s Fork itself is not especially well known, though it is one of only a handful of streams left in the area that supports spawning runs of bull trout — a species of char related to both the brook and lake trout of New England. I’ve never caught a bull trout. There are stories of 30-inch bulls coming out of deep pools and ripping 14-inch cutthroat off angler’s lines, leaving the angler nothing but a major rush of adrenalin. But the fish are now rare and endangered and illegal to intentionally fish for. I was hoping to see one accidentally.
Lander’s Fork is also quite cold, even in August. Fresh off of my experience with the warmer waters of eastern Oregon, I’d taken Keith’s advice and gone fishing in my sandals. My feet were numb within moments. But the fishing proved worth the pain. Though we never saw any bull trout, over two or so hours of fishing we caught between us about 10 nice cutthroat trout ranging from 12 inches up to a 17-incher I hooked on the second-to-last good hole we fished on the way back to our car for lunch.
Over the next two days, Keith and I also fished the main stem of the Blackfoot just west of Lincoln and the North Fork of the Blackfoot another 10 miles west of that. I also returned alone to both Lander’s Fork (where I landed at least 20 more smaller cutthroats on dry flies during a hatch of Yellow Sallie stone flies) and the main stem (where I lost at least $20 worth of flies in one deep hole full of trout and logs).
I know many Vermonters who travel to Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, or some combination of the three nearly every year. Though I manage to get out there only about once in five years, I can understand the allure of a more regular trip. The scenery is spectacular. So is the fishing. Though the famous rivers draw their share of anglers, there are so many miles of quality water it’s always possible to find a good stretch for yourself. And the state manages the water well, with regulations limiting the kill and ensuring a good number of fish will remain to grow big.
If you’re willing to camp, the only major cost is getting there. After leaving Keith’s family’s house in Lincoln, I spent two more days fishing Rock Creek near Missoula, camping right on the river for $6 a night in the Lolo National Forest. I caught dozens of browns and rainbows in my day and a half of fishing, including a large number on dry flies on an evening spruce moth hatch and a late morning hatch of monstrously large caddis flies.
It was definitely worth the trip — even from Vermont.

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