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White Sulphur Springs is not a popular Montana travel destination, but it is if you are fishing with Doug and Zita Caltrider’s Avalanche Basin Outfitters. In early August, I fished with Doug for three days: one day on Spring Creek Lake, a nine-acre private impoundment; and two days on Rock Creek, a private spring creek on the Galt Ranch. This is not the famous Rock Creek tributary of the Clarks Fork, by the way.
On previous trips to Montana, I had fished from drift boats, but this time I was interested in wading smaller streams. However, catching large fish was also appealing, and that is why I asked that a day of lake fishing be added to the mix.
The first day we fished lower Rock Creek, a typical meadow spring creek with bends, pools and runs. As we walked to the stream, dozens of hoppers sprang away at every step. Even I could figure out what the fly would be: a hopper-imitating parachute Madam X. We fished dry flies all day and caught between 40 and 50 trout, many in the 14- to 16-inch range. Spectacularly colored browns outnumbered rainbows about five to one. The largest fish was a golden-sided brown about 17 inches long. Nearly every bend or pool produced a fish, and one downed log produced five. I’m sure Doug would have stayed until it was too dark to see, but I was whipped by 6 pm.
On the second day, we fished Spring Creek Lake from a drift boat, a first for me. I’d imagined genteel trolling with a sinking line; however, this fishing was entirely to rising trout. A nine foot rod with a WF7F line was perfect. We looked for the ring of a rising fish (Doug was much better at this than I was), then tried to get close enough to make a cast. The hard part was figuring out which way a trout was moving along the shoreline and putting the fly in front of him. Anticipating the take was exciting and required a good bit of self control to avoid setting the hook too soon. Regardless, we caught 8 to 10 rainbow trout in the 14- to 20-inch range.
These fish were keyed in on specific insects, often the spruce moth. One rainbow I caught coughed up a half dozen spruce moths at the net. At one point, I watched a 20-inch rainbow patrol the bank. He picked three spruce moths off the surface, ignoring mayflies all over the water and rejecting several live hoppers Doug had thrown in. This was selective feeding at its best. Interestingly, the opposite shore of the lake seemed to have its own feeding patterns. Rather than spruce moth imitations, what worked there were cicada and Chernobyl ant patterns.
On the third day, we fished the upper reaches of Rock Creek, a smaller, more compact version of the lower water. We used dry flies the entire day and caught just as many fish as we did in the lower. The fish may have been a bit smaller, but not noticeably so. Anticipating what the next bend would look like kept me going. Toward the end of the day, the stream gradient increased and produced more pocket water and fewer bends. I know some people love this kind of fishing, but I’m not fond of it. Blame it on lack of casting ability.
Attitude is everything in guides, and Doug Caltrider is the best guide I’ve ever fished with. He not only knows his stuff, but he also does his best on a personal level to see that you have a successful trip. He’s affable, low-key, and his knowledge of the area is encyclopedic. His enthusiasm never flagged, and even botched casts and tangled leaders were met with good humor and encouragement. If you can’t enjoy spending time with Doug Caltrider you need some serious therapy.
Zita, his wife, a native of White Sulphur Springs, handles logistics and makes amazing multi-course lunches. Lunch in a cottonwood grove with the stream behind you and the mountains in front of you is memorable. I usually ate so much at lunch that I got by with a sandwich at night.
To get to White Sulphur Springs you fly into Bozeman, Helena, or Great Falls. I chose Great Falls, not only for the connections and the scenic drive to White Sulpher Springs, but also because of the C.M. Russell Museum and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center located there. White Sulphur Springs offers a number of accommodations. I stayed at the All Seasons Inn and Suites: clean, comfortable, and convenient. Nearby restaurants range from a deli to bars. The restaurants aren’t fancy, but the food is abundant and the service is friendly. Forget about sushi and New Zealand lamb. Think beef. And try a Moose Drool beer. Doug’s web site has good information on his fishing options (mostly private water), local accommodations and dining.
(Postscript: In case you are as curious as we were about the above-mentioned spruce moth, you may want to know that we called Doug Caltrider about it. He believes it to be the adult of the spruce budworm that’s plaguing western forests. Caltrider said that they were coming off in droves wherever spruce trees bordered water during Mace’s trip and, indeed, the fish were keyed on them. He said two fly patterns appear to work wherever spruce moths are coming off: a #14 orange-bodied Stimulator; and a sparsely tied #12 PMX hopper pattern. Anyone with more information on the spruce moth is urged to check in. Write: [email protected].)