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In the 1970s, Jimmy Buffet released a popular song about the town of Livingston, Montana, but he was not the only one singing the praises of Livingston, Montana. Fly fishing legend Joe Brooks had already written extensively by then about the small spring creeks of Paradise Valley, just south of town. The spring creeks near Livingston are Armstrong and DePuy, which empty into the Yellowstone River from the west, and Nelson’s, which empties from the east. The creeks are on private property and fishable by reservation and a daily rod fee.
Brooks’s articles caught my attention and in 1979 I talked a friend into an early fall road trip. We drove from northern California to Livingston to investigate. We had the foresight to arrange for a guide through George Anderson’s fly shop. We were told that our guide, Al Gadoury, specialized in the area’s spring creeks, but that he was booked for our first day of fishing. We were not deterred, having an abundance of self-confidence in our angling abilities. I seem to remember one of us saying, “we don’t need no stinkin’ guide.” We would eat those words.
When we arrived at the O’Hair Ranch on our first morning, the conditions were perfect. We paid our fees at the ranch house and proceeded to the parking area where we could see the crystal waters of Armstrong Creek. Fish were already active. This had all the signs of a great day. To make a long, sad story short, we were skunked although we cast to feeding fish all day.
The next morning, we met our guide, Al Gadoury. He now works independently through his company, 6X Outfitters (www.6Xoutfitters.com). Al impressed us immediately. He closely inspected our tippets and flies, suggesting that we stock up on some midge patterns, then we were off in a cloud of dust.
When we arrived at Armstrong, Al instructed us in the errors of our ways. First, we learned that our approach to feeding fish had been all wrong. In most situations the preferred presentation to feeding fish needed to be from upstream with a down and across, slack-line cast. Second, we got an entomology lesson. Most importantly, we learned the daily progression of midge emergence – larvae, pupae, then adults as the morning progressed. Then, we needed to be alert for the start of the midday hatch of mayflies.
The second day, the trout would not get off so easy. Over the years I have learned to lower my expectations when sight fishing to feeding trout on spring creeks. The satisfaction of this type of fishing is not numbers, but technique. And this day convinced me that I needed to return every fall, a promise to myself that I kept for 10 years. In fact, I started adding trips in the pre-runoff spring as well.
The next day we fished Nelson’s Spring Creek. What a delight! In the shadow of the Absoroka Mountains, this is a working cattle ranch with a mile of spring creek that changes character from glassy slicks to a few riffles to pool and run as it proceeds downstream. The owners of the ranch, the late Edwin and Helen Nelson, made every day on this water a warm, personal experience. Their son, Roger, and daughter-in-law, Mary, carry on the family tradition to this day.
Again, at Nelson’s our success was entirely due to Al’s coaching. Over the years, the upper section of Nelson’s became my favorite haunt. Here, the water comes rushing onto the property into a large pool and then flattens out for several hundred yards. The water is crystal clear, the sides lined with log structure, and the bottom covered with weeds undulating in the current. Large trout (rainbows, browns, and a few cutthroats) hold in this water, with the largest fish holding in the prime cover. When the feeding starts, the flat water comes alive. These are pressured fish, drawing accomplished anglers from all over the world. Accordingly, success depends upon precise casts and drag-free floats.
It was on this upper part of Nelson’s that Al gave me casting instructions, targeting individual fish with short, slack-line, down and across casts – lessons that have served me well over the years, especially on spring creeks and tailwaters.
We finished our 1979 road trip on DePuy Spring Creek. Each morning we paid our daily rod fee at the main house, an antebellum mansion that appears displaced from somewhere in Louisiana. The door was always answered by Eva DePuy. Currently, the stream is managed by Eva’s daughter, Betty, and grandson, Daryl.
The DePuy property has more than three miles of water, which is really the downstream portion of Armstrong Spring Creek. The character of the water on DePuy is the most varied of the three properties. There are large pondlike areas, riffles, runs, and flat water. DePuy is another gem.
Though I have fished the Livingston- area spring creeks many times, it was recently that I fished here during the height of summer. There are famous hatches throughout the year and a few days on these creeks are always rewarding. However, in my opinion, the optimal times are fall and spring when there are no crowds and the potential for an overcast day promises constant surface action.
One of the attractions of this area is its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. It is a short drive from the creeks to the north entrance of the park. I have made it a habit to take a mid-trip break to visit the park. In the fall, these breaks are particularly memorable for the bugling elk that are focused on mating and jousting.
As for Livingston, it has changed during the time I have been visiting the area. When my friend and I arrived in 1979, it had the appearance of a hard-drinking railroad town. Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop featured a street-side window where hard-working women cranked out flies by the dozen to satisfy Dan’s mail-order customers. Just down the street the long-gone Livingston Bar and Grill was the hot spot for visiting anglers.
Today, Livingston has a cleaner look and offers a wide variety of lodging and dining choices. There are also newer lodging choices, such as the bed and breakfast operated by the Nelsons, just steps from the stream. Today there’s also another good option for guiding on the spring creeks. Tucker Nelson (grandson of Edwin and Helen Nelson) and his wife, Jacquie, have developed a reputation as top-notch spring creek guides.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the historic Chico Hot Springs Resort (www.chicohotsprings.com), located a few miles south of Nelson’s. Here, there are rooms, hot springs, and one of the best restaurants in Montana. Altogether, Livingston and Paradise Valley, with its scenery, history, and challenging angling opportunities, are worth putting on the bucket list of serious trout anglers. – Bill Owen.
Postscript: You can get more information on all three of the Livingston-area spring creeks at the following Web addresses: www.armstrongspringcreek.com, www.depuyspringcreek.com, and www.nelsonsspringcreek.com.