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Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Montana is one of the most intriguing rainbow fisheries in North America. It’s way out there on the high plains in big, open country where miles and miles separate the few towns, most of which have less than 1,000 inhabitants. This is Missouri Breaks country, famous for its antelope and dinosaur fossils.
The rainbow trout which swim cheek by jowl with prehistoric paddlefish, walleyes and catfish are in the Missouri River, specifically in the tailwater below huge, earthen Fort Peck Dam. Quite literally, fewer than a half dozen people fly fish here and the locals would just as soon things stayed that way, too. When I first tried to arrange a trip to Fort Peck, the individual who at first was eager to show me the fishing, quickly backed off, saying he was getting "a lot of pressure to keep the spot a secret."
Truly, this is not a trip for the faint-hearted. You will be pretty much on your own out here. Eastern Montana people are known for their friendliness, but they are not eager to see their local hotspot invaded by tourists. And with good reason. According to Pat Clancey of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, rainbows in the Fort Peck tailwater average four pounds but run as high as 7 1/2 pounds.
I’ve worked with Clancey on several fishery related research projects in the past, and I trust his information. He says spring is the best time of the year to fish Fort Peck because there is adequate water in a side channel then to hold fish. The Missouri is so big here that the side channel cuts down the amount of water to be fished and tends to concentrate the trout somewhat. Late summer and fall are slow because you have to fish in the main channel, he says.
A recent trip I made to Fort Peck confirmed this particular observation, as a friend and I managed to catch just one trout on a Woolly Bugger fished with a sinking tip line in a day’s hard fishing. That one fish, to be sure, was full bodied, very strong and in the four pound class.
Clancey suggests fishing the side channel from a canoe or raft. Bring along waders, he says, because it will occasionally be necessary to get out and drag the raft over shallow runs. There is a quarter mile spawning section on the one mile plus drift that is closed to fishing, but signs on both sides of the channel mark the boundaries of this area. The channel varies in width from less than 100 yards to about 200.
Fly fishing here is best done with streamers such as Maribou Muddlers, Spruce and sculpin patterns, the buggers, etc. The main insects, according to Clancey, are Chironomidae or midges and Diptera or true flies, so forage fish are the best bets for an angler to try and imitate. Imitating the nymph stage of the above mentioned insects in big water would be extremely difficult, at best. An additional problem here is almost constant wind. I suggest you bring a nine foot rod able to handle a seven weight line with impunity.
But remember this is in no way a developed fishery. Guides do not exist. As Clancey put it, "a good place to start is ‘most any local bar. Find some guy who will haul you out on the river." Another good place to start is the Gateway Inn (*) located at the Fort Peck Dam. Owners Dick Goodsell and John Johnson are more familiar with the walleye fishing in the huge reservoir above the dam, but they offer motel rooms, cabins, restaurant and lounge, licenses, tackle and related services. The nearby town of Glasgow (population 4,450) offers more services. Contact the town’s Chamber of Commerce for further information. The more information you can get for this trip the better. Is this ultimately a sensible fishing trip? It is if you hate crowds, like to take risks and thrive on country where the horizon is unbroken by human structures. And then there are those huge trout swimming about below the dam…! John Holt.