The Ultimate (and Cheap!) Trout Road Trip

width=500 Can two East Coast trout bums hit the road and fish seven of Montana’s finest waters in a week with no float boat or guides—on a budget of $140 per man per day? Absolutely. Not only did they catch scores of fish, but they ate steaks and didn’t sleep in the truck once By Joe Cermele MarkDAY 1: WEST YELLOWSTONE TO CAMERON If you only have a week to cut your teeth in Montana, start in West Yellowstone. You won’t find a town more obsessed with trout. There are fly shops on almost every corner and many blue-ribbon rivers nearby. Fly First-Class N 44° 39.623 W 111° 05.958 (You can find any of these locations by punching these numbers into your GPS.) Arrick Swanson is the man to see for hatch reports and insider info. He recommended that we start at the Madison, and his store had all the right patterns. After picking up our 10-day nonresident licenses ($43.50 apiece) and $10 conservation stamps, Mark Wizeman and I went into our first morning of fishing with confidence. Arrick’s Fly Shop, 37 Canyon St., West Yellowstone; 406-646‑7290; ­arricks.com Toll Bridge N 44° 49.877 W 111° 30.853 The first spot we hit on the Madison was Three-Dollar Bridge below Quake Lake. There’s wading access here, above the drift-boat put-in points. The downside is that the easy access means the water gets crowded. We took a few rainbows and a fat brown that Mark found in a run behind an island. Bumper Boats N 44° 59.203 W 111° 39.501 Farther up U.S. 287, we pulled off into the Palisades access point to lay out a few casts. The river was wider here, and we found ourselves in the middle of float traffic. After exchanging words with two guides who had to paddle around me, I headed back toward the bank. I had the last laugh when I landed a 19-inch rainbow in a back channel that the floaters couldn’t reach. We Got Beef N 44° 39.624 W 111° 06.083 If eating a thick burger in a room filled with mounted trout sounds good to you, drop by the Old Town Café. We did and chowed down for about $16. The food hit the spot. _ Old Town Café, 128 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone; 406-646‑0126_ Lights Out N 44° 39.623 W 111° 06.164 After a day of fishing, the City Center Motel was a welcome sight. An easy walk to fly shops and restaurants, it was the perfect place to kick back and figure out the game plan for Day 2 before hitting the sheets. At $90, finding a cheaper motel in town isn’t easy. City Center Motel, 214 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone; 800-742-0665 Day 1 Expenses: Motel: $45; Car: $40; Food: $21; License: $7.65; Flies: $30 Total per Man: $143.65 DAY 2: LIVINGSTON TO EMIGRANT The Yellowstone is loaded with trout. Getting to them on foot, however, can be a challenge. If you want to wade in the Livingston area, be ready to work for it. On the upside, sticking to a budget was a breeze in this town. DanGet Bailed Out N 45° 39.692 W 110° 33.775 Stopping by Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop is essential. Guide Jeff Welke walked us through the top patterns and recommended some spots south of Livingston. Dan Bailey Fly Shop, 209 W. Park St., Livingston; 800-356‑4052; dan-bailey.com Rainbow Room N 45° 40.361 W 110° 32.473 The Rainbow Motel may not be the Plaza of Big Sky country, but after a long day, beds are beds, and you can’t beat the $55 rate. The motel is up the street from a stretch of the Yellowstone where—according to the lady at the desk—we could find 10-pound brown trout under the railroad bridge. Rainbow Motel, 5574 Hwy. 89 S, Livingston; 406-222‑3780; ­rainbow​motel​mt.com Train in Vain N 45° 40.570 W 110° 31.974 We switched to sinking lines and headed for the railroad bridge in the morning. The river here is very deep and fast. We fished until lunch but never hooked up. Deli Delight N 45° 39.632 W 110° 33.548 We dropped by the Pickle Barrel for lunch before continuing down the Yellowstone. This chain has a wide variety of sandwiches. Although I enjoyed my cheesesteak, I’m from the East; it’s tough to top Geno’s in Philadelphia. Pickle Barrel, 31 S. Main St., Livingston; 406-222‑5469; ­pickle​barrelmt.com Far and Wide N 45° 23.853 W 110° 42.149 The drive south along the Yellowstone was beautiful. We pulled off Route 540 (a.k.a. East River Road) onto a dirt road that led to the Chicory access point. While wading was easy along the bank, the river was deep, with little current variation. We did find a channel that gave up a few rainbows, but mobility is limited here. Redemption Island N 45° 22.018 W 110° 43.547 By late afternoon, we had moved from Chicory to Emigrant. The river wasn’t much more wader-friendly here, but an island that cut the flow offered promise. My caddis imitation scored a 14-inch rainbow in a pool. After working hard all day, we called that a victory for two Yellowstone rookies. Day 2 Expenses: Motel: $27.50; Car: $40; Fuel: $24; Food: $15; License: $7.65; Flies: $15.50 Total Per Man: $129.65 DAY 3: WISDOM Always be prepared for Mother Nature to throw you a curveball. She hit us with the perfect pitch when we found the water low on the upper Big Hole. We had to choose our spot carefully to get into fish, but we came through. And spending a night in Wisdom is like being in the Old West. Family Ties N 45° 48.360 W 112° 59.671 We went to Troutfitters in the town of Wise River. Operated by Frank and Edith Stanchfield, this small shop may not carry thousands of flies, but it does have what you need for the Big Hole. If you drop in, be sure to ask Frank how one of his favorite streamers, the Marvin, got its name. Troutfitters, 62311 Hwy. 43, Wise River; 406-832‑3212; bigholetroutfitters.com Wise Choice N 45° 42.832 W 113° 01.524 After a hot tip that the Wise River—​a tight, technical stream we’d crossed on the way to Wisdom—was loaded with trout, we had to give it a shot. We drove up the Pioneer Scenic Byway until we found a dirt road that followed the river. The action was furious with small rainbows, though we never caught anything big. The Wise is an overlooked gem. Gray Area N 45° 48.460 W 113° 18.827 With water levels low, finding a prime stretch of the Big Hole was tricky, so we settled on Squaw Creek MarkBridge. Our flies went untouched upstream in the faster water, but then we noticed some rises in a pool near the bridge. I hooked and lost a lunker on a black caddis when my leader snapped. The catch of the day was Mark’s 12-inch grayling. We later found out that a grayling is a rare sight on the Big Hole these days. Slice of Life N 45° 37.054 W 113° 26.938 When we heard that the Antlers Saloon had the best pizza in Wisdom, we couldn’t argue, because it was the only pizza place in town. But it was good, and after hours on the road, a few slices capped the day nicely. Antlers Saloon, 43 Hwy. 43, Wisdom; 406-689-9393 Motel-Evation N 45° 37.100 W 113° 26.841 The Nez Perce was hands-down the cleanest and most comfortable of the trip. The fact that it cost less than $60 for the night made it that much sweeter. We had Internet access and were close to town. Nez Perce Motel, 509 Hwy. 43, Wise River; 406-689-3254; nezpercemotel.net Day 3 Expenses Motel: $29; Car: $40; Fuel: $23; Food: $11; License: $7.65; Flies: $20 Total Per Man: $130.65 DAY 4: CONNER TO HAMILTON The Bitterroot Valley proved to be a trip highlight. From Hamilton, you’re within easy reach of the main stem of the Bitterroot River and its forks—all of which provided us with memorable catches. Plan B N 46° 01.737 W 114° 10.663 We planned on hitting the Bitterroot Fly Co. in Darby. What we didn’t plan on was its being closed on Sunday. Fortunately, we had flies and advice that a friend, former area guide Ben Romans, gave us before the trip. Thanks, buddy! You’re a lifesaver. Bitterroot Fly Co., 8081⁄2 N. Main St., Darby; 406-821‑1624; ­bitterrootflycompany.com ACut Above N 45° 48.917 W 114° 15.196 We waded into the West Fork of the Bitterroot at a canoe launch off Route 473. Many people float this river, yet waders have a great advantage. It’s easy to maneuver on foot, and smaller pockets and runs are more accessible that way. The early morning was slow, but as the sun rose, so did the cutthroats. Upstream of the launch, we landed some amazing fish up to 18 inches on Parachute Adams flies. Pit Stop N 45° 55.821 W 114° 07.478 You can’t get to the West Fork of the Bitterroot without driving past Conner Grocery & Deli. It’s the perfect place to go when you’re hungry after battling cutthroats. Conner Grocery & Deli, 159 Conner Cutoff Rd., Conner; 406-821‑4122 Center Fire N 46° 14.792 W 114° 09.665 At $57 a night, you can’t go wrong crashing at the City Center Motel in Hamilton. Before an evening on the Bitterroot’s main stem, we unwound by watching fishing on TV. Go figure. The real score with this motel is that it’s only five blocks from a fishy stretch of the river. City Center Motel, 415 W. Main St., Hamilton; 406-363‑1651; ­remlc​sportsmans​lodging.com Dark Secrets N 46° 14.812 W 114° 10.534 Up the street from our motel was an access point to the main stem of the Bitterroot called Demmons. Seeing swimmers was disheartening, but we gave it a shot and learned something. In high-​pressure stretches such as this, wait until dark. There weren’t any rises in this spot until 10 p.m. We were about to leave when a big brown exploded on Mark’s caddis. We stuck more afterward by listening for pops and setting at the sounds. Day 4 Expenses Motel: $28; Car: $40; Fuel: $22; Food: $16.50; License: $7.65 Total Per Man: $114.15 DAY 5: MISSOULA TO PHILLIPSBURG All the conveniences are in Missoula, and while being in a big town makes finding inexpensive meals and good fly shops a snap, it does detract from the adventure aspect of the trip. Don’t worry. Find your way to the prime stretches of Rock Creek outside town, and you’ll be back to the sticks and hooking trout in no time. Lords of the Fly N 46° 52.121 W 113° 58.899 TheWith Labradors lounging under the fly tables and a humorous hatch chart on the wall, the Kingfisher has a chilled-out atmosphere that makes you want to stay and talk trout. The guys in the shop won’t hesitate to hook you up with all the local knowledge you need, and their secret flies will get lines tight even when trout are finicky. The Kingfisher, 926 E. Broadway, Missoula; 406-721‑6141; ­kingfisherflyshop.com Out There N 46° 25.755 W 113° 43.603 During the salmonfly hatch, 42-mile-long unpaved Rock Creek Road gets pretty beat up from drift-boat trailers—so much so that the guides at the Kingfisher recommended accessing it from the lower end, 80 miles out of our way. This road hugs Rock Creek for almost its entire length, and although the trek was long, it paid off. We stopped around mile marker 28 between Big and Little Hogback and connected with some nice brown trout. The downside to this river is the float traffic, but there is no shortage of access. If you want to feel like you’re “out there,” fish Rock Creek. A Little Italy N 47° 09.565 W 114° 04.943 With my shirt still damp from a slip in Rock Creek, Mark and I sat down at Zimorino’s Arlee Grill north of Missoula. The burgers hit the spot. If you’re in the mood for a taste of Italy, the restaurant has many signature pasta dishes and pizza. _ Zimorino’s Arlee Grill, 79 Hwy. 93, Arlee; 406-726-7070_ Chained Inn N 46° 50.324 W 114° 02.150 The Sleep Inn doesn’t have the rustic charm of some of the other motels we stayed in, but a free continental breakfast is a welcome treat when you’re on a budget and sick of granola bars. Although it may be a little pricier than the supercheap motels in town, I wouldn’t recommend staying at any of them. Sleep Inn, 3425 Dore Ln., Missoula; 406-543-5883; ­choice​hotels.​com Day 5 Expenses Motel: $48.50; Car: $40; Fuel: $20; Food: $17.50; License: $7.65; Flies: $27.50 Total Per Man: $161.15 DAY 6: PLAINS TO THOMPSON FALLS Want to find out what your flyfishing skills are really worth? Then fish around Plains. Go ahead, I dare you. This area is the complete opposite of West Yellowstone. You won’t find any fly shops or outfitters here to prime you with local info, but you also won’t find much company on the Thompson River. TheCheck Point N 47° 36.233 W 115° 13.036 Our first stop on the Thompson was at a pull-off in the town of Snider along County Road 556, a.k.a. Thompson River Road (watch for animals). This was a pretty stretch, but the rainbows topped out at 10 inches. Prince Nymphs did the trick. There’s solid wading access, and we got the vibe that the spot gets pounded by the locals. With no fly shop in the area, however, it seems most tourist anglers pass this river up. Holy Bow! N 47° 37.913 W 115° 10.419 After lunch at the Thompson Grill, we drove back through Snider and turned off into a small campsite to access a different stretch of the Thompson. Here we found glassy pools, fast-water pockets, and good dry-fly water. Within my first five casts, I was into a rainbow that went a solid 20 inches. We picked our way through some whitefish to score a few smaller browns on nymphs. Mark also dropped another hog on a Black Bugger in a back eddy. You can wade and walk the banks for miles here. High Stakes N 47° 27.547 W 114° 52.912 Half eatery, half honky-tonk, the High Plains Café Lounge serves typical bar grub. There are sandwiches and burgers, but we lucked out and showed up on all-you-can-eat taco night. High Plains Café Lounge, 102 Hwy. 200, Plains; 406-826‑3831 Plains Crash N 47° 27.157 W 114° 52.374 The Glacier Crossroads Motel on the Clark Fork was the perfect stopping point after a day on the Thompson. Unfortunately, the Clark is primarily pike water this far downstream, and you won’t find many trout. No matter. The staff is friendly, the rooms are clean, and the price was right. Glacier Crossroads Motel, 401 Hwy. 200, Plains; 406-826‑3623; crossroads-motel.com Day 6 Expenses Motel: $39; Car: $40; Fuel: $27.50; Food: $25; License: $7.65 Total Per Man: $139.15 DAY 7: LIBBY TO TROY Roughly 50 miles from Canada, Libby has a 1950s charm. It’s also not on the radar of most out-of-state anglers. The main draw here is the Kootenai, but we came to fish the tranquil, less pressured Yaak. Flies on Call N 48° 26.228 W 115° 51.242 Kootenai River Outfitters is at the intersection of State Route 56 and U.S. 2, making it convenient to drop by on your way into Libby or up to the Yaak. Owner Robert Winstrom stocks a full array of patterns, but call ahead before stopping; KRO doesn’t have regular business hours. We caught Winstrom at the shop as he was grabbing gear on his way to meet guide clients. Kootenai River Outfitters, 1604 Hwy. 2, Troy; 800-537‑8288; ­kroutfitters.com AYaak Attack N 48° 47.234 W 115° 55.146 The first thing we noticed driving up Route 508 along the Yaak was the abundance of BEAR COUNTRY signs alerting hikers of what to do if they encounter a grizzly. We didn’t let that shake us. We waded into the Yaak at a small campsite and raft launch and worked our way upstream. Every cast with an Orange PMX caught trout, though none exceeding 10 inches. The water here was picture perfect, with glassy eddies and plenty of fast riffles. Wading was also easy. While we never found any hogs in the Yaak (the fly shop has snapshots to prove they’re there), we did catch some redband trout, a nearly endangered species native to the Kootenai-Columbia watershed. Farewell Dinner N 48° 23.306 W 115° 33.283 On our last night in Montana, Mark and I decided that we had earned a steak dinner, so we grabbed a table at the Antlers Restaurant and ordered two T-bones. Even after we splurged on the entrées, the meal, including salad bar and dessert, ran only $36. The Antlers serves just about anything you want, and with its huge breakfast menu, this wouldn’t be a bad place to stop before hitting the river, too. Antlers Restaurant, 442 Hwy. 2, Libby; 406-293-6464 Save Some Evergreen N 48° 23.307 W 115° 33.281 We couldn’t have asked for more from our final motel of the trip. The Evergreen in Libby was close to the shops and restaurants in the center of town, and we had a huge room for a great price. Evergreen Motel, 808 Mineral Ave., Libby; 406-293‑4178; ­libby​evergreen​motel.com Day 7 Expenses Motel: $28.50; Car: $40; Fuel: $16; Food: $18; License: $7.65; Flies: $25