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50 Years at Big Spring Creek

Ruminations on fishing legends and legendary fishing. 

50 Years at Big Spring Creek

Big Spring Creek is a spring-fed fly fisher's dream that oxbows through beautiful trout country near Lewistown, Montana. It has plenty of public access and a long history of exceptional trout fishing. (Jim McLennan photo)

Montana has several famous spring creeks, but my favorite is one that seems to get the least attention. I've fished Big Spring Creek, flowing through Lewistown, Montana, for 53 years, and it's been my home water for 32 years.

Big Spring Creek is one of the largest spring-fed streams in the state. It originates 9 miles southeast of Lewistown, near the Big Springs Trout Hatchery. From its source, it runs northwest 30 miles, mainly between the Big Snowy and Judith mountains, and enters the Judith River west of Brooks, Montana. Along its course, a steady stream of cold, 52-degree F. water oxbows through beautiful trout country.

In the upper stretch, from the hatchery to Lewistown, the creek averages 30 feet in width and 18 inches deep. From Lewistown to the mouth, in its lower reaches, it widens to about 45 feet, and the depth–as well as summer water temperature–increases. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), Big Spring holds up to 3,000 pounds of trout per river mile.

Big Spring Creek Trout

Through the years, Big Spring anglers have landed browns up to 19 pounds and rainbows to 16. The Big Spring record brown was taken by Vic Farrah in 1949 on a nightcrawler and fly rod. The local Sports Center has the mounted brown on its wall. It is 33 inches long with a 21-inch girth. Average browns and rainbows in this stream range from 12 to 18 inches.

My introduction to Big Spring Creek took place in 1956 on the lower stream near Scott's Bridge. In a long glide between riffles, I spotted a dozen fish sipping mayflies. My fly box contained nothing similar, so I clinch-knotted "old reliable"—a #14 Brown Bivisible—to my 5X tippet. I cast several feet above the uppermost rise, and my fly drifted untouched over the pod. I made several more drifts with the same result.

50 Years at Big Spring Creek
Big Spring Creek is one of the largest spring-fed streams in the state. It originates 9 miles southeast of Lewistown, near the Big Springs Trout Hatchery. (Vern Field photo)

Twilight was fading as I studied the fly. It was larger than the naturals, but I noticed that the tail almost doubled the total length of the fly, so I snipped it off. The next cast fooled a 15-inch rainbow, and the trimmed fly produced three more fish before dark.

Of Blondes and Brooks

In 1959, the late Joe Brooks wrote a Big Spring article in Outdoor Life entitled "The Stream That Has Everything." I didn't meet Brooks on his early trips to Lewistown, but visited with him a couple of times later. Our first meeting was at Armstrong Spring Creek. During that talk, he gave me a huge streamer: the Platinum Blonde. It had produced for him everywhere in salt and fresh water, but two years passed before I tried it.

Word had spread on Big Spring about double-digit trout being caught below the fish hatchery culvert tubes draining into the stream. During the summer, hatchery employees scrubbed the raceways every morning, allowing small injured and dying rainbows—normal hatchery mortality—to wash into the stream. Large trout lurked under the brush covering the far bank near the outflow. They feasted on the hatchery castoffs and grew huge.

Late one morning I drove the 7 miles upstream and parked in the visitor area. Standing on a sod-covered culvert, I cast Brooks's Platinum Blonde next to the brush on the far side. Stripping it back in foot-long jerks failed to move a thing.

My next cast was 10 feet upstream. I let the fly sweep under the overhanging brush before retrieving it. On the third pull, a jolting strike smashed the Blonde. A large rainbow leaped into the air, jackknifed back, then streaked downstream for the thicker brush. The fish easily snapped my 2X leader. I doubt if even 0X would have turned it.

A week later the Blonde got another try downstream where the current curved sharply to the left and narrowed rapidly, funneling more than 50 yards toward a county bridge. Letting the streamer swing around to the bank, I stripped it back as I moved slowly downstream. Suddenly I felt a solid tug, like I'd hooked the bank.

Big fish always excite me, so I forgot that old saying, "Look before you leap," and jumped into the current, almost swamping my waders. Precariously, I kept my balance and followed a fish that still hadn't jumped. (A large brown, I thought.)


It swam under the bridge, and my hat just cleared the bottom planks as I followed underneath. Here, the stream fanned out into a calmer pool, where I played and beached a 5¼-pound rainbow. My tactic was impulsive and risky, not advisable even for strong swimmers, and no, I hadn't seen it in the movies. A River Runs Through It—Norman Maclean's famous fly-fishing novella—had not even been published at that time.

The hatchery area was also one of the haunts of the late Jack Pittman, a noted big-fish hunter and commercial fly tier. I asked him once if persistence and knowledge of the creek were important in taking trophies.

50 Years at Big Spring Creek
Nymphing is also effective on Big Spring, especially in the riffles and deeper buckets. (Jim McLennan photo)

"Oh yeah, you have to find the fish," he replied. "Then you go visit them every day."

The late Gary Sanford was a self-professed trophy chaser, and in addition to flies he was known to use a Rapala. Sanford was often heard saying, "I like to get the big ones."

One spring day he hooked a huge fish on a Rapala, and while fighting it, an angler strolling by asked, "You hung up in there?"

"No," Gary replied. "Got a big one on."

"Sure you do," the angler scoffed, as he continued downstream.

Gary finally landed the 13½-pound, 30-inch brown trout and had it mounted. The river has produced some big trout, but don't plan on mounting a trophy after your next trip. Bring your camera, as it is catch-and-release only on upper Big Spring Creek. You can keep one fish on the lower stream.

50 Years of Trouting

My more than five decades on Big Spring Creek have included days that range from great to only exercise. There are days when I've wondered if the stream was devoid of fish. They seem to vanish but are typically resting under moss, overhangs, or on the bottoms of deep pools. A dropping barometer can produce this effect.

Drag is another frequent problem. Use short casts and reach mends to combat microcurrents, to keep your fly on target, and for delicate presentations. Before wetting a line, study the water from well back and downstream of the pool. The best-looking section is often not the first target, as bigger trout prefer more subtle holding lies.

After scouting the water, get within range, and fish upstream and across to stationary bank feeders. Or, when a good cast is not possible from this position, use a parachute or puddle cast to drift your flies directly downstream to the trout. Mind the amount of slack in your line: too much makes achieving good hook-sets difficult.

Nymphing is also effective on Big Spring, especially in the riffles and deeper buckets. Dry/dropper rigs excel for drifting nymphs in the shallower runs and slicks, and a delicate yarn indicator setup works well when there are no visible hatches.

Hopper season (July through early September) is an exciting time on Big Spring Creek. In addition to traditional hopper patterns such as Joe's Hopper, other large drys such as Irresistibles and Stimulators (#8) catch fish during the height of the grasshoper "hatch."

A longtime friend and Lewistown native, Karl Gies, grew up hearing stories about the grasshopper plagues of the 1930s. During the July hopper blizzards of the 1980s, hoppers were concentrated by the millions in the grassy areas along Big Spring's streambanks.

One day, the afternoon winds rose, and Karl could see hoppers blowing past his second—story office window. With no conflicting appointments, he instantly hung a sign on the door: "Appraising rural real estate. Back by 4:30 P.M."

He sped to the lower creek, and his #10 Parachute Hopper produced the best fly fishing he'd had in almost 60 years on Big Spring Creek—or any other water.

In addition to good hopper fishing, summer also produces recreational rafting hatches. The creek is too small to fish from pontoon boats or canoes, but there are weekend floaters riding inner tubes and rafts. Trout are often put down, but feeding usually starts again after about 15 minutes, so keep your cool. Most boaters and tubers frequent the upper river. They're a rarity on the lower reaches.

Essential Gear for Big Spring Creek

Three- and 4-weight, 8½- to 9-foot rods cover most of the dry-fly fishing on Big Spring Creek. These rods are perfect for delicate, accurate presentations at short distances.

Start with slow, cautious approaches and short casts. Sloppy wading and lengthy casts spook many trout. Spring creek trout are often wary, and longer, 9- to 12-foot leaders tapered to 5X and 6X tippets catch more fish.

Use a 5-weight rod for targeting larger trout with nymphs and streamers. For streamers, use a shorter leader tapered to 1X or 2X tippet.

Polarized sunglasses are a must. With aging eyes like mine, I use a magnifier to help see and tie my knots. Don't forget insect repellent and sunblock.

Restoration Initiatives

In 1985, Montana FWP purchased 23 acres of the Brewery Flats area just upstream of Lewistown to create a new fishing access site on upper Spring Creek. In 1914, the natural river channel was straightened into a 2,600-foot ditch. The ditch was restored to its natural, meandering course of 4,000 feet in 2001. Since then, more and larger trout have repopulated this public water.

50 Years at Big Spring Creek

Rainbow and brown trout numbers are more than 60 percent higher than the pre-project average, with roughly 700 trout 10 inches and longer in the Brewery Flats area. Biologists expect the trout population to continue increasing as the new channel is scoured by floodwaters and more in-channel vegetation and woody debris accumulate, increasing trout habitat.

At the east edge of Lewistown, the stream disappears into a concrete canal, running under the uptown section until it emerges three blocks downstream. En route it appears under Jim Awberry's bar, the Montana Tavern, built in 1911. Awberry cut a hole through the floor more than 25 years ago and installed a Plexiglas viewer with a spotlight. A dozen or so trout mingle in the currents below.

In November 1986, Montana FWP purchased more than 68 acres from the Burleigh Angus Ranch. The acquisition includes a perpetual fishing access easement on more than 2 miles of river, with public parking areas. Numerous FWP areas are also open to the public on the upper and lower stream east and west of Lewistown. Access can be difficult, so it's best to check with the local sporting goods stores for accurate information.

Vern Field is a retired teacher and longtime fly fisher. He lives in Lewistown, Montana.

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