October 28, 2023
Pick up a copy of Fly Fisherman's special publication Destinations 2023 here!
There’s a valley in southwest Montana that is accurately called Paradise. It lies between the outskirts of the small town of Livingston on its northern end and Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone River to the south. It is constrained east and west by rolling foothills covered in bunchgrass and sage, and the sweeping landscape majestically rises towards the heavens until fir and pine tree forests give way to the rocky, snow-capped peaks of the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges.
You may have already heard of Paradise Valley. It’s been fictionalized in recent years as the backdrop for the popular television series Yellowstone starring Kevin Costner. But it was already well known to fly fishers since at least the 1940s and 1950s when the likes of Lee Wulff and Joe Brooks first wrote about fishing here.
Paradise Valley is one of Montana’s most picturesque locations, and anglers from all over the world come here to ply their angling skills on the mighty Yellowstone River. But that’s not the only fabled trout water in Paradise. Spring creeks appear from the ground in this valley, and they are unrivaled in their beauty and the quality of their fishing. Armstrong, DePuy, and Nelson’s spring creeks are all named after the ranching families who own or established the respective properties. That’s why two bodies of water have received three names; Armstrong and DePuy are the upper and lower portions of the same creek. These Paradise Valley spring creeks teem with wildlife. They are natural geologic wonders. But the way they are managed preserves them as exceptional fisheries.
Spring Creek Management
Protecting these cherished resources is paramount for the spring creek owners, as is maintaining the quality of the angling experiences on the property. You can hire a guide to help you navigate the intricacies of spring creek fishing, or go it alone if you are an expert on the nuances of this type of fishing. All fishing is catch-and-release, and hooks must be barbless. The creeks are fenced to keep out livestock, which would otherwise trample the streambanks and impact the thriving populations of wild brown, rainbow, cutthroat trout, and Rocky Mountain whitefish.
Important trout spawning areas in these creeks are identified, and, in some cases, marked as no-fishing zones when native Yellowstone cutthroat trout are perpetuating their species. There’s little doubt that these protected spawning areas are an important contributor to the greater Yellowstone River. Some of the fish are residents and never leave. Others are more transient, spending most of their lives in the Yellowstone River, ascending these creeks only to spawn, feed, or to find thermal refuge in waters that spring from the ground at 52 degrees. This stable temperature means they are warmer than the Yellowstone River in the winter and colder in the summer.
To avoid crowding and the unpleasant issues that often come with it, the creeks’ owners use reservation systems to limit the numbers of fly fishers each day. So, after booking a creek (unless you’re also lodging on the property), you have to set a time to meet the creeks’ owners or staff to check in. You’ll also have to pay to fish, though unlike some other private fisheries in the United States, the cost is attainable for nearly all. But while you’re visiting the Paradise Valley spring creeks, you feel like you’re part of an exclusive club or perhaps a member of the British aristocracy—if cowboy hats could ever be considered proper attire on the rivers Test or Itchen.
The creeks were damaged during the terrible runoff flooding in 1996 and again (to a much lesser degree) in June of 2022. Angler rod fees are often used to cover the cost of the repair work made necessary by these natural disasters. But the Paradise Valley spring creeks are resilient and continue to provide wonderful fishing for those who visit. The creeks flow within close proximity to each other—Armstrong and DePuy flow along the Yellowstone’s western bank and Nelson’s on the east—but each one offers unique opportunities. This is civilized fishing in Montana’s Wild West.
Armstrong Spring Creek
Armstrong Spring Creek is owned by the O’Hair family and, because of that, some local guides call it O’Hair’s. But most anglers (and the O’Hair family) continue to use its traditional name, which was derived from its original owner, O.T. Armstrong, who moved to Montana from Missouri in 1876 to settle the ranch for cattle. The O’Hairs still maintain a working cattle operation today, which grazes upon 30,000 deeded and leased acres. At approximately 1.5 miles long, Armstrong Spring Creek is about half as long as the downstream portion of the creek owned by another family and called DePuy Spring Creek. But O’Hair’s is where the creek begins. It’s fed by smaller springs in its uppermost reaches, before the creek takes its full shape below a huge spring that tumbles out of a grassy hillside.
Armstrong Spring Creek’s management is a fascinating evolution story. The Joe Brooks Trout Unlimited Chapter, which is based in Livingston, managed the creek in the 1950s and 60s and the fishing was free for those who simply asked. But its popularity soon exploded after it was featured in several fishing magazines. Orvis and several other companies began leasing and managing the property from the O’Hairs in the 1970s. Today, the O’Hairs manage and run their creek and its amenities, and Judy O’Hair is the contact person for those seeking a reservation. In addition to the amazing Armstrong fishing experience, The O’Hairs offer lodging, either from their beautifully rustic 1800s Guest Cabin on the Creek, or their stunning O’Hair Ranch Lodge with its private access to over three miles of the Yellowstone River.
DePuy Spring Creek
DePuy offers approximately three miles of spring creek fishing, making it the longest of the Paradise Valley spring creeks. It also has a spring-fed lake, which the creek runs through, to provide even more fly-fishing opportunities. Anglers who purchase a rod-day at the creek also gain access to the lake. Some fish the lake by wading the edges, others bring float tubes or even drift boats to better cover the water. The lake is also the primary reason why trumpeter swans frequent the creek. They are descendants of birds brought to the ranch in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service long ago.
Ownership of the ranch and creek began in 1905 when the DePuy family moved from Kansas and purchased the property to use as a farm and sheep and cattle operation. The family has added to the size of their ranch over the years, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that Warren DePuy laid the groundwork for today’s DePuy Spring Creek. He purchased the water rights for a large spring on the property to build a hatchery, and formed a stream channel from the spring to feed it. The hatchery was ultimately destroyed when the state built a highway through the valley, now known as Route 89 South. But the highway construction also created the impetus to dredge new stream channels, which formed the spring creek we know today.
DePuy Spring Creek limits the number of anglers to no more than 16 rods per day. You can check their online calendar to see how many rods are available, though you need to call the owners, Daryl and Theresa Smith, to book a rod. They have three fisherman’s huts spread out evenly along the length of the creek. Each of the huts contains a wood stove and the kindling, matches, and logs needed to help burn off the chill of an April or October fishing day. A small fly shop, Spring Creek Specialists, is located beside the property’s southernmost fisherman’s hut. If you need flies, leaders, tippet, or any other disposable fly fishing necessity, this is a great place to get it without ever leaving the creek.
Nelson’s Spring Creek
The Nelson family has been in Montana for a long time. They homesteaded here in the 1860s, which means they can trace their ancestors back to some of the first settlers in Paradise Valley. And yes, that was well before the fictional character John Dutton from the Yellowstone series supposedly arrived in 1883.
Their ownership of Nelson’s Spring Creek began when Andrew Nelson purchased the creek’s northern end in the early 1900s. The family secured the rest of the creek with another land purchase in 1951. Today, in addition to their fly-fishing business, Nelson’s Spring Creek Ranch maintains an active cattle operation owned by Roger and Mary Nelson.
Nelson’s Spring Creek is approximately three quarters of a mile long, and the family limits the total number of anglers per day to six rods, which can be booked through an online reservation system. The creek is closed to fishing on Sunday and open to reservations for the general public Tuesday through Saturday. You have to book rods for the week on Mondays. The Nelsons give priority for booking rods to anglers who are lodging with them. But if there are fewer than six fishermen booked, the remaining rods can be purchased by anyone on the preceding Monday.
The Nelsons have both a main lodge and cabins. Guests staying at the lodge receive a homemade breakfast and can then sit by a fire in the common area before and after a day of fishing. The two cabins on the property have kitchenettes, so you can prepare your own meals and never have to leave the stunning views found from their decks. Mary Nelson manages the lodging and fishing reservations, while her son Tucker and his wife Jacquie own and manage Nelson’s Guides and Flies, also located on the ranch. Their business includes a well-stocked fly shop and a fly-fishing guide service for Nelson’s Spring Creek as well as other Montana trout waters.
Seasons and Hatches
In addition to seasonal hatch-matching fly patterns, there are some important attractor flies you should bring with you. I always carry some streamers (white, black, olive, and yellow, #8-14), Zebra Midges (red or black, #18-22), scuds (olive or pink, #14-18), eggs (various colors, #12-16), Elk-hair Caddis (black, rusty brown, tan, olive, #12-20), Parachute Adams (#14-20), Pheasant Tails (#14-22), Jujubee Baetis (#16-20), worm patterns (red, #10-14), and Perdigons (#10-14). I usually abstain from using split-shot in the creeks because the extra weight often gets my flies tangled in the weeds. I drop whatever hatch-matching, or attractor, nymph I’m using off the bend of a Perdigon, using its weight to get my flies to the bottom.
For spring hatches, you’ll need to match midges (#18-26), Blue-winged Olives (#18-20), dark olive caddis (#16-18), tan caddis (#16), Mother’s Day Caddis (#14-16), and Callibaetis (#14-16). Springtime weather in Montana can range from mild 60-degree days to cold, blustery snow events. Hatches are sparse in early spring, comprised predominantly of midges. Though you can’t always expect to find rising fish this time of year, I’ve watched these trout feed on the surface with an air temperature of 14 degrees F.
Windless days provide the best surface activity, but this is one of the windiest times of year in the valley. Rainbow trout move into the creeks to spawn in the early spring and sometimes as early as January. Their numbers build as spring progresses. Yellowstone cutthroats spawn later in the spring and into summer, usually from May to July, but their eggs take weeks to hatch, so be careful to avoid walking on all trout redds (browns and rainbows too) from the early fall through midsummer. The spring creeks will book up fast as snowmelt runoff arrives on the Yellowstone River (usually in early to mid-May), making it difficult to procure a reservation.
In the summer, your hatch-matching should be centered around PMDs (#14-18), Sulphurs (#20-24), Blue-winged Olives (#20-24), Tricos (#18-20), and terrestrials like ants, beetles, crickets, and hoppers.
Montana summers are generally hot and dry, sometimes with afternoon thunderstorms that create a great deal of wind and lightning. This is the busiest time of year on the creeks, as the most popular hatches are appearing. Summer also brings terrestrial season. Watching the creeks’ large, wild trout inhale a size 10 foam hopper is about as good as it gets. But don’t forget ant and beetle patterns—the fish eat a lot of them too. Summer also brings the creeks’ best mayfly hatch, Pale Morning Duns. PMDs are yellowish, small to mid-sized mayflies related to eastern U.S. Sulphurs that can appear in prolific numbers. The trout notice this and respond by aggressively eating their nymphs and emergers, and by plucking their duns and spinners from the surface. But the flatwater nature of spring creeks makes lighter tippets (5X or lighter), longer leaders (9 feet or more), and the ability to employ a reach cast combined with a downstream presentation vital to catch fish consistently.
In the fall, terrestrials are still effective, but as the colder weather moves in trout will also begin to focus on Blue-winged Olives (#20-24) and midges (#18-26).
Autumn brings more wind to the valley as the fight between cold and warmth begins anew. Fall days can be warm and pleasant, but there is also potential for the first snow of the winter. It’s a beautiful time to be on the creeks with the cottonwood leaves turning bright gold. Angling pressure begins to subside as many vacations have ended for the year, and local fly fishers have moved off the water to try to procure their winter’s meat supply from the local elk and deer herds. Brown trout begin ascending the creeks to spawn in the fall. This can lead to large numbers of new fish in the creeks. It’s a great time to try a streamer cast tight to the banks or to fish egg patterns for those fish that are not actively engaged in spawning. Fall witnesses the last consistent dry-fly fishing of the year. But many anglers are fishing egg imitations, hoping to latch onto one of the river’s oversized brown trout that are cruising the placid currents with love on their minds.
Winter may be my favorite season to fish the creeks. Fly selection is much less complicated. You only need to imitate midges (#20-26) and Blue-winged Olives (#20-24) if they appear. The daily rod fees are greatly reduced, approximately a third of their summertime peaks. DePuy offers a winter pass, which allows you to fish every day for six months (though you still have to call before each day to reserve your spot). But the number of these passes is limited, and there’s a waiting list to receive one.
In the winter, it’s possible to have one of the creeks entirely to yourself, though you shouldn’t expect that unless it’s forecast to be -20 degrees with heavy snow. The weed beds which are scattered along the creeks’ substrate begin to die off in the winter (though they do not disappear entirely), making it a little easier to nymph without getting snagged. And you should expect to nymph in the winter, though it’s possible that a midge hatch brings some of the fish to the surface.
I also tend to arrive with a tin cup and a little Montana-made Bighorn Bourbon. Some winter days, after catching a fish or two, sipping whiskey beside a warming hut’s crackling wood stove as you gaze at snowflakes fluttering downward from Rocky Mountain peaks is just about as good as it gets. You may even think you’re in Paradise. And you’d be right.
Bring two rods to the creek each day, one of them rigged to drift small subsurface nymphs and midges, the other to make delicate, accurate presentations with mostly small dry flies. Your nymph rod can also be used to throw larger streamers or hoppers when the opportunity arises. In the spring and fall, be prepared for unpredictable, often cold weather, and perhaps excellent dry-fly fishing.
Book your Destination
Armstrong Spring Creek: armstrongspringcreek.com / 406-222-2979
Depuy Spring Creek: depuyspringcreek.com / 406-222-0221
Nelson’s Spring Creek: nelsonsspringcreek.com, nelsonsguidesandflies.com / 406-220-6560
Paul Weamer is the author of Favorite Flies for Yellowstone National Park (Stackpole Books, 2022) and Dry Fly Strategies (Stackpole Books, 2021). He is the owner/operator of Weamer Fly Fishing LLC and lives in Paradise Valley, Montana, with his wife Ruthann and his English mastiff Olive.