August 20, 2018
By Ben Romans
There's no doubt Big Sky towns such as Missoula and Bozeman have already earned their seat among great fly fishing hubs and with good cause. Not only is world-class trout water just out the front door, both Western municipalities have all the amenities, attractions, and allure so popular (for better, or worse) in the New West.
But with such reputation comes popularity, and that unsettling feeling that no matter where you go or when you travel, your game plan is the same as the other hordes of anglers especially between the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays.
Enter Helena an often overlooked but ideally placed metropolis in the heart of Big Sky Country. Though the lion's share of fly anglers might forever flock to Missoula or Bozeman or even Billings, they're simply overlooking what just might be the next great fly-fishing town.
The fact of the matter is that for many, many years, Montana's capital city has been undergoing a renascence of sorts one that's attracting not just fishermen, but also chefs, brewers, boat builders, artists, actors, and all sorts of other outdoor recreationists.
One key to the city's awakening is a simple circle. Pick a point in the center of the city, draw a 100-mile sphere around it, and count just how many trout rivers, still waters, alpine lakes, and creeks you see inside the perimeter. There are simply too many to fish in the typical one- or two-week vacation window.
In fact, years ago, Helena's relative location to all things great about Montana trout fishing was one of the reasons Adipose Boats General Manager Justin Waayenberg relocated from his native Michigan.
"Helena is one of the most underrated fishing towns in Montana. We don't have something like the Bitterroot, the Clark Fork, and the Blackfoot merging on our doorstep, but as a 'hub,' it's is an amazing place," Waayenberg says. "In Montana, it's a stretch to drive anywhere, no matter where you are or where you're going. But for me, from home to launch, I can be on the lower Big Hole in about an hour-forty. I can get to fishable runs on the Clark Fork in about 45 minutes. I can be in Bozeman in an hour and a half. And that's only when you're not considering one of the best tailwaters in the nation, which is only a morning's cup of coffee down the road."
That said, one of the keys to visiting Helena, or any fishing town for that matter, is knowing that as the seasons change, so do the fishing conditions. By the time early fall rolls around, some watercourses that fished great in the spring and early summer become backup, alternative options.
"Everyone has a different schedule, and you don't always have a perfect window in the summer when you can visit Montana," Waayenberg says. "But waiting out the tourism season doesn't mean you're shortchanging yourself on the state's fishing. In fact, you might be doing yourself a service because the rivers are less crowded, the weather is often more comfortable, the fish are starting to prepare for a long winter, and it's simply a beautiful time to be on the water, with freshly snow-dusted mountain tops in the backdrop."
The bottom line is to be adaptable to the conditions. If you're set on strictly fishing dry flies, don't expect as much success as an angler who's willing to adapt and fish dry-droppers, nymphs, or streamers as situations dictate.
With that in mind, here's a look at the reasons why Helena just might be the next, great, fly-fishing town, and the resources within the city's reach to help anglers scratch that fall itch.
The Big Missouri River
It's hard to mention a town like Helena without also including the closest, and possibly best tailwater fishery in the northern Rockies the Missouri River. It's arguably one of the most reliable, trout-rich rivers in the state. Which, by default, also makes it one of the most visited rivers in the state.
Some years, depending on snowpack and streamflow, the Missouri is a fickle creature. Other years, like the one following the snow-rich season of 2017-2018, it's the best moving-water option during runoff, and when the 100-degree days force marquee fisheries into dangerous temperature territory, the Mo is consistently cold.
Higher-than-average flows can cause anglers some heartburn, but in the long-term, it's better for the fishery. There's a stronger recruitment of young fish, and some aquatic insects, like caddisflies, tend to proliferate following high-water years. Moreover, while high flows can make things tough for anglers in the summer, it's nothing but good news for fall anglers and anyone planning to visit the Big Mo in the years to come.
"This year, the Missouri was flowing a little higher than normal through the meat of the season, just because we had so much snow and water, and it messed with the timing of some of the hatches," Agee Outfitting owner Mike Agee says. "From Holter Dam down, the river hasn't changed too much over the years. It's still a great wild-trout fishery, and if you go there expecting to encounter dozens of boats, you'll have a great time. There are just so many trout per mile, it's hard not to."
Agee's best advice for fall fishing: Roll with the punches. There's almost no rising fish in the middle section. The water is murky dark from all of the dead weeds and junk decomposing in the lakes. But the hatches are great expect blue-winged olives, and there's actually a great October caddis hatch that comes off in September.
"It's rare to see fish eating on the surface," Agee says. "It's a different story from Craig downstream. In that stretch, you can expect consistently better dry fly fishing, all the time, all the way to Cascade."
Land of the Giants
While the tailwater portion of the Missouri is in a class of its own, other portions of the river have made headlines in the last few years. The most popular Missouri River niche is nicknamed the Land of the Giants a three-mile stretch of water between the outflow of Hauser Reservoir and Upper Holter Lake, best reached by modified jet boats.
For some time, the area was producing almost unbelievable numbers of trophy-sized fish. During a time when social media and Instagram photo boards were on the cusp of overtaking the sport, images of big, hooked-jawed browns and football-plump rainbows sprouted up on websites and in magazine articles. The man at the forefront of it all was Agee.
"When I started guiding there in 2002, there were maybe five guides that went there regularly. Now I know there are at least 35 guides that have paid their launch fees at the marina for 2018, but likely over 50 boats fishing it regularly," Agee says. "Just guides alone, with all those motorboats, on three miles of river, doesn't make things fun. Some clients complain about it because there's no longer a 'moment' when you're just guiding and fishing. You're navigating between boats. But on a positive note, we caught a 27-inch brown on a dry fly recently. It was amazing! Fish just grow so big, and it was a stream-born, wild fish!"
"The fishing pressure does taper off in the fall, and there are plenty of untouched big fish roaming around up there," Agee says. "The other thing that people need to realize the honest truth about the Land of the Giants is the fishery is man-made. Holter is stocked, and the fish go up the river. It's as simple as that, and you have to be honest with yourself, because out of all the big rainbows caught, very few are actually wild."
Agee still believes the Land of the Giants has moments of greatness. And although there is a lot of traffic, for anglers with open expectations, a trip upriver can be a terrific experience. Despite the crowds, there are still several anglers, every year, pulling trout over 30 inches.
"For me, a two-hour drive is what I limit myself to on day trips," Waayenberg says. "I can justify four total hours of driving for a long day of fishing. If you can do that, from Helena, the fishing possibilities that open up are endless."
Also remember fall days get shorter, so you don't have to rush to be on the water at first light. Drive during the dark times of the day and wait for water temperatures to warm up a little or for the hatches to kick off.
"I really like the Boulder River, which is south of town, and the Little Blackfoot, which is west, just over the pass. Both rivers are small, intimate, and a lot of fun in the fall," Waayenberg continues. "People that usually fish those places are very respectful of other anglers' space. I've never had anyone try to low-hole me, or anything like that. The roads are great, and there are public campgrounds if you want to make a few days out of it. It's really worth checking out."
Waayenberg also pointed out people sometimes forget about the upper Blackfoot, just a stone's throw away. In September and October, the pressure tapers off, the water is low, clear, and cold, and it's time to think about fishing a foam Chubby or Chernobyl. He says he can reach the River Junction access site in about an hour and 10 minutes, which is good to remember if you've been fishing the technical tailwater flows of the Missouri and want to enjoy the varying conditions found on freestones. What's more, there are countless still water options just outside the city or en route to wherever you might be venturing. For example, driving from Helena, you'll encounter lakes like Upsata, Browns, and Coopers on the commute to the Blackfoot.
"I think there are a lot of people who just love the Missouri, love the Big Hole, and the Blackfoot they're addicted to fishing moving water and fishing still waters is a foreign concept. But they're missing out on how good stillwater fishing actually is," Waayenberg says. "Look at the lakes and realize that in those situations, trout don't have to fight current all day. They sit there and get fat. Just don't make the mistake of thinking they're easy to fool. They're smart, and you'll still need to use light tippet, figure out how to trick one to eat, and be able to cast like you're on saltwater."
"The alternatives in the fall are the lake fisheries. You can get out and away from people, sit and spot fish, and it's really one of the better places to sight fish," Agee says. "Sometime in September, the weeds all die and dissipate and float away, and all the scuds and leeches that were once hiding in the weeds are now exposed. So the fish move into the shallows and the name of the game is light streamers. It's amazing. You can actually see trout tailing like redfish, with their heads down, eating off the bottom. It's a very visual game, in just a foot or two of water."
Still waters are terrific options north and west of the city. But travel south, and you'll once again find completely different experiences. You might not realize it looking at a map, but esteemed waters like the Big Hole and Madison are within easy reach of Helena. In fact, you can be in Ennis, Montana, quicker than you'd think, and if you've fished either river a time or two in the spring or summer, they're different creatures come autumn.
"We can have some skinny water conditions on the Big Hole in the middle and late part of the summer, but they start shutting irrigation down in September, and that leaves a lot more water for floating in the river. A typical flow for late September is about 500 cfs, but this year we've had above-average flows because of all the snow from last year, so it might be a little better than we've had in recent years," Sunrise Fly Shop owner Ryan Barba says.
"From Jerry Creek, down through Melrose, and all the way to Notch Bottom is where you'll want to explore in the fall. Pressure on the river at that time of the year is very light. Anyone that's fished the Big Hole when it's crowded, like during the salmonfly hatch, will be amazed at how much solitude they'll find fishing it in the fall," Barba says. "The fall foliage is incredible because of all the cottonwoods along the river. If you're lucky, you could also see or hear some bugling elk. Down around Glenn, the elk often come down pretty close to the river. It's spectacular."
Farther east, the Madison remains one of, if not the most heavily fished rivers in the state, revered for both its dry fly and streamer activity. In the fall, however, the summer tourism season is a distant memory, and the scene on the Madison is a different one altogether.
"As soon as those water temps start to drop, then it's time to bust out the 7- and 8-weights again, grab a 250-grain sinking line, and start throwing giant, articulated streamers," Waayenberg says. "That's when the conditions are right for fish to want to chase big meals. The streamer bite in the fall is definitely one of the big attractions."
No matter your experience on the water, Helena's social scene will either help you celebrate your best day or drown the misery of losing the big one.
"For someone that wants to mix some other activities into their fishing trip, that might mean catching a few trout and then doing something like enjoying the city's biking trails, in the same afternoon. Visitors aren't limited to dedicating one long, drawn-out day to one pursuit. Helena's position and amenities make it possible to mix things up," Helena Tourism Alliance Executive Director Andrea Opitz says.
The area offers many historical tours (like the Gates of the Mountains water tour of the canyon and famous Mann Gulch area) perfect for the family road trip. Helena is also home to the Montana Historical Society, which features amazing archived photos and anecdotes, a Charlie Russell display, and Native American art exhibits.
"If you're visiting Helena with family, there are all sorts of off-the-river activities around town. Exploration Works, for example, is a science museum with a twist. It's filled with unconventional science experiments and educational programs. They have different exhibits from time to time, and almost everything is hands-on, so kids can touch, see, and listen to displays," Opitz says. "Then literally right out the front door is the Great Northern Carousel. It's a great little turn-of-the-century musical carousel with over 30 different animals, and an ice cream parlor and gift shop attached."
When it comes to eating and drinking, Helena has something for all tastes. If you enjoy a shore lunch that includes local, fresh fruits and vegetables, visit the Helena farmers market, open every Saturday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. through the end of September.
If you'd rather fill up on a big breakfast and fish through lunch, Steve’s Café (406-444-5010) and the No Sweat Café (406-442-6954) have traditional and bohemian style menu options that will both tickle your taste buds and stick to your ribs. At the end of your day, consider one of the town's unique eateries, like On Broadway (406-443-1929), especially on Thursdays when local musicians play live jazz.
If you're heading back to town from the north, the Grub Steak (406-458-9816) near the intersection of Lincoln Road and I-15 is a terrific pit stop. Alternatively, if you're on your way home from somewhere down south, the Big Bull Bar & Grill on Highway 287 in Winston, southeast of Helena near Canyon Ferry, makes a great burger. For after-dinner entertainment, consider the Grandstreet Theatre or Myrna Loy Center for live performances.
Lastly, no fly-fishing road trip is complete without sampling local suds. If you and your crew want to wet your whistle, consider the Blackfoot River Brewing Company (406-449-3005), Ten Mile Creek Brewery (406-502-1382), or the Lewis & Clark Brewing Company (406-442-5960), which hosts an open mic night on Monday, trivia on Wednesday, and live music on Thursday and Saturday nights. For something with more alcohol per volume, Gulch Distillers (406-449-2393) manufactures a unique rum, gin, and vodka.
For a long time, Montana's capital city has flown under many angler's radars, but as neighboring fishy-cities to the southwest and southeast continue to attract almost more visitors than they can handle, expect that to change. The city still has the look and feel of a true Montana trout town, and the amenities, comforts, and leisures that will surely help you round out your fly-fishing expedition.