Hidden Gems

Headwaters, Fishing
Fish in Headwaters
Headwaters Creek

Hidden Gems

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John Holt

Fishing headwater creeks.

As the years pass, I find myself spending more and more time on the little creeks tumbling out of mountain ranges like the Absarokas, Beartooths and Gallatins. Unlike many big-name rivers, justly famous for their large trout but suffering from the near-gridlock of rafts and driftboats, the diminutive headwater flows offer isolation and serenity. The landscape is stunning in its high-altitude remoteness: glacier cirques, deep forests, mountain meadows filled with wildflowers, and most of all, fish. Native Yellowstone cutthroat, westslope cutthroat, brookies, browns, rainbows, and native mountain whitefish swim the downsized runs, pools, and riffles. And these fish are unsophisticated when it comes to discerning between natural caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies and my imitations thereof.

Finding these tiny gems is easy—look on any topo map and pick a spot. Look for streams heading at the base of mountain peaks and follow the thin blue line down to the nearest road. Navigate to these, make the drive, and pull over wherever looks good. Get out, rig up, and start fishing upstream. The fish are normally small,—eight to ten inches—but they’re eager, brightly colored, and wild. Some cautious stalking of deeper runs, pools, and banks cutting beneath junipers, willows, and cedar often turns fat trout of maybe 15 inches.

All of these small wonders are followed at the very least by narrow game trails, so if still further isolation is the goal, walk upstream as far as desired and start casting a short line anywhere. Any effort of more than 25 feet is uncommon in the often narrow, canopied confines of these mountain streams. There are some well-known waters like the West Rosebud, Hyalite Creek, and the upper Stillwater where the landscape is spectacular and despite the human traffic, the fishing can be quite good. But for me the true joy and magic of headwater creeks is picking one out on a map the night before, navigating rough roads and trails as far as I wish, stepping in the cold, clear water, and casting to riotously-colored trout that have, in many cases, never seen a fly or an angler.

West Fork Rock Creek, Red Lodge

One particular downsized creek, formed at the base of rugged cliffs, is home to many wonders. This little flow holds everything magic about a trout stream, only in miniature—riffles, runs, pools, undercut banks, beautiful and beatific surroundings. And there’s something more: absolute peace. Using a restored Payne 94 6’-6” three-weight bamboo rod and a #18 BWO, I take three Yellowstone cutthroat from this isolated piece of sylvan paradise deep in the Absaroka Mountains, an area of fantastic wildness. Catching these fish in these surroundings is as exciting and enjoyable as taking large browns in October from the Yellowstone. Compressed mysteries such as this sparkling flow keep the mind young at heart.

This summer, avoid the big rivers. There’s other moving water out there where trout swim in good numbers as they hide beneath undercut banks and clumps of willow, or hold out in the open seams of miniscule currents, sipping small mayflies, grasshoppers, and errant ants.


John Holt is the author of 20 published books including Fly Fishing Montana, Death in a Live Forest, and Where Paradise Lay.

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