Memories of Western Montana’s Crown Jewel

There is a bend in the stream, not far from the end of the blacktop on Rock Creek road where the creek winds away from the road and carves its channel into the steep hillside on the west side of the narrow valley. I can’t pass that spot without thinking of my father.

One of my earliest memories is of him standing out in the water at that bend, making beautiful slow casts with his bamboo fly rod, toward the dark, swift water on the far bank.


My father was a preacher, so Sundays were not available for fishing. Our next-door neighbor, the city attorney, was a devout Catholic, and a devout fly fisherman. He needed fish for Fridays, so every Thursday during the season he and my father headed for Rock Creek. It was a matter of religious necessity.


When they came home in the evening, buoyant with tales of the day’s adventures, a great ceremony was made of dumping the contents of their wicker creels on the cool lawn in front of the parsonage. We kids would ooh and ah as we sized up the fish mingled with wet grass that slipped out onto the lawn, dreaming of the day we would get to go. And of course those days came.


I remember my father standing at that bend, hip deep, creel slung over his shoulder, lifting his rod tip quickly to set the hook on some hapless trout. He wasn’t much for the latest in fishing attire. He wore heavy wool pants, held up by red suspenders, and one of those red felt hats they call “crushers” now. For wading shoes he selected hobnail boots, just the ticket for the slippery bottom of Rock Creek, but not particularly stylish. In fact, he looked like he should be wielding a chain saw instead of a fly rod. He probably intended it that way, maybe as a license to engage in some unpreacherly repartee. I can hear his approximation of a curse upon missing a good fish.


“Drat!” he would sputter, then turn with a broad smile to anyone who might be looking on, “Isn’t that the berries?”

Rock Creek has had its ups and downs since those days some forty or so years ago. It gets “discovered” and “rediscovered” by the outdoor magazines every few years. Liberal creel limits took their toll on the fishery over the years before the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks instituted new regulations. There has been increased, sometimes careless, development of private lands along its course. The surge of popularity in fly-fishing has brought many new folks to test the water. Some weekends it’s hard to find a decent campsite and the dust thrown up by traffic along the road might qualify it as a superfund site. But somehow, with the help of aggressive fisheries management and the constant efforts of private individuals and environmental groups, the stream has bounced back and held up over the years.


Anyone who has spent much time on Rock Creek knows it is special, even those who have been frustrated rather than rewarded by its sometimes finicky trout. And as with any resource of special value, there is a range of opinions on how to best manage it. That is true of Rock Creek.


In years past, it was known primarily as a wader’s stream. Its fast current, narrow tricky channels, profusion of rocks and boulders, and occasional downed trees kept all but the most adventurous boaters from plying its waters. In recent years however, a limited number of outfitters and a growing number of private floaters have begun to use the stream, especially during the fabled salmon fly hatch in early June. And controversy has come with the floating.


Many believe the stream is too small to accommodate floating. Some think floaters take an inordinate number of fish and make things more difficult for those on the bank. Barbershop theories abound on the effect of floating on the fishing. Others simply contend that it is an aesthetic question. It is an issue with a lot of disagreement even among those who agree.


Having floated Rock Creek many times, both on my own and as a fishing guide, I have probably contributed my share of fuel to the controversy. I’m not sure exactly what to think about it, but I do know that where there is a problem perceived, there is a problem, at least until some questions have been answered.


And the answers will be coming. The Forest Service is evaluating its policy on floating and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is working on a management plan for the stream that will also address the issue. In addition, the department is looking at other problems that must be dealt with to insure the quality of Rock Creek as a recreational resource will be maintained. Information collected from anglers this summer will be used in the process.


Here in western Montana we are surrounded with dazzling natural treasures, sometimes, I think, to the point that we forget that there is some effort required to keep them that way. Of all those treasures, Rock Creek is clearly one of the crown jewels, and it is good to see that it is getting the attention it deserves.


My father’s old wicker creel hangs now on the wall over my typewriter. It still contains some slivers of dry grass that once kept those Thursday trout fresh. Sometimes, especially on cold winter nights, I open up that creel and breath in the faint smell that lingers. It smells of Rock Creek.

(First published in the Missoulian, September 1, 1988)

Categories: Connections, Conservation, Family, Fishing, Gratitude, Nature