I LOVE SPRING CREEKS
My first experience on a real spring creek occurred in September of 1971 when three guys from Michigan made a trip to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for the exclusive purpose of fly fishing for trout. Prior to this trip all of my fly fishing had been confined to the streams of Michigan and New York. While Michigan's Au Sable has many spring creek like characteristics it lacks many of the characteristics that define a true spring creek. However, I owe my subsequent successes on spring creek waters to the lessons I learned while fishing on the Au Sable River.
It was early September in 1971 that I first laid eyes on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. I think, at that moment, that three anglers from Michigan thought they had died somewhere along the way from Michigan and had arrived in heaven. We were in Last Chance Idaho at the head of the famous Railroad Ranch and we set up our camp trailer at Riverside Campground, and used Will Godfrey's Fly Shop as our fly fishing headquarters. We fished the Railroad Ranch water, and like many anglers before and since we found it extremely challenging. However, it was the challenge that made it such an attraction.
After a couple days on the Fork we moved to Madison Junction campground in Yellowstone National Park. However, before we left Idaho Will Godfrey suggested that we might enjoy fishing Nelson's Spring Creek just outside of Livingston, Montana. He gave us their phone number and we called a made a reservation. After a fishing the streams around West Yellowstone and in the area around our campground in the Park the day finally arrived for our spring creek adventure.
The trip from Madison Junction to Nelson's was filled with anticipation and I will never forget that trip through Paradise Valley on that early fall morning. The peaks of the Absaroka Mountains – Emigrant Peak, Dexter's Point, Chico Peak – were all covered with a fresh coat of early winter snow. The cottonwood trees along the river were beginning to turn yellow and the big river reflected the big blue Montana sky. I remember turning off the main highway and driving down East River Road to the long driveway that lead down to Nelson's Spring Creek. At the bottom of the long driveway we pulled into Ed and Helen Nelson's yard. Little did I know at the time that I was about to meet a family of people that would become both my friends and my neighbors in just a couple years.
After a brief introduction and payment of our rod fee – ten dollars per day per angler – Ed took us out and showed us the creek. Immediately behind the house there was a series of raceways where they grew trout for commercial sale. The raceways were supplied by water from the spring creek, and as we walked near the water the trout caused the water to boil. Ed said that they had not been fed yet. Running parallel to the raceways was the spring creek and what a sight met our eyes. Crystal clear water with bright green water weeds waving in the gentle currents. Watercress grew in provision along the edge and as we stood and took in the scene a few yellowish mayflies began to hatch and here and there we could see the rings left by rising trout. It did not take us long to retrieve our gear and begin fishing.
While the day was sunny a recent cold front had dropped the air temperatures significantly and I don't believe that the temperature exceeded 50 degrees all day, but what a day it was. The yellowish mayflies that we saw hatching continued all day long, and by the time we left the creek at the end of the day the emergent water weeds were colored yellow by the sheer volume of the mayflies that were clinging to them. During the course of the day I barely moved 20 yards and I constantly had rising fish within casting distance. Interestingly the flies that were hatching were very similar to a hatch of flies that we had on the Au Sable, Ephemerella dorothea, but they hatched in the spring. No matter, I had lots of them in my fly box and those trout seemed to find them an acceptable substitute for the real ones. I truly don't know how many trout I hooked, lost, and landed during the course of that day but when I finally crawled out of the icy water as the sun began to play peek-a-boo with the western horizon I knew that I had never experienced anything like it. I had landed more big trout in one day – browns, rainbows and even a few cutthroats – than I ever thought possible. Even as we reluctantly left the water for our long drive back to our campsite along the Madison the trout were still rising.
That was the beginning of a love affair that ultimate brought me back to the Paradise Valley of Montana for good. The following two summer I was back with my family and I fished both Nelson's and Armstrong's Spring Creeks for several days. In those days Trout Unlimited had a lease on Armstrong's and you could fish it for ten dollars per day. The O'Hair family that owns Armstrong's had a hatchery operation at that time and occasionally one of the screens that separated the hatchery operation from the creek would fail and a bunch of hatchery rainbows would flood into the creek. All those hatchery fish made a lot of fly fishers think that they were the great spring creek anglers.
With my love of spring creeks and the wide open spaces of Montana by the summer of 1974 I was living within a few miles of both these famous creeks. By the early 80's I added DePuy Spring Creek to my list, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As much as I love the fishing that the spring creeks have to offer the spring creek experience is far more encompassing than the fishing. Spring creeks, the water that flows through them, and the ecosystem that they support are magical.
First, spring creeks have a special ambience. There is always an atmosphere of anticipation when you approach a spring creek; whether it's a small intimate spring creek like the ones found in Paradise Valley or a major river like Henry's Fork of the Snake. For the angler that loves fishing for trout feeding on small flies or small nymphs' spring creeks are the quintessence of the quality fly fishing experience.
Secondly, spring creeks are wildlife magnets. Water coming from a spring allows a spring creek to maintain a constant temperature year around and this produces a perfect environment for producing things that are attractive to all kinds of wildlife. You can find all kinds of birds from waterfowl to passerine migrants of every kind. Various types of animals find the riparian areas that the spring creek supports very attractive and over the years I have seen big game animals like deer, elk, bear and moose along spring creeks. Small animals; muskrat, beaver, mink, otter, fox, and coyote are common along many spring creeks. For a person that loves the outdoors spring creeks are a visual feast.
Thirdly, for me, there is a lifetime of memories associated with spring creeks. On every trout stream that I ever fished there comes a moment, call it the golden moment, that special time when time seems to stand still and the rest of creation seems to dissolve. I have experienced this more times on spring creeks than on any other trout water.
I imagine that every angler has his or her favorite place and their own personal memories about that place. It might be nothing more significant than a lily pad encrusted pond that harbors pan-sized bluegills, or a sun baked flat where bonefish nuzzle the sand looking for shrimp or crabs. Wherever you find your special spot I hope that you get out and enjoy it often, and maybe even take a friend.