Neil Travis - Oct 06, 2014

I recently came across an article that I wrote and was published in Trout, the official publication of Trout Unlimited, the Winter Issue, 1978. It is interesting to look back and see that the Montana spring creeks are still providing quality trout fishing for anglers from around the world.

Armstrong Spring Creek

"South of Livingston, Montana nestled between the towering Absaroka Mountains to the east and the Gallatin Range to the west flow the famed spring creeks of the Yellowstone. Known by trout fishermen across the nation, these three spring creeks bear the names of the ranches through which they flow; Nelson's, Armstrong's and DePuy's.

Bubbling up from vast underground water supplies these three springs erupt within a five mile radius of each other in the fertile Yellowstone bottom. Each is unique in character yet each one shares the characteristics of spring fed water throughout the world. Rich in life essential nutrients blessed with constant temperature and flow these streams form an unequaled environment for trout. Aquatic life is abundant; the water swarms with mayfly, caddis and Diptera along with assorted scuds, shrimp and other aquatic life in myriad forms. Trout are numerous and fast growing.

Although highly prized by present day anglers, the spring creeks attracted little outside attention for many years. Even local attention was minimal. Although trout were abundant they were not easily tempted by the wielders of bait or the slingers of hardware. Heavy weed beds made this type of fishing difficult and the clear water made the fish much warier than those than those found in the nearby Yellowstone River. Only a few local fly fishermen and an occasional outsider ever bothered to ask permission to fish.

With the fly fishing renaissance during the 60's times began to change along the Yellowstone spring creeks. Word began to leak out that some fantastic fly fishing could be found on these virtually unknown waters. Articles began to appear in outdoor magazines praising their virtues. Suddenly the once uncrowded waters were teeming with fishermen.

All of these streams share several common denominators. They all flow through private property and each is relatively short in length. Could even such rich waters survive an uncontrolled horde of anglers and if so what would be the quality of the angling experience under such conditions?

DePuy's Spring Creek has been virtually off limits for years, the owner preferring his privacy to hordes of fishermen. Only a very few people have fished this spring creek and today a local fishing outfitter has purchased the fishing rights and only select clients are taken there to fish.

Nelson's and Armstrong's have been open to the public for many years, one only had to stop and ask permission. As the publicity increased so did the fishing pressure until the owners were having little privacy in their own homes. Pressure was also being exerted by wealthy individuals to buy up the fishing rights and exclude everyone outside their circle of friends. Montanans, for the most part, do not like the concept of hunting and fishing for only a wealthy few and they resisted leasing their waters. However, the crowds kept increasing and what with the cost of taxes, new machinery and the declining cattle market these ranchers found it increasingly difficult to turn down the offers made by more affluent individuals.

In an attempt to both reduce the crowds and to realize some monetary gain while allowing the stream to remain open to the general public, Edwin Nelson began charging $10.00 per rod/per day to fish his stream, and he limited the number of fishermen to 5 per day. This was a difficult decision since fee fishing was an entirely new concept in Montana, and its introduction was not looked upon favorably by many local citizens.

In 1970, faced with the same problems as Nelson's, but still skeptical about the fee fishing concept, Allen O'Hair, owner of Armstrong's Spring Creek, enlisted the aid of Dan Bailey to have Trout Unlimited lease his water and keep it open to the public. For the sum of $6,000.00 per year Trout Unlimited, with the help of private and business investors, arranged a five year lease. Pressure continued to mount under the open door policy employed by Trout Unlimited. It soon became evident that some type of limit needed to be imposed on the number of fishermen allowed on the stream each day. In 1973 an honor system was arranged allowing ten fishermen per day on the stream. This system allowed 5 reservations per day, plus five, first come, first served openings. This worked fairly well but some fishermen monopolized the stream for several days at a time, arriving early and taking up all the unreserved rod openings.

In 1974 the Yellowstone River flooded, inundating the spring creek and stripping it of all weed beds and other cover. For the next year the fishing was very slow as the stream struggled to recover. When the Trout Unlimited lease expired at the end of the 1974 fishing season it was decided not to seek a renewal. Dan Bailey, who had managed the project since its inception, had a very difficult time the last few years find sufficient funds. Growing pressure and the increased paperwork made it impossible for a volunteer organization to handle a truly workable and equitable reservation system. Armstrong's Spring Creek reverted to the management of Allen O'Hair who, following Nelson's example, limited the number of rods to 10 per day and now charges a daily rod fee.

Fee fishing is foreign to most American anglers. While common in Europe, Americans have always felt that fish belonged to all people, to be taken by those skillful or fortunate enough. Indeed, the fish belong to the state, but the land surrounding the streams often belongs to private individuals through whose land one must pass to fish.

Independent Westerners particularly protest against paying a fee to cross another man's land to hunt or fish, and I know many who would never consider paying a fee to fish any stream. The question raised by these two spring creeks is whether it is better to pay for the privilege to fish or not fish at all.

Fee fishing allows the land owner to realize some economic gain for the inconvenience of having large numbers of people passing through his property, parking in his yard, and calling at all hours of the day and night inquiring about fishing privileges. This monetary return give the land owner the incentive to keep the water open to the public, preserve the fishery, and not close his property entirely or lease it to a private group.

The fisherman can, by making a reservation in advance, assure himself of a place to fish without being crowded. The fishing is excellent and the quality of the experience has been preserved.

Dan Bailey tells the story how years ago he used to drive out to the spring creeks to fish. If he saw another fisherman on one of the streams he would go on to the next one. He would never consider fishing one of the streams if another fisherman was already fishing. We are not likely to return to those days. Fee fishing should be looked upon as a means of controlling the numbers of fishermen, thereby helping to insure a quality fishing experience, while helping repay the landowner for his inconvenience. As a fisherman I vote for fee fishing in preference to no fishing."

Thirty-six years has elapsed since I wrote that article and much has changed in the world of fly fishing, but the spring creeks along the Yellowstone River remain open to public angling. The original operators of both Nelson's and Armstrong's have died but their progeny still operate the streams and DePuy's Spring Creek was opened as a fee fishery in the 1980's and has taken its place as a premier fly fishing destination.

As a result of good management practices and controlled access the angling opportunities on these three spring creeks remains excellent. Over the years I have had the privilege of fishing all three of these creeks and I consider them a national treasure. The owners are hardworking, down-home type of folks; the fishing and the scenery are beyond compare. If you have never experienced one of these streams now is the time to add it to your bucket list, or better still make a reservation today.

Further information on fishing these streams and making reservations can be found at the following websites.

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