The longest river in North America is the Missouri River that flows over 2,400 miles from the heights of Montana with its source in Brower’s Spring at over 8,400 feet down to the Mississippi in Missouri. Its watershed covers one-sixth of the United
States and brings a history rich in ancient Native American lore and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Stories abound of its might force and power richness as the major source of water for every state from Montana.
It is known as the “Mighty MO” or “Big Muddy” in Montana where it flows through Great Falls, the second largest city of the state. Here there were once five cascading waterfalls that Lewis and Clark portaged to find their way West to the Northwest Passage and the lands and legends great that they discovered. It became part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1804 from France. The largest tributary is the Yellowstone, with the Gallatin and Musselshell being major tributaries along with Hell Roaring Creek and the Fire Hole out of the Yellowstone Park adding spice to its course. The latter typifies the Wild West story of the fur trade and pioneers heading west from the 1830’s. The Native American nations spread out along the river including the Blackfeet, Flatheads, Lakota, Sioux and Mandan to name a few. They found their trade, food and transportation in the river.
It is in Great Falls that I take interest, as it is there that my two sons migrated and settled. It was the hunting and fishing that originally attracted them to settle and start a dental practice. Brady is a dentist and his brother Chad was a dental lab technologist until he became a building contractor. But that is another story. Over the last 15 years we have ventured out to visit and enjoy the wilds of the region and the majesty of the mountains and “Mighty” Missouri. My wife blames a close friend for luring the boys west, something common to thousands of mother’s through the past 200 years.
I tell the story of the Missouri and its history as part of the story of our family. The river is God’s magnificent creation, given to us as a gift. Many stories have flowed from the river that I want to share. We explored God’s beautiful world and His transcendence. Through our sorties into His wilderness we can know Him and ourselves better.
It was at “Pelican Point” near Cascade on the Missouri that I presided at the wedding of my son Chad to his bride Lisa on the fifteenth of May 2004. They chose the spot because of its history and beauty and it is where Chad had proposed marriage. Lewis and Clark had also camped there on their voyage to find the Northwest Passage. Fast flowing current, fishing, swimming and mountains mark off this unique place. Above the river a dramatic ridgeline of the Big Belt Mountains creates a dragon or serpent back. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). They clearly guard the point on the river below where the wedding ceremony was held. It was a cloudy day that turned to “Big Sky” blue. In case of bad weather Lisa had chosen a nearby horse stable for backup. But instead that day we would have forest fires in the area and Forest Service helicopters filling their water buckets in the river in front of us to try to quench the flames nearby. The roar of jet blades created such a racket and wind that the bride to be ran up a nearby hill in her wedding gown waving her bridal bouquet at the pilots to find another place. With a wave of wings they headed down river in deference to the nuptials. It caused my mother-in-law to proclaim it is “just like a Hollywood wedding,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. But the excitement caused the ring-bearer, their English Pointer Hank, to run for the hills with the ring on his back until a swift groom was able to corral him and allow us to complete the vows. I guess in a certain way this simple ceremony had all the trappings of a royal wedding, just more memorable details.
Often the boys and I would head to Craig and Wolf Creek for the wily rainbow trout during a caddis or midge fly hatch. The river would be pockmarked by concentric circles of rising fish, creating artwork and a moving feast. The current is swift and cold so care must be taken to wade out to where the trout are rising. The tiniest dry fly or nymphs in the #19-21 range were required, tied to a #2 tippet of 6-8 pounds and ten feet in length so they wouldn’t see it easily. Casting is an art taking years to perfect as a trout might surface 60-100 feet away. The fly must alight above the rising trout ahead of the direction they are traveling with no draglines. False or practice casts held above the water are required until enough line is out to bring a perfect cast. The casting scenes by a Brad Pitt stunt man in the movie A River Runs Through It filmed on the Blackfoot some 100 miles north portray the kind of skills required. These were skills my sons had long since acquired.
If all timing and fly pattern are placed perfectly to a rising trout, they might take it. If so, instant reaction with a quick wrist action strike is required to hook the fish. With a barbless hook, the line must then be kept taught or the fish will easily throw the fly. When the hook is felt the trout might jump high above the water several times and run for hundreds of yards. This requires a quick rod to be lowered as the fish rises and the line to be released with tension as the fish runs. The drag must be set low enough so the fragile leader won’t break. A fight might last 15 minutes and moving up or down the river with alacrity on the slippery rocks. Deep holes can be a hazard and if the fisherman goes down, there is danger in drifting down the frigid and mighty current. This is a battle of wit and wile that tests the patience and skills of a fisherman or woman. It requires total concentration and no distraction. That is one reason why silent sport people worldwide are attracted to it. It is the ultimate sport with a ring as large as the Big Sky around it and the river running through it.
Landing a rainbow of several pounds is rare and difficult. Once tired, a fish can be led to a wet or gloved hand and carefully released in the water in order to keep the fish fresh and its protective oils intact. Holding the fish in hand lightly and moving it back in forth in the current might be required to bring life giving oxygen back into its lungs before release. Only if a fish is kept for eating should they be placed in a creel. A big rainbow from the MO will feed a family of four easily. We prefer the charcoal grill on aluminum wrap lightly oiled with salt and pepper.
Many times we have taken a float trips down the river in canoes or flat boats letting the current guide our way as we steer with oars or paddles. There is a specialized, double raised bow drift boat made for such a river as the MO. The fishermen stand in the bow and spot fish, casting for the risers. Someone keep the boat moving with the current and staying casting distance from the schools of fish. Eagles soar above and squadrons of large white pelicans cruise by looking for fish. These six-foot wingspan birds look like bombers going overhead. Occasionally mink, marmot and wolverines come down to drink with the deer streamside. We don’t have a fancy boat, so our flat bottom Arkansas traveler does the trick. On a busy summer day there can be a myriad of boats scattered up and down the river in search of trout. For the most part without engines, all we hear is the river and birds. Occasionally an Osprey will shriek on the way to a fish.
Picnicking and camping along the river has been part of our experience with the river. When pausing for a break, I have brought out an ancient Japanese art form, the fish print. Using the fish we have chosen for dinner, I will paint the fish’s side with acrylics to try to match the vibrant rainbow of colors. After covering the fish from head to tail I place rice paper over the fish and roll a road stick down it to ensure a full fish print. Then I pull back the paper and it produces a colorful fish replica upside down like a lithograph. The print often captures some of the fish’s natural gloss and sparkles. Several of these prints hang in my office as my trophies of Missouri River trips. A further upside is that the fish is still available for a sumptuous dinner.
This incredible river of God’s making never freezes, so we can fish or boat year round if properly dressed. There are still insect hatches in the winter on a sunny day.
On our most recent trip down the Missouri, we borrowed a fast ski boat from a friend that was big enough for five adults and our three small grandsons. We headed out from a boat landing on Holter Lake, a widening in the river. It was Independence Day weekend and 90 degrees so we were not the only ones looking for cool. We cruised up toward “The Gateway to The Rockies” a spectacular canyon in the river. The mountain faces grew steeper and taller to a couple of thousand feet above the water, dotted with sturdy evergreens, as we proceeded toward Helena. We found several weed filled bays where we fished, taking over 50 jumbo yellow perch and a few walleyes. We released almost the same number on this prolific day. The fish would remain on ice until later when my sons would skillfully fillet them at a Riverside cleaning station. We picnicked at an open table rock in the shade of an enormous Ponderosa Pine. On the way back we spotted a tall rock chimney sticking up along the cliff sides of Montana granite. Led by my son, two little guys and I climbed up about twenty feet and jumped into the deep blue waters beneath. The exhilaration brought a new high energy level of whoops and song from the invigorated and brave troop.
After landing and filleting the fish we headed home for a perch dinner. The finger-sized morsels were dipped in olive oil and rolled in egg and panko flour. They sizzled to a golden brown in Ghee butter on a hot iron skillet. Tomatoes and avocados relished the delicacy washed down with Montana beer. It couldn’t have been a better day.
We will be back as the river draws us for more adventure and fun. We are pulled by the beauty of God’s special river made for all living creatures to enjoy and find life. I don’t know whether I should post this on my blog as I’m not sure I want more people heading to the Missouri River and its’ many attractions. Until next time.