Envision it. It’s early in the morning. The sky’s peachy, and you’re having coffee at Ekstrom's Stage Station, a log-cabin-style outpost just off the Rock Creek exit on I-90, less than an hour’s drive from Missoula, Montana.
As spring edges toward summer, this is the scene in the lives and minds of many Montana fisherfolk. In Big Sky Country, long winters feed near-countless cold, clean rivers and streams. Warm, nutrient-rich valleys provide prime habitat for aquatic insects and the trout that feed on them–a thriving ecosystem for salmonids unmatched in the Lower 48. The June salmonfly hatch draws people from all over the world, an early opportunity to catch big trout and explore the culture of fishing in one of its Western heartlands.
Rock Creek, one of Western Montana's most esteemed streams, is a backcountry river in a tight, piney canyon that moose, bighorn sheep and mountain lions call home. The Rock Creek Fisherman's Mercantile fits right in as a port of entry–a mint-green grandma’s house of a place, devoid of glitz and fluorescent lights, defying the industry’s modern gear- and brand-driven vibe. Here, instead, one catches the drift of what a fly shop in Montana might have been like 50 years ago. The visitor greets a worn wooden front porch and a screen door, a stone’s throw from the end of cell service. Family-owned for its 30-plus-year run, its proprietors are among the most welcoming in the industry. They have a stockpile of locally tied flies, tying materials, Montana beer, snacks, a full coffee pot behind the register, and the same dad hats they’ve been selling for decades. This is the spot to buy flies and other necessities: a handful of size-16 Purple Hazes and pheasant-tail nymphs, and a six-pack of Cold Smoke Scotch Ale (optional but recommended).
What follows is 42 miles of unpaved driving along one of Western Montana’s greatest fisheries. Rock Creek boasts five species of trout: rainbow, brown, cutthroat, brook, as well as the endangered (and illegal to target) bull trout. Pack a lunch and bring plenty of water, and fish all day. After the evening caddis hatch, veer off Rock Creek Road and hop onto Highway 348, twisting through rolling prairie and watching the sky turn that same warm color while the sun dips behind the Pintler mountain range. Then you’re in Philipsburg, a historic mining town with a population of about 850 people and a lot to like: the Philipsburg Brewing Company; a dive bar called the White Front; and, if you’re planning on staying, there’s the historic Kaiser House or the Broadway Hotel.
If you’re planning on going, you can take Highway 1, jump on I-90. In an hour’s time, you’re back where you started.
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening...all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
Noted Fly-Fishing Shops of Western Montana
Dan Bailey’s Outdoor Co.
Founded in 1938 by a famed character, this shop helped establish Montana fishing culture.
George Anderson’s shop, est. 1978, is renowned for annual rod “shootouts,” picking the best of the best.
Fins & Feathers
Well-known clinics on casting and fly-tying, plus an immersive guide-training school.
The Tackle Shop
Historic shop in one of Montana’s esteemed trout towns, largely unchanged since its 1937 founding.
Lary’s Fly & Supply
Known for conservation ethics and Flathead trips.
Classic, well-stocked: the oldest shop in fly-fishing mecca.
The Missouri’s best-known outfitter runs its own trout camp.
Four Rivers Fishing Co.
Where the Big Hole, Ruby, Beaverhead and Jefferson meet.
StoneFly Fly Shop
Friendly log-cabin stop in an under-rated fishing town.