By: Marlene Affeld
Montana is blessed with water; gin-clear cold water. Fed from glaciers, winter snowpack and deep mountain springs, Montana’s pristine chilly waters are a perfect habitat for trout. Rainbow, Lake, Cutthroat, Brown and Brook Trout thrive to the delight of bears and anglers.
Trout depend on cold water to survive. Our waters are cold, trout flourish in Montana. Brook Trout are the easiest to catch but the most sensitive to water temperature; their population begins to diminish in waters that exceed 68 degrees F., Montana’s other species of trout are comfortable at slightly warmer temps. Many fishermen feel that the wary Brown Trout is the most difficult to catch.
Montana boasts literally thousands of miles of streams and rivers and a generous plethora of lakes. Here in Mineral County we have 53 alpine lakes, however; you can only drive to 3, the remainder are hiking trail accessible only. Nearby Glacier County has 116 lakes. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, north and east of Yellowstone Park has over 400 trout lakes. There is blue ribbon water everywhere, most of it teeming with one or more species of trout.
The top of Triple Divide Peak, where continental divides intersect, is located within Glacier National Park (named for the glacial rivers of ice that crafted its majestic landscape). TD Peak marks the point that gives Montana the distinction of being the only geographic region in the world whose mighty rivers form parts of three major water sheds; Hudson Bay, The Pacific Ocean and The Gulf of Mexico.
In Mineral County, some of Montana’s best fishing holes are to be found. The town of Saint Regis marks the confluence of the St. Regis and Clark Fork Rivers. Here anglers are regularly rewarded with prize winning catches, fish measuring up to 20 inches are commonplace. Overall the fishing on the Clark Fork is excellent, the river has over a thousand fish per mile in many areas. Some of the toughest and strongest trout anywhere are found in these waters. The Clark Fork River is considered one of the most prolific western rivers in the United States.
The Clark Fork River commences at its headwaters in the Silver Bow Mountains near Anaconda, Montana and wanders north and west for over 275 miles through arid flat lands, mountains and valleys. When the Clark Fork crosses into Idaho, it is the largest river in Montana, carrying an average of over 22,000 cubic feet of water per second.
A glorious fall day, honking geese heading south, cool crisp morning air, a dusting of snow on the Bitteroots and trout rising on the river; it doesn’t get any better than this!
Montana’s number one game fish, the Rainbow Trout is a highly prized favorite among trout anglers and fly fishermen. Commencing in 1989, hundreds of millions of rainbow trout have been introduced from hatchery stock to habitat throughout the state. Rainbow Trout have been established in streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and reservoirs. In recent years policy has changed and now Rainbow Trout are primarily introduced only in lakes and reservoirs.
Fish biologist believe that the only Rainbow Trout, actually native to Montana, are those that are found in the Kootenai River drainage.
In connective water systems that allow the trout to migrate, hatchlings will remain in small creeks or streams until they reach 6 to 8 inches and then will venture into the larger rivers and lakes where they gain weight and size before returning to spawn. A 33 pound beauty holds the state record; 10 pound catches are common in the majority of Montana’s alpine lakes.
Treasured for its gameness, beauty and firm pink flesh, Rainbow Trout are an important and valued part of Montana’s eco-system.
Brook Trout are plentiful in mountain streams with gravel bottoms. A good spot to try your luck is in the overhang of trees that provide protection from preying birds and a bit of shade. Brook Trout feed on other small fish, mollusks, crustaceans and insects. Just about any bait or lure that mimics their food source will land a “Brookie”.
A half dozen “Brookies”, dusted with flour and fried in butter over an open campfire, are delightfully tasty. Add some fried potatoes, flip a couple of eggs and you have a Mountain Morning breakfast “fit for a king”.
For many an angler, the elusive Brown Trout is hard to catch. The Brown Trout is a lot more wary than other species. Its shy habits help to ensure longevity in streams where other trout have been fished out.
Brown Trout seek areas with plenty of cover. Under log jams, cuts in the bank, overhanging tree cover or rock outcroppings are their favorite hang-outs. As they grow larger, Brown Trout become even more wary. They will often feed at night when darkness offers protection. Although a challenge to capture, the Brown Trout's succulent flavor is a reward for patience.
Brown Trout normally feed on small minnows, crustaceans, worms and insects. Netting a Brown Trout requires skill, tenacity and a little bit of luck.
By far the largest of all trout species, the Lake Trout prefers deep, cold lakes. Also sometimes called Salmon Trout, Makinaw or Great Lakes Trout, they feed on any source of flesh available with their habitat. Eels, smelt and a variety of minnows are all part of the Lake Trout’s diet.
Due to their preference for icy cold waters, the meat of the Lake Trout is rich and flaky, tender and extremely flavorful.
In the early spring, fly fishermen working the lake shallows report success using dry flies. As the weather warms, the Lake Trout move deeper, retreating to colder waters. Summer and fall fishing requires trolling with heavier tackle.
Icy mountain streams that eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean are the preferred habitat of Cutthroat Trout. They feed on minnows, worms, crustaceans and a variety of insects. In fast moving water or rapids, fly fishing is the method of choice. Brown Trout can also be taken with grubs, worms or lures.
Most cutthroat fish populations remain in freshwater during their lifespan. These trout populations are known as non-migratory, stream-resident or riverine. Some cutthroat make their home in the Pacific Ocean, returning to freshwater to feed and spawn in the fall, returning to the ocean in the early part of spring. Those that spend most of their time in the ocean can weigh up to 20 pounds. The trout that remain in the freshwater may only get up to 2 pounds.
In 1977 the Blackspotted Cutthroat was named the State Fish of Montana.