Creek Casting

Small-stream fishing around southwest Montana.

“In those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.” —William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

My blue highways are blue lines, the thin threads on maps indicating perennial streams—a fisherman’s blue highway. Those of us who impale unfortunate worm on sharp hook, who toss tiny treble-hooked spinners, who wave fly wand around in summer sky, know the pull, the allure of the blue line. These are the lines on the topographical maps that speak of mystery and adventure, the streams of the high country that offer promise of fish caught, that whisper of more fish unpinned from hook in one day than you’ll release in a summer’s worth of drift-boat river fishing.

Blue lines are where I go when the big rivers have taught me a lesson, or when the big rivers become carnivals of cursing guides, sunscreen-slathered tourists, and beer-drinking, bikini-clad girls on black rubber donuts. But blue lines also call me in the heart of winter, before the season opens, when the maps unfurl on the kitchen table and places I’ve never gone will be places I’ll never want to leave.

Small-stream fishing is where many of us learned how to read water, catch fish, and how to gut the catch. Small streams are places of laughter and children’s dreams. They are also places where even the oldest among us must return now and then to relive and recharge. My small streams have been gathered carefully. Sometimes I’ve made winter plans, loaded the pickup, and gone, only to find nothing there—no fish or no water. Other times, those small streams so carefully researched bear the fruit of rich reward: dozens of small brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, pure cutthroat trout. Here are a few of my favorite blue lines around southwest Montana.

Big Creek
If you like the Carbella to Emigrant float on the Yellowstone River, you’ve drifted past the mouth of Big Creek, which drains into the Yellowstone from the west. Drive up Big Creek into the Gallatin National Forest, park at the trailhead, and start walking. There are browns lower, then rainbows, then brook trout. As with the best of the small streams, getting there takes a little sweat—and sweat keeps a good fishery good.

Jack Creek
This stream drains out of the Madison Range into the Madison River near Ennis Lake. Follow the Jack Creek road to the Moonlight Basin gate. Park there, start hiking, and fish as you go. You’ll find rainbows mostly, with brookies higher.

Elk River
I hiked into the Elk from above on the Gravelly Range Road south of Ennis. Went in June. Got eaten alive by horseflies and mosquitoes, but a caught a nice batch of rainbows in a few hours of fishing between slaps.

Ruby Creek
I found this gem when I read in the Ennis paper how Montana FWP biologists were going to remove the “abundant rainbows” in the creek to stock them with native westslope cutthroat trout. So I snagged a buddy last summer before the project started and did our own rainbow trout removal project with our fish ending up in the smoker. Don’t expect any fish to be in there this year, but in a few years, it’s going to have a nice healthy population of pure, beautiful cutthroats. It’s located south of Ennis on the west side of the Madison River.

Tom Reed is the author of Blue Lines: A Fishing Life, as well as several other books. He lives near Pony. For more information, visit