CRAIG, Mont. — We pulled into the campground at about 5 p.m. on a Sunday, with clouds in the sky threatening rain.
The first auspicious sign of what kind of week we were about to have came right off the bat — there was only one site available, and it happened to be the best one of the lot. It’s spacious, shaded, and right on the riverbank.
After backing in the camper trailer and getting settled in a bit, we walked to the edge of the water to find a huge, awe-inspiring double rainbow arcing over the gray sky as the sun began to break through to the west.
“I bet I can pull a fish out right here,” my dad, an angler with more than five decades of experience, said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Five minutes later, a feisty rainbow trout was thrashing and splashing on the end of his line. After a minute or two, the fish relented, and we were looking at the first of what would be many colorful, aggressive and sizeable fish our efforts would produce over the next several days.
Myself, my brother, my father, and his long-time friend from Pennsylvania have made an annual tradition of spending the second week of September at a lovely little campground in Craig, Mont., a small town perched at the edge of the Missouri River roughly halfway between Helena and Great Falls that draws trout anglers from around the country and the world.
The Missouri is the longest river in North America, flowing more than 2,300 miles from its headwaters north of Yellowstone National Park, east through Montana and the Great Plains, and south to its confluence with the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Mo.
The famed explorers Lewis and Clark came through this area in the early 19th century hoping to follow the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, but as it lies on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, that was obviously not an option. However, the Missouri did guide them closer to the Columbia River, which eventually led them to their ultimate goal.
Craig has only a handful of year-round residents, but in the warmer months becomes a bustling center of fishing activity, with several guide services, a couple of restaurants, and a charming dive bar to boot.
Many of the seasonal visitors are well-to-do travelers decked out in the latest fly-fishing apparel and gear who hire guides to take them out on the broad, languid waters of the Missouri. While these fishermen are the ones that pump the most money into the local economy and make Craig more than just a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it stop on the side of the freeway, there are also the locals who have been plying these waters for years.
Our weapons of choice for this trip were of a slightly more modest nature than what most visitors opt for. While most on this 30-mile stretch of river choose to fly fish, we went with spinner rods and spoons in the hope of presenting the fish with something different and intriguing. Instead of driftboats, we packed inflatable pontoon boats — myself and my brother in individual vessels, my dad and Mike on a two-man craft rigged with a small outboard motor.
While the Upper Missouri is famous for world-class, blue-ribbon fly fishing, it turns out that it’s not bad for spin anglers either.
On our first day out, we opted for an 8.5-mile float from Holter Dam back to the campground.
As soon as we pulled our flippers on and launched our boats, my brother Jon, who has always been highly competitive, immediately suggested a wager.
“First fish, biggest fish and most fish,” he said. The winner of each category would receive an ice-cold beer at Uncle Joe’s Bar back in town at the other’s expense.
It didn’t take long to decide a winner in the first fish category. A few seconds into retrieving just my second cast, something hit fast and hard. After a brief struggle, I had the first fish of the trip in my hands — a lovely, jewel-hued rainbow measuring about 17 inches. That’s not much by Missouri River standards, but it didn’t matter — I had the early lead over my far more experienced brother, something that doesn’t happen very often.
But, as the saying goes, there’s a reason they call it fishing, not catching. It would be another several hours (and miles) before I would land another one. Meanwhile, Jon found a lure that seemed irresistible to the rainbows and the browns, and next thing I knew, the count was his five fish to my one. One of those five was a monster brown that would turn out to be the fish of the day.
He ended up winning the last two categories of our bet, and I was happy to pay up that evening at the local tavern.
The next day, we decided to float a stretch farther downstream that none of us had ever been on. Again, I had a fast start, pulling in two nice rainbows in the first 20 minutes.
However, much like the previous day, things slowed down after that — those two proved to be my only fish of the day.
None of us did particularly well on this stretch, but I didn’t mind. I set my pole down, kicked back, and took in the dramatic scenery of jagged rock walls that towered over the water. A peregrine falcon flew overhead, and a large group of deer walked along the abandoned railroad tracks that follow the riverbank before disappearing into a ravine.
This stretch of river is quicker than the upstream section, and we finished about two hours before we had planned, so went back to camp and lounged for awhile before heading over to Izaak’s Restaurant. Chef and part owner John Winders, who hails from Utah, cranks out a variety of delectable dishes in portion sizes that would satisfy any hungry angler’s appetite.
“How’d we do today?” a cheerful Winders asks as he takes a quick break from his frantic evening to chat us up. “Yeah, the water’s pretty low this year, so things have been a little slow.”
We had one more day in Craig, so we decided to try the upper stretch from the dam back to camp again on our final run.
Even though it was afternoon by the time we got on the water, the trout were biting furiously despite the midday sun. The only problem was that I wasn’t landing them — seven solid bites, seven misses.
As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, my luck started to change with only about two miles of floating left. Having brought a limited selection of lures myself, I borrowed a favorite from Jon, and it was on.
Within 20 minutes, I had probably the biggest rainbow I’ve ever caught in my hands — nearly two feet long, weighing about five pounds, and sporting such deep reddish and purple hues on its skin that it almost looked like a salmon getting ready to spawn.
I caught a couple more nice ones before rounding the last bend and watching camp come into view, but nothing like that first one.
Late summer on this stretch of the Missouri can be frustrating due to the endless patches and gobs of slimy moss that carpet the riverbed and hang suspended throughout the water column. In some stretches, pulling off a clean retrieve without hooking into a green glob feels almost as much a victory as catching a fish.
We have discussed waiting until the first hard freeze of fall helps get rid of this hindrance before returning, but it’s hard to argue with the weather in early September. In the three years of making this trip, we haven’t seen any significant rain or adverse weather of any kind, although it can get a little windy out on the water.
All in all, it was another successful trip, and as it turns out, the rainbow in the sky that greeted us upon arrival in Craig turned out to be a serendipitous sign of things to come.