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Stillwater scene

Ron Hildebrande fishes the upper Stillwater River with the assistance of his dog, Snoopy.

A number of years ago (20 or so) I was on a flight from Billings to Chicago. At lunch time the stewardesses handed out a hot meal. The entree was lasagna, one of my favorites. This lasagna was especially good, and I relished every bite.

I was sitting on the aisle seat so when the stewardess came to pick up the plates I was able to talk to her. I said, “This was great lasagna; it probably was the best airline meal I have ever had.”

The stewardess looked me in the eye with a very straight face and exclaimed, “You don't get out much, do you?”

She pretty much hit the nail on the head; I am a stay-at-home type of person and don't get out much, that's for certain. This condition hampers me somewhat when I am guiding folks on the Bighorn River. Every now and then a person will ask me, “How does the Madison (or some other Montana or Wyoming river) compare to the Bighorn?"

Another question I am asked is: "Have you ever fished the salmonfly hatch?" I answer in the negative. Truth be known, about the only big hatch I have ever fished was the green drake hatch at the Railroad Ranch on the Henry's Fork. I have fished some great hatches on lesser-known streams, but I can't name drop like some of my well-heeled clients do when they talk about the great time they have had fishing sulfur hatches, hex hatches, skwala hatches, or Mother's Day caddis eruptions.

Yep, I don't get out much, but I want to fish more and explore different streams and lakes. So when Ron Hildebrand offered to take me fishing on the Stillwater River west of Billings I jumped at the chance. I had heard of the Stillwater River but I hadn't seen it, let alone fished it.

Hildebrand tried to clue me in to what flies might work, but his list of flies didn't jive with what I had in my boxes. Fishing one river all the time makes for a narrow depth of field. The Bighorn, my home water, is a tailwater fishery; sort of like a giant spring creek. It has sowbugs, scuds, aquatic moths, no large stoneflies, no big mayflies, and only three or so caddis species. There are numerous midge species, but that is the long and short of the Bighorn.

Stillwater rainbow

The Stillwater River gave up this rainbow trout, a 15-incher.

The way that Hildebrand talked, there were several stoneflies in the Stillwater — some of which were substantial. There were caddis, mayflies, and some fish species that I hadn't seen in the Bighorn.

Sculpins were a baitfish that I hadn't encountered since I left Jackson in the late 1970s.

Needless to say, I was anxious to fish the stream. I managed to only be 10 minutes late arriving at Hildebrand's place in Billings. (That is as close as I can come to being on time.) We quickly tossed my gear and Hildebrand's springer Spaniel, Snoopy, into the vehicle and took off for Columbus.

When we arrived in Columbus we checked in with Chris Fleck at Stillwater Anglers. He updated us on stream conditions and recommended a few flies to try. After a quick cup of coffee, Hildebrand and I drove upstream.

The lower portions of the Stillwater were a tad murky, but as we drove farther upstream the water became quite clear. I was not prepared for the beauty that permeated the river valley. The lush green fields were dotted with sandhill cranes, deer, and frisky calves. Looking into the snow-covered mountains was quite an eyeful.

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After a bit, Hildebrand pulled into a driveway. We disembarked and rigged up. Snoopy quartered about the fields as we walked down the lane to the river. The Stillwater was about the size of the Tongue River at Dayton, Wyoming. It had a moderate gradient, so the river moved along at about a 7 mph clip, I would estimate.

I do know that the Stillwater has a lot of slippery rocks and that it also has a nasty algae that folks call “rock snot” or Didymo. It can louse up your flies and leader in a heartbeat — I had never encountered such a problem before.

I thought my stonefly nymph pattern, the Rat-Faced Krumm, would work well in the river, so I tied it on along with a Red-Fox Squirrel Nymph and fished them for an hour or so. The pocket water and runs looked awfully good, but the fish gods weren't smiling on me.

After an hour of no results I decided to change my flies. I put on a Copper John and Beadhead Green Caddis pattern and fished a short run bordered by some rocks. About the tenth drift through the water my strike indicator dove. I set the hook with a firm belief that it was another hang up.


There was a substantial tug at the end of the line and then a fish jumped and surged around the run. Finally, I was able to net a healthy 15-inch rainbow. Boy, I had caught a trout in strange water; I was elated.

I managed to hook and land the twin of that fish on the next cast. A short while later I landed a smaller rainbow— about 13 inches.

A thundershower eventually descended on us and we decided to call it a day, but as we were traveling home I couldn't help but think, “I finally got out and fished new water. I must do this again.”

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