Overview: "Stillwater" is a misnomer. One suspects that the early explorer who named this river either looked only at a short section or had a wry sense of humor. The Stillwater has less quiet water proportionally than any river in the state.
Intrepid kayakers love this roly-poly stream. Boulders, many the size of large chest freezers, stud almost the entire length of the river. The melt water from Montana's loftiest mountains courses its way through these boulder fields with plenty of foam and froth. Long after it enters the prairie land of eastern Montana, the Stillwater still looks like a mountain stream.
Surrounded by fabled trout waters such as the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Madison Rivers, the Stillwater receives little national or state attention. Instead, it makes a popular destination for local anglers who know its beauty and excellent fishing. Trout fanciers in any state would love to have the Stillwater nearby.
Key species: Yellowstone cutthroat, rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, and whitefish.
Use: The lower section from Nye to the Yellowstone ranks 29th statewide for fishing pressure, but the upper section is less fished.
Key flies and lures: Flies-Muddler Minnow, Black Matuka Sculpin, Yellow Humpies, Royal Wulffs, stonefly nymphs, Sofa Pillow, Bird's Stone, Elk Hair Caddis, Olive Stimulators, Light Cahill, Joe's Hopper, and Parachute Adams. Lures-gold-colored selections of Mepps, Thomas Cyclones, and Panther Martins. Bait-worms, grubs, and hoppers.
Access Click here for map
Because of the Stillwater's close proximity to Billings and Yellowstone County, FWP has wisely tried to spread out the angling pressure. Seven FWP accesses, combined with two Forest Service strips of riverbank land plus some casual access, all help anglers reach some of the river, but the large majority of river frontage remains in private hands.
Fireman's Point Fishing Access Site (FAS) provides the first public fishing spot on the drive upstream from Columbus.
The next developed access is FWP's White Bird FAS, which, combined with an unmarked access just below White Bird, gives anglers a considerable distance of good riffle water.
Just 1 mile below Absarokee, Thompson's Bridge crosses the Stillwater. A dirt road to the left runs along the river for quite some distance. Even though the river is so close in places that it could be fished from the car, ask permission.
West of Absarokee, four more FWP accesses allow the angler to reach the middle river. Cliff Swallow FAS features practically every kind of trout water found in Montana. Castle Rock has some shallow riffles and pockets. Moraine has outstanding pocket water. And Buffalo Jump, known locally as Nye Bridge, has some pool, boulder-pocket, and riffle water.
Upstream several miles from Nye lies an unnamed Forest Service access. This strip of land gives a taste of the upper, smaller river with a spectacular mountainous backdrop.
Lastly, the Forest Service's Woodbine Campground and Trailhead stand as the gateway to the upper wilderness section of the Stillwater.
During weekends from mid-April to mid-July, anglers wishing to fish the Stillwater have three choices. The first alternative is to wedge oneself in at one of the established accesses. Watch your backcast, please.
Other anglers may prefer to attempt float-fishing. While opening many miles of otherwise inaccessible river, this alternative nevertheless has several drawbacks. Some sections of the river are too hazardous. On the safer sections, the runoff waters still push downstream at a swift clip, which test the proficiency of even expert casters on occasion. Floating anglers should stay in their boats-easier said than done when a lure-eating log has hold of the hardware.
The third alternative is to seek permission from
private landowners, who often grant it to anglers who will respect their
property. Be aware that one bad experience with an angler, whether it is
a gate left open, litter, fire, or the like, can close that section of
the river to the public for years.
The fishing: A high glacial cirque including Daisy Pass marks the source of the Stillwater. On the edge of this basin stands the remains of mining activity, some of it recent. Water seeping from the mine tailings has a sickening orange color, the telltale of the acid mine drainage which pollutes the first 5 miles of the river. Below the confluence of Goose Creek the pollution has been almost entirely settled out or diluted.
Despite the tainted beginning, a hallmark of the Stillwater is its clear water, exceptional for rivers east of the Continental Divide. Fisheries biologist and author of Fishing the Beartooths, Pat Marcuson, who spent several years surveying the Beartooth lakes for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP), thinks the enduring granite rock of the headwaters is responsible for the low dissolved solids of the water. So few electrolytes exist that FWP has trouble during its fish-shocking surveys in the upper reaches and Marcuson once resorted to swimming with a snorkel in the river to count trout.
Below Lake Abundance, the Stillwater cascades out of the high basin and charges through a narrow canyon, pausing only a couple of times in mountain meadows. Wounded Man and Flood Creeks add appreciably to the water volume.
Along the popular Woodbine-Stillwater hiking trail, the cascading water slows in pocket pools of deeper water where throngs of pan-sized brookies compete with occasional rainbow and cutthroat. The river widens briefly at Sioux Charley Lake and then plunges by Woodbine Campground and into the prairie.
In the short section between Woodbine and the Stillwater Mine, the numbers of brookies and cutthroat sharply diminish while rainbow, and increasingly, browns predominate. Near the community of Nye, the West Fork of the Stillwater adds some more water volume. The river warms up and picks up more minerals.
Below Nye, the river no longer stair-steps its way in cascades but continues to act like a mountain stream. The gradient is still steep enough to make a very swift current and, with the constrictions in a riverbed of boulders, the river has rapids, and whitewater as well. Boating in an open canoe between Beehive and Absarokee has been termed suicidal; for the angler wading waist deep, this means continual apprehension about footing and many furtive glances downstream.
Below Cliff Swallow Fishing Access, the velocity slows another notch; the riverbed broadens and braids around islands. Irrigation diversions subtract a considerable portion of the river's water volume, especially in August and September.
At Absarokee, the two Rosebud rivers add their water, but also some silt. The boulders so common to the upper river give way increasingly to smaller cobble. Although more easy-going, the Stillwater continues to feature an occasional swift section, especially a sharp drop-off over a ledge below the White Bird Fishing Access Site (just above the Beartooth Hereford Ranch bridge)
The lower river supports more large fish, due in part to a substantial interchange with the Yellowstone. Anglers could tie in to brown trout up to 6 pounds and more between Absarokee and the Yellowstone, while 2- to 4-pounders make up the vast majority of the top weight class in the river between the Mouat Mine and Beehive.
Marcuson found "pretty good numbers of 1- to 2-pound resident rainbow" throughout the river from the Stillwater Mine downstream to the Yellowstone. But from March 20 to May 20 during the years he studied these waters, he also found migrant rainbow surging up the Stillwater from as far away as Big Timber. Why would these fish, some weighing 6 pounds and more, travel up to 120 river miles to spawn? Marcuson thinks "the spawning rainbow have a critical need for small gravel, and they can't find enough of these kinds of gravel beds in the Boulder and middle Yellowstone." Fortunately, the riverbed between Beehive and the Stillwater Mine is much more to their liking. Sometimes in just 6 inches of water, often in the side channels, these wild rainbow start stocking future generations for both the Yellowstone and Stillwater-maybe even some for the Boulder.
In contrast, Marcuson thinks the browns may not move very far to spawn in October and November. "They tend to pick the area behind boulders in 2 to 4 feet of water." Such places are widely available in the Stillwater. The browns may move only a few yards or a few miles-the spawning run is plainly not as dramatic as the rainbow.
Some anglers love whitefish, some hate them, and some just find them a bit of a nuisance. Regardless, the Stillwater has its share. Marcuson notes on the positive side that the river has "some of the best whitefish fishing in the state, in terms of size, around Absarokee." The community of Nye has an annual and popular gathering to catch and smoke whitefish. Yet guide Curt Collins and a chorus of other anglers find the whitefish frustrating and fear they are taking over the river. Collins suggests that trout would be much better off if the whitefish population could be sharply reduced.
But the Stillwater has more serious problems than too many whitefish. Above Nye, the Benbow and Mouat Mines stand as evidence to past mining for chrome in a band of mineralized rock known as the Stillwater Complex. Today the Stillwater Mine has revived the threat to the Stillwater's health. Such undertakings involve large-scale blastings of tunnels and removal of enormous quantities of ore.
Extra roads, erosion, and potential pollution concern anglers and the FWP. What happens, for example, if an adit hits a column of underground water which gushes down the watershed loaded with nitrates? An extreme case, perhaps, but John Manville already has shut down one adit that flooded. Fortunately, state laws restrict the miners in terms of pollution. FWP has good base-line information on water quality and fish populations; any substantial change could be spotted.
Mike, Steve, and Dewey Mouat, former fishing instructors and guides on the Stillwater, point out the larger concern. "The mines bring in lots of people and make them locals. The result is much more fishing pressure." In response, FWP set a two-trout limit, of which only one can measure over 13 inches.
Strategies: Wherever found on the Stillwater, the traditional hot spots-logjams, deep banks, the inside of riffle-corners, fast water dumping into slow-will produce fish as they will in any trout stream. But the special feature which the Stillwater displays even more than the Gallatin or Boulder is the boulder-pocket. Like the fellow who orders a hamburger in a restaurant famous for its prime rib, many an angler misses the most exciting part of the Stillwater by dismissing its boulder-pockets.
To the inexperienced eye, whitewater breaking around and over the boulders looks much too fast and shallow to hold trout. Yet, as a wade into the midst of one of these boulder fields will prove, there are many quiet, deep holes, or pockets, behind the current-braking boulders. Trout feel secure beneath the fractured water surface. The aeration of whitewater makes these areas veritable food factories. Once an angler discovers the concentration of trout around these boulders, that person begins to seek this kind of water which so many anglers shun.
The hydrology of these boulder-pockets creates problems for spin and bait anglers. The washing machine action of the water behind the boulders wraps the hardware around unseen tree branches or wedges the hooks between rocks. Even though skillful anglers could catch lots of trout in these spots, the bait and spin anglers usually gravitate to the pools where they feel more comfortable.
As a rough generalization, Pat Marcuson points out that the lower river is more suited to bait, the middle section to spinning, and the upper to flies. The bait usually used is worms. May and June mark the best months for bait fishing-on all parts of the river.
As the water drops and clears enough for trout to see at least a couple of feet, lures come into their own. Try Mepps, Thomas Cyclones, and Panther Martins. Red and white lures do not work well. Gold metal brings more fish to the net than silver or brass. Using a 6.5 to 7.5 foot rod with fourth-ounce lures, cast upstream and reel back fast or cast downstream with a slow retrieval.
Above Nye during high water, some anglers believe gaudy streamers are the only flies that work. Anglers should stick to the backwaters, sloughs, and shallows.
In mid-June around Absarokee and ten days later near Nye, a medium size stonefly known in Latin as doroneuria emerges and provides some surface action if the water has cleared sufficiently. Several other smaller stonefly hatches come off the water in the next month, occasionally bringing on the spectacle of 2-pound brown trout rolling on the river's surface like tarpon.
Small versions (#8) of popular stonefly imitations like the Sofa Pillow and Bird's Stone fished dry or slightly submerged will hook feeding fish.
Marcuson calls the Stillwater "a pretty good stream for caddis hatches in May and on." The rainbow he catches are full of caddis and caddis cases. Mouat likes a light green caddis with an orange head. Or try an elk hair caddis. And if no hatch is on, Mouat advises using searcher patterns such as #12 Royal Wulffs, Humpies, Adams, and light Cahills.
Floating such a turbulent, dangerous stream, especially with waders on, is an invitation to an early grave. Know the troublesome spots in advance, buy good equipment, and know how to use it. But anglers who don't like the sound of these cautionary notes should relax. The Stillwater provides terrific wade fishing from early July throughout the summer. And perhaps the best part, as mentioned before, is wading through the boulder fields.
But where does one cast in the midst of the chaotic currents and boulders? The eddies behind the boulders almost always hold fish. A few fish, including some of the larger ones, will station themselves just in front of the boulders, which bump the flowing water and create an easy place for trout to hover. Watch for the spots where fast, narrow channels deepen and slow-trout wait under the tell-tale choppy haystacks, gulping down the food brought by the conveyor-belt current.
Anglers do best casting just slightly to one side or the other or straight upstream. "Don't cross your pockets," one outfitter advises. Casting into a pocket from the side results in immediate drag on the fly, which does not look natural to trout. Using short casts helps minimize drag as well.
Curt Collins thinks the most common problem fly fishers exhibit is feeling that they must fish with a dry fly. "If they worked with nymphs and streamers they would catch more and larger trout." Gold-ribbed Hares Ear, fished near the surface in a free drift, are recommended. For weighted nymphs fished to bounce along the bottom, try a green latex caddis or golden, brown, and black stonefly nymph imitation. Occasionally, a Bitch Creek nymph fished like a streamer also works well. For real streamers, try a black Matuka. Anglers familiar with Muddler Minnows will find they work well on the Stillwater.
Streamers come in handy both early and late in the fishing season. For anglers willing to brave the windy and cold early fishing for the spawning rainbow, cast up and a little across, then retrieve with a little tension. One fishing guide thinks this aggravates the trout, which will strike at the streamer sometimes without intending to eat it. The net result of this is many missed strikes, especially for the inexperienced angler. Practice helps.
Streamers will also catch fish in August and September, especially in the lower half of the river. But this is also the time to use terrestrials. Pat Marcuson calls the Stillwater "a great grasshopper stream." Former FWP employee Clint Bishop recalls seeing numerous black and orange caterpillars as well. Since terrestrials usually fall in along the banks, anglers do best when they concentrate their efforts along the edge. Grasshoppers and their imitations will bring fish to the surface, but on bright, sunny days fish will go after the slightly submerged, "drowned" hoppers more often. Black and orange Wooly Worms make excellent representations of the caterpillars.
Of the many streams that combine to make the Stillwater, the three largest deserve mention here. All three drain watersheds in the lofty Beartooth Mountains not far from the main river's drainage.
The West Fork of the Stillwater cascades and pools past Initial Creek Campground at the edge of the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness. Skirting Horseman Flats, this medium-sized stream flows through private lands almost all the way to Nye and the main river. Above Initial Creek, the West Fork supports mostly pan-sized brookies; below, some chunky rainbow and browns populate the stream.
Born in the meltwater of Beartooth glaciers, West Rosebud Creek runs through Silver, Island, and Mystic Lakes. It furnishes hydroelectric power below Mystic Lake, then provides good fishing through a narrow canyon before running out into the irrigated prairie land for its last 25 miles.
Pat Marcuson terms the stream "a good, small fishery," especially between Emerald Lake and the flatlands.
Marcuson rates the East Rosebud as something of a disappointment. The wilderness sections between the lakes furnish some good fishing, but from East Rosebud Lake down to the confluence with the West Rosebud, fish numbers and sizes are small. FWP has experimented with plantings of different trout, but without marked success. Still, some weekend anglers report fun fishing for pan-sized trout both in the meadows near Black Mountain and below Roscoe along the cottonwoods.