Flight of fancy: A small plane trek from Crookston, Minn., to Montana trout country

Planning the trip to Montana had started months earlier in the dead of a North Dakota winter. While sitting at the fly-tying vise, I pondered what it would be like crossing the Continental Divide in my old 1956 Cessna 180 en route to some of the ...

1956 Cessna 180
Courtesy Photo by Rick Mercil Rick Mercil of Grand Forks piloted this 1956 Cessna 180 from Crookston, Minn., to Montana in May to fly fish for rainbow trout on the Missouri River. Joining him was fellow fly-fishing enthusiast Jim Hansen.

Planning the trip to Montana had started months earlier in the dead of a North Dakota winter. While sitting at the fly-tying vise, I pondered what it would be like crossing the Continental Divide in my old 1956 Cessna 180 en route to some of the best rainbow trout rivers in the world. The flight itself would be an adventure, the fishing for rainbows and browns on the Missouri River, a lifetime experience.

Jim Hansen precipitated the trip when he introduced me to the sport of fly fishing a few years ago. Jim and his brother, Steve, are hardcore fly fishing guys. They have traveled all over the map and fished some of the most intriguing waters known to man. I knew if I asked, one or both would be up for a trip out West.

And so it was, on May 2, Jim pulled the lucky straw, and we loaded up N10UR and headed west toward Missoula, Mont.

We cruised westbound at an altitude of 5,500 feet, just below a broken layer of puffy cumulus clouds. We saw numerous flocks of migrating snow geese heading north to their Canadian breeding grounds. The lakes and ponds were still frozen, and our conversation was centered on the late spring we were having.

Over Stump Lake, Jim poured us a cup of coffee and we had a doughnut, truly living the sportsman's dream. We stopped for gas in Sydney Mont., where I had calculated a fuel burn of about 11.5 gallons per hour. With this information, I knew the next stop would ensure plenty of fuel for when we entered the Rocky Mountains. We could see the mountains from 100 miles away.


Grandeur is the only word I can use to describe these magnificent glacial formations protruding from the landscape. We soon would be directly above them with only a few hundred feet to spare.

'Trout camp'

As we approached, we flew directly over the small town of Craig, Mont., where we'd stay and call "Trout Camp" for the next few days while fishing the mighty Missouri. From our bird's-eye vantage point, we saw little activity on the river and even less on land. A secluded little fishing town was just what I'd hoped to find.

As we approached the Continental Divide, we dissected the Sun River Valley, which is on the east slope and the beautiful Blackfoot Valley on the west. Working our way through Rogers Pass, we navigated along our GPS route, identified on instruments as a magenta line. Both Jim and I were stunned at the beauty below and the view out front. The carbureted six-cylinder 230-horsepower engine purred along.

To the north was the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, known for its rugged and deceiving landscape ... and some of the best trout fishing in the world. To the south was our escape route in case I needed to do a 180-degree turn and look for a suitable place to set down in the event something went wrong.

A little luck and a little skill got us through the pass on into Missoula.

We landed in Missoula six hours after departing from our home base of Crookston. Riley Gallagher, our guide and friend, picked us up at the airport as planned. We climbed into his 2001 Durango, where a mishmash of streamers and nymphs, typical local flies used on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot, were hanging from the visor, '70s rock playing on the radio and candy wrappers and snuff cans littering the floor. Everyone had a smile as we buckled up and headed out to the nearest fly-shop to purchase our weekend license.

Youthful experience


Riley is no stranger to the sport of fly fishing. He's an aquatic biology major, Alaskan guide and -- you guessed it -- snowboard instructor.

Riley has all the bases covered when it comes to youthful enthusiasm. We had been in contact from a previous fishing trip where I had met him as a guide. His willingness to take us on a weekend trout trip was just too much to pass up. The reunion was special. Riley had guided Jim and me the previous summer in Alaska, where we fished for leopard rainbows. They say this species only is found in three or four rivers in the world.

Riley works for an outfitter that has been fishing the same stretch of river in northwest Alaska for more than 30 years. It's a tough way to spend a week but the guides are great, the food was unbelievable and the fishing superb.

So, as you can tell, the bar had been set pretty high, and Riley and Montana trout fishing would not disappoint.

Upon arriving in Craig, we were pleasantly surprised at the "laid-back" feel the little town of 100 projected. Three fly shops, an uffda taco-type food stand and a bar; it was perfect.

We launched just downriver from Holter Dam. The skies had clouded up, and rain was upon us within an hour. It was a cold rain with stiff westerly winds coming out of the Blackfoot River Valley.

Fast action

We began to catch fish almost immediately. The colors on the rainbow trout were translucent reds, blues, yellows and greens. It wasn't long before Jim and I knew we were in for some great fishing, but we would have to endure the rugged conditions of almost sleet-like weather.


We fished all day and did very well. Nymph fishing with an indicator is a lot like fishing with a bobber, but the way a trout takes the small fly (nymph) means you have to be keenly aware of when to set the hook. One of the intriguing aspects of fly fishing is almost all is done as catch-and-release along with barbless hooks.

Needless to say, this makes for a tough hook-set in the best conditions.

After a long cold day, we came ashore right at Craig. A 150-yard walk to our cabin, a hot shower and then down to the local watering hole. Believe it or not, we were in bed by 10 p.m., dead tired.

The next day was sunny and warmer. We continued to fish the segment of the Missouri just out of Craig. We floated all day with several walk and wades. We saw many more anglers and continued our streak of catching some very nice fish, including a beautiful brown trout.

The trip was a success when the wheels touched down the next day back in Crookston, both fishermen safely home with a fly box full of new stories.

The trip was a great precursor to our next scheduled adventure: Alaska later in the year.

Mercil is a retirement counselor and avid angler. A small plane pilot, he also has a sideline business, Rick's Aviation Adventures, giving instruction in vintage and tail wheel airplanes.

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