(c) Jack Ballard
From its creek-fed origins in the Castle, Little Belt and Crazy Mountains in central Montana, the Musselshell river winds a circuitous course for some 500 miles before entering Fort Peck Reservoir within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. As the state’s rivers go, the Musselshell is a study in contrasts. On its upper reaches above Harlowton, it’s a cold-water trout stream, harboring fine numbers of brown trout, a few stray rainbows and brookies, and mountain whitefish. At its confluence with the Missouri River at Fort Peck, the river supports smallmouth bass and catfish.
Despite its potential as a first-class fishing destination, perhaps no other river in the Treasure State so graphically illustrates the devastation of unbridled irrigation. According to the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 314 miles of the mainstem Musselshell and 153 miles of its tributaries are chronically dewatered. Thus, the middle segment of the stream is often rendered to nothing more than deep, heated pools connected by a trickle on top or water simply seeping through the porous streambed. In a region where cyclical drought reigns and snowpack may vary markedly from one winter to the next, in dry years the river’s water winds up on alfalfa and grain fields with middlings retained in the streambed for fish and other riparian wildlife.
Nonetheless, should you find yourself in the scenic, undeveloped ranch country that characterizes the upper Musselshell in the spring or fall, the river is an appealing trout destination. Public access points are found at the Selkirk Fishing Access Site nineteen miles west of Harlowton on Highway 12 and a few bridge crossings on county roads. Fishing is most feasible from about April to June (depending on the run-off) in the spring and then picks up again as the water cools and irrigation demands drop in late September. Brown trout average around a foot long, with wary specimens as large as five pounds finning the undercut banks of this modest, clear-running stream. Tempt them with Muddler Minnows and large Woolly Buggers, or float a hopper on warm afternoons in September.