(c) Jack Ballard
Photos by Dominic Ballard.
While setting traps on a small stream in early September, 1836, two trappers were ambushed by Blackfeet Indians. As they swam the creek, one was struck twice through the chest with musket balls, the other escaped with a minor wound to the shoulder. According to the journals of Osborne Russell, the pair made their way back to a larger trapper’s encampment near the mouth of the “Rocky Fork” a tributary of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River. The following day the wounded trapper expired. The party then buried him beneath a large cottonwood tree and named the location “Howell’s Encampment” in his honor.
Today, the names “Rocky Fork” and “Howell” won’t cause a flicker of recognition in the minds of most Montana natives or visitors to the state. Mention Red Lodge and Rock Creek, though, and most will know exactly the location of which you’re speaking. The “Rocky Fork” of Russell’s journals is now known as Rock Creek. The major community on this lovely stream that tumbles from the Beartooth Mountains is named Red Lodge.
With a fascinating history to contemplate, anglers who fish for Rock Creek’s trout have plenty to mull as they loop their lines. However, the rainbow, brown and infrequent brook trout have a way of keep one’s thoughts more closely focused upon fishing. Overshadowed by other Montana streams in the area such as the Yellowstone, Bighorn and Stillwater Rivers, Rock Creek receives modest fishing pressure, the bulk of it from local anglers. Access to the creek along the some 45 miles from its headwaters to its confluence with the Clark’s Forks is easily gained through several fishing access sites and bridge crossings.
Badly dewatered in the dry, early years of the third millennium, Rock Creek’s fishery suffered badly but has rebounded nicely in the past few seasons. Brown and rainbow trout are numerous, with browns dominating on the lower stretches of the creek, rainbows holding the majority on the upper reaches. Most fish run about ten inches in length but individuals stretching the tape to 16 inches swim the creek, feisty, beautiful combatants sure to raise the heart-rate of the most seasoned angler. Occasionally, a Rock Creek angler hooks into a positively big brown trout, fish that tend to hang in the deepest, most remote holes in the creek.
High water after the run-off makes wading tricky, but for most of the summer and into the fall it’s easy to wade the creek. Anglers who hike 20 minutes up or downstream from the access points are well-rewarded for their efforts. Rock Creek trout devour standard nymphs and chase streamers, but it’s an excellent place to try dries. On a warm September evening, I caught a dozen assorted rainbows and browns downstream from a highway bridge on Parachute Adams, a #16 Elk Hair Caddis and a big fluffy Stimulator. The fly didn’t seem to matter, so long as the presentation was perfect. Earlier in the year, Rock Creek trout eat a variety of nymphs. Folks fishing before or after the runoff (which usually occurs in June) are advised to carry a selection of Copper Johns, beadhead Hare’s Ears and such. When they’re hot, you’ll not find a better fly for Rock Creek than the Bitch Creek nymph. On a recent spring outing I took a half-dozen trout, five mountain whitefish and even four wretched suckers on a beadhead Bitch Creek.
Each summer, thousands of tourists motor up Montana’s Highway 212 from Laurel to Red Lodge, then on to Yellowstone Park via the famous Beartooth Highway. If you find yourself in the throng, don’t be in too much of a hurry to get to Yellowstone. A couple hours invested in fishing Rock Creek may turn out to be some of the most memorable of your excursion.