A Creek Near Philipsburg

Down the Hatch: Matt Gibson

We love this Missoula Independent article written by Matt Gibson. Click here to get the whole story.

Down the Hatch: Love and fishing make a trip to Philipsburg worth relishing

by 

Fishing Guide Matt Gibson

Fishing Guide Matt Gibson

My fiancé Renie and I blew down Interstate 90 to the Pintler Scenic Route on a Friday night in late June, making the drive from Missoula to Philipsburg in an easy, lead-footed hour after our workday ended. Ostensibly, we’d come for fly fishing glory on nearby Rock Creek, planning our arrival for the peak of the June salmon fly hatch. But the real objective was romance. With our wedding coming up a short six weeks later, I wanted to bask for a weekend together on the blissful precipice. We packed a bottle of Grand Cru burgundy for the occasion.

Visitors to Philipsburg can’t miss the honest effort. Cuter than Bigfork, refreshingly unvarnished compared to Whitefish and Big Sky, and a much more comfortable distance from the grubby plains than Red Lodge, the historic settlement in the panoramic Flint Creek Valley has clearly inspired its citizens with a collective desire to make their town the niftiest little mountain getaway in the state. What’s more, they’re succeeding.

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Once a booming center of mining activity back in the days of sidearms and saloons, Philipsburg now trades on its past with a collection of gaily painted vintage storefronts lining its main street. The Broadway Hotel, a lovingly restored 1890s landmark, stands out among them as a delightful anchorage in the heart of town. Arriving near dark, we found our key in an envelope tacked to the back door, a homey gesture reinforced by the hospitality of owner Sue Jenner, whom we found preparing for a movie night with a couple of her friends in the hotel’s comfy lounge. After showing us to our quarters in the spacious, ski-themed Discovery Room, Jenner invited us to join them for the show—a chick flick, she said. But we had designs on steak at the Philipsburg Cafe just down the street, where we put that burgundy to good use.

The weather had turned unusually cold and gray for late June, but Rock Creek was running clear, and we knew the salmon flies had been popping on the lower section for a while. With hopes that a halfway decent day would push the hatch upstream, we made for Rock Creek’s upper reaches the next morning with our guide Adam Spenner, who launched the raft where the headwaters meet Skalkaho Road.

For those familiar only with Rock Creek’s well-traveled lower course, near its confluence with the Clark Fork River and the Interstate, the seclusion of this stretch will come as a surprise. Upriver from the narrow, forested valley that characterizes the lower 40 miles or so of the stream, the terrain opens to reveal broad, grassy slopes in the Sapphire Mountain foothills. Where the lower section offers generous public access along the dirt road that follows the stream bottom, the upper portion sweeps through miles of private ranchland, effectively barring entry for all but intrepid floaters who take advantage of high springtime flows. Once July comes around, forget it. The state bans floating after June 30.

But the upper and lower sections share key characteristics. Both run swiftly and without pause, with the skinny water upstream demanding unwavering concentration on the oars. Both sections also hold lots of trout.

Spenner, who tells us he grew up fishing Rock Creek, says when the salmon flies are on, “you can’t unhook the fish fast enough.” Unfortunately, this would not be one of those days. The damp, chilly weather had smothered the hatch. The few bugs we saw that weekend clung motionless to streamside brush, their two-inch wings waiting for sunlight and warmth before braving flight. Nevertheless, we had good luck drifting San Juan worms for cutthroats in the 12-inch range, and Renie landed a 19-inch bull trout, the biggest catch of her angling career. In fact, she was pretty tickled about the whole experience. We landed plenty of fish, floated a gorgeous piece of water, and saw only one other group until we neared the take-out—a merely terrific day, as opposed to the orgy of lip-ripping I’d envisioned.

Spenner comforted us by admitting that it’s hard to hit the hatch right. If the weather’s too warm, heavy snowmelt and high water can scuttle the fishing altogether. He estimated that in a lifetime of fishing Rock Creek, he’s probably only nailed the salmon flies five times.

Tormented with visions of the thousands of bugs that would probably burst from the water as soon as the work week started again, I returned with Renie to Philipsburg that evening seeking cheer, which turns out to be the local stock-in-trade. From the popular (and massive) Sweet Palace, purveyor of sundry old-fashioned confections like salt water taffy, to Schnibbles, a florist and knickknacks dealer that leaves its inventory of container plants on the sidewalk overnight without any safeguards, Philipsburg peddles chirpy nostalgia and small-town charm with remarkable unity of purpose.

“A group of people happened to arrive at the same time, with great ideas and being able to work together,” explained our innkeeper Jenner, who bought the Broadway 20 years ago and completed the restoration in 2003. “Everyone wanted their buildings to look nice and painted them.”

After a stroll around town to take in the vibe, we wound up at Doe Brothers, a well-preserved drug store and restaurant from days of yore, complete with a genuine marble soda fountain, circa 1920. In Big Sky—or even Missoula—a joint like Doe’s might come off as a mawkish excuse for overpriced ice cream cones. But unlike vendors of corny Americana at exit ramp theme-schemes, Doe Bros., with its 120 years of heritage at the same location, serves up potent authenticity—right alongside a full menu of diner fare prominently featuring “PBurg pickles.” I was intrigued…

 

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