Bent rod on the Jefferson

On July 25th 1805 Captain Clark  limped into the headwaters of the Missouri ahead of the rest of the expedition.  He was amazed with the huge valley and towering peaks that surrounded the Gallatin Valley.   The Hidatasa Indians in the Mandan Villages had mentioned the area where three rivers converged, and their guide Sacajawea was from a tribe of Indians that used this area.   After taking in the splendor of the expansive valley Captain Clark set out to look for the “Snake River” Indians (Shoshone) and their horses.  Captain Clark tacked a note for Lewis and the rest of the party near the confluence of the Gallatin River.   Clark choose to take the “North Fork” of the river because it headed towards the direction he believed would take them to the Columbia.   He spent most of the walking the river until he set up camp at “Philosophy River”, modern day Willow Creek.  He spent the next two days searching the area for the Snake River Indians until Lewis and the rest of the party met up with him.   Captain Clark and Captain Lewis debated over this area being the headwaters of the Missouri and whether the “North Fork” was still the Missouri River.  They came to the conclusion that they should name all three of the rivers that came together after people that were instrumental in the expeditions success.  They named the most Easterly fork the Gallatin after Albert Gallatin who was the Treasury secretary that funded the expedition, the middle fork was named the Madison after Secretary of State James Madison and the “North Fork” was to be named after  President Thomas Jefferson who had the idea of a waterway passage across the country.   After scouting the area for a day they decided to take the expedition up the Jefferson River in hopes of finding the passage to the Columbia.

Today the historical 77 miles of the Jefferson River is used primarily by history buffs looking to follow the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark expedition.   The Jefferson is not a popular river with many anglers primarily because of the amount of other quality rivers that take most of the spotlight away from the Jefferson.   The Jefferson flows through a lot of agricultural land that also uses much of the water for irrigation during the summer months.  With the lack of water during the heat of summer, trout populations are not anywhere near the same levels as rivers such as the Gallatin, Madison and Yellowstone.  The lower fish counts keep many anglers from plying the waters of this important fishery.  Over the past 10 years some very concerted efforts have been made to improve the flows on the Jefferson and the formation of the Jefferson River Council has been working hard to improve the habitat, spawning habitat and in-stream flows on the Jefferson.   Through the working groups efforts changes have been made to improve spawning tributaries, increase habitat, replace old leaky irrigation head-gates and keep more water in the river during times of drought.   The Jefferson as a fishery has improved but it is still not on the radar of most anglers who would rather ply the waters where fish populations are much higher.   Fortunately for the past several years we have had great snow-pack, cool summers and the flows on the river have been much better than the drought years prior.  We have seen increases in the rainbow populations with the improvements made to the small spring feed tributaries and things are looking better for the Jefferson than they have in years.

The Jefferson provides anglers with something that can be hard to find on other rivers in Southwestern Montana, Solitude.  With the lack of angling pressure you can take a trip down the Jefferson and chances are you will be on the river by yourself.   The upper reaches of the river have been gaining some popularity with anglers but even on a busy day you are usually going to see a couple of other boats.   Brown trout and Rainbows are the primary fish species on the Jefferson with an occasional whitefish jumping on your fly.   The lower fish counts  provide the fish with less competition for food so some trophy size fish do come out of the river each year.   Hatch activity is decent on the Jefferson but the mainstay of the fishes diet consist of Crayfish, Sculpins and other minnows.  Dead drifting streamers as well as stripping them produces most of the opportunities for anglers.   There are hatches of caddis and mayflies that can bring the fish to the surface but fishing dries on the Jefferson is a rare treat not experienced by most who choose to fish the Jefferson.   The Jefferson is not a river that is in the cards for most anglers but those looking to get away from the crowds while floating through some very scenic and historically important country can be rewarded with a great day of fishing.  It is definitely a risk reward fishery that I have enjoyed sharing with others.

There are some challenges for anglers floating the river with several diversion dams, flat water that requires knowing when to push downstream and when to fish as well as low water flows during drought years.   There are close to a dozen floats on the 77 mile long river that provide all day excursions or just a few hours.  Some of the boat ramps are challenging to use while others are perfectly maintained.   The scenery and wildlife along the Jefferson river are hard to beat anywhere in Montana with one of the floats passing through an amazing canyon that holds lots of wildlife.  Elk herds, otters, bobcats, birds, deer, antelope and moose all call the river corridor home.  I will discuss in more detail some of the highlights as we take a trip from the start of the Jefferson near Twin Bridges to it’s confluence with the Madison and Gallatin at Three Forks.

Twin Bridges to Waterloo:

The Jefferson gets it’s start where the Beaverhead and Bighole rivers come together.   To float the upper end of the Jefferson you have to put in on either the Bighole at the High Road access or on the Beaverhead at the town park in Twin Bridges.   This float will take you from Twin Bridge down to the Hell’s Canyon access which is located just upstream of the highway bridge.  It is a nice float of 5 or 6 miles that has some very nice water for anglers.   The water in the Beaverhead can often be off color but this does not keep the fish from being able to see you fly.   The boat ramp at the High Road access as well as the Town Park ramp on the Beaverhead are unimproved ramps that are easily accessible with a trailer.   The take out at Hell’s Canyon can be a bit rough at times depending on water flows but it is very manageable.   If you want to extend your float you can float another 2 miles to the Silverstar Fishing Access site which has a very nice concrete ramp and ample parking.  Shuttles used to be an issue but two shops have opened in Twin Bridges in recent years providing some more reliable shuttle options.   The next float is from Silverstar to Waterloo and it provides about 5 miles of quality water for anglers to float.  The take out at Waterloo is a miserable ramp that is very steep and it is a bear to use most of the time, you have to really want to float this section to use the Waterloo Ramp.  There is also a very dangerous diversion dam right at the ramp which requires a lot of caution.

Waterloo to Cardwell:

This section of river takes you through the heart of the farm land where several irrigation diversion dams can make your journey a bit challenging.  As I mentioned above there is a large diversion dam that stretches across the entire length of the river right at the Waterloo Ramp.   You need to pick your line very carefully through the diversion after you take great care in backing your boat down the ramp.  Your next access point is downstream of the Waterloo bridge several miles at the FW&Parks access at Parrot Castle.   There is a unimproved ramp at Parrot Castle as well as several small warm springs that usually have a few people soaking in them.  Another mile downstream from Parrot Castle is the Parrot Castle Diversion dam that provides another launch point as well as a place that can be tricky to get a boat through depending on flows.   The diversion dam stretches across the entire river but it is a bit easier to float through thanks to a nice flume that allows you to float over the dam.  The lower Parrot Castle put in is decent once you get to the river, getting to the ramp is a bit challenging because you have to drive through Fish Creek to get to the river.  Four wheel drive and some clearance is highly recommended to use this ramp.  About 4 or 5 miles below Parrot Castle is the Kountz Bridge fishing access site that has a good concrete ramp that is one of the most popular access points for floating the Jefferson.   From Kountz bridge you can float another 5 miles to the Mayflower fishing access site which is also a nice ramp.  As you shove off from Kountz Bridge you will need to choose your channels wisely.   The river braids up downstream of the access and you want to stay in the middle or right hand channel to make the next take out.   There is a small left hand channel that will take you into the Fish Creek Slough which is a dreadful mistake to make.   The slough travels a long ways away from the river before rejoining the main stem.  It is shallow and the one person that I knew who made the mistake had to get permission from a landowner to get his boat out on his property.  The channels come back together above the Mayflower Bridge but they all get skinny during lower flows.  After you pass Mayflower it is another 3 or 4 miles to the Cardwell fishing access.   The Cardwell access has plenty of parking and a unimproved ramp that requires you to drive onto a gravel bar when the water gets low.

The tape doesn't lie!

Cardwell to Sappington:

This float is not for the weak at heart, it is a 16 mile bomb that requires good weather and a strong back.  It is also one of the most scenic floats in Montana with a trip through the Sappington Canyon.   Prior to the addition of Interstate 90 traveling through Montana the only road through the state passed through this spectacular canyon.  The Northern Pacific Railroad also traveled through the canyon giving travelers a glimpse into the geological history that happened over a billion years ago.   Floating through the canyon you will see how the earth’s geological history has changed over a very long period of time.  From the drastic uplifting of the Lahood formation, the settling seas of Madison Limestone to the volcanic rock from the pouring of lava flows of the last Yellowstone eruption.  This geological time-line is astonishing to the eye and it has provided plenty of industry with ores and metals that have been extremely profitable.   Gold sits at the base of the geological folds in the Lahood formation, limestone has been taken from the canyon to be used as flux for the copper smelting that made the copper kings the richest men on the planet to the talc plants located at the mouth of the canyon that provide powder for babies sore behinds.  A trip through the canyon is magical and wildlife abounds throughout the river corridor.   Montana’s very first State Park is located at Lewis and Clark Caverns.  The caverns were missed by the expedition party but they were named after them when it was turned into a state park.  The caverns have been cutout of the limestone by water and the trip through the caves is amazing.   A trip through the canyon is well worth the toll it takes on your back to make the float.

A billion years of geological history!

Sappington to Headwaters State Park:

After you break out of the Sappington Canyon it is back to floating through farm land as you make the journey to the headwaters of the Missouri.   The boat ramp at the Sappington Bridge is a good ramp that allows for easy access to the river.   About a mile below the bridge there is another diversion dam that can cause some issues for floaters.   There is a nice flume of water that you can pass through in your boat but caution should be used to get through safely.   About another mile from the diversion dam is the Upper Williams Bridge boat ramp.   The ramp at Upper Williams is a great ramp that is fairly popular with recreational tubers and floaters who use it during the heat of summer.   From Upper Williams bridge you float about another 4 miles to the junction with “Philosophy River” where Lewis and Clark spent a couple of nights.   Just downstream of Philosophy River is the other Williams Bridge which has a ramp but it can be a bit tricky to use with a hard sided boat.   The next ramp below lower Williams bridge is at Drouillard Fishing access site.  It is about a 4 mile float to get to Drouillard.   The final float on the river will take you from Drouillard into Headwaters State park and the boat ramp located just below the confluence with the Gallatin River.

Risk-Reward fishing!


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