Down the Hatch 

Love and fishing make a trip to Philipsburg worth relishing

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.

click to enlarge Fishing guide Adam Spenner shows the proof. - MATT GIBSON
  • Matt Gibson
  • Fishing guide Adam Spenner shows the proof.

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.

click to enlarge MATT GIBSON

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.

click to enlarge MATT GIBSON

To a fella trying to impress his future wife, "beer battered pickles with spicy seasonings deep fried & served with our secret spicy dipping sauce" sounded like an opportunity. Surely, Renie would admire my bravado, and positively swoon at my iron will as I nonchalantly chewed and swallowed a deep-fried dill smothered in mustard sauce without so much as blinking. But I knew my limits. Just in case I needed a liquid assist, I ordered a Salmon Fly Honey Rye to wash it down.

Luckily for me, the actual ingestion was a non-event. The flavor, which lends a spicy kick to the traditional slice that garnishes deluxe cheeseburgers around the world, put Doe's fried pickles squarely in the pub-grub realm of wings and wasabi peas. But there was something about a piping hot kosher spear that struck me as a violation of natural law, like baked lettuce. For what it's worth, I don't like cold soup either.

I dared Renie to take a bite. "It tastes exactly like I thought it would," she reported matter-of-factly, vanquishing any pretense of machismo on my part. Subdued, I pushed the rest aside in anticipation of the dinners to come.

Minutes later, we observed an otherwise normal looking couple at the next table put down an entire order like it was no big deal. Meanwhile, Renie happily sucked on a chocolate milkshake, perhaps wondering if marriage would magically transform me into a more inspiring dinner companion.

We had planned to take an exploratory day hike on Sunday in the Flint Creek Range, but with rain threatening, we opted instead to drive the long dirt road along the lower stretch of Rock Creek, looking for salmon flies along the way. If the sun came out and the fish came up, we'd pull on our waders and wet a line.

Along the way, we saw a cow moose, admired colonies of blooming phacelia, came upon some big horn sheep, and encountered the expected swarm of weekend anglers. But no bugs. So instead of fishing, we stopped at Welcome Creek and loaded up a pack for a two-hour walk.

Crossing Rock Creek at the wobbly suspension bridge, we strolled through recently burned timber decked with abundant wildflowers. Ambitious walkers can follow the path to an abandoned prospector's shack about five miles away, but we only made it about half that distance. It was already getting time to head back home, so the day would have to be a short one.

click to enlarge MATT GIBSON

We lingered where the trail traversed a steep hillside about 30 feet above the gurgle of Welcome Creek. Renie stopped to examine some twinflower, a low-growing, matted plant with tiny, bell-shaped blossoms of white and pink barely as large as a pine nut. Nearby, a deep run interrupted the otherwise incessant tumble of water, and a group of little trout fed hungrily on hatching caddis. The sun, which had started a game of hide-and-seek just as we set out, finally broke through, piercing the water to illuminate the gravel bottom.

click to enlarge MATT GIBSON

We made our way down the steep slope to the bank for a better view of the splashy rises. Perfectly camouflaged against the rocky streambed, the trout seemed to appear from nowhere to ambush the drifting caddis with reckless zeal. I admired their vitality, wondering whether they'd fought their way upstream in the spring runoff or wintered here in an icy trickle. Either way, they were tough customers.

We crept up to the water's edge to get a closer look. Renie, my beautiful bride-to-be, craned to get the best view of the trout, clearly fascinated by the scene, while I became entranced by the movement and sound of the water, its constant yet ever-changing flow. The sun felt warm, and life teemed all around—the fish, the flowers, the forest surrounding.

Here was abundance, more than enough to sustain us. And better shared.

click to enlarge GRAPHIC BY KOU MOUA

Lay of the land


The Broadway Hotel offers cozy and convenient accommodations right in the center of Philipsburg. Fully renovated in 2003, six rooms and three suites each feature a different theme, from rustic cowboy décor in the Wrangler Room to South American artifacts in the Andes Suite, a nod to owner Sue Jenner's years in Ecuador. A spacious, common sitting room provides lots of cozy nooks to nestle with a paperback. Rates from $80 to $130 per night include continental breakfast. For reservations, call 406-859-8000.

Local Outfitter

We booked guide Adam Spenner through Flint Creek Outdoors, a well-stocked fly fishing shop across the street from the hotel. Flint Creek's guides drift just the top 16 miles of Rock Creek, and only until June 30, when the state ends the floating season. Later in the summer, they can take you wading anywhere along the 51-mile channel, but book early because their special National Forest Service permit limits them to 30 client days a year on the lower section. Email or call 406-859-9500.


click to enlarge Boulder Lakes - MATT GIBSON

Guidebooks will point you to the numerous world-class day hikes of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, just south of Philipsburg. For something a little less glamorous but no less rewarding, explore the Flint Creek Range, with peaks rising above 9,000 feet from the forested flanks on the eastern edge of town. The hike to Boulder Lakes makes for a very pleasant 6-mile round trip to seldom-visited alpine country. To get there, drive north on state Highway 1 to Maxville, then turn right on the Princeton Road and follow it up Boulder Creek. Look for an unmarked parking area where an obvious stream washes across the road (N46 22.716-W113 07.023), about two very rough miles past the Copper Creek trailhead. Scout for the trail heading south, then follow it up the timbered slope for a long mile-and-a-half before it rounds the crest of the ridge and the views open up. You'll reach the first lake at 7,500 feet, after 1,200 feet of climbing.

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