Have you ever studied a remote location on a map for years, wanting to go to the place, plotting out the route, studying the surrounding nooks and crannies by flying over it from various angles on Google Earth?
That’s how infatuated I was with Crooked Creek, a tributary that flows into a wide, flat, sticky clay delta where the Musselshell River joins the Missouri. I’d traveled all around that spot in the middle of the 916,000-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana, but never made it to that mudflat meeting point until Memorial Day weekend. It didn’t disappoint my fantasized conception except in one way: The fishing stunk, or maybe I should say, my fishing stunk.
Poor fishing is not unusual on my outings. I always pack a black cloud along wherever I go. But it hurt more this time because of the forecast I’d received about anglers the previous weekend hauling in northern pike with ease. And the water looked so fishy, even if it was the color of milk-diluted coffee.
Crooked Creek is a dusty, winding, 56-mile drive northeast from Winnett in Petroleum County. This is open country in more ways than just the expansive view. The county has the lowest population in the state, estimated at about 500 folks in 2013.
The Musselshell River, born in the Little Belt and Castle mountains, flows east before banking a hard left turn north at Melstone to meet the eastward trending Missouri at Crooked Creek. Straight across from the mouth of the Musselshell is a deep, southward bend in the Missouri known as the UL Bend. The land between the arms of the river’s U is designated wilderness and one of the places were black-tailed ferrets were first reintroduced in Montana.
The entire area, extending east and west from the river junction for many miles, is managed by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service as the CMR refuge. The refuge surrounds the Missouri River and Fort Peck Reservoir, protecting a rugged badland of bunchgrass, sagebrush, steep clay bluffs and scattered pine and juniper. Elk, deer, mountain lions, antelope and a variety of other animals and birds live in the vast acreage where the most dominant feature always seems to be the sky. It appears to go on forever, an immense blue stage across which puffy white and dark angry clouds alternately danced slowly across. At night in the starry sky, huge fireball meteors blazed slowly downward, the largest I have ever seen.
Although remote, the Crooked Creek area is not quiet. On a cool night the crickets chirped unceasingly, adding a soprano note to the bass chorus of frogs croaking at the water’s edge. In the middle of the night, a coyote pack barked, yipped and howled in a variety of tones like some drunken canine jazz band.
On a windless night, a rarity in that country, it was so easy to forget that the beauty has a harsh side. Rain can leave the roads a greasy, impassable mess. Wind can tear a tent to shreds or pull up the stakes and send your shelter cartwheeling. Lightning can strike up a blaze, evidenced by the surrounding black stubs of burnt trees. Sharp rocks and innumerable cattle guards can shred truck tires. And if anything bad does happen, it’s a long way to get help since cellphone service is spotty.
These are the type of facts I do not mention to my wife, focusing instead on the positive. But I try to plan for the worst by packing extra food, a variety of clothing, making sure my truck’s spare tire has air in it and that I have tools for minor repairs. Then I cross my fingers and hope that everything goes OK, holding my breath as I bounce across each rutted cattle guard.
Preparation for fishing followed a similar pattern: pack lots of different gear and hope that something works. We tried spoons, spinners, jigs, jigs baited with worms and a variety of crankbaits, but nothing produced a strike. We fished toward the shore, in the submerged vegetation, in the backs of bays and in the deepest channels we could find, still nothing. We fished in the morning, at night and in the middle of the day. The electronic fish finder was useless as the water was so cluttered with floating sticks, pine cones and logs that the screen resembled an abstract artist’s black and white painting.
Anglers fishing the banks were reeling in a few catfish and pike soaking worms and leeches, but the fish seemed to be few and far between except for the carp. They were rolling and thrashing their great golden scales in the shallows as they spawned. One boat trolled along with a silhouetted archer poised in the bow, ready to arrow any carp that dared to rise in front of him.
Other anglers who launched after backing down the long concrete boat ramp motored out from the shallow delta into the main Missouri River and turned east, powering into the western reaches of Fort Peck Reservoir, although it’s hard to tell where the reservoir begins and the river stops. But by Saturday the wind had come up and a boat ride east was a back-jarring, motor-straining, soaking wet ride. Such is the fickleness of fishing, Fort Peck and the CMR.
Discouraged, we packed up camp early despite our attraction to the area. The sun was blazing down. The wind was howling. Storm clouds were building on the horizon. And still I hated to go. It seemed too early to wake up from my long-held dream.