This Montana Life: a fishing youth

The old days of fishing Petty Creek

By DAVID REESE/Montana Living

The West Fork of Petty Creek is a small stream by western Montana standards, narrow enough to jump across in most places.

Petty Creek, which is about 35 miles from Missoula but two miles from my home town of Alberton, meanders through lowlands, cow pas­tures and old homesteads, cut­ting under deep banks and fan­ning out into wide, gravelly pools.

fishing petty creek, montana living, david reese

In the 1970s we could ride our bikes from Alberton out to dusty Petty Creek Road, where logging trucks whizzed by close enough to touch them. The road went right past some prime fishing holes. Back then you could just jump off your bike, ditch it in the bushes and fish a deep hole in the creek where the overhanging brush provided welcoming shade for trout.

I was an altar boy at St. Albert's Catholic church in Alberton. On Sundays in the summer, my thoughts would sometimes wander from the priest's homily to going fishing. I remember looking out at the congregation one Sunday morning, as a wise young man of eight or nine, and thinking, "People sure do love their church. But I'd sure like to be fishing soon."

After church I'd hop on my single-speed bike and ride out to my friend Ricky's house, down near the mouth of Petty Creek and two miles from our place in town. Those two miles are forever etched in my memory, and I still use those two miles as a yardstick any time I gotta estimate what two miles is.

The West Fork of Petty Creek, farther up Petty Creek road, was prime brook trout habitat. Drifting a worm through there on a size­ eight Eagle Claw hook, you could almost be guaranteed of a nibble, maybe even a fish. Only when you had your limit did you let any fish go. That was way before the days of "catch and release."

It was here that I honed my fishing skills — which I still use, and enjoy, to this day some 50-odd years later. — and where I developed the love of the taste of trout.

Fishing in the late 1960s, my fishing tackle was simple, and everything fit within your creel (those are the bamboo side pouches you put your wriggling fish into.)  Included in the creel, for the bike ride out to Petty Creek were your hooks (No. 8 Eagle Claw), a bunch of nightcrawlers (caught by flashlight in our yard the night before), and a can of Shasta orange pop.

Petty Creek was an idyllic place to learn how to fish. You could always catch fish, "No Trespassing" was not in the landowner's ver­nacular and it was a good place close to home for us boys to go camping.

Sometimes I could camp out with a buddy. Unlike me, who would rather sleep under the stars any night of the year, my mother hat­ed camping. She said she'd go only if she could bring along her queen size. That actually happened once — my dad brought a mattress in the bed of the old Dodge, and she struggled through ONE NIGHT alongside the West Fork of Petty.

For this once in a lifetime trip (for my mother) we had set up camp under a big Pondersosa pine, where my mom, the local librarian of the Mineral County branch library, could read her book in the shade. That night we hung a Coleman lantern on a big rusty nail sticking out of the tree. The lantern, hissing, cast a green light onto a small circle around the fire. The next-morning my dad cooked big flapjacks in a cast-iron skillet while I drowned a worm in a pool nearby. Man, this was living!

My folks didn't stay long that day, though. When my mother found out where she had to go to the bathroom. "That buckskin lodgepole right over there," my dad said, pointing to some downfall across the creek.

Dad's old Dodge pickup bounced out of there before noon but I stayed back and fished. Just 10 miles from home, but lost in the idyll of youth. No cell phone, just that shabby old bamboo creel, and some breakfast leftovers.

My older brother and I walked upstream about a mile, then fished down to camp. By noon, the well-grazed lowland pastures had warmed up and the air felt like hot breath on the back of your neck. The smell of pine pitch oozed into the air.

My brother worked the holes quickly with his one-piece rod and bait-cast reel, and moved downstream if he didn't immediately get a bite. (Of course being at the worldly age of 12, he likely had other things on his mind). 

I knew how to to fish the West Fork, though. After my brother had moved on downstream, I'd move in right behind him, and usually hook a fish, raising the wiggling trout through the air and letting it flop into the tall grass behind me. Silently pleased with myself, I'd slip the fish through the small square hole in the top of my creel, where it met its final reward on a bed of cool, wet grass.

By the time I got the fish home they'd be all curled up and splotchy, their eyes dulled over. But they were destined for a frying pan.

I'd dump their stiff bodies in the porcelain sink in our kitchen, separate out the grass and dirt and let mom fry them until their tails and fins were crispy to perfection.

Mom's not around any more to bring the fish home to. She died of cancer 20 years ago. Sometimes when I'm tying a hook on a line, I think back to that fishing spot on the West Fork of Petty Creek, where our little family lounged under the big Ponderosa on a warm summer day.

— David Reese is founding editor of Montana Living. 

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