Montana: In the beginning, there was fishing

photo: Montana Historical Society

by Patrick Byorth

“Fishing has become an important part of Montana’s culture and economy.”  So Devlan Geddes concluded his recent argument before the Montana Supreme Court over a bridge access dispute.  Practically, Mr. Geddes was correct, that angling casts several hundred million dollars into Montana’s economy each year.  Grammatically, his verb tense fell short 150 years.  Fishing was an important part of Montana culture long before Montana joined the Union, and angling—from frontier times to today—has been a primary draw to those adventurous souls who visited, and decided to put down roots.

The first recorded Montana fishing expedition found one Silas Goodrich catching “half a douzen very fine trout” near the base of the Great Falls, bringing the mess of 16- to 23-inch westslope cutthroat to his Captains Lewis and Clark for their scientific, and culinary, ruminations.

When the first territorial legislature convened in a ramshackle soddy at Bannack in December 1864, they considered such weighty topics as choosing sides in the Civil War, lack of public infrastructure, and the very first fishing regulation.  Public Law 407 (“An Act in Relation to Trout Fishing”) restricted the taking of trout to a rod or pole and prohibited using poisons or explosives as bait.  PL 407 borne in that tumultuous legislature predated Conrad Kohr’s and Johnny Grant’s cattle ranch by a year, General Custer’s last battle by 11 years, and Statehood by 25 years.

If angling played a role in the politics of the day, it also inspired travelers and dignitaries to visit and settle in Montana.  Rudyard Kipling found the frontier town of Livingston too raucous for his liking, but ventured south to Yankee Jim’s outpost along the Yellowstone in July 1890.  Kipling’s fishing tale, recorded in his American Notes, went, ”At the fortieth trout I gave up counting, and I had reached the fortieth in less than two hours.  Ye Gods…that was fishing, though it peeled the skin from my nose in strips…”  Kipling returned sunburnt to the British Empire, unlike many travelers to Montana, who fall for her and put down roots.  Since Silas Goodrich’s very fine fishing trip, folks have meandered into Montana as newcomers in search of adventure and awakened 30 years hence as naturalized Montanans.

Charles Bridgman left Zanesville, Ohio, on a westbound train as far as his $100 would take him.   His fare played out along the Yellowstone River at Big Timber, Montana, where he began his quest to earn a grubstake to start his own ranch.  He hired out to large ranches–generally owned by earlier migrants of means–along the Yellowstone River, slowly insinuating himself north into the Shields Valley, then west into Brackett Creek.  In Brackett Creek he happened into a feud between homesteaders, the Lees and Proffitts, which had landed one of the Proffitt boys in the state penitentiary.  Charles, being industrious and prudent, stayed out of the feud and eventually purchased one of the Proffitt homesteads, 160 acres of bottomland along Brackett Creek, teeming with Yellowstone cutthroat trout or “natives” as Kipling would have known them.

Charles Bridgman, this Ohio pilgrim, eventually made good in the sheep and cow business, acquired over 7,200 acres, raised a family and became entwined in the history of Brackett Creek.

Bridgman's big red barn still stands in Brackett Creek's rich bottomland

Bridgman descendants still operate parts of the ranch as the G Bar M Guest Ranch, inviting visitors to enjoy what drew Charles here at the turn of the century.  Just downstream, on the rich bottoms of Brackett Creek where Charles built a massive red sheep barn, the ranch now belongs to Gregory and Anne Avis.  Like generations of Montana ranchers before them, they were drawn to Montana’s beauty and abundance.  They still hay the same fields that Charles Bridgman drained and leveled and lease pasture to a neighboring Angus herd. But the Avises recall what Mr. Geddes and many Montanans may have forgotten, that fishing for trout in Montana streams is older than the State itself.  While maintaining the agricultural heritage they acquired with the old Bridgman place, the Avises took steps to ensure the angling heritage thrives as well.  Working with Trout Unlimited’s Montana Water Project, the Avises decided to change the purpose of their water rights to instream flow, entering a water lease that guarantees that Brackett Creek flows cool and clear all summer while preserving options for the future.  They returned flows into a long-abandoned channel from a channelized reach, lengthening the habitat available for the wild cutthroat, brook and brown trout in Brackett Creek.

The significance of the Avis’ conservation ethic stands for itself in the here and now.  Yellowstone cutthroat trout and the Brackett Creek fishery are simply better off.  But in the longer cycle of history, the Avises have reconnected us with Montana’s angling heritage that predates Charles Bridgman, Rudyard Kipling, General Custer, the Territorial Legislature, and even Silas Goodrich.  The ancestors of Avis’ Yellowstone cutthroat beneficiaries predate us all by 18,000 years.

Let’s hope history repeats itself.

Patrick Byorth is a staff attorney for TU’s Montana Water Project. 

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