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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.
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.
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.