Many of you know Terry Palm as a watercolor artist, born and raised in Billings. He now lives in Minnesota and his annual art show in Billings draws hundreds of admirers, but it is less known that for several years Terry has been writing short stories based on his early adventures along the Yellowstone River in what is now Josephine Park. Today’s installment, The Secret Spot, is the sixth and final story in a series he’s titled, “Always a River”
The Secret Spot
How do you choose your favorite fishing river? For me, it was catching four and five-pound Brown Trout, just about every trip, on a stretch of river 80 miles from Billings that nobody knew about. Junior high neighbor and friend, Gary Good, took me there but I had to vow not to tell a soul where we were fishing.
We fished the Musselshell five miles above the small town of Shawmut, Mont. during the 60s. During all that time, I took only one person, my boss Mr. Huisenga, to fish that stretch of river, and that was with Gary Good’s approval. May and June were the best months. The water was cold and the fish were active. We got access to the river where a two-track farm road crossed the railroad tracks and dead-ended at a small backwater, concealing our vehicle from any passing highway traffic.
The mornings were crisp and we started fishing at daybreak, wading downstream in hipboots. We waded the ripples until we got within casting distance of the holes which averaged six feet deep. A good cast put the quarter-ounce hammered brass lure right up against the opposite bank. As the lure sank, you could see the big Browns come out from the darkness of the deep water to hit the lure. Usually, by the time you had cranked your spinning reel a few times, you had a fish on. They averaged two pounds and fought hard in the cold water. Because they fought hard and stirred up the water, it was an exception to catch more than one fish out of a hole. Same thing, hole after hole, until our basket creels were overflowing with big trout after a couple of hours of fishing.
The biggest brown I ever caught happened in an odd way. In all of the years fishing this stretch of the Musselshell, I hadn’t seen a single person until one day when I decided to go one more bend in the river. Apparently, there must have been a farm nearby because there were a couple of farm kids–10 or 12 years old–lying on their bellies on a rickety bridge, looking down between the wooden slats. There’s a good one down here, they said as I approached. Throw your bait right here, said one kid as he dropped a pebble into the water.
My first cast was well short of the target but my second was right in the center of the ring of ripples made by the pebble. I let the lure drop and barely started the retrieve when the lunker hit and the fight was on. Sometimes the big Browns can be a little sluggish but this one wasn’t and made several runs during a five-minute battle. I thanked the boys for their guiding services, offered them the fish which they declined, cut back through the brush to the railroad tracks for the mile walk back to the car. What a day. What a day!
By now, the temperature was close to 90 and there was only one thing left to do and that was to stop at the Shawmut Café for a jumbo chocolate malt made with real Wilcoxson’s ice cream. If you’re old enough, you know the kind: served in a tall malt glass with the extra served in the big metal mixing container. Not much talking here, too busy getting the thick delicious malt through the straws. After the malts, back into the non-air conditioned car for the trip home.
My last trip to the Musselshell had the usual high expectations but produced dismal results. Something had happened to the river. Instead of crystal clear and cold, it was murky and noticeably warmer. The good fish had disappeared and the “Blue Ribbon” holes were full of carp and suckers, I think because of something they did in irrigating the area. About the same time, the railroad discontinued use of the tracks and gave or sold the railroad right of way land back to the ranchers, who quickly posted the entire area, including our fishing access. Sadly, my favorite fishing river was history. I am now drawn to the Vermilion River in northern Minnesota which will likely be my last.
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