That brought Ty Smith into the field. He sat at the controls of his 320BL Caterpillar, chewing his way through a pasture near Ovando, Montana. The object of his attention was muddy, silt-laden Hoyt Creek, which looked more like a drainage ditch than a living stream. Smith worked the bucket of his 48,000-pound excavator with surgical precision, carving a sinuous new streambed, sculpting places for new riffles and pools, and closely following directions from a pint-size woman in a red knit hat and rubber boots who carried a clipboard, a black-and-white surveyor's stick and an air of authority.
"We are providing the four C's here," said Ryen Aasheim, the Trout Unlimited biologist assigned to this venture. "Our fish like to see clear, cold, clean and connected waters, which we will have in place at the conclusion of this project." She explained that Hoyt Creek, engineered to the specifications on her chart, will be remade along a 11,000-foot stretch and linked to Dick Creek, which connects to Monture Creek, which connects with the Big Blackfoot River at the heart of this 1.5 million-acre watershed. In a matter of weeks, cold, clear water would be flowing up from the underlying aquifer to Hoyt Creek, which would spill downstream and knit the tributaries together with the main river. That would provide new habitat for native westslope cutthroats and bull trout, both of which have been struggling.
Like the ranchers and cowboys who settled this part of western Montana, young trout are programmed for traveling. Fish hatched in the tributaries of the Big Blackfoot would migrate to the main stem, establish residence and pioneer new sections of the watershed. It was not necessary to stock feeder streams, just to provide those four C's. If you built it, they would come, right to the spot where Ryen Aasheim now stood ankle deep in muck. "If you provide a connection in the system, they always find a way," Aasheim was saying. "Sometimes it takes a while for the trout to come back. The earliest, I think, was four months from the time we finished a project like this one."
To get a preview of its potential, I drove through downtown Ovando (pop. 71), past Trixi's Antler Saloon & Fine Dining and down Highway 200 to Tom Rue's ranch on Kleinschmidt Creek, a recently rehabilitated Big Blackfoot tributary.
Rue, a big, bluff man with a gray mustache and an enthusiasm for trout, met me on a wooden footbridge spanning his creek. "This place was totally degraded from overgrazing," said Rue, "totally! The water was muddy and sludgy, too warm for fish. It was pretty much dead when I came here in 1994."
That's when the stream restorers stepped in to narrow and deepen the creek's channel, reducing its surface area to make it cooler. They also lengthened Rue's section of the stream from 6,000 to 10,000 feet by adding twists and turns, and put in new fencing to keep wandering cattle out of the water. Now Kleinschmidt Creek runs as clear and cool as the Montana air, cutting under banks deeply shaded by cottonwoods and native grasses. Since the project was finished, the creek's maximum temperature has dropped by ten degrees, making it a magnet for fish in search of oxygen-rich water.
"The numbers of fish have gone up dramatically," said Rue. "Asymptotically up," he boomed, sounding more like a theoretical physicist than a rancher. Rue was in particularly good humor because he had landed and released a 20-inch cutthroat trout just the day before, a sign that the natives were returning.
"Water's the most valuable thing we have next to oxygen. You've got seven million gallons going under your feet right now," he says, nodding at the footbridge. "That's a lot of water for this little creek."
The creek spoke back, chortling under its bridge before rushing off to meet the Big Blackfoot River.
If you have heard of the Big Blackfoot it is probably because of Norman Maclean, the Montana writer who launched his classic book, A River Runs Through It, with this sentence: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." That was in 1976, long before Robert Redford adapted Maclean's story for the Brad Pitt movie in 1992 and made fly-fishing fashionable overnight. A lot happened between those two dates.