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The angler above is Eric English, the photo taken by Paul Vang

By Paul F. Vang

Early prospectors looked down the hillside at the sun reflecting on the little stream and thought it looked like “a silver bow.”

That little stream was a source of food, in the form of native trout, and, later, municipal water.

As mining and population increased and became more varied, the little stream became a place to dump waste, both human and industrial. The fish disappeared, as pollution took over. Mine and smelter waste pollution spread downstream to the Clark Fork River and all the way downstream to Missoula, where it was captured by the Milltown Dam, below the confluence of the Clark Fork and Big Blackfoot Rivers.

Eventually, mining and smelting faded. The mighty Anaconda Company, that at one time all but ruled the state of Montana, neared bankruptcy, especially following a revolution in Chile, in which the government nationalized the Company’s copper mines.

The Anaconda Company sold itself to the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), a petrochemical company, which quickly determined that copper mining and smelting was a losing proposition, closing the smelter in Anaconda in 1980, and the mines in Butte in 1983.

That was over 40 years ago, and the first century of mining and smelting left a mess. The area from Butte to Missoula became the nation’s largest Superfund Site. Under the rules of the Environmental Protection Agency, ARCO (later acquired by British Petroleum) bought the liabilities of environmental cleanup, along with the other remnants of the Anaconda Company. It’s still a work in progress, but work began to clean up the environmental mess.

Cleaning up Silver Bow Creek, downstream from its confluence with Blacktail Creek, started in the late 1990s. Note: rehabilitation of Silver Bow Creek’s urban areas is still in the future.

Cleaning and rebuilding Silver Bow Creek took the better part of 20 years, but as the reconstruction of the creek bed worked its way down from Butte, fish started showing up, first as brook trout in Blacktail Creek started exploring these new downstream waters. As cleanup progressed past the village of Ramsay and through Durant Canyon, something amazing happened. Westslope Cutthroat Trout in German Gulch, a tributary downstream from Ramsay, began to move into the newly cleaned-up waters of Silver Bow Creek. These native trout, Montana’s state fish, not only survived but thrived in the larger stream. Around ten years ago, anglers started to take notice, and photos of beautiful cutthroat trout started appearing on Facebook.

Caleb Eurling, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist, has Silver Bow Creek and the upper Clark Fork River in his management portfolio, and he spends a lot of time studying the complex issues of Silver Bow Creek.

As for those fish porn photos of cutthroat trout on Facebook, Caleb notes that fish populations peaked in the first years after cleanup activities and have declined somewhat since then. While brook trout and westslope cutthroat trout inhabit the stream from the west edge of Butte to Fairmount Hot Springs, he considers it a marginal stream because of continuing environmental issues.

Butte’s sewage treatment plant was a long-standing problem, as its discharge was full of nutrients that caused excessive plant growth downstream from the plant. Butte-Silver Bow upgraded the plant, so the discharge is much cleaner. Nevertheless, there are numerous septic systems draining into Blacktail Creek and Silver Bow Creek.

There is insufficient brushy cover along much of the creek, and as a result, some stretches have heat problems. Warm water, besides being hard on trout, does a poor job of holding dissolved oxygen, and, like humans, fish need oxygen, and will travel long distances to find cold, oxygenated water.

Nevertheless, there are surprises. The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited made a grant to FWP to put telemetry tags on a number of trout. In following trout movements, Eurling was surprised to see one trout swim upstream into Blacktail Creek all the way to the Nine Mile area in one day. He has tracked cutthroat trout working their way up Blacktail Creek almost to the Continental Divide for spawning. “If there’s enough water to cover their backs, they’ll go there.” In general, he has found trout moving all around Silver Bow Creek, Blacktail Creek, Brown’s Gulch, and German Gulch. “This demonstration of connectivity of cutthroat trout throughout the watershed is one of the rewards we’ve seen, demonstrating that our work is paying off.”

While there are continuing issues, Uerling looks at the transformation of Silver Bow Creek from industrial sewer to trout stream and asserts, “Obviously, it’s a huge success story.”

I’m not an expert on Silver Bow Creek, but on a beautiful Indian Summer Day in October 2020, a good friend of ours, Dr. Eric English, joined me on a hike up Silver Bow Creek. Eric lives in Richmond, Virginia, but travels to provide emergency room services in Sidney, Montana.  The Yellowstone at Sidney isn’t trout water, but it’s closer to Montana trout streams.

We hiked upstream from the dam built as a barrier to keep non-native brown trout and rainbow trout from invading the cutthroat waters. It’s a scenic hike up Durant Canyon, where a railroad line parallels the stream.

We each caught small cutthroat trout in several pools. The highlight of the hike was at a deep pool where Eric caught three cutthroat trout, including a deep-bodied, fat, and feisty trout of about 17 inches. I generally don’t measure my trout, on the principle that a measured fish can’t grow. In fact, on the walk back to our parking spot, Eric figured the trout was already up to 18 inches and still growing.

When I asked him if catching that cutty made the day, he was clear. “It made the whole trip!”

There are never guarantees of angling success. Still, you never know what you might find on Silver Bow Creek. One friend told me he saw a mountain lion in Durant Canyon.

I didn’t see any mountain lions, but I did see native trout in a beautiful trout stream close to home. It’s catch and release on cutthroat trout, so, someday, I might catch Eric’s big trout. It must be at least 21 inches by now.