Craig, Montana: The Missouri River with Guide Ben McNinch
There’s a wonderful story about a couple of teenagers who met on a gas dock at the edge of the Missouri river near Montana’s Gates of the mountains in the early 1980’s. Stephanie (a professor’s daughter) was about 15 at the time, handsome John (son of the marina manager) was a few months older. They came from different backgrounds but the power of that first moment sparked a family that thrives in Montana today.
My Uncle, historian Stephen E. Ambrose (Stephanie’s dad), was researching Lewis & Clark’s great adventure. His armada of canoes had made the river trip in from points east over the previous month, camping and exploring the river much in the same fashion as the legendary “Corp of discovery”. Steve’s five children, his wife Moira and a gaggle of graduate students were hungry and tired as they paddled into Mr. Tubbs’ marina. Floating into civilization for the first time in days they were met with a smile, it was handsome John Tubbs who greeted them, Stephanie was smitten, and the rest is history.
Stephanie and John have raised a family in Helena and now have four grandchildren. Steve’s book “Undaunted Courage” reached #1 on New York Times best seller in 1996. Stephanie and John’s son Riley Tubbs has been awarded 2023 entrepreneur of the year by Helena’s chamber of commerce for his with work at Ten Mile Creek Brewery with partner Jordan Keltz. Ten Mile Brewery first opened its doors October 2016, on “the Gulch” in downtown Helena, since that time the Ten Mile team has opened a second operation in Craig, Montana just up the road called Craig Taphouse.
Sadly, my cousin Barry (Stephanie’s brother) passed away recently. His memorial service was held in May, west of Helena on the Blackfoot river (see our Blackfoot river video here) outside of Ovando, Montana. Knowing Barry and Steve would have wanted me to visit Riley’s new business, I made the 2-hour drive east to Craig and had one of the first burgers from Red’s Burger trailer just outside of the Taproom’s front door. Since the Craig Taproom hadn’t officially opened, I made Riley a promise to return and fish the Missouri and see how his taproom progress was going in October.
The trip from Sag Harbor, N.Y. to Craig included several stops on rivers in the mid-west, mostly fishing for Muskie. My visit to Craig after driving 3700 miles was a double winner as I not only got to visit Riley’s Taproom, I had a day on the Missouri river fishing with my childhood pal Jeff Wilder and guide Ben McNinch from Headhunters Outfitters located in the heart of Craig. Craig’s a small town, on arrival it looked like there were more drift boats than people.
Our float on the Missouri started just as the sun broke over the mountains to the east. Several drift boats launched from the ramp upriver from Craig that morning. As mist rose off the warm water we received some basic instructions on casting, mending line and floating the rig with an indicator on top and 2 nymphs below, setting the hook was also a component of Ben’s intro to flyfishing seminar. This section of the Missouri river is relatively wide and while the flow is steady it makes for an easy float, perfect for Jeff’s first experience in a drift boat fishing for trout.
The Missouri float was idyllic, we floated at the start in a hazy mist rising off the river and just flowed from there. The trout were colorful and plentiful, river grasses waved in the current and bald eagles watched from cliffs above. Jeff learned the basics of trout fishing from the stern with an eye from Ben, while I casted for rainbow and brown from the bow all day. We hooked several fish before drifting into a pull out near a bridge in Craig where Ben served up a bag of chicken salad sandwiches. Then we finished the float catching a few more.
On the last bend with the takeout in view I tied into a large, strong trout. It moved into a deep channel and then on to a patch of grass, having fought the fish for a few minutes I felt excited to have finally connected with a fish that the Missouri has become famous for. Perhaps next time I’ll land one.