Armstrong’s Spring Creek 2007 Stream Reclamation Project


George Anderson


As many anglers know Armstrong's Spring Creek was ravaged by the floods of 1996 and 1997. The Yellowstone River overflowed its banks, cutting a new channel into Armstrong's Spring Creek on the O'Hair ranch. The force of the Yellowstone River pushed into Armstrong Spring Creek at rate of about 10,000 CFS, tearing out many of the wonderful old runs and filling them in with river rock.


In early March the O'Hair family made some dramatic changes to the spring creek with design help from George Anderson, money from Trout Unlimited, and permits from both State and Federal agencies. The "new" pools created will greatly increase the amount of fishable water on the O'Hair Ranch and provide far more good spawning habitat for cutthroats, rainbows and brown trout. In addition, some of those great old runs that many of us remember prior to the floods are back and better than ever! 


The problem was that there were only a few really good runs left to fish, especially on the O’Hair ranch.  Most of the fish were stacked up in three runs and so were the fisherman!  Many anglers hogged the good runs, often planting themselves in one spot all day!  This made for some hard feelings.   Even though most people had good fishing there, it was easy to see that it could be so much better if just a little work was done to improve the existing streambed and spread out the angling pressure.


Three years ago I helped the O’Hair’s by designing some stream work on the upper portion of the spring creek, above the big spring.  Justin O’Hair got the permits needed, rented an excavator and hired Jim Darr a very experienced heavy equipment operator to do the work.   We took the very upper portion of the spring creek where there was almost no fishable water and built a dozen nice pools and pockets with short riffles between them.  The project was a modest success and has added some new interesting fishable water where there was none before.   More importantly it added a lot of valuable spawning habitat.


The major challenge though as I saw it was to improve the lower portion of the spring creek and to add more fishable there, where most of the anglers preferred to fish. New runs would give anglers more places to fish, spread out the fishing pressure and make the fishing experience at O’Hair’s more enjoyable for everyone.   Perhaps the biggest reason to make the improvements to the stream though would be to add more spawning habitat for cutthroats, rainbows and browns.  


Fish biologists have found that the majority of trout in the Yellowstone River close to Livingston were born in the spring creeks of Paradise Valley – Armstrong’s on both the O’Hair and DePuy ranches and on Nelson’s Spring Creek on Dana Ranch and Nelson Ranch.    So improving the spring creeks has a huge effect on maintaining our outstanding fishery on the Yellowstone River.  Sure, the landowners would benefit from this by attracting more anglers willing to pay rod fees to fish the creeks, but it made a lot of sense to me to help with the design work as it benefits us all, even anglers that will never pay to fish the spring creeks.  


My fly-fishing experience on Armstrong’s Spring Creek dates back to late 1960’s, when I worked as a guide in West Yellowstone.  I felt that my experience with Armstrong’s spring creek and what it was like before the floods of ’96 and ’97 would help me re-design the stream and possibly make it even better than it was before the floods.


Rather than hire an expensive stream reclamation firm to do the design work, I offered to do this for free as I had done earlier on the upper Armstrong reclamation project.  I was excited to see this great trout stream improve for the benefit of everyone.  


Finally, Justin got the permits needed from the State and Federal agencies and the work was done in the end of Feb. 2007.   Jim Darr did the excavation work again and did a fabulous job.   In just a couple long days all the work was completed and Jim did such a great job of leaving much of the existing brush, trees and cover along the banks that by late spring there will be very few visible signs that there was any work done there at all.   


Our local Trout Unlimited Joe Brooks Chapter offered some financial help when they found out that we were dramatically improving the spawning habitat. They kicked in $1000.00 to help. When the Madison/Gallatin chapter of TU heard about the Armstrong stream reclamation project they also helped with another donation of $1000.00.  With these funds, the O’Hair’s were able to cover most of the cost of all the work and the rental for the excavator.  It was truly a win-win situation for everyone.  


Two weeks after the stream work was completed, lots of rainbows were spawning in the gravel at the tails of the new pools!   Our first days of fishing the new water were fun.   There are already lots of fish in the new pools and more importantly, these new pools came out even better than I had envisioned when I designed them.  


In the “dead water” stretch below the big culvert, we put in two new pools, with deep water along the West bank, much like the original spring creek before the floods.    This used to produce some outstanding dry fly fishing and it will again.   The new pools are far better than what was there - even before the floods!   We were able to utilize one big boulder in the stream that had been there forever and built a wonderful pool around it, with the boulder sitting at the head.   Later this spring we’ll plant more willows along the West bank of the stream here that will provide even more cover for big trout holding along this deep bank.  


The big pool above the culvert needed a lot of work.   Originally, before the floods, the main flow of current was to the East side of the pool, which provided some outstanding dry fly fishing along that East bank   and the buffalo berry bushes there.    The plan was to shift the current back this way again, but to also leave some flow on the West side of the pool too.   I designed a shallow area or small island in the middle.   Justin took this one step farther with the rock and silt they dredged out, made this into a beautiful island complete with some trees and bushes.  Unfortunately, the beavers made short work of a couple of the new trees, but hopefully we’ll be able to replace them and keep the beavers under control. 


At the head of the new island run there is a continuation of the good chute at the head, and this will now be a good long heavy run for perhaps 100 feet, then slowing down as it comes around the island providing some nice slick holding water for good dry fly fishing opportunities.   The channel on the west side of the island will also be a wonderful spot for anglers fishing drys and emergers in the slower, calmer water.


Continuing upstream we built a nice pool underneath the big willow trees that lie just below the old homestead.   This is a beautiful pool with the old Armstrong ranch house behind it, where Agnes O’Hair grew up in the early 1900’s.    Deep heavy water at the head of this pool will surely attract some lunkers to make this their home and now that we’ve also cleared out some of the willows it will be an easy pool to fish.    This is another new pool where there were lots of big rainbows spawning in late March and early April.   


Above the big spring the creek continues around to the left and then bends back to the south where an old beaver dam creates a very nice long flat that is full of good fish.     In our previous work on the upper water, we took out the beaver dam and replaced it with rock but the flow over the rock dam was on the west side, allowing alge and weed growth to build up late in the season, choking out this nice flat.   


The obvious fix was to modify the rock dam so that the flow went over to the other side, the East side now, and to lessen the gradient so that fish can easily negotiate the rock dam when they are running upstream to spawn.  The new pools above contain wonderful spawning gravel so now there is an opportunity for all species of trout to run up into the spawning habitat above unhindered by the previously un-negotiable beaver dam.   


Along with the work on the dam, we deepened the water above the dam too, giving the fish in the flat a good spot to hide and better survive the onslaught of the Bald Eagle migration.


Finally, we deepened the bend pool below the rock dam.  Jim Darr did a great job of leaving the existing trees while making a nice deep undercut bank pool there that is sure to attract more big fish.


Before the floods filled in this pool I remember a big brown that took up residence there.  Occasionally he would be up feeding on the surface but he always stayed tucked in close to the branches or underneath them, making it impossible to get a fly to him.    One day I was fishing the flat above the beaver dam with a friend and as evening approached we headed back down towards the car.  We stopped at the corner pool where the big brown was living.  I had a hunch that with darkness approaching we might lure him out with a well-placed streamer.    I told Pat to rig up a big wooly bugger on a stout tippet and try to cast it close to the brush as he could and let it sink deep before he started his retrieve.


The huge brown rushed out and inhaled the wooly bugger and bolted back into the brush.     It looked to be 7-8 pounds, maybe larger.   Pat didn’t have a chance. The brown shredded the 2X tippet in an instant and was gone.  


Now I’m hoping that one of the big browns progeny will take up residence in the new cut bank corner pool.    There is less brush there now for him to hide, and we might have a chance to land him.