Published on April 6th, 2014 | by Johnny Julep
A Creek Runs Through It: Sluice Boxes State Park
After a long winter, I look forward to the 3rd Saturday of May every year. This day coincides with the day the small creeks and streams in Montana open for Spring, Summer and Fall fishing. Depending on water levels and spring snowmelt runoff, creeks can usually be fished productively until they become fully blown out and muddy by mid-June. This article I wrote for the June 2012 issue of Big R Fly Shop eMagazine reminds of early spring and the excitement of getting out on one of my favorite creeks in Montana, Belt Creek in the Sluice Boxes State Park to fly fish for Rainbow and Brown trout. See the published electronic version here.
One hike through the mesmerizing Sluice Boxes State Park along the beaten trails and rising limestone cliffs that parallel Belt Creek will leave you breath taken and awe-stricken. If the canyon walls could talk, they would speak of its once pure eco-rich waters teeming with abundant amounts of trout and aquatic life, its plush mining history resulting from nearly a century of acid mining drainage that this “bygone” trout paradise is still recovering from today.
As I stood high up on the rocky cliff ledge just off the trail and the old railway with my ﬂy rod in hand, I watched as a good size trout made methodical rises to insects as they passed by on the water’s apex. The kitchen table sized pool was large enough to hold dozens of trout, yet the only trout that seemed to take residency in the spot was the one I was watching from high above. It was then I began to think about how many others had stood here before me, before the toxic mining degradation and the catastrophic 1925 collapse of the Silver Dyke Mine’s impoundment dam near Neihart’s Carpenter Creek, a tributary to Belt Creek. The collapse sent a slurry of metal-rich tailings into Belt Creek throughout the entire stretch of the Sluice Boxes and eventually all the way down to where it unites with Missouri River.
I wondered if ﬁshermen had stared down below at the very same pool, as I am now, and saw dozens of plump trout stacked up, holding in the depths of the pool, bellies full from the plethora of aquatic insects they had gorged themselves on during an afternoon hatch. Referring to the area and the town of Monarch, MT, an article from the CASCADE COUNTY DIRECTORY AND GAZETTEER 1896 – 97 stated “Monarch is also noted for being a natural summer resort, furnishing the ﬁnest ﬁshing in Montana. Belt Creek is well supplied with trout and whiteﬁsh, and the streams of Dry Fork, Tillinghast, Pilgrim, and Tenderfoot are literally full of trout and grayling. These streams being quite near Monarch, make it one of the pleasantest resorts of Montana, and it is much patronized by tourists”. Such a shame when I think about what the area once was and really could have had the chance to be today. How could these silver, lead, and ore hordes of the early 20th century be so careless and let such a wonderful trout haven become so corrupt?
As years have passed and mining days have long gone, Belt Creek has and is continuing to bounce back from the wrath it had endured. Floods over the years have ﬂushed out many of the metals that once had settled among the streambed’s sediment. Also, the combination of the limestone geology, the abundance of highly alkaline springs within the limestone, and the proliﬁc tributaries contribute to the creek’s steady recovery. The calcium rich geology of the limestone not only enhance the growth of the aquatic insects, but also the swimming trout that feed on them amidst its currents.
I can only imagine how a day of ﬁshing might have gone back then. Taking a ride on the “Fish Train” would have been a delight to experience. Beginning in 1914, ﬁsherman from Great Falls would board the Sunday morning Great Northern train bound for the Sluice Box canyon. After a full day of ﬁshing, the men and women would hop back on the evening whistle call back to Great Falls, creels full of trout. I’m sure 40 or 50 ﬁsh in an afternoon or evening was not uncommon. This went on for over 30 years until most of the mining efforts ceased and the tracks were pulled in 1945.
I can see trout being overly eager to eat almost any ﬂy that would be presented to them, due to the thriving insect activity. I wonder if the hatches I see today are as good as they once were. I sometimes feel lucky to see stoneﬂys in March, yellow sallies, mayﬂies and caddis in May and June and the various terrestrials in the summer and fall that survive from the healthy streamside vegetation. Though I am content with days when I’ll only catch a handful of average sized rainbows, browns and cutthroat and an occasional 18-inch or larger brown, I wonder what this creek was like when it was considered a trout paradise.
The resiliency and tenacity Belt Creek has shown on its journey in recovery makes me wonder if the current state of this watershed is as good as it’s going to get, or if it has yet to reach a higher pinnacle, as it once was, untouched and pure. For now, I appreciate every trout I am fortunate to bring to hand, witnessing its beauty, eye to eye. I appreciate Montana Fish Wildlife and Park’s conservation efforts and the EPA’s willingness to focus on cleanup plans. I am grateful the creek is what it is today and that it offers such beauty and magnitude in a remarkable area very close to my hometown.
Belt Creek and the park it has carved its way through is a special place in terms of what it has done for me as an angler. I have spent countless days and nights, incessantly casting ﬂys into its runs, rifﬂes, pockets and pools. It has been a place of solace for me, a place to forget about life’s daily grind. Every returning trip gives me a feeling that is indescribable. It’s as if my soul has become dependent upon my return in order to sustain a healthy sense of well-being. All sense of time is lost when I step foot into the park and into the creek. Its trout, some being my ﬁrst that I can remember on a ﬂy rod, have a hold on me. They are strong, resilient, and continue to grow larger in healthier in size with each passing season. Its history aside, just knowing the beauty it beholds, and the excellent trout ﬁshery that it is, I hold this creek in high regards as the paradise it once was, today, in every denotation of the word.
Want to go? Here is all the info you need…
March-April: Skwala Stoneﬂy, Black Winter Stone, Midges, Blue-winged olives
May-June: March Browns, Salmonﬂies, Goldenstones, Yellow Sallies, Caddis, Pale morning duns, Green Drakes, Brown Drakes
July-August: Tricos, Caddis, Craneﬂies, Terrestrials, Spruce Moths
September-November: Blue-winged olives, Mahogany duns, October Caddis, Midges
Belt Creek is open all year from the Evans-Riceville Bridge downstream to the conﬂuence with the Missouri River. The rest of the creek opens the third Saturday in May through November 30th
The primary entrance to Sluice Boxes State Park is at the Riceville Bridge, 8 miles south of Belt on U.S. Highway 89, then a half-mile west on the Evans–Riceville Road. (It’s also possible to access the upper park where Logging Creek Road crosses Belt Creek. However, there are no facilities here, parking is along the road, and visitors must take care to avoid adjacent private property.)
The only facilities are a parking lot, vault toilet, park map, and a trail following the abandoned rail grade into the park’s interior.
Kayaking and rafting
The stream requires advanced rafting or kayaking skills. During high water in early summer, the Sluice Boxes can be a treacherous death trap for the unwary or inexperienced. And by midsummer, the water is often too low to ﬂoat.
Hiking is available along the old rail bed. Park manager Colin Maas cautions that most of the old rail trestles are down, requiring hikers to scramble along rocky areas in places. The trail is not maintained and in many places requires crossing Belt Creek. Hikers should be in good shape and bring rain gear, footwear for stream crossings, a topographic map, and plenty of food and water. Also, hikers should watch for poison ivy.
Reaching the central gorge on foot can be dangerous during spring runoff. Plan hikes into the Sluice Boxes from mid-July through October, when safe fords are more predictable. When ﬂows permit, the entire distance from Riceville to the Logging Creek Road bridge can be covered in a day. The canyon between the two bridges encompasses 7 1/2 river miles and requires 12 fords.
There are no designated sites in the park, but backcountry camping is allowed by permit. Maas is trying to foster a leave no trace ethic among park users. He asks visitors to pack out all garbage, camp away from the creek, and use stoves, ﬁre pans, or grills rather than open ﬁres. “Because the park is such a gem, it requires a high level of stewardship,” says Maas. “We’re always looking for volunteers to help us keep it clean.”