The New York Times SportsSunday Sunday, August 8th, 1999

World’s Best Trout Town
Amenities? In Craig, Montana It’s All About the Fish.

By: Pete Bodo

CRAIG, Mont. - Larry Taramelli stood atop the seat of the picnic bench in front of the Missouri River Trout Shop and Lodge, smoking in a peculiar way. Rolling the cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other, he expelled from his nose blasts of blue smoke that occasionally got hung up in his beard.  He developed that smoking technique because, for a good many of his waking hours on a typical day during trout season, Taramelli's hands are engaged holding a fly rod.

    Taramelli removed his cigarette and gestured expansively as he spoke: "This rainbow trout, it was so big - big as a small person. Just so-o-o-o-o beautiful I had to sit down on a big rock just to look at the fish before I released it."

    A growling pick-up crept down the road, towing a drift boat that squealed and clattered at every bump. It was 7:35 A.M. on yet another cool, bright Montana morning, hard by the Rocky Mountain front, in what may be the best little trout town on earth. Anglers who like to flesh out their fishing trips with some quality shopping here, a little fine dining there, may take exception to such a lofty assessment. But hard-core trout bums like Taramelli are a different breed. They are attuned to certain esoteric realities that may elude the rest of us. For instance, they know that one sure sign of a good fishing town, like Craig, is that a railroad runs through it.

    Craig has plenty of other features to recommend itself to flyfishers. It is a small village, with an estimated permanent population of about 50, although the mystifying maze of propane tanks, satellite dishes, corrugated tin roofs, wooden sheds and clotheslines create the impression that the number ought to be higher. Taramelli works in the only shop in Craig, but everything sold there-in is fascinating, from the "crippled" version of the Pale Morning Dun (or PMD's to those who care about this dry fly, the one with the florescent orange, post-style wing for maximum visibility), to handsome Loomis fly rods, to goose blots and Zap-a-Gap glue.

    Until last year, Craig also had a store called O'Connell's, which offered bread, gasoline and milk, but the establishment has closed down. Even though it will soon be replaced by another restaurant, folks around here apparently care only about essentials.

    Two 30-something flyfishers, Jerry Lappier and Chris Goodman, own the trout shop and lodge, an operation that is to Craig what GM is to Detroit.   Still, the word "lodge" is probably a misnomer, at least insofar as it evokes images of fieldstone fireplaces and mounted trophy mooses.

    Granted, the building was built for the Craig Mercantile Company on Lot 1, Block 1, back in 1887, and the Great Northern Railroad often stopped in front of it to take on Water. But in less idyllic settings, the L-shaped, one-story building would have a neon sign in front, reading M-?-T-E-L. There are six rooms, some of which share a bath with other rooms, and a studio apartment that is the de facto Penthouse.

    "That's as close as we get to luxury," said Lappier, a 36-year-old redhead with mischievous eyes. "But then that's not our stock-in-trade. Around here, it's all about the fishing. And that's just fine with the crowd we get."

    That crowd includes devoted flyfishers from as far away as Japan, France, Britain and Italy, In addition to anglers from all over the United States. They are lured to Montana and the Missouri River between the cities of Helena and Great Falls by the challenge of catching and releasing rainbow and brown trout. The trout here often grow to over 20 inches, and are more prone to feed on the surface all day long, at least at certain times of the year, than the fish on many of Montana's other prime trout rivers.

    Shaped by three reservoirs that discharge volumes of co1d nutrient-rich water, the Missouri is a broad, even tempered river with a prodigious population of aquatic insects. Living among the river's lush weed beds, they hatch en masse, creating rafts of caddis and mayflies that the trout sip and slurp off the glassy surface as if they were dim sum.

    Of course, there is a catch: in order to fool the fish, a flyfisher must use the correct floating fly pattern, and present It with a natural drift over fish that have all the time in the world to examine each morsel, and a zillion other choices if they don't like what the see. On the Missouri, there are no desperate trout ready to fling themselves on anything that resembles food.

    It is precisely for this reason that the most hard-bitten of anglers fish the Missouri and embrace the stark simplicity of Craig.

    "Easy isn't usually interesting or ennobling," said Frank Rodriguez, a Portland, Ore., schoolteacher, who stops regularly on the Missouri during an annual two-month fishing and camping tour of the great Western trout streams. Rodriguez, in his mid-50's, has outgrown the basic challenge of the Missouri for an even more daunting discipline. He fishes exclusively for "bank feeders," those impossibly difficult - and often, impossible large - trout that live and feed in virtually inaccessible lies beneath overhanging bushes or beside deadfalls.     "I’m consumed by the delicacy and accuracy required by this kind of fishing," he said. "I don't need to catch dozens of trout to be happy.

    But even Rodriguez occasionally needs to come in out of the wet. After nightfall, he often pulls back the squeaky screen door and joins other anglers in the only place to eat in Craig - yep, the trout shop cafe. Some nights, defeated anglers sit staring into their coffee, some perhaps wondering what they are doing in Craig. On other nights, when the fishing has been good, the gathering is raucous.

    The trout shop cafe, long known to anglers for its home-baked cherry and blueberry pies, now features an authentic chef in Mark Raisler, but he isn't even tempted to ply his trade in more gourmet-friendly precincts.  "I love to cook but I'm working here because of the fishing," Raisler said.

    Customers are free to shuttle back and forth across the dusty parking lot to the beer joint, a squat building the color of algae, languishing beneath a towering cottonwood tree. Real cowboys drink there, often while picking at guitars. The name of this place, as it appears in the pink neon sign atop the building is easy to remember: Bar.    The "BAR" at Craig, MT - Photo by C Korody (Click on the image to get a better view.   And yes, folks, this IS the epitome of a country "bar.")

    Given that the trout shop and bar are the only two businesses in downtown Craig, and that at any given time you're apt to find more dogs than people wandering the streets, Craig begs to be called a one-horse town. Technically, though, that wouldn't be accurate: the gray mare that once pastured next to the trout shop is gone now. But the Missouri is still there, rolling by the town that would have no trouble coming up with a tourist friendly slogan: Trout Count.

*  *  *
Care to give this great river a try??  Call now or drop me an e-mail at your convenience.   John