IT'S SAFE TO SAY there are likely more drift boats in Craig, Montana, than people. The community is the quintessential fishing village tucked in hard against the broad Missouri River. There’s a campground, a couple fly fishing shops, two watering holes, a restaurant, camper trailer crash pads, a few summer cabins, some rooms to rent. That’s it. There is no grocery store, no gas pump.
Like most Montana places, Craig owes its beginnings to miners and homesteaders. Warren and Eliza Craig filed a gold claim in 1886 and built a small log cabin on the current town site. Next came a post office and then the Montana Central Railway providing freight and passenger rail service between Helena and Great Falls.
The devastating 1908 flood wiped out most of the town. Its 25-foot floodwall toppled the iconic water tower that had fed the steam engines and then floodwaters scoured the rails off the rim of the river. Regular rail service between Helena and Great Falls ceased afterwards, awaiting new trackage. Most folks left. Some stayed. With time, the railbed was rebuilt through Craig and the construction of the Holter dam provided some jobs. Eventually, a new life emerged for the little village by the river, drawing fly fishermen from all over.
Today, the rusty rails are no longer in use. “Haven’t seen a train on ‘em in about 10 years,” said one of the bartenders at the Craig Bar. “Once they tried to park miles of empty boxcars there that blocked the view and weren’t very scenic. We put a stop to that.”
Locals are pretty sensitive to the river corridor values of clean viewsheds and clean waters, and with good reason. Water is a lifeline to those who call it home. Even though Craig is not an incorporated town, there’s a three percent “resort tax” here. But don’t look for curbs, gutters, paved streets or ornate street lamps. It’s all targeted for a new $1.1 million sewer system to replace a collection of hodgepodge septic tanks perched on a high water table. Nothing sexy or glitzy for Craig. It is still the classic trout bum town along the Montana lines of Ennis or Livingston … just smaller.
“There’s only 30 of us who live here,” observed an employee at The Trout Shop, one of the three licensed outfitter businesses in town. “The Shop” and the nearby Headhunters Fly Shop refer clients to a host of local guides eager to launch boats, catch huge fish and put happy faces on fishermen.
Judging by the out-of-state license plates outside of “The Shop,” Craig does not have to worry about lack of rail service anymore. It’s the 6,035 rainbow and 500 brown trout of catchable fish per mile that draw visitors here from all over the world. Chris Goodman should know. He’s been operating “The Shop” for 24 years. He points out that Craig is at the epicenter of the upper Missouri fishery. Its adjacency to Interstate 15, the outflow of Holter Dam, the bridge connecting the scenic old highway, along with Craig’s proximity to Great Falls and Helena with their commercial airport, makes it accessible. And the fishing makes Craig legendary.
Chris hired fellow sewer board member Mary Cronenwett after lamenting that he couldn’t find steady help at his shop. She stepped up and now does a little of everything: housekeeping, making deli sandwiches, booking trips, shuttling clients and trailers, cleaning boats. She and her husband live off the grid upstream, outside of Wolf Creek, raising four sons. Chris keeps four permanent employees on staff and hires about 27 seasonals to augment his operation from April to October. It’s the way that residents up and down the river earn their keep and shape their lives.
Mike Kuhnert guides here. His business card reads “Evolution Fly Fishing” and sports an image of an ape evolving into a prehistoric man and then a fly fisherman. Sunburned, slender and engaging, he’s been at it for eight years, arriving in Craig via San Francisco and Minnesota. “I stumbled onto a premier engineering program at Montana State when I was 19 and made it to my senior year. Dropped out and came here. I can do this year ‘round, and in the off-season this whole river is my playground. We’ll go out just as long as it’s not 30 below.”
His Suburban is always hooked up to his embattled Adipose drift boat, where he’s attached chunks of old carpet adjacent to the seats that hold hundreds of flies of all patterns. No tackle box needed here. Same as others here, he hires out with local outfitters, freelances, trolls for clients like cabbies in search of fares. Hooked fish equal tips. Truth is, guiding is de rigueur on these waters.
Sure, wade-fishing locals from Great Falls and the surrounding area know the waters and have success, but these fish are finicky. There is lots of science here. No dumb-luck fishing allowed among the faithful fly-throwing crowd. There’s weather, tackle (lots of it), topography, light and shadows, skill (lots of it, again) and bugs … bazillions of ‘em. The rich nutrients of the cold tailwaters issuing forth from the bottom of Holter Dam create a smorgasbord of feed for fussy fish. Midge, mayflies and caddis hatches litter the surface, making everything about the size, shape and presentation such a champagne art here. “Boat” a trout here and you’ve been judged by a strong critic. They’ve seen every pretender and presentation.
Down the street, at Izaak’s restaurant, Janet waits tables with a quick smile and easy way. She came to Montana from Seattle, settled into a steady job in Helena and commutes to Craig twice a week to earn extra money in the evenings. At the end of the summer season, she’s headed to Bend, Ore., for a fresh start. “Poverty with a view, you know,” she said, referring to Montana’s quirky economy. Craig is not for everybody.
So far, though, it has been for owner and chef John Winders who bought the restaurant two years ago through Craigslist. “I’ve lived in 26 different states,” he said. “I’m a chef with a fly fishing problem.” He buys much of his food items locally from ranchers, Hutterite colonies and gardeners, believing in supporting a strong Montana economy whenever he can. His barbecue rib recipe is a secret, and during the high season, the restaurant is packed. “Trouble with the restaurant business is that you are the owner every single day.” Izaak’s is closed January, February and March each year to allow for repairs and time away for John to, well, fly fish in New Zealand.
At the Craig Bar, aka Joe’s Bar, locals often take turns serving beer. Today’s customer may be tomorrow’s bartender in a true sense of pitch-in community spirit. And the till and the inventory always come out right. A prominent sign inside the door reads “Per Joe, NO MORE dogs allowed in the Craig Bar. Dog gone.” Though nearby, three dogs are lying on the floor or hunkered in next to a few locals, taking up what the canines regard as their rightful place in the bar. There’s a certain rhythm here … the true laid-back soul of Montana.
Outside, lying in the dust, the town mayor, Gracie, struggles to get to her feet. The larger-than-life St. Bernard sports a dirty cast on her rear leg and slowly limps off down the street. Someone backed over her in a parking lot recently, resulting in pins and screws and rods and lots of vet bills. “Well, she’s big and slow, you know,” commented Gail Johnson at the Craig Bar. “Couldn’t get out of the way quick enough.” She explained that residents have scheduled a fundraiser to help the owner with Gracie’s expenses.
Just down the road near the Fish Wildlife and Parks campground and boat launch, Mike Crawford and friends set up camp on a small private lot fronting the river. They gather here as often as time and work allow, to track down the Missouri’s infamous trout. “We’re from Bozeman and we’ve been ‘squatting’ this lot from some friends who’ve let us camp here for many years. It’s as much about the fun and friendship as the fish,” he said. “One year we had a fire going in the fire ring and we threw in a can of pork and beans and forgot to vent it. When it exploded it blew out the whole fire. I mean completely gone! Moments later the can finally splashed down somewhere out in the river and I was covered in hot beans. Thought I’d lost the sight in my left eye. I mean, we’re all MSU graduates. Engineers, you know? We took ‘thermo,’ right?”
Such war stories, lies and fishing lore are legion in Craig, Montana. Mike and his friends will readily remind you that a trout is the only thing that actually gets bigger after it is dead.