If you come to a certain bend in the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek on a summer morning, you’ll glimpse the rhapsody of these waters.
“At about 10 o’clock, when the sun’s coming up to the east, it shines down through this curve,” Jerry O’Connell explains, animating the scene with his hands.
“The sun moves around with the curve and it lights up those rocks on the other side. The shade and the trees and the textures ... they’re just gorgeous.”
O’Connell is founder and executive director of the Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper and has lived a few miles upstream of this stretch for more than 20 years. He has a pretty good idea of what it was that captivated the Macleans – Norman, his brother Paul and their father John – all those years ago, and what prompted Norman to set the culminating scene of “A River Runs Through It” (the book) here when he wrote about it in the 1970s.
Somewhere near here, Paul caught the last fish the men of his family ever saw him catch. Norman described the scene in beautiful detail in the novella’s climactic scene.
He started by comparing the boulders on the flat that were shaped by the most recent ice age to the much older rocks in the cliff across the river.
“The red and green precambrian rocks beside the blue water were almost from the basement of the world and time,” Norman Maclean wrote.
“My dad and George Croonenberghs tried to find this spot one time, but were unable to nail it down to an exact hole,” says John Maclean, Norman’s son. “They came close – there’s a campground three-quarters of a mile above the end of the flat (Ninemile Prairie) and there’s lots of water along there where the scene could have taken place. But if the author and his oldest friend couldn’t locate the exact hole, you and I aren’t going to do better.”
Fair enough. But the search is half the fun.
Norman Maclean built his timeless story of family, fly-fishing and of Paul’s murder – 75 years ago this month on May 2, 1938 – around four fishing scenes, three of them on the Big Blackfoot. Maclean spent a career teaching English literature at the University of Chicago. He returned each summer, including the fateful summer of ’37, to the family cabin on the west shore of Seeley Lake that he’d helped his father build in the early ’20s.
He fished the Blackfoot until he was unable. Maclean died at age 87 in 1990, two years before the movie based on his book came out but after he’d sold the rights to produce it to Robert Redford.
The Blackfoot River scenes were filmed elsewhere, to the chagrin of many. But Norman Maclean almost certainly had specific spots on his favorite river in mind when he wrote “A River Runs Through It.” They’re separated by 15 to 18 river miles and are accessible to the public.
Blackfoot Scene 1: Above the Clearwater Bridge
“The canyon above the old Clearwater Bridge is where the Blackfoot roars loudest,” Maclean wrote.
It’s a newer span, but the bridge where Sunset Hill Road crosses the Blackfoot remains. It’s roughly three miles south of Montana Highway 200, just west of its junction with Montana Highway 83 at Clearwater Junction. There’s even a designated parking lot and an outhouse.
This was no place for small fish or small fisherman, Maclean said. “Even the roar adds power to the fish or at least intimidates the fisherman.”
Norman and Paul, both in their 30s in the book (11 years younger in the movie), drove over Rogers Pass from Wolf Creek on a late summer day – huckleberry picking time – to steel themselves for another fishing trip with the family of Norman’s wife Jessie the following day on Elkhorn Creek north of Helena.
Norman caught a big fish, “so I sat down to watch a fisherman.”
He described Paul’s unique “shadow casting” technique from a chunk of cliff that parted the river.
“The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors,” he wrote.
Today, landowners permit river access on a trail that stretches a mile up from the bridge. It parallels a gated road that ends farther upstream at a private residence.
“It used to be Cahoon’s place, and we called it Cahoon’s Canyon,” said John Maclean, an acclaimed author and fly fisherman himself.
John was named for his grandfather, the Rev. John Maclean, a Presbyterian minister when Norman and Paul were growing up in Missoula. The Reverend and Clara Maclean were back living in Missoula in 1937 when most of “A River Runs Through It” was set.
Like his father before him, John Maclean spends part of each year at the Seeley Lake cabin that he and his sister, Jean Snyder of Chicago, still own. There he constructs his down time around fishing the lake and the Blackfoot River.
Norman Maclean once called his son “one of the finest fisherman, I’m sure, of his generation.”
Blackfoot Scene 2: The head of Blanchard Flats
This was the “sunburn” scene involving Norman, Paul, Norman’s maddening brother-in-law Neal and the loose woman he referred to as Old Rawhide.
They’d driven from the cabin at Seeley Lake, arriving at the river in the hot afternoon.
“We left the main road at the head of the flats and bumped over glacial remains until we came to a big fork in the river with ponderosa pines beside it where we could park our car in the shade,” Norman wrote. “In the middle of the river where it had forked was a long sand bar.”
In his story, Norman and his brother left a drunk Neal and Old Rawhide at the car to fish downstream. They sank two cans of beer in each of the first four holes. On their return they discovered the beers gone and Neal and Old Rawhide sleeping, naked and burnt red, on a sandbar in the middle of the river.
This location is the most disputed of the three. A popular theory has it as high upstream as Box Canyon above Scotty Brown Bridge. Both Maclean and O’Connell disagree with that.
But was it at a large island just above Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Russell Gates Memorial river access site and campground at Sperry Grade? Was it farther down the river on Clearwater State Forest land, below the Clearwater Unit of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation? Or even farther, in a walk-in area below the pilings of the former Bear Creek Bridge?
The Russell Gates/Sperry Grade location at the Missoula-Powell county line has some history with the Maclean family. The old Sperry house still stands on the north side of Highway 200, John said.
“My grandfather, the Rev. Maclean, performed the marriages of the three Sperry girls in that house, according to legend. But the fishing spot doesn’t have to be Sperry’s, and now that I read the description from ‘A River’ I don’t think it is.”
He leans toward the Bear Creek Bridge location, in part because you would have had to “bump over glacial remains” in a car to get there.
“You could in those days drive to nearly the head of (Cahoon) canyon,” John Maclean went on. “You can walk there now, and I often do this to fish. It can be spectacular fishing. It’s only a couple of holes above what we called the Big Bend, which is the start of the canyon and easily identifiable to this day.”
The most likely “fork” in this stretch is upstream, at the large island above Russell Gates. O’Connell said he favors that site, as do “several old locals and Norman’s grandson Noah (Snyder),” whom O’Connell met and befriended a few years ago when Snyder asked to fish in front of his home.
Blackfoot Scene 3: Ninemile Prairie/above the mouth of Belmont Creek
Norman was driving. He and Paul and their father were coming from Missoula. They turned at “the side road going to the river above the mouth of Belmont Creek.”
The road took them down Ninemile Prairie, “a flat covered with ground boulders and cheat grass. The flat ended suddenly and the river was down a steep bank, blinking silver through the trees and then turning to blue by comparing itself to a red and green cliff.”
If you turn off Highway 200 on the Ninemile Prairie Road at Roundup Bridge (milepost 26.7), you can go the length of the flat, but you can’t drive to where it ends. The road takes to the mountainside not long after passing FWP’s Corrick River Bend campground and another fishing access site.
It’s a short, steep climb down the hill or a longer, easy walk from a parking lot at Belmont Creek. But you’ll catch yourself looking for the most likely angle high on the bank where Norman and his father sat to watch Paul catch one last feisty trout.
It was a hole the Rev. Maclean had already fished, three down from the distinctive red and green cliff, according to the story. The elder Maclean plunked a rock in the river to thwart Paul, with no success, then watched with Norman in admiration as his youngest son swam across the river with his catch and charged laughing up the bank to them.
“On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines,” Norman Maclean wrote. “In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.”
Three-quarters of a century later, that’s still how it is, O’Connell said. And it’s still good fishing here.
“But even if it isn’t, just the morning light and the quiet river and the gentle sounds – they all fit perfectly here.”
As a man once indicated, it’s easy to be haunted by these waters.