Guest Blogger: Mke Cline, Bozeman, MT

Good Cover and Fast Water - Brown Trout Heaven
Good Cover and Fast Water – Brown Trout Heaven

The Blue Ribbon Big Hole is certainly one of the top ten rivers to fish in southwest Montana. It experiences good, consistent Salmon fly hatches every year in June that draw a lot of out of state anglers.

At 154 miles long, the river flows through a breathtaking upper valley (the Big Hole), a rambunctious canyon section that transects the northern extent of the rugged Pioneer Mountains and a lonely and dry Cottonwood bottom. The middle reaches just above and through the canyon are the most popular sections for both wading and floating anglers.

Just north of Twin Bridges, Montana the river meets the Beaverhead to form the Jefferson River, one of Lewis and Clark’s “Three Forks of the Missouri”. The river is also notable as the last stronghold of the Montana Artic Grayling which sustains a reasonable population in the upper sections of the river. Apart from the grayling, the upper Big Hole also holds a good population of large brook trout introduced early in the 20th century. But if one were to characterize the fishery with one trout, it would be the brown trout. Brown’s outnumber rainbows at least 10:1 and I’ve seen estimates of 500-1000 browns per mile. The section I would fish on this early July morning would represent classic freestone brown trout water—fast, clear, cobble bottom, lots of insects and baitfish and above all, lots of cover.

The Big Hole historically suffered from irrigation demands and livestock damage. Help came in 1988 when Big Hole River Foundation was founded by noted Montana conservationist, angler, and fly tier George F. Grant. Through a great many initiatives, the foundation along with anglers, environmentalists, ranchers, and government agencies has helped restore the Big Hole and ensure a sustainable fishery into the future. One of those initiatives is the Big Hole Watershed Committee.

I would experience a bit of their work on my trip today. Mandatory “Hoot Owl” closures went into effect on sections of the Big Hole and a few other Montana rivers because of low water and high afternoon water temperatures. I couldn’t fish from 2PM to midnight. No big deal as I am on the water at dawn and generally exhausted by noon. The “Mandatory” part comes from consensus agreements made by angler and environmental groups, ranchers and fish and game agencies to adopt restrictions when adverse conditions impact the river. The T-bone steak my wife and I shared the night before this trip manifests one of the realities of Montana’s rivers—cattle require year round feed and Montana ranchers have to irrigate 1000s of acres of hay and such to put away enough feed for the year. “Mandatory” restrictions also forced reductions of irrigation water withdrawals by ranchers in the watershed.

Day Trip Lower 2But on this early July morning, the section I would fish was running clear, cool and with more than enough flow ~500 CFS to challenge my upstream wading and kayak skills. I was about 7 miles upstream (as the Magpie flies) from the mouth of the river. In August 1805 William Clark, through some miscommunication with Lewis, took his small team up the Big Hole instead of the Beaverhead. Downed cottonwoods made upstream travel extremely treacherous and Clark abandoned the Big Hole less than a mile in. The lower Big Hole is a very difficult float in mid-summer. I would see evidence of that type of difficulty on this trip. As I made the early morning drive to Twin Bridges I was constantly on the lookout for deer attempting to commit suicide after a successful attempt a few weeks earlier put my pickup in repairs for a few days. As always at dawn in hay country, there were the usual close encounters with whitetails unexpectedly bouncing across the road for greener pastures.

At the put-in I was happy to see the river in fine shape, running clear and cool but not too cold for a day of wet wading. In less than ten minutes I had the kayak loaded, in the water and with it tethered to my waist, I headed upstream as the sun crept over the horizon. In this prime brown trout water, the low light conditions would make chucking streamers into fast, dark seams the most productive way to pull out some big fish. I’d wade up to the head of pools and runs then swing the streamer using a fast 6wgt and 200 grain sink tip through the best lies. I can get great distance with this setup and if there’s room for a back cast, deep wading isn’t required to reach the opposite side of the river. The nymphal husks of evening stones littered streamside rocks. PMDs, Yellow sallies and caddis were flying about all morning and generating the occasional rise. Whitefish fry and sculpin were common sights in areas of shallow, still water. This is a food rich river.

Waiting Patiently for his Portrait
Waiting Patiently for his Portrait

The fishing was productive for 12-18” browns which I consistently found in the fastest sections adjacent to deep banks and at the head of pools.  I caught fish consistently for 6 hours and never saw another angler sharing the river only with Ospreys and Golden Eagles. In the spring, before runoff and the prolific insect hatches, these same fish hold in the slower pool water which warms too much by mid-summer for their comfort. With a pinched down barb on the #6 streamer it was easy to release fish and I avoided the stress of trying to photograph any of my quarry one handed while still on the hook. One 18 incher was kind enough to hang around at my feet long enough for a quick underwater shot. I am always amazed how long a large fish will stay stationary while recovering from the fight (which is always short when using 0X tippet) as long as you don’t make any sudden movements or cast a shadow over the fish.

I made it about 2.5 miles upstream before it was time to head back. I had tentatively targeted noon to turn around as well as when I reached a familiar point in the river. As I moved upstream, I found more changes in the river after runoff. A few log jams had adjusted themselves, a once productive side channel was now blocked by a huge log and a few mid-stream downed trees were slowly altering the course of the flow. Of course none of this affects the fishing, just the ability to navigate upstream safely.

Next Year's Logjam??
Next Year’s Logjam??

There was clearly one new event in this section that will alter the stream for years to come. A very large cottonwood, whose roots had for years provided deep cover in a very productive run, had collapsed into the river. At 500CFS, there was less than 10 feet of shallow water in which to bypass it. As the flows drop, this section will become impassible to drift boats. What remains to be seen will be the effect it has on the river during future runoff seasons. Will it accumulate more logs and drift, blocking the river completely and diverting water into new channels or will it be pushed aside to become deep cover along the edge of the pool?  Only time will tell. Before heading back I collected few sprigs of the native American Wild mint, Mentha Canadensis which grows prolifically on the Big Hole gravel bars for some Big Hole mojitos when I returned home.

Wet wading in warm weather has a lot of advantages. Number one, it’s cool and refreshing and as the air temps rise into the 80s, I am comfortable standing waist deep in the river. On return to the put-in, there’s no messing with waders, just a quick change into dry socks and I am off for home. If I am in Twin Bridges at lunch time, I don’t hesitate to stop by The Shack for a quick beer and burger before heading back to Bozeman. Unfortunately even though I am wearing quick drying pants and shirt, I don’t really dry out during the short ride into Twin Bridges. I must look like a bedraggled old man, face sunburned, shirt spotted with fish poop and pants that look like I didn’t make it to the head in time. Oh well, this is Twin Bridges, Montana—a fly fishing town—they will understand.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Mike,
    Nice account. Sounds like loads of fun. I am with you on not seeing other anglers. Solitude is hard to come by these days.
    What flies did you use during the outing. I am guessing you had to switch several times to get consistent action.
    Keep up the good work.
    Joe Dellaria

  2. I am not really a fly changer. Although I carry a lot of flies with me (I tie so many I’d be remiss if I didn’t show them the light of day), I generally stick with just one pattern–my pine squirrel buggers. They’ve been so effective, the only time I tie on a new streamer is when I’ve broken one off. I almost always carry a second rod in the kayak rigged with a hopper and that get’s used in selected spots on the river, but for the most part my modus operandi in rivers with the fish densities we have is to keep my fly, whatever it might be, in the water and in front of fish.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks! The way you set up the story, I was expecting to hear about catching fish on salmon flies. It sounds like you don’t use a dropper fly – have you tried that? Assuming you don’t use a dropper, I suspect you have a good reason for not using one. Could you share your rationale?
      Thanks again for a fun article.
      Joe

  3. Joe,
    Why, no dropper. Well, I am really fond of throwing streamers and in this part of the Big Hole in August the water is low enough to allow effective casts the entire width of the river. The Big Hole, even at ~500 CFS is a challenging river to wade safely. Other than on the edges, there are a not lot of places mid-stream where you can leisurely stand/wade and fish. You have to make long casts into tight quarters. And on these Cottonwood bottom streams, in mid-summer, the best fish are holding tight along deep, stream-side structure with fast current or in the lips and/or tail-outs of deep holes. Most of the really good holes are out of reach for effective nymph fishing by a wading angler without pushing the safety limits of wading. Even floaters don’t do as well with nymphs because of the tight quarters and lots of obstructions. When I’ve watched them, most are missing the best water by yards to avoid getting hung up. When I am using my 150-200 grain sink tips on the five or six weight, reaching the best water from a comfortable and safe wading position is easy and effective and the bigger flies on short 1X/0X tippets rarely get hung up. Another reason is whitefish. Although I catch my fair share on streamers, using small nymphs is an invitation to be constantly taking a whitefish off your hook instead of a trout.
    A lot of folks fish hoppers mid-summer with some sort of nymph dropper. But there again, having that extra fly limits your ability to toss the hopper into tight quarters and raises the probability of catching a whitefish instead of a trout.

    My Orvis Superfine Trout Bum 7.5’ 4 weight in tip flex has proven to be a great rod for tossing hoppers accurately at distance, into tight quarters—no dropper required.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks, that was helpful. I figured you had a good reason – and wanted to take advantage of your experience.

      Tight lines and wishes for more fish,
      Joe

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