East Gallatin Breach 2009
East Gallatin Breach 2009

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

The very first time I fished the East Gallatin River (2005) during a trip to Bozeman, I broke a fly rod on a large rainbow at the mouth of a very large oxbow. Although at the time I didn’t realize exactly where I was on the river, it turns out the oxbow marked about the half-way point in a 7.5 mile section I would routinely float in later years. It became a convenient landmark to rendezvous with fellow floaters on the long float. Once I started floating the entire length of this section (completely surrounded by private land), I became intimately familiar with the river at water level but oblivious to the surrounding scrub and farmland which was obscured by high banks, grass and willows. There was a spot probably 5 miles into the float where the river took a sharp 90 degree turn and created a very productive pool. Somewhere in the turn there was always the sound of flowing water entering the river. Since the Gallatin Valley is just loaded with spring creeks, I always thought that’s what we were hearing, a small spring creek entering the river. Those thoughts proved wrong when I made my first float in 2009. The spot was actually a breach in a very narrow (2-4 feet) isthmus created as the river made almost a 360 degree circle over the course of a quarter mile. You could now barely float through the breach which revealed about a two foot differential in river height but there remained sufficient flow in the big circle section.

East Gallatin Breach 2014
East Gallatin Breach 2014
The creation of an oxbow
The creation of an oxbow

Fast forward a few years. Every year the breach got a bit bigger but the big circle section still took about 20-40% of the flow and was a very productive stretch of river until 2014. I didn’t get on the East Gallatin in 2014 until after runoff so when I reached the breach fishing upstream from the put in on that early July morning I was astonished to find that it had completely blown out leaving the big circle section high and dry. The amount of gravel, sand and silt that filled the first third of what was now an oxbow was impressive. At least four feet of stuff was now covering the old river bottom. Within months it was covered with vegetation–grasses, weeds and young willows. The lower end of the big circle was now swampy backwater. The pool below the breach was now much deeper, longer and fished completely differently than it had in years before–new waters on an old river.

Left channel, a beautiful stretch of the Big Hole that is no longer
Left channel, a beautiful stretch of the Big Hole that is no longer

I had a similar but more dramatic experience on the lower Big Hole River in 2014 as well. Unlike the East Gallatin, the lower Big Hole flows through classic Cottonwood bottomland. The river is littered with cottonwoods that have succumbed to the flows over the years. I didn’t start fishing this particular section until the summer of 2011. Less than a quarter mile upstream from the put in, a nice channel entered the main river on the left. A bit farther up, another nice channel entered the river on the right. These channels carried enough water to hold good fish but were small enough to fish like small creeks. Just above that, the main channel was completely blocked with a very large log jam. Whether going up or downstream, it required a portage of about 150 feet to bypass. Both the left and right hand channels departed the main channel about a half mile upstream where another log jam completely blocked the flow and forced a portage to bypass. From my point of view, these log jams were a good thing as they severely deterred the drift boaters from floating this section of the river. My kayak was advantageous here. The left channel was a joy to fish as it held some really deep pools, great riffle corners and undercut banks. The main channel just above the jams was deep and always held big browns. So as I went to fish the Big Hole this year, I was surprised to find both jams blown out, completely pushed aside. Where the river once twisted and turned through and around the jams spilling water into side channels, it now flowed straight. The two side channels are now dried up. Once, not long ago, the right channel was the main channel and the main channel non-existent. At the upstream end of the left hand channel, the amount of rock and gravel that accumulated is impressive. Now, for about a half mile, the Big Hole I started learning and fishing in 2011 is a completely new river, a river that didn’t exist just eight years ago.

As I started going back through photos I had taken and old aerial photography on the internet I began to wonder about that first oxbow on the East Gallatin where I broke the rod in 2005. One always thinks that terrain features like that take 100s of years to form. They’ve just always been there. But such was not the case. Old aerials revealed that sometime between 2001 and 2005, the same thing happened. The isthmus of a big circle section breached and the upper end of the circle filled with new land. Within months, that new land had grass and willows sprouting. Within a year it probably looked like it had been there for a century.

If you fish the same piece of water over and over again. If you spend too much time on the same stretch of river, pounding the same lies, it can get a bit boring. When nature goes to work, old honey holes disappear while new ones emerge. Although the anticipation of the next fish from that favorite spot never goes away, it is fun when nature steps in every once and a while to surprise you with new challenges to fish on old rivers.

Images of the East Gallatin Oxbows

Oxbow 2009
Oxbow 2009
Oxbow 2014
Oxbow 2014

The Oxbow I encountered in 2005 - In 2001 the river went through the 360 degree turn

The Oxbow I encountered in 2005 – In 2001 the river went through the 360 degree turn

Images of the Big Hole Log Jam (2012-14)

2013 Aerial of log jam
2013 Aerial of log jam
Downstream view in 2014
Downstream view in 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

cline nature log 3
2014 Massive amount of gravel fills upstream end of old left hand channel which is now dry

cline nature log 4

 

Site of future log jam in 2006 and strong left channel

Site of future log jam in 2006 and strong left channel

 

 

2014 after log jam blows out and left channel is filled with rock and gravel
2014 after log jam blows out and left channel is filled with rock and gravel

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