Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

windingAs I write, it’s late September in SW Montana and the leaves are beginning to turn. Rivers are still low from the summer heat and irrigation demands. Yet they are cooling and the bigger browns are beginning to turn into butter yellow specimens preparing for the spawn. Low water and higher temps of the summer have kept some rivers off limits. Our Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks isn’t capricious and its rules as when to close and open stretches of any given river are well documented and adhered to. They do a good job of protecting the trout from the stresses of summer when warranted. As such, one of my favorite stretches of the Big Hole River remained closed to all angling as I headed out on this late September morning. But all was not lost, I was headed to one of the most scenic and idealistic stretches of the Big Hole River—Notch Bottom. It may be one of the most beautiful stretches of Montana trout stream there is.

trucksmountainsThe road to Notch Bottom is aptly named—The Burma Road. It runs some 20+ miles from Pennington Bridge just south of Twin Bridges, Montana to Glen. Unlike the majority of the Big Hole where a paved state highway or interstate closely parallels the river, the Burma Road is 20 miles of potential treachery. Although it parallels the river, it hangs on the edges of steep, rocky benches that surround the Big Hole and cottonwood studded river bottom. Although there are a few large ranches and vacation homes in the stretch from Pennington to Glen, this is a remote dirtroadroad with little traffic, especially on late September Sunday mornings. Of course the real Burma Road between Burma and Southwest China was made famous in WWII as this quote suggests: “described the roads as being so steep, treacherous and narrow that if one of the vehicles became disabled they would have to push it over the cliffs so that the other vehicles could pass.” To get to Notch Bottom, one must travel the Burma road (the Montana version)—either from Glen or Pennington Bridge. In places, this is one of those rocky, narrow and windy roads that gets extremely slick with greasy mud with just a hint of rain or heavy fog. If there’s a chance of rain, driving the Burma Road is not a wise decision. However, on this particular Sunday morning, the trip to Notch Bottom was dry and spectacular.

The access site at Notch Bottom marked the end of open water on the Big Hole this day. Everything downstream to the Beaverhead River was still closed. Although conditions weren’t ideal for a banner day on the water—bright sunshine and low water—the scenery more than made the trip worthwhile. When you drive from Pennington Bridge to Notch Bottom, the Burma road sits above the valley at the edge of the dry, sagebrush hills at the base of Block and McCarthy Mountain in the foothills of the Highland Mountains. On one side is lush grass, willow and cottonwoods. On the other sparse dry sage, cactus and rock with the occasional scrawny juniper pock marking the terrain. The contrast is stark. The dirt here is fine and useless and turns to greasy mud at any hint of moisture. Within five miles of Notch Bottom, the namesake notch makes its presence known on the horizon. Unmistakable, the notch on the horizon is my destination.

kayakArriving at the put-in I find it deserted. It’s another ten miles upriver to the Glen put in so it’s unlikely I’ll see another angler on the river this morning. It’s a typical early fall morning. Not yet frosty, but cold enough to warrant long johns and a warm jacket which must be shed within hours as the sun warms the fall morning. The Notch shields the river from the early morning sun, but upriver and down the sun warms the horizon. I haven’t fished this stretch of river since 2005 when I took a float from Glen to Notch Bottom. This meant that today, I was on completely new water. I had to explore and be patient as I really didn’t know where I’d find the fish. There’s not much braiding in the first mile or so upriver and lots of shallow riffles. In the low water, the fish were either going to be deep in the big pools or tight at the head of the deeper riffles and runs where the most oxygen could be found. As the morning progressed, a sufficient number of fish were located. Mostly smaller browns but several large butter yellow browns came out of the pools and two brightly colored and aerial inclined rainbows failed to escape my offerings at the head of a riffle. There was little hatch activity. Just a few blue wings, but never enough to generate interest from the fish. It was just too bright a day and the shallow, clear water resulted in more chasing than biting.

mooseI was on the water at 7:30AM, just about official sunrise, and fished until noon. I estimate I had made it approximately 1.5 miles upriver. But finding and fishing all the good water over that distance in new territory takes some patience. When I turned around and floated back, the sun was high in the sky with few if any clouds to dim its impact of the river. The float back didn’t take long and I captured a bit of it on video. (Notch Bottom Float). As I approached the takeout, I was greeted with somewhat of a surprise by a bull moose resting along the shoreline. I was floating just a few yards from the shore as he rose from his nap to say hello. He cooperated for a few photos and within minutes I was back at Notch Bottom to get ready for the trip home. I had ten miles of The Burma Road to get back to Pennington Bridge and smoother sailing to Twin Bridges and home. There are better places to fish on the Big Hole, but none more picturesque than Notch Bottom and the road to get there.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article, including the stunning photos.

    And what a relief! All these years I thought “Notch Bottom” was some cantankerous old prospector who’d sat on his pickaxe once too often.

    – Mike

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