It’s been a great week on the Big Hole for the mid June happenings: Salmonflies and Goldens rushed through the river and belted off tremendous hatches, making for excellent fishing throughout the week. Some days were pretty slammed with boats-I must have seen 60 last Saturday on Divide to Melrose-but there’s plenty of good fishing for those in the know. Most boats are playing Hank Williams Jr. on a D battery boom box and chucking Rapalas and spoons so really no threat there. Just smile and wave and hope they chuck you a beer while we get down to business with the sneaky dry flies.
I ran this week for the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River, guiding new guests to the lodge and showing them the best of the river. We fished approximately 60 miles of the Big Hole: from the upper water at East Bank to the lower end at the Notch Bottom, the river entirely different at each end. The week started strong on Salmonflies and Goldens, but eventually I had to resort to the sneaky stuff to really find the fish.
Sometimes our hatches get a bit played out, to say the least. Guides start hucking Salmon bugs weeks before the hatch-I am guilty-and the fish are pretty much hook shy by the time the ol’ hatch comes around. Well, throw it while you can, and when it’s not working, go smaller. Then smaller again. Until you start finding bugs the fish will take vigorously, as well as searching out water not being hit heavily. There’s a bit of guide knowledge not to be taken lightly! Look where people are NOT fishing, or at least not fishing well. Heavy water, strong insides, deep under willows, and back channels are all places not overfished. Keep searching; the fish are feeding somewhere on something you have in your flybox!
Long distance runner, what you standin’ there for? Get up get out, get out of the door. Your playin’ cold music on the barroom floor. Drowned in your laughter and dead to the core. There’s a dragon with matches that’s loose on the town, Takes a whole pail of water just to cool him down. Fire! Fire on the mountain! Fly fishing and the Dead go hand in hand. Nothing to fire up the browns, or especially the Steel, with a little Jerry and Bob. Fishing the Big Hole recently with the “Boys”-Chris, Stu, Greg, and the legendary Gartho- we found some inspiration through Jerry’s music to power onward through the cold and stick with the plan to find some good fish.
With a predicted high temp of 48 degrees, and that weatherman was spot on, our crew of five ran about eight miles of the most famous stretches on the Big Hole. Tough fishing in the morning was inevitable with the temp so low, so we just kept on plugging away in the likely runs until things started to turn our way. Sometime around one o’clock, ol’ Jerry started smiling our way and the Big Hole went from a desolate wasteland to a lights out fishery with Baetis and March Browns exploding off the water. The trout began to rise, making for solid dry fly takes, and our nymphs were inhaled just as quickly, bringing up multiple browns in the 18 inch class. Greg, our newbie guest on this excursion, showed us veterans how it is done by hanging fish on every turn. When the river was on a lull, Greg just kept plugging away patiently, pulling big browns from seemingly endless lies.
The Big Hole is on right now. Our Bitterroot is fluctuating quite a bit with runoff, making for tricky fishing, while the Big Hole remains unfazed. The higher elevation of that river keeps runoff at bay much longer than the Bitterroot, keeping water flows to a minimum. Any of you fishing with us during the months of May and early June have quite a good shot at hitting the Big Hole for early season prime time. Big browns are on the prowl, and the water is perfect. Hatch times are around one o’clock and wrap up around four for chasing the dry fly. Nymphs are always a good option, just ask Greg. See you all again on the water.
While the Bitterroot River is up and pretty much unfishable, we took a drive over Lost Trail Pass to search out some fishy water on the upper Big Hole. Unlike many freestone rivers, when the Big Hole is up it remains quite fishable on its upper reaches. With meadows and rolling pine hills surrounding the river for the upper forty miles or so, the runoff comes peacefully down the drainage until the eventual canyons at Wise River and Divide.
Pulling up early in the morning after a dawn departure from the flooded Bitterroot, we were pretty stoked to see the river meandering along just like always. The tea colored waters had risen a foot in the last few days, but we only knew from looking at the USGS hydrograph as the change was almost imperceptible to the eye.
Buggers, streamers, and nymph rigs were the choice of the day; little dry fly activity was expected though March Browns hatched well in the afternoon, bringing up a few little risers. We found good consistent fishing from noon onward, almost entirely on nymphs. The streamer game just never played for us even though we gave it our best for the sixteen miles we floated. Some recent photos have us jonesing for a big brown, and I mean a big boy like the one our Hamilton High School principle just caught. Fish like this one will keep you coming back to the Big Hole.
“8:00 am, Wise River Club, definitely bring waders. When you get into Wise, I’ll be in the blue Dodge diesel with a blue NRS parked at the bar. There’s two bars but only one surviving at the present so I shouldn’t be hard to find.” These meeting instructions have been muttered from my lips countless times in the past ten years and nobody has ever screwed them up. And when I’m telling this to two ex Army Rangers I know they will be precisely where I’ve determined and not a second late. They actually beat me there, ten minutes early, which is to be expected from guys of this caliber.
Throwing in the upper Big Hole as the first boat on a rainy morning got my blood pumping fast. These guys can fish and handle weather, and probably most anything myself or mother nature can throw at them, so I’ve got myself some good sticks for this one. And sure enough, bam!, big browns right out of the gate to get these guys pumped to fish hard for me today. Busting ass through rain, wind, cold, and altogether rotten weather conditions, my fishermen held in there to fish a long hard day with me barking casting and mending orders on every bank and slip stream.
Sometimes buggers, sometimes drys, never really nymphing, we put together one hell of a day on our fourteen mile journey down the Big Hole. Fishing slowed considerably during the afternoon, but just when I’d get desperate some PMDs or drakes came to save me from the slump and bring a few trout up to the surface. Nothing like a heavy overcast and some bad weather to get the bugs and fish going for the weary fisherman out there toughing it out. When those clouds dip low and dark and cold drizzle fills the skies, line up the six weight and wader up cause this might just be that day when things are gonna bust loose.
An early morning phone call sent me packing: Slim wants to go fishing. One should never pass up an opportunity such as this, especially when the Big Hole is at prime flows for finding big browns on the upper river. This guy and I go way, way back, and his knowledge of this famous river is second to none: every bank, boulder, inside turn, and mid river riff have a story. Twenty years of doing this stuff and one can pinpoint a memory to a single orange rock two feet under the tea stained water. As of today, I have my own rock that is branded into my mind forever.
Right off the bat, pulling out from the put in, an absolute toad destroyed my streamer on the third cast of the day behind said rock. I mean he straight pounded that bug, coming well out of the boiling water tight behind the boulder. And I missed him miserably. That one really stung. Fortunately, the fish were charging hard and giving me plenty of chances. After landing this nice brown merely one hundred yards later (which was dwarfed by the fish I missed. weep), I switched from fishing to rowing and watched Slim put on one hell of a streamer clinic. Never missing a bucket or dump in, browns and brookies came from all directions to attack that fly. Using sneaky streamer techniques rather than sheer power casting and stripping, we coaxed dozens of fish to swipe our bugs down deep as well as exploding on them right at the surface.
Another day and another stretch of water, with the same killer overcast and slight drizzle as the previous outing, Slim and I started finding fish throughout the float. Keeping the same general streamer setup, those browns came hard at the bug. Some favorite channels held pockets of fish where we had multiple swipes, then it might slow down for a bit and soon pick back up on a good bank. Towards dark the bite got intense; what a blast to see so many fish swiping at the fly even though we missed most of them. A fine two days of fishing, I’d say.
A final treat to the trip I forgot to add was that we bonked a few brookies for the pan when we got home. Actually char, the Big Hole is loaded with these fiesty little buggers, and there is no better ‘trout’ for eating than the brookie. While passing through Wisdom, I happened to bump into my neighbor and his daughter out on a fishing excursion of their own. Not bashful in the least, this little Montana girl wanted to check out my days catch, and then left pumped up to go into the mountains with her dad and catch her own. Gotta love this place.