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.
The river is on the fluctuations of a big spring, up one day and then dropping after a few cold nights. We’ve been at it through snow and rain, wind and shine, finding pretty good fishing through it all. Adversity is definitely the name of the game; lots of rigs, lots of poking around checking all the holds. Every type of fly rig has its time to play throughout the day: streamers for a few runs, then fish a dry through the riffles and slough mouths.
Any spotted fish is catchable right now, and right about two o’clock the March Brown mayflies have been peeling off, bringing quite a few fish out to feed. Throughout the upper Bitterroot, we’ve found many sneaky little spots that have steady rising fish, but you have to search closely and fish a ton of water to find them. Once you do, bingo. We have plenty of equally sneaky hand tied patterns in Skwala and mayfly that work excellent, with fish moving hard to the fly and eating them fool hearty.
It looked so good. That’s what I thought when we dumped the boats at the Stevensville bridge. Little did we know we’d be chasing the goat, as we like to refer to it. Or more accurately, a plan that has turned futile that once held so much promise. Kinda like our plan to nail a bunch of big fish on the lower Bitterroot Saturday, April 13 on streamers, until our gorgeous morning turned into a northern winter blitzkrieg around mid afternoon. With easily forty mile per hour sustained gales, we rowed due north right into the punishment for hours on this long stretch of river. The fishing pretty much sucked, between the wind and the bumped up river flows, we caught few fish, and my boat was even handed a royal skunking. Always optimistic, it was a good workout for when the river really gets big, and will make those marginal dry fly days seem outstanding compared to that crap. We hustled it back to Blacksmith Brewing in Stevensville, a beacon of light, and toasted Cutthroat IPAs to another day of chasing the goat.
Here we go again! Another December behind us and another ice off on the warmer rivers, the higher altitude streams still waiting many months to release their lock up from the long Montana winter.
Of course on the Bighorn, it’s game-on year round. Some good folks and I made a February journey to these historic waters, hoping to find our first real fishing of the season that didn’t include ice augers and egg balls. Cottonwood camp, right out of Fort Smith and five minutes from the three mile access, would be our home for a few days.
Drift boats in the water, mists rolled off the river as we started tossing articulated streamers, letting them sink a bit on clear tipped weighted 7wt lines before retrieving them in short strips. Real quick, like the first run, we figured out why the Bighorn is so bad ass: fish are everywhere. Quick strip the shorelines, rip through the riffles, backdredge the insides and points, we even stuck a couple on dries: pretty much anywhere that could hold trout, held trout. And this kept up for all three days! Maybe we hit it good, maybe the fish gods smiled upon us, shithouse luck possibly, but the Bighorn treated the six of us foreigners pretty nice for a February fishing trip.
“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.