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Montana's Best-Kept Fishing Secret

Montana's Best-Kept Fishing Secret

The Big Hole's fabulous mid-June salmonfly fest sure draws a crowd. But early-spring fishing features crowd-free solitude and big trout. World-class water! Bruiser browns! Hmmm . . . Let's keep this one quiet, eh? (April 2007)

Photo by Chuck Robbins

A deep-drifted nymph duped this cutthroat on the Big Hole River. A wise man once observed: "The difference between a great day nymphing and a skunking is often one measly split shot."

Streamers and nymphs generally produce most consistently. But in early spring, skwala stonefly, blue-wing olive (Baetis), midge, caddis and March brown hatches provide ample opportunities for top-water action. Competition from other anglers is scarce. You'll probably have the river to yourself, or close enough.


The river runs for 188 miles from around Skinner Meadows, high in the Beaverhead Mountains southwest of Jackson, to the confluence of the Beaverhead River, a mile or so north of Twin Bridges. For fishing purposes, the river can be divided into four sections.

1) Upper-Upper: Skinner Meadows to Squaw Creek Bridge.,br>

2) Upper: Squaw Creek Bridge to Jerry Creek Bridge.

3) Middle: Jerry Creek Bridge to Browne's Bridge.

4) Lower: Browne's Bridge to the Beaverhead River.

From Skinner Meadows to Twin Bridges, the river drops from about a 7,000-foot elevation to 4,500. Winter here comes earlier and stays later. So early on, start down low and work up as spring gains a firmer grip.


The 2006 season is a good example. On the lower river, ice-out occurred pretty much on schedule, with open water by the end of March. But until about April 10, the upper river remained locked in. When it let loose, a huge ice jam formed at Dickie Bridge, just above Wise River, backing the river up for miles. Eventually it spilled over, flooding the entire river corridor. On April 15, the jam let loose, scouring the river below and effectively killing off the early-spring fishing for about a week.

The moral: Early-spring conditions change literally overnight. Maintain a flexible schedule and always check first before planning a trip.

The Upper Section, from Squaw Creek to Jerry Creek, offers the best chance at the coveted Big Hole slam -- a brook, brown, cutthroat, rainbow, Arctic grayling and mountain whitefish -- all six in a single day.

Last spring, in outings just three days apart, two clients came very close, each netting five. One guy failed to net a brown, while the other guy struck out on whitefish, of all species. Here, whities are almost as numerous as slippery rocks -- almost, that is!

Brookies, grayling, whitefish and a smattering of cutthroat dominate the upper reaches, but there are plenty of rainbows. Hefty browns, apparent leftovers from the fall spawning run, show up frequently, especially around the mouths of tributaries.

While not a major factor in early spring, upper river flows tend to drop drastically once runoff ends; and in dry years, summer fishing here can be pretty grim. Miles of the upper river have been closed to fishing for several weeks in recent years, due to low summer flows and dangerously high water temperatures.

Many of the biggest trout fall to streamers (buggers, Yuk Bugs, JJ Specials, Bunny Leeches and such), but nymphs and dries tend to produce the most consistent action. If there's no hatch, it's tough to beat a pair of nymphs rigged 5 or 6 feet or so below a strike indicator. To limit myself to just two patterns, my picks would be a No. 10 Pat's Rubber Legs and a similarly sized red San Juan Worm. But my nymph box has a good selection of beadhead and standard nymph patterns, like Prince, PT, Hare's Ear, Micro-May, Bloody Mary and Copper Johns.

All of the hatches mentioned above occur in this stretch of river. While the trout aren't fussy, they sometimes have their moments. So my dry-fly box always contains a good selection of mayfly, caddis, midge and stonefly imitations, as well as such attractor patterns as Stimulator, PMX, Purple Haze and Royal Wulff. But check the local fly shops to find out what's hot at the moment.

This brings us to the Middle Section: Jerry Creek Bridge to Browne's Bridge is the stretch of Big Hole most anglers relate to and where you are most likely to meet early-season competition. What sets this section apart from the others? Habitat! Dewey, Divide and Maiden Rock canyons provide the best, most diverse habitat on the river.

From Jerry Creek to Divide, rainbows tend to dominate, though there are good numbers of browns and, of course, whitefish. "The rainbow stronghold is above Divide," said Dick Oswald, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist in Dillon, "although the Melrose area produces its share of mature rainbows."

Between Wise River and Divide, he said, the combination of healthy tributaries and less irrigation means flows and water temperatures that are a little better than in other places. "The aquatic system, including insects, functions better here than anywhere else on the Big Hole," Oswald added.

Good habitat -- a healthy mix of cold water, riffles, rapids, deep runs and pools, lots of big rocks and log jams -- produces more bugs and on average, more and larger trout.

Fly patterns listed above work well here. Between hatches, local guides commonly rely on a pair of weighted nymphs drifted beneath a strike indicator. There's now a local joke: "Bugs thick, trout rising all around. Here comes a Dillon guide, bobbers adrift, oblivious to it all."

But some make a career of stripping streamers and chucking dry flies almost exclusively in the canyons.

Al Lefor, of Great Divide Outfitters, tests the waters with streamers early on, switching to dries once the river warms a bit. When he drags out the nymph box, prospects are grim and only expected to get worse.

The Lower Section, Browne's Bridge to Twin Bridges, is well-known for harboring trout measured in pounds and fishes well throughout the early spring. In recent seasons, overall numbers of browns 18 inches and larger have declined somewhat. But the lower river remains a favorite haunt of big-trout specialists.

The most dedicated are out there almost every day, from ice-out through early summer. These guys toss huge, heavily weighted streamers and net browns most of us only dream of. But this is tough, demanding fishing. Near-misses tend to outnumber actual hook-ups by a wide margin, and there are no guarantees a hooked trout will end up in the net, not by a long shot.

This sort of fly-fishing requires more faith and perseverance than most of us possess. But those who seek really big brown trout could do far worse than chucking and ducking the lower Big Hole.

For those of us inclined to more mundane pursuits, everything said about the upper river goes here -- except that browns and whitefish rule, and there are fewer rainbows. Brookies, cutts and grayling are few and far between. Fly patterns and tactics for the upper river work here, and this section also suffers during dry summers. Irrigation demands, combined with the high-desert conditions reduce summer flows drastically.


Montana's Stream Access Law gives anglers entry to any stream, so long as you go in at a public point like a highway, county road, bridge crossing, public-land or state-owned fishing access site. Anglers must also stay below the high-water mark.

In this regard, the Big Hole is blessed. Both wade- and float-fishing access is good throughout. The river above Squaw Creek is the last to wake up and largely unfloatable anytime due to numerous obstructions. Below Squaw Creek is all floatable.

In addition to numerous other public access points, there are 16 official Fishing Access Sites. Look for the brown and white signs.

Wade-fishing is difficult throughout, thanks to a river bottom lined with very slippery rocks. The canyon sections are by far the worst. High water warrants extreme caution: Felt soles, stream cleats (but not in the boat, please) and a wading staff.

If stumbling around on slippery rocks has lost its appeal, float-fishing gets my vote. Exceptions are high flows of more than 3,000 cubic feet per second, and low flows, less than 300 cfs. However, rates from March through early May generally lie in the rather benign range of 400 to 500 cfs. That's on the low side, but doable even for rookies.

Find current flow rates at WaterDate.USGS.Gov/MT/NWIS/Current?Type=flow. Or call any of the local fly shops. (Contact information is given in the accompanying article.)

As you might suspect, the Big Hole has to be my favorite river to float. It's got a big number of launch sites, varied water, scenic views, lots of wildlife to gawk at and great fishing.


Arm yourself with an 8- or 9-foot, 4-, 5- or 6-weight rod, workable reel, floating fly-line, tapered leaders, 2X, 3X and 4X tippets, a bobber or two, split shots of various sizes, a good selection of fly patterns, and you're all set.

Early-spring mornings typically start out chilly, and cold-blooded trout tend to be lethargic. Streamers fished slow and deep, with or without a nymph trailer (18 inches or so is about right), often provide a wake-up call. Vary the pattern, add or subtract weight and presentation until you find the right combination, then stick with it until the trout tell you otherwise.

Just a subtle variation in size, color, or weigh often changes everything. Other times, presentation counts. For instance, start by casting down and across. Let the fly swing around.

Next, cast and bounce the rod's tip a few times during the swing. Then try a hand-twist retrieve.

Now pick up, strip off a little more line and do it again. Only this time, use a short-strip, pause, long-strip, pause, retrieve -- and so on.

No dice? Keep switching gears. Add a little weight, change patterns and repeat. Generally, the colder the water, the slower the retrieve. Also, it pays to add or subtract weight as needed to keep your fly down near the bottom, especially in cold water when trout are often reluctant to move up in the water column. Worst is to keep plugging away with a plan that isn't working.

Here's how I rig nymphs. Overall, the leader should be about as long as the rod and end in a 3X- or 4X-tippet and a pair of nymphs 12 to 18 inches apart. Put the weight in between the nymphs, or 6 inches above the top nymph.

In high water or deep, fast runs, it seems to help to rig the nymphs on short 3- to 4-inch tags (off a blood knot) 12 to 18 inches apart, with weight on a third tag 6 inches or so below the bottom nymph. Regardless of how you rig the nymphs, fasten a strike indicator, yarn- or corky-style, 5 or 6 feet above. Most important, add enough weight to keep the nymphs on the bottom.

As a wise man once observed, "The difference between a great day nymphing and a skunking is often one measly split shot." Strive for drag-free drifts. Anything less is largely a waste of time.

The secret to successful dry-fly fishing starts with the leader. Generally, 10 to 11 feet overall will work in most situations. Adjust tippet diameter and length to the size and wind resistance of the fly. In other words, shorter and stouter for big, air-resistant attractors, long and skinny for smaller, less wind-resistant patterns. Tippets in 4X, 5X and 6X are most useful for dry-fly work. In low- or clear-water conditions, fluorocarbon offers a distinct edge.

Limited to just one cast, I'd work to perfect my reach-cast. Done properly, the reach allows for pinpoint presentations and drag-free drifts. Fussy trout get to see the fly first, instead of the leader, which often makes all the difference. Big Hole trout are not usually pattern-selective or leader-shy, but they sure don't tolerate unnatural drag.

Regardless, of the rig -- streamer, nymph or dry -- strive to make each cast different. Lengthen the cast. Move a step or two. Change the angle. Change the retrieve. The only exceptions are when you're casting to fish visibly rising, feeding or resting. The hardest thing for beginners to grasp, beyond mastering the basics (casting, wading, reading the water, fly selection), is to keep moving. Make the first shot count, and then move on.

As I like to say, "When the fishing's fast, move slow. When the fishing's slow, move fast." Above all, keep moving!

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