It’s been a great fishing season with everyone who came to experience this slice of Western Montana. Starting back in March chasing the Skwala hatch, to sniping big bows and browns on the Fall Baetis on the Missouri, starting anytime now, we’ve enjoyed the many friends and faces throwing a line from our rafts. We hope to see you all again out there on the river, whether it is in a monsoon on the Big Hole in May, or on on of those perfect July bluebirds on the Bitterroot. Enjoy the photos and see you next year.
The time is a’coming around again: Salmonflies on the rivers and the fish are looking up! We’ve been dragging nymphs and buggers for an eternity it seems; Skwala season is long behind us along with the gentle stream flows that occur that time of year. The rivers are ripping along at a good spring clip and the water is perfect for the almighty giant of the summer’s bugs. Get ready folks, this could be one hell of a year out there for the Salmonfly!
This weekend found me on the Big Hole running a guided float with long time brethren: many years we’ve spent chasing brown trout together on that river. My troops fished very well, a bit out of control at times chucking one last shot in the willows, but hey, it’s that time of year and one must pay to play. Good casts and drifts brought up solid fish to the fly, not all day, but enough to keep us interested while the action ebbed and flowed throughout the float. Eventually the fishing got downright smoking hot, with big browns chomping hard in all the right spots. Make your cast and mend equals fish on!
Our second day of fishing took us intentionally far far away from the Salmon fly madness on the popular water. Day one was too good to try and replicate, so our group toured seldom fished haunts deep in the lower river valley. Always beautiful scenery but a roll of the dice on the fishing, we threw the book at ‘em while taking in the solitude and challenge of the lower river. We found the right setup eventually, and continued to lay into a great day of fishing with the river all to ourselves. So here’s a big thanks to this group from Seattle: seven years now I’ve had the pleasure of guiding them through the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River. See you next time fellas!
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.
Well the season is upon us. Months of tying bugs and day after day of scouting and preparing, we find ourselves wrapped up in the midst of it once again. Fishing has been good, fishing has been downright shitty, fishing has just been what it is: out on the water with good folks and bugs hatching while trout rise on the edges, waiting for the right cast and the right mend and all that other stuff that makes fly fishing.
I’ve personally been all over the place the last few weeks. One day I’m roaring down Rock Creek looking for sweepers, then a long muddy journey home and pack it up to get my ass over to the Big Hole to meet clients at 8:00 am at the Wise River Club. Five straight on that river and pack it up to get back to the Bitterroot to meet a client at 8:00 am who I’ve only spoke with on email because we’re both out of cell service. The life of the Montana fishing guide.
This is one hell of a life, though. Through all the headaches, backaches, long days, and perpetual poverty, us guides are a lucky bunch. We get to experience this life and this environment to the fullest potential available. Driving over Lost Trail pass at 6:00 am yesterday morning, I watched a sunrise that could take your breath away. Moments later I’m dropping down the Big Hole glassing velvet antlered bull elk grazing in the Trail Creek meadows. Popping out past the Battlefield, antelope line the fences while the Beaverheads rise to my south and the wild Pintlars rise to my north, deep green and shadowed in the early light. This right here is what I’m talking about. This is it. Rolling into some unknown with someone I’ve never met to take them on an adventure of a lifetime floating and fishing on another wild Montana river. I’ll do my best to teach them what I can and show them a great day on the water but in the end, it isn’t about me or the fish we catch or the lunch and all that other bullshit, it is about this wild place a few of us are lucky enough to be a part of. This is why we guide.
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.