A few summers ago, I woke up flat on my back. My mouth and throat had the rawness that is the gift of open-mouthed sleep induced by one beer and one cigar too many, and one drink of water too few. I could hear rain pattering on nylon and as I lifted my head, I could see that despite the conditions, and an arrival at our camp in the middle of the night, my friends and I had done pretty well. The rain fly was pitched taut and shedding water perfectly—staked on one end to an oar and the other to the pickup truck. Gear scattered randomly. In the dim, thin light that is summer morning, I saw fog over the wide valley. Felt like May, that chill. Then it came to me. I was on the Big Hole and it was July. Montana high country.
It doesn’t really matter whose idea it was. Someone had it. That is what matters. That, and the fact that the idea was a good one. It was a simple plan, rich with adventure. There, on a Friday night with no planning whatsoever, the idea was upon us: Let’s hit the Big Hole and then the Beaverhead for a long weekend. Car camp, wade fish in some places, float others. Skip work. Call in sick. Feign coughs. Fish. And fish some more. And so here we were on a Saturday morning in the heart of one of the largest valleys in Montana, the Big Hole.
This is not a story of secrets, of rivers never before seen by American eyes (if there even still is such a place on this little blue marble). Instead, this is a tale of old friend rivers revisited, famous old friends, twin rivers born on the same side of the Great Divide, waters nurtured by the snows of the same winter storms.
Yet these are waters as divergent as half brothers with different fathers. One with brown eyes and a dreamy easiness, the other blue eyes and quick movement. The Big Hole and the Beaverhead.
It has been more than two decades since I first saw the rivers I like to think of as half brothers, and each year since those first days, I’ve returned. It depends upon the mood I am in, but sometimes I find myself on the upper Big Hole, casting to big brook trout and little grayling. The humans up there in the willow jungles are scattered as far apart as the valley itself. Other times, I’ll yearn for the waters of the Beaverhead, with its fast twists and turns, with its crowds of bugs and crowds of anglers, its crystal aquarium waters.
Everyone who has ever read one word about fly fishing knows of these rivers. Even if you’ve never been there, they are on the “bucket list” for almost every fly fisher in North America. I am fortunate enough that I can be having a beer at my local pub on a Friday evening and on a whim and a suggestion, wake up in a sleeping bag in a Big Hole morning rain.
Lots of Water
Much has been written of these rivers, their landscapes, their people, and their fish. But in this day and age, in the “right now” of the present, one thing is clear. Both rivers are fishing as well as they have in years, perhaps as well as they have in a generation. The reason for this, despite all the words that have been written of these waters, is water itself.
Last year, 2012, was a dry year, but the previous three years in southwest Montana were excellent water years, and the result is a lot of fish in the Big Hole and the Beaverhead. Moreover, for the first time in many years, a lot of Montanans are viewing water differently, and viewing the state’s fishing industry differently as well. After years of bickering over water, ranchers, fishermen, outfitters, and business owners have finally seemed to start to figure it out.
“There have been some pretty significant advances in people’s attitudes,” says Bruce Farling, executive director for Montana Trout Unlimited.
Farling points to the bad water year of 1994 as the start of it all. That low-water year, a fish kill on the nearby Ruby River sparked a huge controversy, and the governor of Montana at the time, Marc Racicot, basically ordered people to work it out. The result was the Big Hole Watershed Committee, a collaborative of agriculture and recreation and others. A few years later, a similar group was formed for the Beaverhead. Today, the results of both collaboratives are being seen in the quality of the fishery.
“I think that there’s a great appreciation among Montanans, and particularly among landowners in the Big Hole Valley that the river is more than just something you take water out of,” says Farling. “We realized that we have basic shared values, and once we did that, both sides started to appreciate each other more. There was major progress in people’s abilities to talk to each other.”
[While the quality of these fisheries has been preserved and enhanced, the quality of the fishing experience has also been a focus of attention. The Big Hole and Beaverhead are two of Montana’s most heavily regulated trout streams, so pay careful attention to the fishing regulations to see what portions of river you can fish and on which days. The Editor.]
For the Big Hole, the onus of potential federal involvement in grayling recovery, and possible listing of the fluvial Arctic grayling of the Big Hole River as an endangered species, was a big hammer. Today, grayling are on a bit of an increase and one of the reasons is that ranchers are voluntarily leaving some water in the river rather than on irrigated hay meadows.
“The grayling are coming back a bit,” says Jim Olsen, fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “They are slowly increasing, and a lot of it is due to habitat restoration and water conservation measures in the upper valley. Ranchers are using less water and we’re hitting our flow targets.”
In general, the fishery of the Big Hole is in great shape and certainly better than it has been in years, says Olsen.
In fact, for Arctic grayling, one of the main concerns isn’t so much water as it is another fish—carnivorous and hungry brown trout.
“We’re seeing more and more brown trout in the upper reaches of the Big Hole, all the way to Jackson, than we ever have,” says Olsen. “We used to pick up the occasional 10- or 12-pound fish in the upper river, but now we’re picking up all age classes and that’s really a concern for grayling.”
In fact, FWP is encouraging anglers to harvest all brown and brook trout caught above the town of Divide.
The Big Hole River in the valley near the towns of Wisdom and Jackson harbors one of the best river fisheries for brook trout in the country, says Olsen. “I don’t know if you can find anything like it anywhere. We’re seeing brook trout as big as 18 inches up in the main stem.”
All up and down the river, the fishing is excellent, says Tim Tollett of Frontier Anglers. “The fishery since I’ve been here (1978) is as good as it has been in a long time. It has just gotten better and better. The rainbows have really excelled in the past 10 years or so and last summer, one of my guides caught a 4-pound cutthroat below Melrose. We haven’t seen cutthroat in years. One day you think it is a brown trout fishery, but then some days all you catch are rainbows. It’s intermixed.”
Born high on the Continental Divide west of the town of Jackson, the Big Hole drains a massive area and runs for more than 100 miles to near the town of Twin Bridges. It is a classic freestone river, with no dams, a river that Farling likes to call “Old Montana.” Its waters are often the color of weak tea, and from above on a bridge or the highway, it can often appear to be dirty, but once you are on the water, you realize that there is good clarity for fishing.
On that July morning a few years ago, my friends and I started fishing the river near a place called Fish Trap. In a few hours, we’d caught and released several grayling and a few brook trout. Then we hopped back on the highway and headed south on 43 to connect with 278, headed for the other brother.
Alter ego to the Big Hole, the Beaverhead is a tailwater fishery, the classic cold-water-out-of-a-dam-in-a-dry-land scenario that has led to so many good fishing spots in this day and age. Its flows are controlled and regulated, its waters less susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature. Today, even with very low flows of only 50 cubic feet per second last winter, the Beaverhead has a tremendous population of trout. Big trout at that. And it is a virtual aquarium, running clear and clean and cold from the bottom of Clark Canyon Dam. In the right light, you can see dozens of big browns and rainbows swimming in the river. And the river is fishing as good as it has in years.
“Right now things are in pretty good shape,” says Matt Jaeger, Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist in Dillon, Montana. “The size is good, there are plenty of them in there, the habitat is in good shape, it’s got everything it needs right now, and things are going to be pretty rosy this summer.”
Spend a day on the Big Hole and the next day on the Beaverhead fishing from a boat and you’ll get a true sense of how different these two rivers are.
While one might be gazing at the scenery and drifting along casting casually to Big Hole browns and rainbows, on the Beaverhead, you won’t have much time for stargazing. It is a little river that twists and turns rapidly. You will want to fish fast and loose and accurately. I’ve lost more flies snagged up on the Beaverhead than on any river I can think of.
But it is a river that gets your heart pumping. Last summer, I fished with Tollett starting right below the dam and we caught dozens of big browns and rainbows, ranging up to 5 pounds. The fishing was tremendous and, like the Big Hole, it has been energized by several good water years. During the winter of 2012-13, however, only a quarter of the desired flow of 200 cfs came down the river. Yet the flip side of that is the water held back in Clark Canyon Reservoir will be available to fish during the summer months when rising temperatures and low water can be killers for trout.
“Right now we’ve got more than 1,500 fish per mile,” says Jaeger, who, like Tollett, has seen the quantity and size of the fish in the Beaverhead go up each year in the last half dozen.
Indeed, one of the biggest worries for fisheries biologists and fishermen right now is the potential for Clark Canyon Creek, which drains into the river below the reservoir, to carry a heavy sediment load into the river after a storm. When that has happened in the past, sediment has choked spawning gravels and smothered aquatic invertebrates. Only a flushing flow from the dam at just the right time can prevent damage to the fishery when that happens. But, says Jaeger, the Beaverhead group is looking at perhaps building a sediment trap on the creek itself to prevent the damage before it even begins.
In past years when sediment has come down the creek it has knocked the fish population virtually in half, says Jaeger. But those events are in the past and hopefully will stay that way.
“It’s a fish factory,” says Tollett. “The amount of food in that river and the amount of fish is just unbelievable. The food is there and the fishery is just phenomenal. Eighteen-inch fish are common.”
The Big Hole or the Beaverhead. Or both. Those are the kinds of dilemmas that make for a big-time adventure on brother rivers.
Fishing with Tim
There are a few things you pick up on quickly when you fish with Tim Tollett of Frontier Anglers in Dillon, Montana. “Unconventional” is one word that comes to mind.
First, Tollett kills trout. On the Beaverhead, it’s not uncommon for Tollett to catch and keep brown trout in particular.
“A lot of times, you help fisheries by releasing fish. We all know that, and we feel good about releasing fish,” says Tollett. “But on the Beaverhead, you are going to help the fishery by knocking some of those browns over the head. It needs harvest, and as a fly fisher you are helping the fishery if you keep some trout.” Tollett feels that there are too many fish in the upper section of river, and when winter flows drop down to a mere 50 cubic feet per second, there may be too many fish, and not enough food to support maximum possible growth.
Second, Tollett uses long, light rods. He prefers a 10-foot rod in a 3-weight or 4-weight. “Fly rods are fishing tools, and longer rods enable you to cover the water so much better,” says Tollett. “You can mend in the air more effectively, and mend on the water less. You have less line on the water, and less drag. I fish dry flies, streamers, and nymphs with a 10-foot rod. You can reach out and touch the trout. I think 10-foot rods are superior over shorter rods, and you can land big fish with a light 3- or 4-weight rod. The rod bends more, but I feel like I can control the fish more.”
Finally, forget the strike indicators. “I kid people about fishing with bobbers,” says Tollett. “Without strike indicators you learn so much more about the current structure. You can cover the fish more effectively than just dangling a nymph below a bobber. You also learn to read the water better, and to see the fish flashing. Instead of just watching the bobber, you are watching everything, you watch the fly line, the leader, even the nymph in clear water, and you just get so much more in tune with it.”
Hatches and Flies
Both the Big Hole and the Beaverhead have abundant aquatic life, with tremendous amounts of fish food hatching, living, and dying in the rivers. Here’s a quick look at the main hatches on both rivers, according to Tim Tollett, owner of Frontier Anglers in Dillon, Montana.
Big Hole. In early spring, about April 1 and running a couple of weeks, the Big Hole can have a good Skwala (stonefly) hatch. Later, an excellent caddis hatch happens around Mother’s Day. The Big Hole is where legendary fly fisher Al Troth invented the Elk-hair Caddis. After runoff, the Big Hole has a good Salmonfly hatch that progresses up the river as the days march on. This starts around June 10 followed by Golden Stones around June 15 and Yellow Sallies by the end of the month. During this time, there are Pale Morning Duns to boot. “We also have a very good March Brown hatch all summer long from say June 20 through August,” says Tollett. The Big Hole also has Green Drakes through the summer, and in August an excellent Spruce Moth hatch, not to mention lots of hoppers, beetles, and other terrestrials.
Beaverhead. A great springtime midge fishery, the Beaverhead gradually switches to Blue-winged Olives near the end of March through April and also has a Mother’s Day caddis hatch below Grasshopper Creek. In mid-June, hatch-matchers start to pick up fish on PMDs, then Yellow Sallies through July and even all the way into September. In July, big caddisflies start to pop, with drys as big as size 10 working all the way through mid-August. The Beaverhead also has an excellent crane fly hatch through the summer, starting in Dillon and moving upriver. In the fall, look for Blue-winged Olives on dreary, overcast days.
Tom Reed lives and fishes from his home outside Pony, Montana. He is the author of Blue Lines: A Fishing Life. For more, visit tomreedbooks.com.