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Conserving Montana's Big Hole

Lessons in how to preserve America's best rivers.

Conserving Montana's Big Hole

The Big Hole River originates at Skinner Lake and flows more than 150 miles before it joins the Beaverhead River, and forms the Jefferson River, near Twin Bridges, Montana. (John Randolph photo)

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Fly Fisherman

Lee Wulff said, “A river without friends is doomed to oblivion.” Looking back on years of government regulation and volunteer conservation on southwest Montana’s Big Hole River testifies of this world-class river’s many friends. It is also a case study for conservationists across the country in learning how to preserve and protect America’s rivers.

The Big Hole originates at Skinner Lake and flows more than 150 miles before it joins the Beaverhead River, and forms the Jefferson River, near Twin Bridges, Montana. Capt. Meriwether Lewis named it the Wisdom River in August 1805, after one of the three cardinal virtues of Thomas Jefferson. Mountain men through common usage later changed the river’s name to the Big Hole, describing the broad, high-elevation valley surrounded by three mountain ranges in its upper reaches.

Nez Perce, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Salish peoples all inhabited the area. The Fishtrap Fishing Access Site on the upper river is named after the way native peoples harvested fish in that area.

The first settlers arrived at the Big Hole starting in the 1860s, and began multiplying soon after Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce fought the U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877.

The native people believed that we do not own a particular resource; rather we borrow it from our children. Fortunately, this Native American value has become a cornerstone, creating consensus among the many conservationists who have come together in an effort to protect the river for the sake of future generations.

The earliest biological issues adversely affecting the Big Hole were the introduction of nonnative species and the lack of fishing regulations. Rainbow trout were introduced to the Big Hole in the 1880s when hatchery programs were started in Butte and Bozeman. Brown trout were introduced to the Madison River in 1889 and have slowly migrated to the Big Hole, arriving around the late 1920s or early 1930s. Brook trout were introduced into the upper Big Hole valley and tributaries in the late 1920s.

The upper Big Hole hosts the last remnants of fluvial (river-dwelling) grayling in the Lower 48. Originally they were widespread throughout the upper Missouri watershed, reaching as far downstream as Great Falls. Lewis and Clark mentioned the grayling in their journals in 1805. Although removed from petition for listing under the Endangered Species Act, grayling are a Species of Concern of the highest classification in Montana.

Introductions of rainbow trout and the eventual migration of brown trout, combined with improvements in transportation, led to sharp increases in angler traffic beginning in the early 20th century. Catch-and-release was not common at the time—most anglers killed every fish they caught. Prior to 1928, the only major restriction was the 1876 outlawing of explosives to kill fish. In 1928, the Montana Fish and Game Commission set a limit of 40 fish per day. In 1939, that was reduced to 15 fish, and in 1959 the limit was reduced to 10 fish per day, or 10 pounds and one fish.

In the years that followed, more restrictions were placed on catch-and-kill fishing. In 1974, the commission accepted the advice of state biologist Dick Vincent and adopted the statewide policy that Montana rivers and streams with self-sustaining populations of wild trout would no longer be stocked. This required further reductions in possession limits.

In 1981, a slot limit and artificial-lures-only or fly-fishing-only regulations were implemented on the Big Hole from Divide to Melrose. Winter fishing was closed on the same stretch of the river. The slot limit and artificials-only restrictions were expanded to below Dickie Bridge in 1988.

Conserving Montana's Big Hole
Nez Perce, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Salish peoples all inhabited the area prior to the arrival of European settlers. The native people believed that we do not own a particular resource; rather we borrow it from our children. (John Randolph photo)

FWP biologist Dick Oswald has monitored the effects of special slot limit regulations since their inception in 1981. He says: “The special regulations were an innovative and controversial approach in their day and produced rather spectacular improvements in the quality of the fishery. That day, however, is past, and the catch-and-release ethic voluntarily employed by most anglers has rendered the restrictions unnecessary. I would stack the quality of the modern Big Hole River fishery up against any other river in southwest Montana.”
Some of the restrictions have recently been rescinded, but what remains is a de facto catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only fishery. And the fishery is in exceptional shape, even after years of low water. Local outfitter, rancher, and lifelong Big Hole resident Frank Stanchfield says that 2008 “was the best dry-fly fishing on the Big Hole River I have seen in over 15 years.”


The Big Hole remains free-flowing for its entire course, thanks to George Grant and Tony Schoonen of Butte, along with Holly Smith and other concerned ranchers near Glen. Working together, they successfully challenged U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposals in 1967 and again in 1975 to build a dam at Reichle. The basin’s ecology is still very much intact—a rare situation in 2009.

Grant passed away in November 2008 at the age of 102. The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Butte is named in his honor. Grant’s lifetime of dedication to protecting the Big Hole River remains unsurpassed.

The next major threat to the Big Hole came in 1979, when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Beaverhead National Forest submitted a plan that would have cut up to 50 million board feet of timber per year and built hundreds of miles of roads to access the forests. Schoonen and Al Luebeck started the group Beaverhead Forest Concerned Citizens and filed appeals to stop the proposal. They were successful in their efforts, and, according to Schoonen, “It saved the quality of the Big Hole River; the sediment impact from the roads would have devastated it.”

Law of the West

Perhaps the oldest law in the West is that “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’.” Water was the key issue that led to the creation, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, of two organizations dedicated to protecting the Big Hole River: The Big Hole River Foundation, created by Grant in 1988, and the Big Hole Watershed Committee, created in 1995. 
The Big Hole River Foundation has a direct mission: “To conserve, enhance and protect the free-flowing character of the Big Hole River, its unique culture, fish and wildlife.

The Big Hole Watershed Committee was formed in 1995 by several Big Hole ranchers and conservationists, who feared a federal listing for fluvial Montana grayling. The Watershed Committee reached out to local interested entities and developed a viable, community-based consensus group that has won the trust and respect needed to forge solutions for difficult problems that will impact the river today and tomorrow. Their Drought Management Plan is a model effort of cooperation among ranchers, recreationists, and Montana FWP to preserve the watershed for all. Although there are still debates about setting scientifically accepted standards for triggering the plan, it remains in place and has come into play numerous times since its inception.

This plan was the first time a major Western water dispute was reasoned over. Perhaps the old saying would become just that, an old saying. Different folks representing different agendas sat at the same table and debated rationally with each another as best they could.

The result was not perfect. I doubt anyone left completely satisfied, and perhaps that in itself is an indicator of success. Ranchers, conservationists, recreationists, outfitters, and guides agreed to give all they could in an effort to protect the Big Hole and its wild character.

Current players involved in conserving the Big Hole include ranchers like Maynard and Holly Smith, their son Randy, Jim Hagenbarth, and Harold Peterson.

Others include conservationists like Al Luebeck, Steve Luebeck, Schoonen, Todd Collins, and Lori Thomas. They represent access and quality resource management for anglers and hunters.
Government employees such as Oswald and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) staff are additional proponents.

Big Hole area guides and outfitters have also played a major role. Phil Wright, the founder of the Complete Fly Fisher, a lodge near Wise River, recognized the immense value of wild trout in clean water.

Dave and Christine Decker, along with Dave’s brother Stuart, played important roles in the 1980s and 1990s. As business owners, they participated in the Big Hole Watershed Committee, local Trout Unlimited chapters, the Big Hole River Foundation, and started a local guides and outfitters association.

Other area outfitters like Craig Fellin continue their work to preserve the wild character of the Big Hole River.

It takes a village, as the saying goes, and this is by no means a comprehensive list of the countless people who have contributed to the health of the Big Hole over the years, but the above mentioned were prominent at critical points when everyone decided we needed to share and protect this resource for future generations.

In the years to come, changes will be proposed and debates will ensue, feathers will get ruffled, and feelings may get hurt. The bottom line is that a consensus process was adopted so that no one group or individual can walk away from the table with complete victory or defeat.

If Lee Wulff was correct that a river without friends is doomed to oblivion, we can all be certain that the Big Hole has a bright future, for its friends are many, committed, and diverse, and its wild character is today intact.

George Grant (1906 - 2008)

On November 2, 2008, the fly-fishing fraternity lost its oldest, and one of its greatest members when George Francis Grant died at the age of 102.

The first 18 years of Grant’s life had nothing to do with fly fishing, and were instead consumed by a struggle to survive in the raucous mining camp of Butte, Montana. World War I, the influenza pandemic, long cold winters, violent labor strikes, and the Great Depression were just a few of the calamities that were part of his early life.

Conserving Montana's Big Hole
George Grant, circa 1930s. (Photo courtesy of Todd Collins)

Upon graduation from high school, and urged on by his parents (who knew he could not survive in the mines with his small physique), Grant enrolled in a local business college, learning typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping. In 1928, Grant became interested in fly fishing while employed by a small railroad at Armstead, Montana, (now the site of Clark Canyon Reservoir south of Dillon) where he fished the Red Rock and Beaverhead rivers.

Better jobs with better pay lured him back to Butte, and in 1933 a wonderful thing happened. As Grant told it: “I lost my job. In that time of deep depression, you didn’t look for another one because there weren’t any.”

For the next three summers, Grant lived in a rented cabin in the tiny town of Dewey, tying flies to pay the $5 monthly rent, and fishing the Big Hole.

His winters were spent working at anything gainful and reading the works of early fly-tying and fly-fishing masters—pioneers like Paul Young, George Leonard Herter, John Alden Knight, and many others. In 1939, Grant received a patent for the weaving process he used for tying his flies.

During World War II Grant (then 36) was drafted into the U.S. Army, but because of poor eyesight he served at the Butte Induction Center. During those years, he married Annabell Thomson Grant, who was his wife for more than 50 years.

In 1947, Grant opened a small fly shop in Butte but closed it four years later because it left him little opportunity to pursue his other passions, and provided little income. For the next 16 years, he worked for a wholesale sporting goods supplier as manager and tackle buyer, and perfected many of his fly patterns, including his famous Black Creeper.

After his retirement in 1967, Grant began working on his two (now classic) self-published fly-tying books, The Art Of Weaving Hair Hackles for Trout Flies and Montana Trout Flies (1971 and 1972).

During this period, conservation issues were coming to the forefront in southwest Montana. The timing was perfect, and Grant had a strong will, a loud voice, and talent as a writer. The River Rats Chapter of Trout Unlimited, later renamed the George Grant Chapter, was formed in Butte and Grant wrote, printed, published, and distributed its newsletter, The River Rat, from 1973 to 1979. The River Rats successfully fought off the proposed Reichle Dam, a bureaucratic boondoggle that would have flooded most of the lower Big Hole Valley. Now, 25 years later, Grant’s numerous disciples are still fighting for the cause.

His involvement in Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers greatly benefited both organizations, and they showered him with awards. Through the sales of his flies, Grant donated tens of thousands of dollars to these organizations. In 1988, he formed and funded the Big Hole River Foundation, now in its 20th year.

George Grant led a charmed life, fishing some of the world’s greatest trout streams during what he called “the golden era of trout fishing in America.”

The rich legacy that Grant spent a lifetime carving from the ruggedness of western Montana is ours to cherish and protect. Donations are requested to the Big Hole River Foundation, P. O. Box 3894, Butte, MT 59702.

-Todd Collins, Butte, Montana

Former Montana State Senator Steve Gallus is from Butte, Montana, and he formerly served on the Montana Fish and Game Committee. 

[The opinions expressed here are those of the authors who appear here and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies or views of Fly Fisherman. We welcome polite reader responses to the issues presented here.]

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