February 17, 2022
This article was originally titled "The Real Montana" in the 2021 Destinations issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
“Big Hole” is a loose translation of a Nez Perce term used to describe a deep, dark canyon. The Nez Perce called themselves the Nimiipuu, and for them, the Big Hole wasn’t home—it was a refuge as they were fleeing U.S. Army troops in a running battle that covered 1,170 miles in what are now four different states.
Chief Joseph’s Wallowa band and other “non-treaty Indians” declared war in June 1877, after the U.S. government forced the Nimiipuu to give up their ancestral lands in the Pacific Northwest, and attempted to force them onto a reservation in Idaho.
After several battles, and with mounting casualties on both sides, the Nimiipuu escaped the federal troops by fleeing over the rugged Lolo Pass from Idaho into Montana. When they came upon the Big Hole, Chief Joseph and his people felt safe. They believed there was no way the U.S. Army soldiers could have followed.
The Nimiipuu traded with local settlers and promised peace. All they wanted was a few days to rest, and safe passage to Canada.
On the night of August 8, 1877, roughly 200 Nimiipuu warriors and 700 women and children were camped among the willows along one of the forks of the Big Hole River. They had arranged their 89 teepees in a V formation, with no defensive fortifications. For the Nimiipuu, the night ended with dancing, singing, and celebration.
What they didn’t know was that Colonel John Gibbon had followed them with 161 soldiers, 45 civilian volunteers, and one 12-pound howitzer. U.S. forces had previously suffered heavy losses fighting the Nez Perce at the Battle of White Bird Canyon and the Battle of the Clearwater, and had been humiliated at Fort Misery. Gibbon had orders to make no negotiations and take no prisoners in the continuing conflict with the renegade natives.
At dawn on August 9, his soldiers started the Battle of the Big Hole with three blind rifle volleys fired into the teepees of the sleeping Nimiipuu. Then they charged the encampment.
Women and children ran into the river under heavy fire, and even though Gibbon still owned the advantage of surprise, he stopped to burn the teepees. This gave the Nimiipuu warriors a chance to regroup and mount an offensive of their own. They captured and silenced the cannon, and cornered the majority of Gibbon’s troops on a hillside, where they killed Lieutenant James Bradley, Gibbon’s senior officer.
In the 36-hour battle, which lasted through the night and into the next day, Gibbon lost 28 men and suffered 40 serious casualties—about 30 percent of his entire fighting force.
The next day, while 20 or 30 Nez Perce sharpshooters kept Gibbon and his soldiers pinned down in their fortifications, the rest of the Nez Perce buried their dead and retreated downriver. Their fatalities numbered from 70 to 90, although the Nez Perce leaders were loath to admit any form of defeat or losses. The true number of noncombatants lost in the river and in burning teepees will never be known.
It was the deadliest battle in a conflict that wouldn’t end until October 5, 1877, when Chief Joseph handed his rifle to General Howard in the Bears Paw Mountains just 40 miles from the Canadian border and said, “I am tired of fighting.”
Frozen in Time
When it comes to the breathtaking views of the Big Hole, not much has changed since the Nimiipuu first traversed the Bitterroots and came upon this valley. One look, and you know it’s a place you’d like to stay, at least for a while.
Moose still wander among the willows, pictographs adorn the interiors of caves in the limestone cliffs, and Big Rock leans against the river as though God had attempted—and failed—to stop the river from flowing.
While other parts of Montana are booming economically, you won’t see traffic, tourists, or fancy restaurants here as you would in, say, Bozeman or around Yellowstone National Park. This is a corner of Montana that time forgot. The town of Wise River looks like a movie set for a community that’s fallen on hard times—it’s just a post office, a church, two saloons, and an abandoned gas station.
In reality, it’s good luck that has spared this ranching and farming community from the churning disruptions of “progress.” This sparsely populated valley is home to some of the oldest working ranches in Montana. It’s a place where haystacks outnumber people, and where cowboys rope, herd, and brand their cattle just as they have done for more than 100 years. Not much has changed. When you arrive at Wise River, you look up and down the valley and congratulate yourself on finding the real Montana.
Montana's Highest Valley
The Big Hole begins in a crescent-shaped valley, with the Bitterroot Range and the Continental Divide running along the convex side, and the rugged Pioneer Mountains forming the concave side. The Big Hole River forms at the south end of the valley as the outflow of Skinner Lake, and flows north through a broad valley nearly 75 miles long. It tumbles through steep canyons below Wise River and again at Maiden Rock, and eventually mingles with the Beaverhead and Ruby rivers at Twin Bridges to form the Jefferson River.
Lewis and Clark came this way on their expedition in July 1806, and named this “middle fork” of the Jefferson the Wisdom River. Exactly 71 years later, the Nimiipuu fled along the same route, but in the opposite direction.
Within those 71 years, French-Canadian fur trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company explored the river, there was a minor gold rush on Grasshopper Creek, and homesteaders began to move into the valley.
At 6,000 feet in elevation, the upper Big Hole runs through one of Montana’s highest and most scenic valleys. There’s no shortage of vistas, but the Complete Fly Fisher lodge sits in perhaps the
single most desirable location along the river, at a spot near the Jerry Creek boat ramp. Here, the river cascades toward the lodge’s huge dining room windows, deflected at the last moment by an island covered with giant cottonwoods and bordered by a willow-lined side channel.
The Complete Fly Fisher is the only place in the valley where you’ll find five-star dining. And it’s one of the few places in the world where you can disembark from your raft just 25 feet from the dining room, or enjoy tenderloin gyûdon while a moose strolls past the window. On a trip there in May 2021, while eating crispy Hudson Valley duck confit, I watched an osprey dive from a tree, grabbing one of the trout rising in the side channel. But the osprey didn’t get to enjoy his meal. Two bald eagles accosted him immediately, and eventually robbed him of his dinner.
The Complete Fly Fisher occupies an important place in the history of fly fishing. It was built by a couple of Colorado fly fishers from Aspen—Glenn Jackson and Phil Wright. Wright was a fighter pilot in World War II, and after his P-47 Thunderbolt was shot down over Europe, he spent more than a year as a prisoner of war at Stalag VII-A. Phil and Joan Wright owned The Aspen Country Store in Colorado for decades, and belonged to an ardent group of Roaring Fork fly fishers who formed a club called the Royal Order of the Stonefly. Club members made regular trips to Montana.
Wright and Jackson built their dream lodge on a piece of bare ground at the very end of the upper Big Hole Valley, just before the river drops away into a series of high-gradient canyons. It was, and still is, the perfect spot for a fly-fishing lodge.
The Complete Fly Fisher was finished and opened for business in the summer of 1968. The guest list included Royal Order of the Stonefly members Leon Chandler, head of marketing at the Cortland Line Company; Ernest Schwiebert; Jack Hemingway; and Don Zahner, an executive at the St. Louis, Missouri–based 7 Up Company. In the great room overlooking the river, the guests discussed starting a magazine just for fly fishers.
The very next spring, Zahner published the inaugural issue of Fly Fisherman, with advertising support from Cortland, Orvis, and other companies. Unlike other much larger “hook & bullet” magazines of the day, such as Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, Fly Fisherman was the first publication to ignore all other types of angling and focus only on “the quiet sport.”
Seasons on the Big Hole
The spring season on the Big Hole starts sometime in April, the exact date depending on how tough the winter has been. At 6,000 feet, the valley is known for its deep snow and brutal temperatures. But when the first sustained warming trend occurs in late April or early May there can be Skwala hatches, along with some welcome dry-fly fishing.
In May, Brachycentrus caddis erupt along the Big Hole, but even so, the dry-fly fishing is frequently nonexistent—the river is still often swollen with snowmelt, and very cold compared to lower-elevation rivers in the nearby Dillon area. However, the fishing can be very good with nymph and indicator setups using Squirmy Wormies, Beadhead Pheasant Tails, and stonefly nymphs.
Late May is a good time of year to target the big browns that come out of deep holes and start hunting along the banks. The “Big Hole troll” is an unusual streamer technique developed by local fly shop owner Frank Stanchfield, and then adopted by most guides on this river 20 years ago. Using a single classic gold Zonker, JJ Special, or Yuk Bug with a long leader and a floating line, you cast from the raft or drift boat roughly 45 degrees back upstream and as close to the bank as possible. To do the “troll” properly, use a very slow retrieve—or no retrieve at all—to keep the fly in that bank slot as long as possible, and then cast back upstream at the bank again.
Guide Kelly Kimzey showed me the “Big Hole troll,” and we had a terrific afternoon on a cold, rainy May day when we drew strikes from slabby browns lurking behind just about every downed tree, boulder, and sod clump along the bank.
The Big Hole’s snowmelt flow normally peaks in the first half of June, and when the river starts to drop and clear, fishing can be epic. June often brings hatches of Salmonflies, Golden Stones, and then Pale Morning Duns (PMDs). This is when the trout start seriously looking for surface foods, and casting a dry fly such as a Flush Floater, Chubby Chernobyl, or Morningwood Special along the willow-lined banks can provide fast and furious fun. Even when these bugs are hatching and you’re catching fish on top, it’s a truism on the Big Hole that you’d catch more by fishing subsurface with nymphs. But who wants to miss out on the topwater action?
Caddis and PMDs continue until mid-July, and as the water drops and clears in the summer, dry-fly fishing becomes an evening (or cool, cloudy afternoon) affair. During the daytime in July, you’ll normally need to sharpen your nymphing skills, drifting attractor patterns such as Prince Nymphs, Squirmy Wormies, Pheasant Tails, and Pat’s Rubber Legs.
In August, a flurry of spruce moth activity often causes the daytime dry-fly fishing to pick up, especially in areas like Fishtrap Campground, where the river runs alongside forested slopes. Fishing grasshopper patterns is a better bet where the Big Hole runs through agricultural terrain, and grasshopper “hatches” can be huge during haying time. Other terrestrials, such as ants and beetles, are good choices if the trout start getting picky. But most often, a good attractor like an Amy’s Ant, Fat Angie, or Stimulator fits the bill. These Big Hole fish aren’t count-the-tails-on-your-dry-fly trout, and a light-colored Stimulator isn’t a bad imitation of a spruce moth or hopper.
By the third week of August, Trico hatches add to the terrestrial insects to create what is likely the most dependable and esthetically pleasing dry-fly fishing of the entire year. Male Trico duns hatch in the afternoons and evenings, and the females hatch at night or very early in the morning. Then giant clouds of spinners gather over the river, and when the air temperature hits about 65 or 68 degrees F., the tiny mayflies mate and fall to the water, and the trout begin to gorge. After the morning spinner fall, a sunken size 20 spent Trico will work all day, especially fished as part of a dry/dropper rig, such as a Stimulator with a sunken Trico hanging below it.
Climate Concerns in Montana
Late summer provides dependable fishing, but with fishing, nothing is guaranteed. In drought years, the Big Hole can become critically low and susceptible to high water temperatures. The nonprofit Big Hole Watershed Committee (BHWC) was formed in 1995 to find solutions to these problems, in particular to preserve and restore one of Montana’s only remaining populations of fluvial Arctic grayling.
At the time, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) was studying the river as a potential candidate for a “chronically dewatered” listing to protect the grayling. In 1997, the newly formed BHWC helped enact the first drought management plan in the state. The plan depended on voluntary participation from the ranching community to meet target river flows. It was a model throughout the state, and is still in use today. Because of the efforts of the BHWC, the Big Hole never was listed as “chronically dewatered,” and the grayling population is stronger now than at any time in recent memory.
The BHWC also funded the creation and maintenance of five stream gauges on the Big Hole that monitor the river’s flow and water temperatures. You can check that live data anytime at bhwc.org/river-conditions.
The drought management plan calls for closing the upper river when flows drop below minimum thresholds. The last time that happened was on July 1, 2021, when two sections of the river were given “hoot owl restrictions,” which means no fishing on those sections from 2 P.M. until midnight each day. The same restrictions were placed on several other Montana rivers. Historically, the high altitude here and multiple cold tributaries keep the river cool and the grayling (and trout) healthy. But drought and unusual heat have become persistent problems in recent years all over Montana, and if 2021 taught us anything, high water temperatures can happen even here. Temperatures on the Big Hole peaked at over 70 degrees for several days in a row beginning in June of 2021, and that never happens. Until it did.
Fortunately, the Complete Fly Fisher sits in the middle of God’s Country and is surrounded by trout water on all sides. When the river is high and dirty—or low and warm—the lodge’s owners have the permits, the experience, and the capacity to take their guests beyond Anaconda to Rock Creek, to the much larger Missouri River tailwater, and to the Beaverhead near Dillon (another tailwater). They are also experts at dealing with almost any water conditions on the Big Hole, and they are flexible enough to get you on the river early in the morning when conditions require it.
These guides at the Complete Fly Fisher are among the best in Montana. They are not just punching a time clock, and they have decades of experience. Head guide Max Lewis has been at CFF for 16 years. I fished with him in 2007, and then again in 2021. Guide Kelly Kimzey also lives in the valley and has worked at CFF for 22 years. He doesn’t just know the Big Hole, he knows every secret farm pond and obscure spring creek in southwest Montana. Yes, they are creating an experience for you, but they are also part of the core group of river stewards who watch over this river throughout the seasons and the decades. Their dedication is a big part of what makes the Big Hole Valley “the last best place.”
Ross Purnell is editor/publisher of Fly Fisherman magazine.