Fly Fishing the Big Hole River in Montana
The Yellowstone and Madison river valleys set the standard by which many anglers judge the beauty of Montana’s other waters. Open basins, towering mountain peaks, and an abundance of wildlife make these areas popular among those looking for breathtaking scenery and great fishing. However, for my money, I’ll trade the Yellowstone or Madison for the Big Hole River any day of the week. There isn’t a stretch on this system that doesn’t make me sit back and gaze in complete awe. From the upper half’s long meandering meadow stretches, to the lower river’s dry, desert like canyons, the Big Hole is a magical place to fish.
Where and When
Created from the outflow of Skinner Lake just inside Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, the Big Hole begins as a high-mountain stream that snakes through private ranches, gaining volume on its way toward Wisdom. Relatively few anglers travel to this portion of the river, though there are a handful of access points along Skinner Meadows Road. It isn’t until the junction of the North Fork of the Big Hole that the river takes the shape most fishermen are familiar with. This upper river between Wisdom and Wise River is by far my favorite. Forested slopes, rolling hillsides, and the distant snow capped peaks of the Beaverhead and Pintler mountains make each turn look like something from a postcard.
Fish populations in the upper river are not as strong as the lower sections, but the quality remains somewhat consistent until the warm water temperatures of late summer push them downstream. You will find a fair number of brown trout and an occasional rainbow, but it’s the brook trout that keep me coming back. Some of the finest brookies I’ve landed (many over 16 inches long) were between the Squaw Creek, Fishtrap, Sportsman’s Park, East Bank, and Dickie Bridge accesses—all of which are off the shoulder of MT 43 between Wisdom and Wise River. Try pitching small black or olive streamers that represent leeches or sculpins below any cold, clear inflow from tributaries or irrigation runoff.
Drought and insufficient winter snowfall has hurt the entire Big Hole in years past, but it’s the fish of the upper Big Hole that get the worst of both extremes—an unbelievably cold, sterile, ice-covered canopy in the winter and low, warm flows in the height of summer. Keep an eye on water levels and temperatures, and if conditions are stressful to fish limit your time on the water to early morning and evening hours or relocate to another stretch of water. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks often closes the water or enforces strict angling restrictions to protect what populations remain in the upper river through the summer, so be alert for any notices posted at public access points.
Travel north from Wise River on MT 43 a few miles toward Divide and Melrose and you’ll acquire a uniquely different experience as you enter what locals call the canyon stretch. The smooth, spring creek like nature of the upper river becomes intermittently interrupted by riffles, fast-water runs, side channels, boulders, and other structure. A tight mountain corridor suddenly cuts off the views of the sweeping hillsides, and before you know it the terrain is an experienced oarsman’s game from jerry Creek to Powerhouse (sometimes called Old Divide Bridge), especially during high flows. If you’re not intimidated, some of the best the Big Hole has to offer anglers is within the canyon stretch.
If you’re short on time, consider the Dewey site (sometimes called the George Grant Memorial site) on the north side of MT 43 to Powerhouse float. For the wading angler, there is Greenwood Bottoms about 1.5 miles downstream (east) from Dewey. This area has plenty of fish—including some that push the tape over 20 inches—but with that sort of notoriety comes the angling traffic, so remember your manners.
Most floaters use the Powerhouse (Old Divide Bridge) access and primitive boat ramp almost exclusively for a take-out. A large, dangerous diversion dam just downstream of the bridge makes the area between Powerhouse and Divide Bridge (Silver Bridge) downstream nearly impossible to float, but the state is discussing plans for a possible portage route in the future. If you’re fishing on foot, there are some solid wade-fishing opportunities here, especially upstream of the bridge. The riffles, pockets, and eddies behind the rocks are great for bouncing off a wicked-looking foam attractor. Some nice fish live in this stretch, and once the craziness of Salmon fly season winds down, it’s worth revisiting on foot. Turn northeast on Powerhouse Road from MT 43. The road is short and drops down onto the bridge. Parking and the boat ramp are on the north side.
Downstream of the diversion dam is the Divide Bridge (Silver Bridge) site on the southwest side of MT 43. Much of the water between here and the upper Maiden Rock area is wide and open like the meadow stretches of the upper river. It is popular during stone fly season though because the brush lined banks are a haven for stone flies, and as high-water tapers off it’s a great time to float and pitch big patterns around and under the vegetation. Some say the highest fish-per-mile counts are from Silver Bridge downstream.
Upper Maiden Rock (there are two Maiden Rock access points that locals typically differentiate by calling them Upper and Lower Maiden Rock) marks the beginning of the famous Maiden Rock canyon stretch. Popular because of its scenic qualities and fish populations, this area sees the most traffic when Salmon flies appear. A frontage road intersects with MT 43 near Divide. Maiden Rock Road connects with the frontage road a few miles south of Divide. It’s a dusty, bumpy dirt road that drops down into the canyon and connects with the river. There is a large parking area on the east side of the river, but the boat ramp is on the west side, slightly upstream from the bridge.
Lower Maiden Rock is a little tougher to reach. From the town of Melrose, take Trapper Creek Road (CR 40) west. It crosses the river (where you’ll see the Salmon Fly access) and works up into the hills. Maiden Rock Road branches off to the north and works back toward the river’s western shore. After passing Meriwether Ranch Estates, the road passes several pull-offs and small camping areas where you can jump out and walk to the river. There is a sign and campground at the Maiden Rock site. If you have trouble finding either Upper or Lower Maiden Rock, ask for directions at any of the local fly shops and they’ll put you on the right path.
When stone flies are hatching in June and July, dozens of boats put in at Divide Bridge, Upper Maiden Rock, or Lower Maiden Rock, float the canyon, and take out at Salmon Fly (stay river left—the river forks and the access is in the left channel near a bridge neighboring the town of Melrose). The seclusion of the canyon, fast water runs, and big bugs draw people from all over the world, but once the flows drop and the fishing pressure spreads out more evenly across the state, this stretch remains a terrific place to fish. In years when drought conditions and river closures arenrt such an issue, the areas up and downstream of Divide and Melrose are some of my favorite places to fish Tricos.
After Melrose, the valley opens up, and there are a handful of other access points like Brownes Bridge, Kalsta Bridge, Glen, Notch Bottom, Pennington Bridge, and High Road before the river merges with the Beaverhead near Twin Bridges and forms the Jefferson. Look for some of the river ‘s largest browns near fallen timber, inside seams bordering sharp banks, side channels (of which there are many), and any other structure that creates “ambush” pockets.
Brownes and Kalsta bridges are close to one another and easy to reach from the frontage road between Melrose and Glen. After the town of Glen, turn east on Burma Road to reach the Glen access. It’s on the southwest side of the bridge before crossing the river, continue on Burma Road, winding along the bottom of the hills, and you’ll eventually work back to the river and Notch Bottom. To reach Pennington Bridge, you can stay on Burma Road or drive around on MT 43 toward Twin Bridges and turn west on Pennington Bridge Road. The last access on the river is High Road, though high water recently destroyed this site, and at the time of this writing, the MDFWP has no plans to reconstruct it. In the event they do rebuild the access, from MT 43, turn west on Melrose Bench Road approximately one mile south from Twin Bridges.
This area is also a good choice if you’re looking for some early- or late season action. In most years the upper river remains under a blanket of snow and ice well into spring (Wisdom is one of the coldest towns in the state), and since the river doesn’t receive much sunlight in some canyon segments, it takes time for the river to warm up enough that fish are motivated to feed. Nymph rigs (with stonefly patterns) are the weapons of choice, but if you’re lucky enough to hit the water during a warming trend, slow-stripped streamer patterns fished deep can also yield results.
The streamer game from Melrose down is different than what it is upriver. Up by Wise River the river is wide and shallow. From Divide and Melrose on down you get more pocket water and deeper pools, especially down to the end of the river. But there’s still some rocks and good structure to fish around,” Montana Fly Company fly-shop owner George Goody says.
In the fall, the browns are packing on the pounds before winter and can hit streamers with ferocity. If you’re a big-fly enthusiast, revisit the lower river at this time. The climate makes for a pleasant day on the water, and you can find solitude as the tourism season winds down.
Hatches and Flies
Fishing on the Big Hole can kick off as early as March depending on weather patterns and water temperatures and extend into mid-May. Diehards looking for that early-season fix can find smatterings of Baetis, midges, March Browns, and Skwalas, but it is mostly a nymphing affair. Being the case, why would anyone hit the Big Hole this early in the season? Simple. It’s one of the few times you can seemingly fish an entire day and see only a handful of anglers. Post runoff crowds on the Big Hole are legendary, so while you may catch fewer fish than you would in the peak of the season, you can travel downstream without playing bumper boats.
If the Salmon fly hatch is the number one event on the Big Hole, then the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch has to be a close second. It typically starts and ends a week or two before Mother’s Dav, but the holiday acts as a good reminder to watch the weather patterns, water temperatures, and streamflow gauges. At its peak, this hatch looks like an explosion of fluttering tan wings dancing and darting above the water, near brushy banks, and eventually into the mouths of surface-feeding fish. Size 12-14 Goddard Caddis, Elk-Hair Caddis, Stimulators, and tan Spotlight Caddis are good patterns.
Although spectacular, the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch is typically short lived and flirts with the beginning of runoff. Sometimes you hit epic fishing; other times the hatches are sporadic or the fish never key in on them. Finding fishable hatches is a tough balance between water temperatures and weather patterns. A mounting trend of warm weather slowly brings the water temperature up without flushing the system with snow melt. But a sudden and drastic rise in daytime temperatures, though it may put some bugs in the air, will bring on the muddy water. Given these temperamental thresholds, the Mother’s Day Caddis is typically the last hatch worth targeting before runoff rears its ugly head.
Runoff typically begins near the middle of May and lasts several weeks depending on snowfall amounts and daytime temperatures. The fishing, however, can kick-start again with only a foot or two of visibility (perfect for streamers) and the flows begin to diminish. If you’re trying to coordinate a trip, keep in touch with the local fly shops as they see the water daily, can somewhat predict stream flows, and let you know what is working.
Without question the marquee hatch on the Big Hole are the Salmon flies. In years past there have been so many anglers converging on the lower river, the boat ramps and access sites have populations that rival neighboring towns. The key is patience and courtesy. Don’t block the ramps while you load or unload your gear, and remember that wading anglers need space too.
The Salmon fly hatch typically begins on the lower river and migrates upstream a few miles a day. While some local guides and outfitters claim you’ll catch the biggest fish if you stick with nymphs like a brown Pat’s Rubber Legs, it’s hard to resist the temptation of throwing #4 dry flies on short, stout tippets.
Salmon-flies are haphazard fliers that crash to the water, so do not be afraid to slam large dry patterns onto the water near bushes or any structure hanging over the water. Then add an occasional twitch or two for the illusion of a struggling bug. Once the madness of the Salmon-fly season ceases, expect hatches of Green Drakes, PMDs, Yellow Sallies, Tricos, hoppers, and caddis to give you pockets of opportunity through the heat of the season. When it comes to dry-fly selection on the Big Hole, however, don’t get pigeonholed into thinking specific imitations are the only way to go. You may be on the water witnessing the biggest hatch of Baetis you’ve ever seen in your life, but for some reason, the fish are willing to eat a #8 Stimi Chew Toy with just as much enthusiasm. I don’t have the same experience anywhere else—but attractor patterns, for whatever reason, appeal to these fish. If you aren’t seeing fish rise to specific naturals, or they aren’t interested in the imitation you’re offering, go with the buggiest attractor in your box. In midsummer to late summer, hoppers line the banks and a twitched parachute or foam pattern near any type of vegetation or structure is aces.
While the Trico hatch on the Big Hole is one of my favorites, their intensity has waned in recent seasons. While the fish are up on them, myself and other area outfitters haven’t seen the massive clouds of bugs on the lower river that were common in the late 1990s. Some blame the drought and the increased sedimentation, but others say it’s cyclical. “The good Trico fishing is mainly from Maiden Rock down to Notch Bottom. Hit the river early in the morning and you can have as much fun as you want,” Smith says.
While Salmon flies, caddis, and a host of terrestrials have no trouble bringing the big boys to the surface throughout the season, I am a fi.rm believer in going deep and going big in search of those fish over 20 inches. The Big Hole is a terrific river for streamer fishing. When flows are up, I like to use weighted patterns and a sinking-tip line. Later in the season I’ll switch to a floating line and smaller, lighter ties. I’m addicted to the rush that comes from seeing big fish ambush a streamer. So when the water is clear and slow, I retrieve my pattern just beneath the surface where I can see it. Occasionally I’ll let it dip a few feet, but I never lose sight of the silhouette.
The most popular (and easiest to access) portions of the Big Hole are an easy reach from MT 43. If you’re in the Bitterroot Valley, a simple jump across Chief Joseph Pass from US 93 puts you in Wisdom (stop by Fetty’s for breakfast and the Antler Saloon in the evening for drinks and pizza). If you’re near Dillon or coming from Butte, take 1-15 south and exit at Divide, Melrose, or the interchange with MT 278 to reach the river. Between Divide and Glen a highway frontage road (MT 91) will help you connect with both Maiden Rock access points, as well as Salmon Fly, Brownes Bridge, and Glen.