Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Montana’s Bighole River
Things are changing in Montana, but the Bighole Valley still holds some old-school charm.
By Barry Beck

Drifting the Bighole gives you great access to all the prime water. And drifting is a relaxing way to spend a day on this beautiful and prolific river. If it's your first time fishing the Bighole, the best thing you can do is hire a guide and let he or she teach you the secrets of this river.

Montana’s Bighole River is one of the most unique fisheries in the West, offering brown, rainbow and brook trout, along with native whitefish and grayling. The Bighole begins in massive open meadows, surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains near Wisdom, then heads through a series of canyons before dumping out in an arid desert-like landscape near Twin Bridges. Between those two spots are entertaining towns, with lively bars and eateries, and somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 trout per mile. While the average trout measures about 14 or 15 inches, the Bighole does kick out 20-plus-inch fish on a daily basis. And it offers a unique phenomenon where some of the female browns and rainbows are sterile and don’t put their energy into the spawn. Ever! This allows them to concentrate on eating and growth . . . and man do they grow. Every few years someone on the Bighole lands a 15-to 20-pound giant. And you have to imagine that fish ruined an afternoon or two before it was caught, its victims having likely fished 5X when they should have knotted on climbing rope. No matter when you fish the Big Hole, you’ll have some kind of hatch to match. Midges temp trout to the surface in late winter and early spring, along with blue-wing olives. Caddis come off in April and May and the big bugs—Pteronarcys and golden stones—follow in June, along with PMDs and drakes. The late-summer show is all about terrestrials and Tricos before streamers take over the show in fall. Spending a few days on this beautiful river, and soaking in the area’s relaxed pace is as refreshing and fun as it gets—classic northern Rockies fly fishing experience.

A typical Bighole guide's selection for the day. Most guides rely on a dry/dropper combination, which under normal water conditions almost always leads to success. For someone looking for a really big fish, a large streamer can be absolutely deadly.


Wise River, Montana was a one-horse town. It's grown over the years, like all small towns along the Bighole, but it’s never lost its personality. This is the true American West—ranchers, fisherman, hunters, and tourists land here, but things pretty much stay the same. Spend some time here and it grows on you. Don’t be fooled, however—the Bighole can be crowded at times, especially during the June salmonfly hatch. Still, there are lots of fish and they have to eat.


Cathy Beck fishes to a rising trout during a Trico spinnerfall. Although the river is best known for its stonefly hatches and larger mayflies and caddis, there is still an honest Trico hatch in late summer and early fall. The fish can be extremely selective to those tiny spinners, but for those of us who enjoy a technical challenge, it can be as close to nirvana as you can get.


As summer turns toward fall on the Bighole, you can fishTricos in the morning and work the banks and pools with streamers when the surface activity wanes. This is a great time to be a dry-fly fisher and an equally productive time to focus on large trout—the Bighole kicks out legitimate five-pounders from time to time and every once in a while someone lands a 15-to 20-pound behemoth.


Late summer and early fall have always been my favorite times on the Bighole. The fresh, cool morning temperatures are invigorating and the warm afternoons with rising fish are the icing on the cake.


The Bighole offers an amazing diversity of water and fishing opportunities. There's something here for everyone—flat water with rising fish, runs and riffles for the high-stick nympher, and some very deep water where a big streamer fished along the bank or deep sometimes finds its target, in the form of a 24 to 26-inch brown trout.


This is the magic moment that all dry-fly fishers hope for, when a large brown trout comes to the surface and sucks in your surface fly, in this case a Super Beetle. Strike too soon and you'll miss the fish; strike too late and the game's over. Summer and fall offer lots of opportunities to fish ants, beetles and hoppers and, the fish are opportunistic. On a good day, with the fish looking up for terrestrials and willing to eat, there is no better stream in Montana and maybe no better place to be in the West.


Barry Beck
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