All About Fly Fishing!

Great Rivers Of Montana (Part II)

Doc Knoll on the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers, Montana.

By Doc Knoll

In the last article I wrote about The Flathead and the Big Horn Rivers. In this segment I've elected to move to the southwestern part of the state and discuss the two rivers that are in considerable controversy at the present time... the Big Hole and the Beaverhead Rivers.

Whenever I hear someone, who lives in another part of this country, discuss anything about Montana they always call my home state "the last best place." They're probably right in that assumption. But, like anywhere else, even this vast expanse of land has its natural problems. With the two rivers I'm going to get started discussing their problem is annual water flow and how much of the clear liquid will be channeled through their banks.

The Big Hole River

The name brings pictures of a massive waterway but it is not. At certain times of the year it is quite easy to slip a raft onto its waters and drift silently through the valley that is known to be the coldest in the state for average winter temperatures. However, cold doesn't necessarily mean snow or precipitation of any kind. Since I have moved to Montana, the Big Hole has had several seasons where the summer GPS (gallons per second) was so low I had to take a double take at the figure. This is this reason the Big Hole and quite possibly the Beaverhead may become off limits to the visiting angler as possibly mandated by MFWP.

Geez... did I say that? Close the river to out-of-staters... Isn't that discrimination??? Someone must have a bug up their butt..... especially about the difference between a native angler and a visiting one. But, I guess that will most certainly be another article for a future date. When I came to Montana for my first fishing vacation, I stopped by the Big Hole and immediately fell in love with the Brook trout that swam in the river's headwater region. Beautiful, colorful and scrappy fish that willfully attacked my presentation on nearly every cast. I could do no wrong. Yes, the Brookies are still there just go south from Wisdom and ask a rancher to go fishing... Remember in Montana a patch of day glow red or orange paint alongside a gate is the legal "no trespassing sign." Ignore the sign and it will cost you... for certain.

Further down river the Big Hole gathers velocity and volume. It is here that most anglers go after the fairly large fish found in this waterway or the arctic grayling (which this river harbors the largest population of these fish in the lower forty eight states.) Public access is minimal but a smile and a friendly plea to park your vehicle along a ranch road will normally be met with a permission. Brown and rainbows are able to grow to good size in the lower reaches and a twenty-two incher is not uncommon. Attractor flies (anything with the name "royal" in it... humpy, stimulator wulff) will fair well until the heat of summer drive the fish into the deeper holes. It is here, in the holes, where local anglers toss beadheaded nymphs and weighted nymphs. Locals generally move toward streamers as the coolness of fall settles over the waterway.

When fishing any Montana waterway felt soled shoes are the best mode of transportation.

Large concentrations of moss and algae in the Big Hole will make summertime spin fishing a little difficult but in late fall and spring the die down of the water greenery will allow the spin angler an opportunity to wet a line. And, whenever you manage to arrive at the Big Hole you will most likely want fish the Beaverhead as well.

The Beaverhead River

This river bears the name "Beaverhead" because of a rock formation that generally looks like a head of the watery rodent. It is also regarded by may as the best natural fishery in the state. However, a good as it may be for producing large and numerous fish the Beaverhead is not the river that most visiting anglers wish to picture in their dreams. For the most part this waterway is miles from any "snow capped" mountains and the banks are overhung by willows and cottonwoods. The area just above the banks are filled with sage and other dryland habitat. But, the Beaverhead holds plenty of 20" fish. I've been told that in its mid section there is one twenty plus incher every for every seven feet of water. Now that's a pretty good ratio.

As I was writing this section on the Beaverhead the phone rang and a new customer from Sheridan, Montana called to see if I had any very large and webby neck feathers. I knew immediately what he wanted. The "hot" fly of choice on the Beaverhead is a wooly bugger made with a hackle as wide as the tail length of the fly. This causes the fly to "pulse" through the water and is a killer pattern in Montana. (Now watch... by the time you get here all the other shops are going to say they thought of it.) Fish this webby bugger with long pulls as you stip the fly back to yourself.

Hiring a guide may be the way to go on this river... since the vegetation on the banks may cause some problems for the wading angler. Locals will use the term "bobbing" to harangue the angler without a boat because once a large fish is hooked the novice will undoubtedly go "bobbing along" as he attempts to keep up with the fighting fish. Then again, there are stretches that are not quite as difficult to fish. The headwaters of the Beaverhead (along I-15) is not choked with growth as with the lower portions. Again and I must repeat myself... ask permission to fish first.

I would suggest that you spend several days in the Big Hole and Beaverhead areas. Many large fish are produced and unless you get in the water you will never have the desired photo hanging on your wall. Flies which will be needed are Caddis, Golden Stones, Yellow Sally, Crane fly (in August), PMD's and terrestrials of all kinds. Buggers are the nymph of choice followed by zonkers, muddlers and although I don't particularly like it a lot of anglers will fish a hopper and a dropper pattern using soft hackle patterns or bead-headed patterns.

There are numerous guide services in the area and accommodations are generally provided in the town of Dillon, Mt.