Big Hole River: A Grand Slam
Big Hole River: A Grand Slam
Six fish species, one river
When one thinks of Montana fishing—big fish, beautiful scenery, few people—the Big Hole comes immediately to mind. This river drops 2,700 vertical feet over its 150-mile course, and includes high-mountain meadows, open cattle range, pine forests, deep tumbling canyons, and riparian cottonwood habitat. Human population is sparse. And the Big Hole is the only river in the Lower 48 that offers a wild grand slam: rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and brook trout, plus fluvial grayling and whitefish. To catch these six fish on flies in a 24-hour period on one river is a true accomplishment.
The Big Hole has ample access and plenty of camping. There are 14 FWP/BLM sites with boat ramps, six of which have campgrounds. However, the majority of the Big Hole runs through private ranch land. If wading or getting out of the boat, be sure to stay below the high-water mark.
The Big Hole River is an undammed freestone river, meaning river flows depend on the whim of Mother Nature and vary greatly throughout the fishing season—from 10,000 CFS in the spring to 200 CFS in the late summer and early fall. Peak runoff is usually the first week of June, and salmonflies hatch just after the river starts to drop and warm above 55 degrees. This hatch starts low on the river and progresses upstream, producing vicious hits on big dries. When the river is above 5,000 CFS, floating the river is dangerous except for the stretch from Sportsman to Jerry Creek. During high flows, most boaters float 20-25 miles per day in hard boats. Later in the summer, most anglers only float a few miles and use rafts due to shallow water.
When to Go
April through October can be great fishing, but be mindful of water flows and temperature. In the early season, water temperatures can be cold and fishing will be good, but if water temperatures are trending too cold, the fish won’t be actively feeding. If the river rises suddenly from runoff, the fishing will vanish. As the season progresses, water temperatures on the Big Hole warm to the cutoff point around 2pm and continue to heat up until after dark. It’s important to get on and off the river early to enjoy the best fishing and not stress the fish as water temperatures rise into the high 60s.
The Big Hole has a wide variety of fish species. There are nice-size browns throughout the river system and a few monsters are caught every year—some of the largest in the state. There are also rainbows up to 16 inches, and the upper river holds a large number of brook trout eager to hit a dry fly. You can also find cutthroat, fluvial grayling, and whitefish.
Row vs. Wade
Floating the river is the most effective way to fish the Big Hole, which boasts about 75 miles of floatable water. You can access many runs with a boat, and won’t slip and slide on the river bottom. During spring runoff, make sure to check with local fly shops regarding current conditions or hazards—this can be a dangerous river. For anglers looking to wade, there are many access points, but be courteous to landowners’ property rights, as most of the river runs through private land.
The FWP fishing regulations are an invaluable resource when fishing any river in Montana, and the Big Hole is no exception. The Big Hole is one of three rivers in Montana that FWP limits for commercial outfitting use. This helps to maintain a non-crowded river and a quality experience.
From Bozeman, travel west on I-90 to the I-15 exit, then head south to the Divide or Melrose exits and follow the river frontage road. Alternately, head to the second exit #62 in Dillon and follow the signs to Backcountry Angler Fly Shop for the latest river conditions and favored bugs of the day. From there, anglers can take back roads traversing Poindexter Spring Creek (and Lewis and Clark’s route) to the upper reaches of the Big Hole. This is a scenic drive with good fishing. Starting near Skinner Meadows, the river can be followed and fished by a good road from I-15 to I-90, or even back to Dillon.
There is great fly fishing throughout the river for rainbows and browns below Jerry Creek. From Jerry Creek up-river there is a better chance of catching brook trout, cutthroats, and fluvial graylings, as well as rainbows and browns.
Tom Smith has guided professionally and outfitted southwest Montana since 1983. He owns and operates Backcountry Angler in Dillon. Visit backcountryangler.com for more information.
- O/B Store