Day Trip Upper Big Hole

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

The Big Hole River in SW Montana has many faces. The upper reaches around Wisdom, Montana present anglers many challenges.  First of which is that it is essentially in the middle of nowhere, a long way away from even modest Montana civilization. Wisdom, named for the Wisdom River (as the Big Hole was originally named by Lewis and Clark), boasts a whopping population of 100 +/-.  At 6000 feet MSL, mornings can be frosty, even in August. The stretch from Wisdom to the access point at Fishtrap Creek, some 15 miles as the crow flies is a wide, meandering low gradient stream with lots of weed growth.  Pools and runs with any meaningful depth are few and far between. Very much unlike the canyon and cottonwood bottom reaches farther downstream. Although the upper Big Hole has healthy flows as runoff subsides, it is subject to serious dewatering for irrigation and mid-summer and fall flows can become dangerously low.

Apart from being a long way from anywhere, legal access to the upper Big Hole is very limited as it is surrounded by private cattle and hay ranches with few road crossings. My destination today was an unimproved spot just off highway 43 that somehow has not been subjected to placement of No Trespassing signs.  The 138-mile drive from Bozeman had me crossing the Continental Divide twice. One reminder that SW Montana lies at the headwaters of two of the largest river systems in the U.S.–the Columbia and Missouri. It is no wonder that the upper Big Hole River valley is a haven for cattle and hay. The wide, relatively flat valley, often called the Valley of Ten Thousand Haystacks, holds a premier place in the history of Montana Cattle ranching. Starting in 1850s, former California gold prospectors and American and Canadian fur trappers began exploiting migrants on the Oregon Trail in central Idaho. The trappers and miners would trade one healthy, fat cow for two worn-out cows in the fall. In 1857, they started moving the worn-out cattle north into the Beaverhead and Big Hole Valleys to over winter and fatten up in the spring. This cattle trade ultimately spawned one of the largest and historic cattle ranches in Western Montana, the Grant-Kohrs ranch in Deer Lodge, Montana. At one point, over 50,000 cattle grazed in the Deer Lodge valleys.

Even today, cattle are a mainstay in the Big Hole Valley, but that’s not why anglers visit this part of the Big Hole River. The reach from Wisdom to Fishtrap Creek is home to one of Montana’s Crown Jewels of angling–the Montana Arctic Graying (fluvial Arctic Grayling). A vestigial population of wild and native fluvial Arctic Grayling hangs on in the upper Big Hole and Red Rock River (an even more remote place).  Biologists estimate that the two surviving native populations represent less than 4% of their original native range. Today, I was smack dab in the middle of that 4%. Although I’d driven by the put-in many times in the last decade, I’d hadn’t wet a line in the upper Big Hole for nearly 40 years. I really didn’t know what to expect.

As I dropped the kayak into the river around 7AM, frost on the ground and a heavy mist over the river told me the water was much warmer. Despite the frost, wet wading was comfortable. A few fish were rising to some unknown bug in the long pool below the put in but I headed upstream. For a couple of hours, I prospected the deepest runs with a bugger only to gather in one small brown trout. The low, clear water and moss growth was a real obstacle. It was difficult to keep drifting pieces of moss from fouling the fly and fly line. At about 9AM a hint of a good Trico hatch began to show itself and I decided to head back to the long deep pool. As I approached the head of the pool, it was evident where the fish were. End-to-end, bank-to-bank there were rising fish everywhere. Unfortunately, the great majority of them were whitefish, thousands of them. I switched up to a dry fly, a #16 parachute Adams as the massive Trico hatch reached choking proportions. I concentrated on the deeper side of the pool along the riprap bank. In three passes through the pool over a three-hour period, a couple of small browns and two 14-inch rainbows came to hand. But despite the countless whitefish, a couple of jewels also graced my presence. I was lucky enough to tag two wild, native fluvial Arctic Grayling—one was ten inches, the other six. It had been over 40 years since I had caught a Big Hole Graying.

Each time I paddled back through the pool to start another pass, I floated over rafts of 100s of whitefish whose shape and behavior made them easy to distinguish. Trout and grayling didn’t reveal themselves in the deep water. Every trip has its moments and of course for this one the grayling was the highlight.

However, during my first wade down the pool I disturbed a pair of river otters along the deep bank. One was a large male who aggressively swam out toward me snorting and diving. As he tried to circle around me I retreated to the boat and moved to the shore. The otter retreated and went back for his partner and moved down river. You never mess with angry otters.

Although Arctic Grayling aren’t uncommon in lake dwelling forms, and even fluvial forms are common in the Arctic, wild Montana Fluvial Arctic Grayling are indeed a rare fish. It should be a bucket list fish for any serious freshwater fly angler. Unless you are one of the 100 souls that live in Wisdom, Montana, you must travel a bit and work hard to find them as I did on my day trip to the Upper Big Hole.

3 thoughts on “Day Trip Upper Big Hole

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Very nice article Mike–enjoyed it. I’ve never hooked a grayling that I recall (although it’s possible I did up on the Noatak, way out by the Bering Sea, one summer…I don’t recall every fish I tied into back then). I can imagine it must be quite a thrill to bring a rare creature to hand and then “tarn ‘er loose” to swim again. About all I have occasional access to is the Golden Trout but even so anything rare is special.

    I want to ask you what kind of rig you tend to use on ultra-still, ultra-clear water such as the stretch of the Big Hole you wrote about. Do you tend to go with really long leaders, for example? That can be a handful/headache on a little stream if there’s any vegetation along the banks, but the alternative might be fooling no fish. I vascillate on different approaches to such water…and I think we all enjoy the trading of methods and techniques. How, from a rig perspective for both the bugger and the dry, did you approach the Big Hole that day?

    Reply
    1. Mike Cline

      Mike
      Nothing fancy. 7.5″ light trout furled leader with ~18″ of either 3X or 4X tippet on a 4 wgt. Fish aren’t that finicky during a big Trico hatch.

      Mike

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Well I envy you! Almost everywhere I know that can be described as slow-n-clear water is a “spook ’em and get skunked” fest, even with the 6x fluoro I tend to use. It’s probably one good reason why I gravitate to the riffles, which are more forgiving. Again, nice article; enjoyed it.

        Reply

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