A Sanctuary on the Lower Big Hole River

June 24, 2009 by Caroline Leave a reply »


Ahh, Montana, Montana ranches, Montana rivers…Perhaps the state most gifted with beautiful crystalline rivers and streams that flow cold, filled with wild trout.  Nestled in the state’s southwestern region lies arguably the most prolific blue ribbon water in the entire West – the Big Hole Basin of the Upper Missouri River watershed. These waters provide diversity and sanctuary to the surrounding arid, yet stunning landscape. Within minutes from the quaint town of Twin Bridges, Montana, there are four river drainages that each offer world-class angling with obvious unique differences and charm – the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Ruby and the Jefferson.  On the Big Hole River, fly fishing has always been an integral part of the community and the river has earned a status and respect that resonates across the fly fishing world and is considered one of the most diverse and dynamic watersheds in all of the western United States.


This small to medium-sized river emerges from the Beaverhead and Pioneer Mountains in the upper part of the “U” shaped Big Hole Valley. Its course is northerly as it flows past the town of Wisdom, Montana, then eventually turns eastward and southward into the Melrose area. Largely a freestone stream, the Big Hole River gathers nourishment and cold water from the many springs along its course before its rendezvous with the Beaverhead and Ruby Rivers, forming the Jefferson River near Twin Bridges.

The lower sections of the Big Hole from Melrose to Twin Bridges exemplify the stark contrasts between near desert hillsides and lush wetland river bottom. Here the cattails and cactus harmonize to create a striking backdrop for the visiting or local angler. The river channel in these lower reaches runs a varied course, often changing around each bend, providing vital habitat for the fish of the river and the many creatures that rely on its health. Long glides broken by riffles become braided and isolate small islands that harbor an oasis for the Whitetail deer and beavers frequently seen here. Outside the river corridor, old stands of cottonwoods and willows shelter a canopy filled with migrating song birds and the other local fisherman – herons, kingfishers, eagles and osprey.

As you step up away from the shallow water table, the landscape quickly changes to an arid and sparsely treed zone scattered with old cattle ranches that have forged their place in the valley. The hillsides are covered by native short prairie grasses and small cacti and the numerous rock outcroppings.


This region has long been known for its wealth of wild trout and also maintains a strong population of native grayling in the upper end of the Big Hole River. The lower river has very good numbers of both brown and rainbow trout and the native whitefish average 13”-15” with trophy-class fish lurking among the deep runs. Browns are caught each season nearing the elusive 30” mark, making any outing a chance for a lifetime encounter.

The health of this river is apparent by the number of different age class trout in the system. High numbers of juvenile trout in the shallows are a good indicator that everything is intact. With more successful spawning and rearing habitat, the river gains a high recruitment into the next size class and those are the fish we anglers truly enjoy in strong numbers.


The region of the lower Big Hole sees a milder winter than much of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Located in a dry line, or so called “banana belt”, the area receives very little snowfall and relies on the mountains to the west for river flow and spring recharge. During the runoff, which starts in late April, the river becomes high and discolored yet often remains fishable with high peaks in flow being the only exception. The early season can be fantastic with good hatches of sqwalla stoneflies and March browns. Streamers and large rubber leg nymphs are standard play as the river begins to drop from snowmelt in late May or early June. The salmon fly hatch in early June is world famous and brings out the large trout and the first crowds of summer.

The summers of southwest Montana can vary greatly and the weather can change quickly. The river flow in mid-summer averages around 300cfs making the wade-fisherman happy. However, there is nothing quite like a solitary float on the Big Hole’s lower sections, lining the grassy banks with hoppers and hoping for a grab from the shadows. Hatches in the summer are standard fare – caddis, sallies and pmds round out the menu as the terrestrials gain in numbers. During the hottest of summers, the low flows can become too warm for the trout and the state’s fish and game offices will issue temporary closures that limit the fishing to early am and late pm, offering a pleasant mid-day siesta.

The autumn lingers, providing a special window of opportunity for some of the river’s trophy trout. Well into October the weather can remain pleasant and the streamer mania spreads all across the region as the brown trout prepare for spawning sometime in November. As winter sets in, the river develops shelf ice and the trout drop into the best winter habitat available. Angling slows to only a few die hard souls that brave the cold, dry winds that carry the soft, feathery seeds of the summer cattails.

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