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The Sun-Baked Speculator
Dillon, Montana, September 2005
Back to the big sky country again, this time five days in Dillon. I love the fall in SW Montana, and although fall can be a bit short some years this September trip proved to be one perfect time again for after work exploring, long drives to remote vistas, visiting of old friends, and of course fishing. The area around Dillon is a fly fishing paradise several lakes, two big rivers of the upper Missouri system, and several large creeks. This is the area that Lewis and Clark trekked thru on their way across the northwest they camped in and around Dillon for several days and hiked across the continental divide just west of Dillon at Lemhi Pass. Fishing here is in some ways best in the fall; the tourists are all gone, the weather can still be gorgeous with highs in the 60s in the day, the days are still long enough to get some fishing in with more than one or two spots, and the fish are usually hungry knowing that winter is coming on. Water levels are too low for boaters so a person with insulated waders, boots and a willingness to hike off the beaten track is at a clear advantage.
Early in the trip I got in a few hours of fishing each day after work standing in the Beaverhead River south of Dillon as dusk isn t until 7Pm this time of year. The headwaters of the Beaverhead are controlled by Clark Canyon Dam so the river generally has a constant flow no matter what the season and as a result the river has a braided meandering character for much of its stretch, and is heavy with riparian vegetation, and cottonwood trees. The locals all tell me that there are monster rainbow trout in the upper Beaverhead but after fishing there for 20 years plus I am beginning to think that the regulated and controlled underwater ecosystem on the upper Beaverhead is a lot less vibrant than on the wilder Big Hole and Wise Rivers as I always seem to catch more fish and bigger fish in the wilder rivers (true in trading markets as well I have found). However, the fishing there is always very good and I was not disappointed this time either. Although I was fishing rather late in the day, and could not get the fish to take to a well presented dry fly, the smaller rainbows were hitting rather aggressively on a golden stone fly fished just under the surface at the head of each pool I trekked and waded to. The technique is to cast to one side with some slack and float the fly downstream below you at a slight angle off your fall line and then swing the fly into the current and retrieve briefly against the current with the idea that the flash of the lure swinging in front of the fish will bring a strike. It s a bit like the market intraday lollygagging around and then suddenly dropping 3,4 ticks in a brief moment to entice you to buy it. Of course, like in the market, that only works on the naive and smaller fish. But it does work if you want to catch rainbows, especially late in the day. You start by dropping the fly two ticks below you, then add some more line and try 3 ticks below, then some more line and 4 ticks below progressively working your way down the pool until you have too much line out or have worked thru all of the prospective buyers for your lure then its on the next big pool. However all of this was just a warm-up for the days off which were to be spent in my favorite river, The Big Hole.
The Big Hole River is like a great Shakespearean actor who can play many roles. The upper headwaters of the river on the west side of the Pioneer Range near Wisdom Montana and the Big Hole Battlefield where the Nez Perce made a final stand, is a braided slow mover of many channels, many big meanders and lots of creek tributaries. Some of the biggest Brook trout I have ever seen or caught have been from the upper Big Hole just north of Wisdom. Lower down the river picks up volume and grade and cuts a canyon through the north end of the Pioneers where it is joined by the smaller, but still fishable river known as Wise River. With the water from Wise River added to its flow, the river turns wild and rough and enters a long stretch of fast canyon water that lures river rafters in the summer bent on a fun filled roller coaster of a ride. Yet the canyon stretch is still full of fish and some big trout live in that wild fast water which can be caught on flashy wet flies and lures fished just under the surface. The water is fast enough that you must use a sinking tip leader line with little or no tippet attached to the end so the lure will drop down in the fast water before you go to retrieve it. The river here is a lot like a more volatile commodity market you have to get the bid down deep in order to catch anything and be ready for a limit down once you catch something so tie the fly well to the line.
The river then breaks out of the canyon and turns south again into a series of valleys which are flatter farmland, first the town of Melrose, then the town of Glen and finally Twin Bridges where the river meets the Beaverhead and forms the Jefferson River which leads on to the Missouri. This is the stretch where the big trout are found, a meandering braided stretch of river which twists and turns for over 50 miles through some of the nicest country one can find in SW Montana and where the well presented dry fly can land the trophy fish. That s where I planned to fish on my days off.
One of my many favorite spots on that lower section of the Hole is a place called Notch Bottom. It has lots of big bends, and two to three channels at this time of year.
There is a back road that runs thru the valley alongside of the river, but places to park and put into the river are generally about a mile to three miles apart. My strategy is usually to hike upstream a bit before getting the line wet for two reasons. First, people do tend to be lazy when it comes to hiking and the sections nearest the parking spots get over fished. Second, it allows me to observe the river a bit before putting in my line to see how the current is moving, if the fish are rising, the direction and strength of the prevailing wind, and what bugs might be about. You have to do that because the river is constantly changing and every day is a bit different. And I head upstream to start simply because at the end of the day when I am tired and its getting dark and I am cursing myself for staying in the river too long it s a lot better to be walking downstream with the current than the other alternative.
September 22 2005 was my day for this trip. My experience on the Big Hole in the fall is that the best fishing starts around 10AM and stops around 4PM. So I was ready for the open at 9. There was no one in my #1 spot so I suited up with the waders (insulated waders a must in these cold waters) and head out. It was partly cloudy and going to hit 60 according to forecasts. The wind was blowing downriver from the west in small gusts followed by total calm and it didn t take long to see that fish were rising to feed in the slack water. Exactly what they were rising to, however, that s not always obvious. So after research I decide to tie on an elk hair caddis and start.
When standing in the river up to your waist it is always good to move into position and then wait a bit as the fish can generally detect you moving as your feet crunch on the gravel and you dislodge various pieces of underwater vegetation and silt. Early and late in the day you also have to be a bit careful of your shadow I have found. So after waiting for 5 minutes or so like a statue a fish rises to the surface not more than 3 feet from me and I know it is time to begin to cast. I am using a floating leader line with a long length of 5x tippet line in order to make a good presentation. In the still water of a lake, your line can just be left to lay on the surface and you can leave your presentation of your fly for as long as you might like, but in a big river like this you will only have 10-15 seconds at most even with the best cast before the fly starts to drag and look unnatural to the fish so it pays to be deliberate and careful with your casting.
Well as is usual my first cast is lousy, my second slightly better and by the third I have just about the right length of line out and I make a good caste. And I catch my first fish of the day, a small rainbow. You can always tell the rainbows from the whitefish when first hooked because the rainbows have a habit of jumping out of the water more than the whitefish or the brown trout. Subsequent casts net 3 more fish but all of those are whitefish so I figure its time to move.
At the next pool I decide to try another type of fly, an adams, and it also seems to work as I net another trout and another whitefish. This tells me that the fish are hungry and apt to hit anything that is well presented. So at the next pool I try this big poofy brown fly that I bought in Haines Alaska back in June which I had used somewhat successfully in the Chillkat wilderness but this offering is not accepted so I go back to the adams and sure enough another fish is caught. So that told me that although the fish are hungry they are not adventurously hungry these fish are bit provincial, kind of like the locals in a trading pit who could care less what other markets are doing they just look at the contracts they know and like.
And so it goes, although mid-day the wind kicks up a bit rippling the water and suddenly the fish just stop hitting. So there is nothing to do except wait it out. I stand in the river and wait. And wait. Two other fisherman come up on the south bank and pass by me, friendly banter ensues. They don t believe my count but fishermen never fully believe each other, it s sort of natural law. I watch them set up below me and hit the wind stippled water with their lines repeatedly with no success. Finally, when they start to move on, the wind dies and the water gets still again and the fish start to rise once more and my first cast nets another whitefish on the adams. My competition is examining me as I proceed to catch another fish, this time a nice sized trout that is about 18 inches stem to stern. It works the line quite hard and takes me awhile to get him in to release him. This is where technique once again comes into play, as too much tension can cause a line to break, too much slack can allow the fish to release the hook, and reeling the fish in can injure the fish to the point of no return. So the proper technique is to let the fish run within bounds and take up the slack at every opportunity slowly and inevitably pulling the fish in towards you. As they say, bow to the leaping fish when he pulls and runs instead of feeding the line back out. This is one of those zen koans; literally you bow at the waist with your rod while figuratively bowing to the fish s power. I have been pulled completely off my feet by a fish of 20 inches. Its amazing the amount of power they can exert considering the mass ratio between the fish and the human. After retrieving and releasing that fish (a beautiful rainbow trout, the bigger they get the more beautiful they seem to get) the pool has been stirred up so much that its time to move on upstream. So I climb out and try to warm up a bit after standing in the waist deep water for almost two hours.
Like daytrading the stock futures most days on the river you often can get the sense of when the climax has been reached for the day but, at least in my case I can never stop myself from continuing to try to catch an even bigger fish right up until the end. And of course you never know decisively that the top has been put in until the end of the day. And there is always that memory of the big brown trout caught just a couple of miles downstream near Pennington bridge right at dusk (or the irrational exuberance speech by the chairman of the money temple which drops the market 2% in the last hour before close). IN this case however, the 18 inch rainbow was the fish of the day, although I went on to catch over 15 more. I lost count of the total because the whitefish were so aggressive and so hungry. I caught a total of 6 trout and if I still lived in Montana I would have been getting out the smoker to smoke those whitefish they are a good fish for smoking whereas the trout are good for pan frying or baking.
The same guys who passed me on the river were parked near my truck at end of day and they asked me as I was taking off my waders and trying not to spill my end of day beer (Bayern Amber from Missoula a nice amber ale) we saw you catching fish like crazy but we couldn't catch anything what were you using? I told them I caught fish on an adams, a humpy, a olive dun, an elk hair caddis, a grasshopper, a golden stone fly, and this flashy minnow mips thing I had just bought. As the day wore on I just kept experimenting. They looked at me like I was telling a long tall tale as like a lot of people, I gathered that they wanted to believe that fly selection is all and technique matters little. Unfortunately, that isn't the case on the Big Hole, my experience is you have to know what you are doing, and given the fact that I saw the two of them trying to fish when the wind was up and then give up when the wind died, I surmised some improvements of technique might be in order instead. The truth is you have to be able to read the river, cast well, and be patient - when the fish were rising they would hit any well placed cast. I caught most of those fish in three specific spots too, a big flat stretch against a cut bank, a pool below a ripple fall, and stream confluence. It pays to know where the fish will most likely be, probabilistically that is. Plus big river fishing up here is a bit of a skill with a fly rod as the water is moving at a good pace and like a lot of things, to get good at casting you have to practice. And just like the market on the very same day, there were three good 40 minute windows of opportunity and one just had to wait the breezes out and be ready to pounce when the wind calmed and the fish got active again
The nice benefit of waiting calmly was that I also saw a trifecta of moose, deer, and Dall sheep while on the river that day. While hiking upstream I remembered that this was the same spot of river where I almost drowned in spring of 93 trying to rescue Cody when she was a pup and fell into river. I was knee-deep (water very cold in spring) and fishing this cut bank when I saw this log coming down the river, but then I looked up again and thought something is funny about that log when suddenly I realized that's no log that is my dog! Ha-ha. The water is very fast in the spring so I threw my rod to the bank and plunged in after her figuring if I didn't grab her she would be swept way downstream if not drowned. Well that damn near killed us both first by drowning and then by hypothermia but that is another story for another day.
Lessons From Fly-Fishing the Upper Headwaters of the Missouri
The Tom Ryan Archives