Mar 31, 2012

Spring in The Valleys of The Beaverhead and Big Hole

Beaverhead Gold
Jed, my scraggly, red-headed angler buddy from way back suggested that we give the Yellowstone a rest and head east to the valley of the Big Hole and the Beaverhead Rivers. Having yet to be acquainted with this little corner of Montana, I was all too happy to oblige. Reports from this neck of the woods were non-descript, non-committal but ripe with an open-endedness that could not be ignored. Like many, I have played the victim to pages of fish-porn in many fly rags over the years depicting trout from these fabled waters. So hell ya, I wanted to go. Who’s drivin?

Jed’s aging F-150 pulled into The Flying J in Bozeman. At the urinal I noticed that mini DVD players were on sale, among other tough to live without items. The puck-sized mint couldn’t cover up the raw scent of piles of deposits made by traveling strangers. I walked out and Jed handed me breakfast. I’d have to work up the courage for this one, but once I got started the rubber-like bacon egg and cheese muffin seemed to disappear without too much protest.

Heading west on I-90 you do your best to fight the gravity of some other rather well-known Montana trout streams. Near the town of Three Forks, the Madison, the Gallatin and the Jefferson taunt as they join to create the headwaters to the mighty Missouri and the historical, Lewis and Clark trail. In all directions, clumps of mountain ranges jut from the otherwise open, burger producing grassland. With so much vastness ahead, one can’t help but feel liberated – each breath taking air seasoned by mountains, rivers and prairie.

Tobacco Root Mountains
Two hours later, we were passing through the small town of Twin Bridges. Home of Winston Fly Rods, this little trout mecca seemed still asleep. Most of the drift boats we saw sat neglected; some covered as if in hibernation, waiting for the mercury to rise. Like Three Forks, Twin Bridges also marks a significant convergence. Here, the Ruby River from the east, the Big Hole from the west and the Beaverhead from the south offer themselves up to the Jefferson River which continues on north through farm country on its way to the Missouri . Witnessing this scene, this converging lifeblood, flow by in the shadow of the Ruby and Tobacco Root mountains made it clear that two days in this country would not be nearly enough. The Ruby pulled me upstream. The Jefferson tugged me down valley. But we continued on, leaving them free of us for this particular go-round.

After buying a few bugs and picking some local brains at the fly shop in Dillon I sat at the put-in on the Big Hole waiting for the “red-headed step child” to return from the take-out downriver. It wasn’t long before an elderly local lady took his thumb bait and toted him back up to the ramp in her Lincoln. But while that was happening, I managed a few casts and hooked a couple trout on an Idlyle Jimmy Legs nymph. One little rainbow came to hand but the other, a behemoth of a fish who could have been her Granddaddy, spit the hook before any sort of tussle ensued.

A Healthy Big Hole Rainbow

We elected to float from Browns Bridge down to Glen which are two access points on the lower third of the river.  Being that it was still March, we figured the fish were still trying to shrug off their winter laziness and we hoped that river temps would be higher in this section, heightening their enthusiasm.  When Jed arrived, I took my turn on the sticks and we pushed out into a float of water, cobble and willows.

The Big Hole

Immediately we were taken by the structure along the outer banks. It looked as if there were little trout homes everywhere tucked into wads of roots, logs and eddy lines. We gravitated to these areas at the start but after many fruitless casts we began to shift our tactics. The outer banks held the brunt of the current and most portions were quite deep. After a while it became clear that if there were any fish on the outer banks, they were holding in the depths and thereby not interested in traveling up to take a fly that wasn’t placed at snout level. Trout do not want to fight the current in cold water temps – especially Brown Trout that actually prefer warmer temps than Rainbows. They will seek out slow flows and often live in the soft, non-descript looking water that doesn’t look as though it flows over much structure. During early spring and late fall, I find the majority of these fish in the same type of flow, regardless of what river I am on. It was the same old story this day on the Big Hole.
What water am I talking about? Ok, as you come down into a riffle it is the water on the inside of the bend – where the current is soft. Depending on the riffle, there may be a defined shelf-drop where the water spills off over some cobble. This is a very natural hold for trout and you will find them dining here at the right time of day. As far as Brown Trout go, they will live here even during cold temperatures as long as it isn’t overly frothy or oxygenated. But, if you set your sights on the water that lay slightly inside the tumbling flow and slightly downstream, this is the money zone this time of year. What you want is water that is between a foot and four feet deep that has a lazy flow. For most runs, this water will be on the low bank side often stretching all the way down to the next riffle. Once the flows on the tall-bank side start to slow and it shallows up as it nears the next riffle (what we call the tail out) you will find spotted gold here as well.

If the water is slightly off color as it was this day on the Big Hole, you may find fish in mere inches of water – just enough to cover their backs. They’d rather be warm so if the day is bright, Browns will migrate up into these soft shallows to warm their bones and hopefully take streamers if the chance should arise!

This one ate in 10 inches of soft, inside tail out water. He was just trying to warm up when he was so rudely interrupted.

A Big Hole Veteran

The float took about six hours.  We hooked maybe a dozen fish by the end of the day but we only saw a fraction of them up-close.  It was a tossup between big and black or big and white as far as which streamer they preferred.  Most fish were hooked on either a medium speed strip or a slow swing, which seems pretty typical for this time of year.  Keep in mind, you’ll have to speed up the retrieve in the shallows!

A Big Hole Riffle

We set up a basic camp at the Glen take-out, got a fire going and settled into an evening of Banquet Beer and potato chips. The fire was pretty easy on the eyes but the illuminated dome of stars took the cake. Jed, who used to work at a planetarium some time ago, went to work on tightening up my astronomy. Venus was chummy with the moon and in the opposite end of the sky, Mars glowed like that of a Rainbow’s stripe. Fatigue eventually won out and we clambored up into the bed of the pick-up and into our little sleeping bag cocoons. I insisted that we leave the tailgate down on account of the foul odor seeping out of Jed’s 0 degree bag.
Morning came with an icy spot of drool on my pillow. I must have been dreaming about all those trout on the Beaverhead! Before long, we were on the road towards Dillon in search of some kibbles. The morning sky brightened the vast landscape.

Ruby Mountains
The griddle fried grub at Grandmas Kitchen in Dillon was tasty and not void of grease. The pile on our plate was excessive. What was Grandma trying to do, kill us? The other half of my bacon cheddar omelet lay unmolested amid bits of rye toast crust as we headed for the door. I think Grandma, herself walked from the kitchen to chat up a local customer. The up-turned frown on her wrinkled face let it be known that she was pissed off about something. Out the door we went and sped off towards the Beaverhead.

Known for its healthy population of giant fish, The Beaverhead flows out of Clark Canyon Reservoir through a tail-water dam. Perhaps most infamous, is the stretch of water is just below the dam that can be wade fished or floated down to Pipe Organ Bridge. However, this section of the river does not open until the 3rd Saturday in May so we would have to put in lower on the river.

Our float would take us from Pipe Organ Bridge, some 9 miles downstream to Barretts boat ramp. If you are unfamiliar with this take-out you should check it out first because you don’t want to miss it. There is a diversion dam located just below the ramp that is impassable. Also, depending on the levels, this ramp can harbor quite a drop to the river and make for a pretty tricky boat removal.

The day was sunny and the river was much clearer than the Big Hole which made me think about weary fish. The Beaverhead, for the most part, is a narrow, meandering stream that has some very deep holes. It moves slowly on average, but there are some sections of tumbling current. We each set up a nymph rod and a streamer rod. For my nymph set-up I ran a 6 foot long section of non-tapered Rio Fluroflex 3x to my first nymph (a brown sow bug) and trailed a 14 inch section of 4x Rio Fluroflex to my second (a micro, olive Pheasant Tail). For my streamer set-up I rigged up a Rio Type 6 Streamer Tip line with 4 feet of Maxima 8 lb tied to one foot of 30lb Maxima butt section. I tied on a large, white marabou streamer with lead eyes.

The first half of the float was pretty tough. We did nymph up some fish and we each hooked a few on streamers. We stopped here and there along the way to drift nymphs off of some shelf drops and along various seam lines. In this type of water it definitely helps to pull over far in advance of the water you want to fish. If you are fishing from the boat, you must target your casts downstream and at a pretty good distance away from the boat, especially where the water is glassy. It’s a fun row for the guy on the sticks because you must be very conscious of keeping the boat out of the water you want to fish. Deep, clear water means that fish can see you from a pretty good distance.

I mostly fished streamers during our float. Typically, I like a ninety degree cast towards the bank or even and upstream presentation in places, but this was out of the question on this float. What worked best for me here was a downstream cast angled towards shore or a mid-river current break, with a slight upstream mend while feeding line. Getting the fly away from the boat, getting it to sink and then starting to arc my retrieval seemed to be the ticket. I had some ferocious takes while swinging these flies deeply and slowly adding action while stripping.

A Radiant Beaverhead Brown

I want to note here that I am a big fan of keeping your rod tip close to the water and giving action to the fly with your strips as opposed to shaking your rod tip around.  The key is to always keep tension on your line during your presentation.  Unless you want to add more depth, if you are wiggling your rod tip around it helps to add slack to the line.  Slack is good to achieve depth, but it should go away once you start your presentation.  Slack makes it difficult to detect a take and chances are the fish will spit the hook before you can set up on him.  So on the retrieve, keep that rod tip close to the water and if you feel tension, slowly strip set him.  Raise your rod gradually and only after pinning him.
Jed gets Hooked Up
About four miles into the float we hit Grasshopper Creek where there is yet another boat ramp. The actual creek was dumping some chocolate milk into the Beaverhead and this was just what we wanted. The remainder of the float to Barret’s provided some solid streamer fishing. It wasn’t on fire by any means, but we were definitely getting into them. Most takes came in relatively shallow water with a soft flowing current. Here we started fishing some big, black patterns which often work well in off-color water combined with a bright sky. Essentially, they create a very distinct silhouette in these conditions.
We eventually made it to the red foot bridge that spans the river at Barretts take-out. There it was, the end of our fishing. I hate the inevitable boat ramp arrival. Some days it arrives quicker than others but so far, it always arrives. No more casts, you’ll just have to wait until next time. I always feel triumphant about the day, but always a little sad. Boat ramps -I guess you got to have them…

Barretts foot bridge

We hit the road north with plenty of light still around.  The passing fields turned to gold during the sun’s farewell.  Although my indigestion thought differently, we had some quality road snacks in the way of corndogs and a bag of Cheezits.  The miles went by.  For now, it was time to head home – to another set of rivers, peaks and valleys.  But as I watched this trail gradually erode in the rearview, I felt at ease with the notion that it would reappear one day very soon.

"The Gorge"

The Gorge Fly Shop Team


"Fly Fish the World with Us"

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