This year’s annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers was not your typical annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers. Many things, which are the same from year to year, were different this year. Like every year for the past several, we did in fact fish the Firehole and the Madison (the Cornhole, in my estimation, due to the manner in which it treats me year in and year out). But this year’s pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers also featured a couple of rivers new to all of us: most notably a river that we had hoped to fish 5 years ago: the Big Hole. Unfortunately on our trip to Yellowstone in 2010 we brought with us a deluge that would have made Washington’s Olympic Peninsula proud. Our chosen river, the Big Hole, was completely blown-out then, along with just about every other river in the region and every river between there and home. Fortunately the Beaverhead was in decent shape so we were able to catch fish. But it wasn’t the river we wanted to fish, and ever since then we’ve been wanting a shot at the Big Hole. A week or so ahead of our departure it looked like a sure thing as the weather forecast appeared to cooperative. But one should never take much stock in a weather forecast more than a couple days out.
The Rangers departed Western Washington on Thursday, May 30th at 1500 hours. The weather at home was gorgeous, and would be for several more days. But 4 hours later, as we drove through Spokane, we encountered a savage weather system that was dumping as much rain as I’ve ever seen. Lightning pounded the hills in the distance and that weather was headed east—the same direction that we were headed—toward Montana. We hoped it wouldn’t negatively impact our plans to fish the Big Hole on Saturday, but we slept uneasily that night in Post Falls, Idaho. I sent a text to my buddy, Joe Willauer (a hobby guide who would be taking a day off from his real job as a desk jockey to join the consortium of real guides we had lined up to show us the Big Hole). Joe’s reply caused some concern: “It’s been dumping randomly all week. The Big Hole has been rising all day but it’s not supposed to rain tomorrow which is good.” Those words didn’t exactly put my mind at ease given the weather that was pummeling our current location. He also said, “The big Hole is fine volume wise. Just depends on clarity.” It was out of our control—all we could do was show up and hope for the best.
The next day we arrived in Twin Bridges, Montana and made our way to check in with Seth McLean of 4 Rivers Fishing Company, the outfitter for our float the next day and our landlord for the evening. As a side note, I love this part of the country because my favorite topic of American history is the epic journey of Lewis and Clark. I fancy myself a bit of an armchair historian when it comes to matters of the Corps of Discovery and yet I learned something that I’d never read before: Lewis and Clark fished there; possibly even with the same guides we would be with in the morning. Hashtag mind blown!
The sun shone upon us in Twin Bridges and since we had plenty of daylight remaining we decided to visit a nearby river that none of us had ever fished before: The Ruby. From the small town of Twin Bridges we drove south through the other small town of Sheridan before heading up in to the hills toward the Ruby Dam. We strung up our 6 weights and spread out as best 6 guys can spread out on a small stretch of not very big water. Marck, Morris, Nash and Goose set up camp as near the base of the dam as was legally possible. Jimmy and I worked our way downstream a bit. There seemed to be more attractive water downstream, out of sight of the dam, and as we moved with the current I felt sorry for those left behind.
After a couple of hours and no bumps, Jimmy and I walked back to the truck. Apparently the other 4 were still at it—probably getting skunked as well—so we drove downstream about a mile to the Vigilante fishing access area. The river was much smaller down there thanks to irrigation ditches that depleted about half the volume of the river between our location and the dam. It looked rather trouty, and we tried everything in our arsenal to convince ourselves that there were trout in the water, to no avail.
Despite the complete lack of action I wasn’t particularly discouraged: after all the Ruby was but a brief sideshow to our main event scheduled for the next day. We headed back to Twin Bridges and waited for the others to arrive. When they finally did we were
disappointed happy to learn that they’d all caught fish—some very nice fish up to 20″ or so. In fact they’d never moved from their spots below the dam. Damn bogarting bastards Good for them. But Jimmy and I got to see sections of the river that the others never did, so their loss, really. That night the sky grew black as an impressive thunderstorm rolled in, dumping heavy rains in the hills surrounding Twin Bridges—hills through which flow a certain Big Hole River. As we turned in for the night, the rain came down outside. A restless, uneasy night followed, which may or may not have had something to do with Goose’s snoring in the adjoining room.
Would we get to finally fish the fabled Big Hole River in the morning, or would the evening’s storm blow the Big Hole’s clarity to smithereens? We wouldn’t find out until we checked in with our guides in the morning.
And you won’t find out until you read Part II.