A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part I

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.

Uh…this doesn’t look good.

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.

Marck, Goose, Nash, Morris and Jimmy.

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!

You learn something new every day!

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.

The dam Ruby River

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.

The fishless, trouty-looking Ruby.

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.

Cracking thunder and another crack.

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.

Stay tuned.


  1. Morris

    That’s a whole lot of holes …..

    • Kirk Werner

      I’m also going to refer to Rock Creek as the Shithole from now on. How much you give me for all my rods and reels? You don’t need any more flies but I’ll throw mine in for free: they don’t work anyway.

      • Carol

        Amen to the name for Rock Creek. It’s an over-fished creek. I did catch my first whitefish there (not to be my last). As for the Madison, once upon a time it probably was a very prolific river, but from what I’ve read, it hasn’t been since whirling disease struck. Last year we worked really hard for the fish we caught there. And talk about wind! Holy turbo-fan, batman. In fact, we went closer to the head and fished pockets in the whitewater where there was less wind in order to catch something.

        • Kirk Werner

          I’ve fished Rock Creek 3 times now. First time was with a guide during runoff. The creek was high and dirty but we caught fish all day long. Nothing of size, but cookie cutter 12-14 inchers. And between two boats we had a grand salami of cutts, bows, browns, whitefish, a brookie and a bull char. last year we went back in late June and struggled to catch fish when the golden stones were thick. Fish wanted a Purple Haze and nothing else. And it was hard to find decent wading water because it was a normal water year with high flows still. This year, during the salmonfly hatch, I caught one fish all day long. A beautiful river that gets too much pressure, methinks. The Madison always kicks my butt, but it gives up a lot of fish between our group, especially Marck. This year was rough for everyone, but for me in particular. But I’m getting way ahead of myself: more on that later…thanks for the comments!

  2. Carol

    We fished the Ruby, up in the national forest early last Fall to scope it out. It was a wasted day of driving and a tank of gas. Maybe below the dam would have been fine, but the surroundings were not all that pleasant.

    • Kirk Werner

      Bummer about the upper Ruby—I’ve been told there’s a lot good water above the lake/dam. Guess it depends on who you talk to. Curious, in what ways was it not all that pleasant? Ugly, barren land or just no cooperative fish?

  3. howard Levett

    I feel a new name for the Unaccomplished Angler is coming. I’ll save it till later but it rhymes with mole.

    • Kirk Werner

      The possibilities are nearly bottomless, Howard.

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