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

The road to The Big Hole

Like the title says, this is Part 2. Go read Part 1 before you read this. Thanks.

We awakened to a cloudy morning in Twin Bridges, the ground wet from the previous night’s storm. Thankfully no moisture fell from the sky as we consumed a greasy breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Cafe before meeting up with our guides at at 8 am. While Joe, the hobby guide, stood uselessly by like an unsure freshman on the first day of high school, Seth McLean and Chris Knott (co-owners of 4 Rivers Fishing Company) shared some good news: the flows were favorable for fishing the Big Hole. And so we loaded up the trucks and headed off on the road through the rolling hills toward our destination.

The dirt road from Twin Bridges to Melrose resembles something out of a previous century when covered wagons were pulled by beasts of burden, men didn’t even know what skinny jeans were, and women wore bonnets. Ah, the good old days, when people died from injuries that would be considered minor today. Speaking of a previous century, if you believe everything you read on the internet, apparently it’s still illegal, in Montana, for married women to go fishing alone on Sundays (and illegal for unmarried women to fish alone at all). But I digress.

The good old days?

The road looks like it would overwhelm mud-rated tires during wet weather and clog air filters during the dry season. Certainly it wasn’t anywhere near dry enough to worry about the latter; fortunately it wasn’t so wet that we had to worry about the former. It should be noted that the road looked like it would beat the hell out of boat trailers all the time. On this day it was neither too wet nor too dry: perfect conditions came to mind and I hoped that would carry over into the rest of our day on the water. As long as the boat trailers held up we should be in good shape.

Looking upstream from our launch at Maiden Rock.

We made it without incident and launched by 10:30. The Big Hole was flowing at a good clip and is naturally dark—tea-colored—but clarity was good. We brought with us waders and rain jackets but shorts and long sleeved shirts were the order of the morning, and we hoped we wouldn’t need the rain gear. Cool, overcast. Perfect. Our boat assignments were such that Marck and Nash fished with Seth; Jimmy and Goose with Chris; and Morris and I drew the short straws and fished with the desk jockey. Despite our handicap we got into fish right away. Or at least Morris did, landing 3 fish in short order. We fished double rigs under indicators but it wasn’t your typical dead-drift nymph fishing: Sparkle Minnows and other assorted bugger-like streamers were used as the top fly with small droppers (and the occasional San Juan Worm). And a piece of split shot. You know, gentleman angling stuff.

One of several that looked small in the hands of a giant hobby guide.

The first part of the float took us through Maiden Rock Canyon where the Big Hole flows fairly quickly through a beautiful semi-arid ditch in the mountains. The fishing was fast-paced and Joe continuously barked insults offered enthusiastic instructions to Morris and I: “4 feet off the bank—right there..Not so tight! Put it in there again! Slight upstream mend—I said SLIGHT upstream mend! Now mend down. Set!!! Did you want that fish?!” Several times throughout the day we also heard, “Point at it and pinch down on the line! Sorry, Morris—I gotta pull over so I can re-rig your buddy.” I may have lost a few dropper flies to the stream-side brush. In fact I had a rough patch where it seemed I was hanging up on every other cast, however it’s rumored that Marck may have lost even more flies than me.

The Hobby Guide replaces another of my lost flies.

In my assessment and defense, it’s only when you’re losing flies that you’re fishing aggressively. Catching was pretty consistent, consisting of mostly browns and a few rainbows, but mostly browns: 12-20 inches. More on the larger side than the smaller. Maybe a couple of whitefish. Maybe even one foul-hooked, 20 inch whitefish.

Nash and Marck before one of their 3 doubles.

One of the other boats may have caught a brookie. We didn’t. There are also westslope cutts and bull char in the Big Hole, as well as Arctic grayling. Interesting fact: the Big Hole is the last habitat in the lower 48 for this native fluvial species. Despite the fact that I instructed Joe to put me on a grayling he was unable to hold up his end of the deal. I tried, but an angler can only do so much without support from the paid oarsman.

Officer Friendly.

In Washington an angler can go several years without seeing a game warden on the water. It was refreshing to see that Montana actually manages and enforces fish and game laws, with officers that don’t unnecessarily have a chip on their shoulder. At one point during our float we were politely instructed to pull over to make sure we all had licenses, that outfitter paperwork was in order, all safety gear was stowed appropriately onboard each boat, and that nobody was wearing any Columbia PFG gear. Check.

Morris complying with safety laws.

The catching was steady throughout the first half of the day and the weather held despite a couple fits of wind that were more annoying than troublesome. At one point after catching another nice brown, Joe made mention of an improvement in my hook setting skills over the last time we fished together, which had been for steelhead 3 years earlier on the Olympic peninsula. His praise was transparent; it was obvious he was simply trying to ensure that he received a tip at the end of the day. I kept a golf clicker in my pocket to keep track of his wisecracks and insults, and this back-handed compliment was duly noted: two clicks. The matter of a tip was still not guaranteed.  We broke for lunch with the other two boats and compared notes: everyone was catching fish. All were enjoying themselves. Seth and Chris were working their butts off. Joe talked of his dream to one day start his own guiding outfit: Shattered Dreams Guide Service, where “Fishing is easy when you stand there and a guide yells at you with exact instructions on what to do.”

Lunch regatta.

After lunch we fished on through the last stretch of the canyon before the Big Hole emerged into a wide, flat valley lined by stands of cottonwoods, working ranches and quaint little Montana vacation homes.

Slum housing of the downtrodden.

Once out of the canyon the river slows considerably from its previously hurried pace, but catching remained quite good until 5:30 pm when our float terminated at Brownes Bridge. We’d covered over 15 miles of river and there was never enough time between fish to get discouraged. I don’t consciously count fish unless I’m not doing well, and then it’s not something I can help but do because the math is easy. In Joe’s estimation our boat had 20 fish apiece to the net plus several other “missed opportunities”. Neither Marck nor Graham recall exactly how many fish they had: Marck says, “12-15. Not sure.” Nash claims that Marck caught around 20 fish. One thing they do recall with accuracy is that they had 3 doubles. That’s cute. Goose and Jimmy refused to discuss their approximate total fish counts.

It was a great day and collectively the Rangers would all agree that our guides were all awesome (including Joe). They worked hard all day long, fishing one side of the river and then immediately switching to the other side to put us on the best water. In particular, Morris and I appreciated Joe’s hard work and rewarded him with a handsome $20 tip and a used Starbucks gift card with $5 remaining on the balance. Buy yourself a nice mocha next time you’re in Butte, buddy.

That evening, as we departed Twin Bridges for West Yellowstone and the next leg of our journey, there was a swagger in our steps. The Firehole Rangers had finally met the Big Hole; we kicked ass and took names. And all this without my lucky fishing hat, which I brought on the trip but hadn’t yet worn. Given my prowess on the Big Hole, I certainly wouldn’t need to wear it the next day either.

Bring on the always-easy Firehole.

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Oh, and give Joe’s blog a visit sometime The Hobby Guide Evolution Anglers.


  1. HRL

    Glad to hear that you are FINALLY having some luck on your annual pilgrimage. We have fished the Big Hole several times and almost always done well. I was beginning to think that I was going to have to direct you to my favorite secret (not named) river in the Yellowstone area. You likely would not enjoy catching native cutthroats all day and seeing maybe one or two other anglers all day anyway. We will save that for another day.
    Do have to wonder why you took the dirt road from Twin Bridges to Melrose when there is a paved highway that will take you there faster via Dillon.

    • Kirk Werner

      The Big Hole was good for my confidence. But stick around because it all does downstream from there. Please send me the GPS coordinates for your favorite secret spot (not named) river in the Yellowstone area. As for the reason behind taking the dirt road, I cannot say—it’s the route the guides chose so I have to assume there was a good reason. Thanks for reading!

      • HRL

        Don’t have the GPS info, but if you shoot me an email I will give you the location if you keep it under your lucky hat!

  2. mark

    Inspired by your last delivery showing a fly fisher practicing his sport from a
    buffaloback, I dare say that some “old days”regulations really make sense eg. “fly fishing from horseback in the State of Idaho is illegal” ( is it still valid ?).
    The trouts are used to see elks passing by the river and thats why they are not afraid of a horseman.
    When you go hunt, you may sneak like a snake in grass and you spook a hind, but when you come on a loud tractor you may approach to a swarm of deer up to few yards.
    Best Regards & keep your line tide

    • Kirk Werner

      Mark, in my quest to find an answer to your question—is it or is it not legal to fish from horseback in Idaho—I discovered it does not appear to be illegal to fish from the back of a camel. Upon closer examination of the same article it would seem that fishing from the back of any animal standing in a stream in Idaho has not been against the law since around 1944, I think. Thanks for following along…

      • mark

        Thank you for the response. I hope I can relay on your wisdom.
        If you can cast from a deck of a boat in move, castnig from a standing ponyback is much more confortable.
        To prevent your pony from cold water you may put some waders on his/her legs.
        Best Regards & keep the line tide

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