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New Beginnings on the Big Hole River

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Bill Matthews Outdoors
An Elk Fawn hiding in the grass along the Big Hole River

Last October I planned a fly fishing trip to Montana with a couple of young men that are friends of the family. Drew and Mason both go to Camas High School and had expressed an interest in learning how to fly fish so I promised them that I would take them fishing in Montana in the Spring. I was hoping our timing would match up to some type of stonefly hatch, however, the only date that we could all make work was the first week of June. Some years this is good timing for hitting a big stonefly hatch, but you can never really know for sure. We decided to take our chances and off we went to Missoula to meet up with my son Michael, who would be taking us fishing.

Michael recently got his guides license and is very in tune with the fishing in Western Montana. He let us know that all the rivers around Missoula were blown out with Spring runoff, so our best options were to fish either the Missouri or the Big Hole River. We settled on the Big Hole and headed out early the next morning.

Still a little bit of snow on the pass

We drove to Anaconda and then cut over a small pass, and dropped down right along the Big Hole River. In all my time in Montana I have never fished the Big Hole so I was excited to see and fish the river. We drove a few miles up river to our put-in and dropped the raft in the river. I was surprised to see so many rafts and drift boats on the river. I think it was because all of the other rivers were blown out and this was one of the few rivers in the western half of the state that was fishable.

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Lots of anglers on the Big Hole River today

It was a festive atmosphere at the put in, everyone was in good moods, the sun was shining and hopes were high for a good day of fishing. We were hoping for a big stonefly hatch, but unfortunately with the cold Spring, it was just not happening.

Mason and Drew had never fly fished before, so before we shoved off, Michael gave them both a quick lesson along the shore on the basics of fly casting. Both of them took to it really well, so off we went down the Big Hole River!

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Michael giving instructions before we shove off

The first thing I noticed about this river is that the water is a “Tea” color. It was not muddy, it just has a natural brown color. Michael started us fishing stone fly nymphs with a dropper under an indicator. It is somewhat technical to tie it all up, but the actual casting of this rig is not too difficult.

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Lots of flies to choose from today!

Within the first 10 minutes Mason had hooked a fish, but lost it, so we knew the flies were working. We fished this way for the first few hours, and the boys hooked several fish, but were were unable to get any to the boat. This is not easy fishing so I was happy that they were getting opportunities.

Finally Drew hooked a big rainbow. I got a good look at it as it rolled next to the boat and went on a tear across the river. Just as it took off, it shook the fly out of its mouth - ugh.

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This cow was very interested in us

As the afternoon wore on a big thunderstorm rolled in on us. The temperature dropped about 10 degrees and the rain started pouring down. Mason kept fishing hard in the front of the boat.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Mason fished hard the whole day.

and as we rounded a corner I heard “I got one!”. I looked up to see Mason's rod bent over and a fish flashing in the water. Mason did an excellent job fighting the fish - especially for a first time fly fisherman - and guided it into the net. Once in the net we realized It was big Whitefish! Although it was not the trout we were hoping for, Whitefish are still a gamefish and are scrappy fighters. I am pretty sure that my first fish on a fly rod in Montana was a whitefish too. It was great to finally have a fish in the boat.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Mason's tenacity paid off with a nice whitefish!

We were getting down to our last hour of fishing and Drew had still not landed one. We came across some fish feeding on top, and Drew cast some dry flies at them. He had several takes, but was just not able to get a hook in one. I told him not to worry and reminded him that I called him “4th Quarter Drew” because I have seen how clutch he is at the end of a basketball game. With only 1/2 mile left to go, 4th Quarter Drew shouted FISH ON! I turned around just in time to see a nice Rainbow splash out of the water. Drew handled this fish like a pro and guided it right into the net. After lots of high 5’s and pictures he released it back into the river.

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Drew with his first trout on a fly

Although it was not the day we had hoped for, it was great to see two young men get their first experience fly fishing and each land a fish.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Anglers dinner at The Press Box in Missoula

We loaded up the boat and headed back to Missoula for dinner at The Press Box,

It was a great trip with great company and all of us are looking forward to our next trip back to Montana.

© 2019 Bill Matthews Outdoors, LLC


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