The Big Hole Valley is notoriously cold at times but this was crazy. We arrived on the Summer Solstice, June 20, 2019, in a thunder-snow and rainstorm. The car thermometer read 38 degrees.
All of my Facebook favs had been touting the great fishing, the hatching salmonflies, golden stones, and more, with pictures of big fish and happy anglers. In rolled the cold front, insect activity ended, the bite when subsurface and slowed. We cranked up the heat in the camper, cooked a favorite meal, and watched a movie on Netflix.
First Day of Summer
Woodsmoke curled from the chimneys of the nearby homes as we set out to get some local insight and create a plan for fishing. We ruled out floating due to the menacing skies. We are long past the ‘fish-no-matter-what” days of our youth.
Fishing accesses from Melrose to Wise River and above, were jammed with boat trailers. Let’s head to quieter water.
First Day of Summer 2019 – Melrose, Montana
Big Hole River Brook Trout
About the Big Hole River
The Big Hole River is a free-flowing, undammed river that flows for 153 miles before joining the Beaverhead and Ruby to form the Jefferson River in Twin Bridges, Montana. Home to the last naturally occurring fluvial Arctic Grayling in the lower 48 states, the river irrigates meadow for ranchers and provides amazing angling opportunities.
Here the peaks of the Continental Divide rises to the north. Sagebrush meadows stretch for miles. Rugged rock features, cave, and formations, at times, rise up from the water on river left.
Lewis and Clark named the river Wisdom, however, early trappers preferred the native name, Big Hole.
The tea-stained colored water of the Big Hole stands in contrast to other crystal clear rivers in Southwest Montana. The dark waters offer up prolific hatches throughout the season. In April, skwala stoneflies, western March browns, and baetis are the main event. Early May start the famous Mother’s Day caddis hatch.
June is a busy month on the river. The famous salmonfly hatch begins are water temperatures reach 55 degrees. On the heels of the stoneflies and the golden stone and yellow sallies.
PMDs, Baetis, Spruce Moth, and Tricos are important summer hatches. Caddis hatch all summer long on the Big Hole – be sure to have plenty in your fly box.
Big Hole River Foundation Map
The Big Hole River Foundation
A science-based non-profit conservation organization, the Big Hole River Foundation is dedicated to conserving the natural and cultural resources of the river.
This active group provides interpretive materials along the river and published the helpful map above. The group is supported membership that consists of anglers, outfitters, local residents, and conservationists, along with state and federal agencies and donors.
There is an amazing amount of public access on the Big Hole River. There are 20 boat launches in an 80 miles section of the river. The upper river near Wisdom has float restrictions most of the summer season, and to be honest about it, it is small water that is exposed to the summer sun.
Same is true for the lower river below Notch Bottom to the confluence with the Beaverhead. The river is wide open and exposed to summer sun. Here irrigation takes a toll on the summer flows. This section is often either closed or under hoot owl restrictions.
Mudd Creek Bridge
Starting at the Mudd Creek Bridge, the float fishing begins. Cliff swallows, that make their home on the underside of the bridge, swoop and dart above the water catching insects with constant chatter. River Mile 64.1
Unsigned and rough, there is a primitive launch 3.7 river miles downstream from the Mudd Creek Bridge. More importantly, there is nearly a half mile of unmarked river access with undeveloped spots to pitch a tent or park a camper. Wading is easy (I know, that’s an oxymoron) here with a good gravel bottom in many places. The river braids in several spots. To the north, the Pintler Mountains rise with their snow-capped peaks. Very beautiful, very fishy. River Mile 67.8
Oh, Fish Trap! One day a few years back, while trying to catch a grayling to photograph for the Silver Bow Club, I caught a monster brown on a tiny dry fly there on a summer afternoon. So I have a love of the place. Here you’ll find a good boat launch and several campsites. River Mile 71.9
This fishing access has a primitive boat launch and some places to wade fish along with a whole slew of places to camp. This thin strip of land between the river and Highway 43 has productive water. Upstream of the camping area there are a couple of places to pull off the road and park to access the river upstream. River Mile 75.2
For a nice, all day float put in at East Bank and take out at Jerry Creek. At 11.2 miles, this float will take most of the day and you’ll fish some amazing water – both in terms of fishing and scenery. At East Bank, you’ll find a concrete launch with camping. River Mile 80.5
A private launch owned by Troutfitter’s Fly Shop. Float to Jerry Creek from here or to George Grant Memorial Fishing Access in Dewey. Troutfitter’s sells flies and runs shuttles, which is really convenient. The Wise River enters the Big Hole about three miles downstream of Troutfitters. River Mile 86.7
Jerry Creek Fishing Access on the Big Hole River
Just downstream of the small town of Wise River you’ll find this nice boat launch with lots of parking. If you wade the river, try the highway side from the bridge on down past the fishing access. From here to Divide Bridge, if you have an option, opt to fish from a raft. There are rock garden sections below Jerry Creek, and especially going through the canyon, where a raft is preferred. The lower the river flows, the more important this becomes. River Mile 91.7
George Grant Memorial
This day-use area has a concrete boat launch with parking available. Downstream from here, you’ll enter the canyon stretch. River Mile 96.1
This unmarked area just off the highway and down a steep (and rough) gravel road you’ll find river access for wading with a primitive boat launch. In other years we’ve fished this section in the canyon with success. There are boulders in the river that offer a break in the swift current for feeding trout. This is a great spot to access the river in the canyon. River Mile 96.6
Take the River Bridge Road to cross the Big Hole to reach this fishing access. In this canyon stretch, the river drops in elevation and is moving swiftly, with numerous boulders. River Mile 99.2
Turn off the highway at the Divide Bridge into this lovely launch area that features picnic tables and ample parking. The river returns to its gentle meander after the drop through the canyon section. Downstream you’ll float past ranchland before entering into the Maiden Rock canyon. River Mile 100.9
Take the Frontage Road and head south from Divide. Turn at Maiden Rock, there is river access before the bridge – go over the bridge another 1/2 mile for the boat launch. A campground takes up the middle ground. * Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes here. Hop in a boat and drift this very pleasant section of river to the Salmonfly fishing access in Melrose. Stay river left when you get to Melrose to hit the take-out. Cliffs, caves, rock features, and great fishing in this section of river which is the last affected/not affected by hoot owl or closures in hot, dry summers. River Mile 106.3
This Melrose fishing access has a concrete launch with several campsites and picnic area.
One night a few years back, we were pulling our driftboat out at Salmonfly while another couple was launching. We were curious. It was 5:30 pm and they were launching. We got to chatting and they said their favorite Big Hole float was evenings in late June and July from Salmonfly to Browne Bridge. The sun is off the water due to the hills to the west and they fish caddis flies until dark. In Montana, it stays light well past 10 pm in June and July. River Mile 114.9
6 miles south of Melrose on the frontage road lies the Browne’s Bridge fishing access. Gravel boat ramp, camping, and trailer parking. River Mile 121.1
Downstream you’ll find walk-in fishing accesses and a boat launch with access at Glen. Check river conditions before floating as there are seasonal snags in the Glen area.
Next up is Notch Bottom, a really cool area. The terrain is very interesting. Also, watch out for rattlers here – we’ve seen them on the Burma Road.
From here there are three more access points but our knowledge has run dry. Talk with a shop in Twin Bridges as they would be the local experts below Notch Bottom.
River flow will really dictate your approach to the Big Hole. It’s the perfect river in that you can wade, use a kick boat, float in a raft with a fishing frame, or use a hard boat (driftboat).
In spring, during run-off, and early summer a hard boat will work just fine. As the irrigation demands increase as the precipitation decreases, a raft will become the boat of choice.
Except during times of raging high water, this is a great river if you love to wade fish. Access is ample and easy.
Saw Log Access to the Big Hole River
Near Confluence of the Wise River
Our Fishing Trip
Oh, I whine about cold temps, hail, and thunder-snow, but we did manage to catch quite a few nice fish. Every afternoon when the day was warm, the little bugs popped and the hungry trout fed. BWOs and small gray midges seemed to rule on the upper river. There were a few PMDs closer to camp.
Swallows and tanagers flew back and forth across the river searching for the big bugs. We only floated one day and chose to wade the rest due to the constantly threatening skies which often produced white wrath.
Another few days on the Big Hole are in the works for mid-July. 5 days was not enough. To be continued…
CDC Caddis in my Fly Box
Big Hole River Video
There are several great resources in the Big Hole watershed. We like to visit the Sunrise Fly Shop, Great Divide, and Troutfitters. All shops post fishing reports, however, when they are crazy busy, sometimes the reports aren’t timely. No worries, just swing by a shop and pick up the hot flies and set out to the good spots they recommend.
The Big Hole has special regulations you’ll need to be aware of if you plan to DIY and float.
The river is managed for the enjoyment of all. With a little planning, you can fish a section of river that the outfitters cannot on certain days. Starting at the headwaters, here’s how it works:
Headwaters to Mudd Creek Bridge – Closed to outfitting from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Mudd Creek to Fish Trap – Closed to float outfitting from each Tuesday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Fish Trap to East Bank – Closed to float outfitting from each Thursday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
East Bank to Jerry Creek – Closed to float outfitting from each Wednesday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Jerry Creek to Divide – Closed to non-resident float fishing and float outfitting from each Saturday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Divide to Salmonfly – Closed to non-resident float fishing and float outfitting from each Sunday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Salmonfly to Glen – Closed to float outfitting from each Monday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Glen to Notch Bottom – Closed to float outfitting from each Friday from the third Saturday in May through Labor Day.
Check fishing regulations for extended season rules, keep limit, and lure restrictions.
Nearby Fly Fishing Waters
Oh my gosh, where do I begin? Here are some favorites within an easy drive of the Big Hole
It’s always wise to check in with the local experts. Here’s what we used during our trip from June 20 to June 25, 2019. In normal years (without a cold front), we’d be fishing more of the stones – salmonfly, golden stone, and yellow sallies.
CDC Caddis (olive and dun bodies)
Pale Morning Duns (dry and emerger variations)
Tip for Fishing the Big Hole River
There is no gas as you head up the Big Hole Valley until you get all the way to Wisdom. Do not head up the valley on a quarter of a tank. Fuel up in Melrose, Butte or Dillon before you get here.
And.. there is no cell service once you get off I-15 onto Highway 43. Cell service is spotty in Melrose.
Our picks for fishing information, food, and places to stay or camp.
For this adventure, we stayed at Sportsmans Motel and RV Park. We like the location, the wifi, and laundry. We’ve also had friends join us and stay in the motel. If you want and all-inclusive solution, we highly recommend our friends at the Silver Bow Club. The have the best location on the river. Great food, excellent accommodations, and a second-to-none spot.
If you want to dry camp, most of the fishing accesses have camping (Fish Trap, Sportsmans, Divide Bridge, Maiden Rock, Salmonfly, Brownes Bridge) have sites. As does Lake Agnes and many spots on the Pioneer Scenic Byway.
Fishing is fun, but it’s good to take a day or two and look around. Here you’ll find ghost towns, hot springs, cowboy towns, places to rockhound, and amazing mountain scenery.
Go with knowledge! We keep guidebooks in the camper and the state atlas in all of our rigs. If you’re serious about fishing, here’s our recommended reading for this water.
*The link takes you to Amazon where you can read more about the titles and purchase the guidebooks if you choose. We do receive a small portion of the sale for providing the link which helps to support this site. We appreciate your support!