Everything seems big this season on the Big Hole, one of Montana's most celebrated trout streams. Everything, that is, except the river itself.
The Big Hole's reputation seems outsized for its actual stature. It's not a small stream, but it's not an intimidating piece of water the size of, say, the Missouri or the Snake.
Instead, it's intimate enough to appeal to floating and shorebound anglers who can find fish in a variety of water, but it's big enough to hold some bruiser trout, including browns to 20 inches.
Over the next month, those big trout will be relatively easy to catch, as one of the most remarkable insect hatches of the Rockies erupts on the Big Hole.
This is salmonfly season, an opportunity to fish dry flies the size of film canisters that will summon explosive strikes by brown and rainbow trout, as well as a few brookies and cutthroats and even arctic grayling.
Timing the hatch
Hardcore trout bums spend a lot of time trying to predict the arrival of the Big Hole's salmonflies, which are a variety of gigantic Western stoneflies. But all weekend anglers need to know is that the hatch generally starts around June 10, said Kristie Piazzola at Sunrise Fly Shop (406-835-3474) in Melrose, Mont.
But she cautions that that generalization is a long-term average.
Specific weather events and short-term trends can bump the date up or back by a week or two.
"Last year the hatch came off starting about June 1," said Piazzola.
"That was because we didn't have much snowpack and river temperatures warmed up earlier than normal. I think that's going to be the case this year, too. Our water situation isn't looking too good. We don't have much snowpack again, and flows in the river are low. If we get warm weather and it stays dry, we could start to see salmonflies that last week of May."
In other words, you'd better make a phone call or two if you're driving to the Big Hole from any distance.
Bugs will start to show up on the lower river, downstream of Glen.
The water is warmer here, and some folks say the harbinger of the Big Hole salmonfly hatch is when peach-colored bugs start showing up on riverside brush at Twin Bridges, where the Big Hole joins the Beaverhead River to form the Jefferson River, which in turn becomes the Missouri River downstream at Three Forks.
Once it starts up the Big Hole, the salmonfly hatch will progress as much as 10 miles in a day, though its movement is characterized more by pulses and pauses than a steady march.
The height of the river's hatch is probably in its most popular section for floating anglers, between Divide and Melrose.
When the salmonflies are really popping, you'll see hundreds of bugs hanging from riverside willows, and more on the surface of the river, and still more spent shells of salmonflies drying on rocks and branches.
You'll see plenty of other anglers. Fly fishers from as far as Europe and across the U.S. flock to the Big Hole for the salmonfly hatch.
That makes crowding in the most accessible areas and floats a real issue, and it's the biggest reason why Fish, Wildlife & Parks is enforcing its controversial rule that limits outfitted floaters and non-outfitted non-resident floaters in specific areas to certain stretches on certain days. See the
Matching the hatch
Early in the salmonfly hatch, you don't have to be too precise about your pattern. Any large, bushy, salmon-colored stonefly imitation will do. There are, however, some local favorites.
At Sunrise Fly Shop, Piazzola recommends the Unibomber or the Godzilla, two patterns tied at the shop.
"Both are really effective, but you won't find them in any book," she said.
"They're designed to match the naturals, about 2 inches long and you can skip and skitter them on the water and make them really splashy."
At Great Divide Fly Shop just up the road at Divide, owner Al Lefor also recommends the Godzilla.
"It's just a great fishing fly," he said.
"It may not look exactly like the natural bug, but there's something about the way is works on the water that makes it really effective. I also recommend a local pattern called the F-18."
Early in the hatch, fish will be careless as they try to suck down as many of the high-protein bugs they can find. But after they're caught and released a few times, and as they become sated on the natural insects, the trout can get increasingly selective.
That means you have to more closely match the surface profile and proportions of the natural insects. It doesn't mean, said Lefor, that you have to use a look-alike salmonfly imitation.
"Toward the end of the salmonfly hatch a big yellow Stimulator is about as good a pattern as you'll find," he said.
"There are a ton of golden stoneflies out, along with the salmonflies which are getting smaller and that Stimulator imitates both of the insects pretty well. Fish them in big sizes, like size 4."
Nymphing works well, both in front of and during the hatch. Great Divide recommends a large black-and-orange streamer called the Halloween Bugger that works great either on a dead drift or twitched through slots.
The standard rubber-legged stonefly nymphs such as Yuk Bugs, Montana Stones, Bitch Creek Nymphs and Kaufmann's Stones all work well.
A yellow-and-black beadhead Yuk Bug in size 6 is a favorite the week before surface action begins.
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