Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Big Hole Smorgasbord - USA 2015

One of the best things about fishing the Big Hole River is the variety of fish to be caught. The instant your indicator dips under the water you have no idea whether it's a rainbow, brown, cutthroat, brook trout, grayling or whitefish. It's really exciting in fact.

I had a little hierarchy worked out by the novelty of each species. Rainbows and browns are a dime a dozen in Montana, so they were near the bottom of the list but still very welcome. Whitefish are hard, dogged fighters but at times they can be a bit of a plague - almost too easy to catch - so they were consigned to an unwanted last place. Brook trout are still a beautiful novelty to me so they were placed just ahead of the browns and rainbows. Because they're native and found nowhere else in the world cutthroats still hold my rapt attention and I want to feast on them before I leave. They came in second place. The undoubted star attraction however was the chance of catching a pretty rare fish - the fluvial Arctic grayling, Thymallus arcticus.

A distinct species from their European cousins, Arctic grayling are widespread in Alaska and Canada and were once widespread in Montana and Michigan, the only two states in the 'lower 48' where they were found. The Michigan fish are now extinct and the only remnant Montana population is found in the upper Big Hole River. They have been reintroduced and stocked elsewhere but have managed against the odds to maintain a permanent presence in the Big Hole. It would make catching one from the Big Hole a pretty special thing.

I fished the Big Hole on a blustery day of strong downstream winds. At times I wished I was in one of the boats drifting by as they didn't have to deal with the downstream wind, but I did OK. In fact I came pretty close to achieving the 'slam' only to miss out on a brown trout!

Mission accomplished: fluvial Arctic grayling!
Cutthroat (or cutthroat/rainbow mix)

I even caught my largest brook trout to date!

As the evening wore on I tried desperately to land a brown trout to complete the slam but the mosquitoes became too much and viciously chased me back to the safety of my car and tent. I went back to the river the next day and fished it for about three hours, again with a strong and persistent downstream wind and again trying to hook a brown, but managed only a couple of rainbows. Eventually I caught several browns a little way up two of the Big Hole's tributaries and this was good enough for me.

I really enjoyed fishing the Big Hole. To go with the interesting variety of fish it's a scenic river and one of the most recognised by fly fishers in the world. One of its big draw cards is the annual salmonfly hatch in June when large salmonfly nymphs crawl out of the water on to rocks or the stems of grass in droves and shed their skins to become flying trout food. It draws anglers from far and wide and while I saw a quite a few salmonflies the fish seemed to mostly leave them alone. I think the best of the hatch had already passed just a few short days before my arrival and the fish had already gorged themselves to the point of not wanting to eat any more of them.

My guide book describes the Big Hole valley as one of the coldest places in Montana and I can vouch for it. I left my wet hiking boots out overnight and when I woke up the next morning after a cold night in the tent they were plastered by 3mm of ice!

The Big Hole is a river every fly fisher should strive to visit in their lifetime. It's that good.

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