Having four unique sections, the Big Hole River has a little section that will appeal to any angler – regardless of your favorite style of fishing. You have over 150 miles of river to choose from – from floating through mountain meadows lined with wildflowers. This canyon section requires a vital skill set on the oars to a classic western trout stream meandering through a cottonwood-lined river bottom.
When it comes to fishing, the Big Hole hosts the ability to appeal to any fishing style. For the dry fly angler, it is home to prolific salmon fly hatches in the early summer, life-changing PMD hatches in the summer, and trico hatches in the late summer. If throwing sink tips, seven weights, and big articulated streamers are your thing too, the Big Hole may deliver the trout of a lifetime, and it does for many anglers every year. If you’re into a numbers game, nymph fishing is quite productive! With the prominent stonefly nymphs, using a Pat’s rubber leg along with small bead head attractor-type nymphs are always a great start. During higher water, never look past a red San Juan worm either!
Boasting five different game fish species, the Big Hole might help you check off a few new species! Rainbow and brown trout are found throughout the river system – especially as you move further down the river. In the upper stretches, you’ll find superior numbers of brook trout and the occasional cutthroat. Unique to the upper Big Hole are the last strongholds of grayling in the lower 48. Anglers are fortunate to have an honest chance at catching one of these excellent fish in a freestone river.
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Sections of the Big Hole
Headwaters – Headwaters to the North Fork confluence
Beginning in classic mountain meadows and ag fields, the headwaters of the Big Hole look like a traditional mountain brook – much different than what most people have in mind when they hear about the river. As it leaves the mountains, it quickly begins to pick up various springs and feeder creeks. Typical small water fishing is found in this stretch. Rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and grayling are prevalent in this section and range from 10″-14″. These fish are quick to eat attractor dries in the summer months – the perfect way to spend a day.
Upper River – North Fork confluence to Dewey
At the confluence of the North Fork, the river begins to take the classic appearance you expect of the Big Hole. You can now start to float the river as it has enough water for rafts and drift boats – keep an eye on flows as the summer progresses! It can drop in flows quickly, making it nearly impossible for any boat. As the river flows through the wide valley, your chances at true trophy brown trout begin. Don’t be shy of throwing streamers tight to the bank – orange and yellow tend to be the angler’s favorite.
A little over halfway through this section, the Wise River flows into the Big Hole. Not only does this provide cold mountain water to the river and fish, but it provides an influx of water to help anglers continue to float the river through the summer months.
Canyon Section – Dewey to Melrose
Beginning near Dewey, the river flows into the first of two canyon sections. The first canyon is lined by cliff walls, a steep gradient, and small rapids. Expect classic pocket water fishing in this section. Once the river hits Divide, it widens again to the traditional Big Hole, similar to the upper river. Shortly after Divide, it flows into the second canyon section. Again, more pocket water is found in this section, along with classic runs found on most Western rivers – riffles with long runs and deep pools after. This second “canyon” section is home to the highest trout count per mile (upwards of 3,000), along with the healthiest concentration of insect life. This can be the busiest section of water on the entire river – especially when the fishing is hot, and the insects are hatching!
Lower River – Melrose to Beaverhead River Confluence
Once leaving the second canyon, the Big Hole changes yet again. Leaving the mountains and canyons, it flows into an agricultural valley, and the river begins to meander through cottonwoods and alfalfa fields. Reminiscent of a classic western trout river, this section features long riffles and deep runs, and undercut banks holding carnivorous brown trout. Insect life and trout numbers decrease slightly in this section but not hard enough to dissuade an angler. As summer progresses, the water begins to warm, and the fishing slows. In low water years, the Big Hole river experiences “hoot owl” closures – these require all fishing to stop by 2 pm. We highly recommend checking water temperatures on your own before fishing this section as they can become too warm to safely fish before 2 pm.
Seasons on the Big Hole River
As winter turns to spring, anglers rejoice as the Big Hole begins to ice off. Dry fly anglers travel far and wide to fish the various hatches the river hosts each spring, from skwala to baetis and Mother’s Day caddis. Fish are on the feed after being locked under a sheet of ice for the last three months so expect to see heads on the river when conditions align.
“Chuck and Duck” anglers are also in luck as the largest brown trout in the river system are looking to pack on the calories after a long winter of being locked under shelf ice. Now is the time to catch the brown trout of a lifetime on orange or yellow streamers.
Run-off (IE: Salmon Flies!)
This is an important enough event that we are making it its own season! Generally speaking, the Big Hole experiences a more tame run-off compared to most other freestone rivers. This allows anglers to chase the famed salmon fly hatch through most of the river system! Beginning in the lower valley near Melrose, the hatch begins in early June – moving upriver as water temps continue to warm. When the stars align, this incredible event can last for up to three weeks. Weekend warriors to trout bums alike can take advantage of the hatch.
As the salmon flies fade into distant memory, golden stones take their place along with PMD’s, caddis, and nocturnal stoneflies take over in a trout’s summer diet. While summer continues to pass by, the Big Hole begins to see blanket hatches (and spinner falls) of the small yet mighty trico. Trico hatches mark the end of the aquatic insects in the river system, but let’s not forget about terrestrials. Hoppers and ants falling or flying into the river are easy pickings for hungry trout along the bank and provide high protein food for the inevitable winter. We should also note the lesser-known spruce moth hatch on the upper river. Trout tend not to miss a well-presented spruce moth – they provide similar protein as a grasshopper does for the fish on the lower river. Water temps are always a concern on the entire stretch of the river system. Never assume the water will be cold and plan! Check flows and water temperatures before heading to the river and plan to adjust if needed.
The fall season marks shorter days, cooling water, and more water for the river system once irrigation is over. Like all rivers in the fall, dry fly opportunities diminish greatly. However, the Big Hole does host quality blue wing hatches on cool and cloudy days, but the BWO’s aren’t why anglers travel here. This is your last chance to throw sink tips and streamers tight to the bank in search of your brown trout of the year. Browns are on the feed – putting on the weight before their annual spawning season. If you hit it just right, the streamer bite can be life-altering and will keep you coming back year after year.
Once the long Montana winter grabs ahold of the Big Hole, it marks the end of the fishing season. Most of the river will be iced over until next March for spring breakup. We tend to avoid this area and search out rivers with more consistent winter fishing opportunities.
If you’ve never experienced the Big Hole, it’s highly recommended that it goes to the top of your list. The Big Hole can cater to anglers of all skill levels and goals, from the scenery and hatches to the trophy brown trout and unique river diversity.
Popular Big Hole River Flies
- Chubby Chernobyl (size 4-14)
- Amy’s Ant (size 10-14)
- X Caddis (size 8-18)
- Sparkle Duns (size 12-20)
- Turk’s Tarantula (size 6-14)
- Pink/Black Morrish Hopper (size 8-12)
- Parachute Hopper (size 8-10)
- Sweetgrass Hopper (size 8-12)
- Two Bit Hooker (size 12-18)
- Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-14)
- Red Copper John (size 12-18)
- Zebra Midge (size 14-18)
- Barely Legal – olive/white (size 4)
- Home Invader – black, white, olive, yellow (size 6)
- Bow River Bugger (size 4-6)
- Sparkle Minnow Sculpin (size 4-8)
Stonefly Lodge and Inn – Located in the quaint fishing and ranch town of Twin Bridges, Montana, Stonefly Lodge and Inn has no shortage of blue-ribbon trout fishing within a short distance – the Big Hole being one of them. The lodge is low-key, relaxed, and very comfortable – making it one of the best destinations in Southwest, Montana.
Silver Bow Club – Sitting on 1,800 acres with 3 ½ miles of private river access, the Silver Bow Club is just outside of Divide, Montana. The main lodge is over 15,000 square feet and is the perfect place to bring family and friends or a business retreat. Boasting only eight guest rooms, a personal experience will be had with their executive chef and management team. The lodge also features a hot tub, stocked trout pond, and nothing short of an impressive great room – the perfect place to unwind after a day on the Big Hole.
A favorite activity is to jump on a lodge golf cart with a strung rod and a cooler with cold beverages. The mile-long cart path follows the river and is a perfect chance to look for rising trout as the sun sets on another day in the Big Hole Valley.
Complete Fly Fisher – Located just downstream of the confluence with the Wise River sits the Complete Fly Fisher. The banks of the Big Hole are steps away from the back deck and rising trout can be found almost every night in the summer. Accommodations include private cabins with screened porches and private baths to lodge suites that are feet away from the river where you can hear it pass by.
With two private chefs on staff, the culinary experiences at the Complete Fly Fisher are nothing short of spectacular. The entire team at Yellow Dog can tell you from first-hand experience that the meals you’ll experience are world-class in every way imaginable.
Great Waters Inn – The Sunrise Fly Shop is located in Southwest Montana in the quaint little town of Melrose. The shop has been operating for over 15 years and has a reputation for having a friendly, welcoming atmosphere and a very talented guide staff. The Sunrise Fly Shop is a stone’s throw from the Big Hole River and within 30 minutes we can also be fishing the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers. The lodging at the Great Waters Inn is second to none. It is one of the oldest and most trusted lodges in Southwest Montana. Our complete fishing packages offer anglers world-class fly fishing and premier lodging in a prime location within Southwest Montana.
Other Nearby Rivers:
– Beaverhead River
– Ruby River
– Jefferson River