June 27-28, 2010
The summer is only a week old and seems to be absolutely screaming past. My Henry’s Fork Marathon is history and this past weekend, a trip I’ve awaited nine months, came and went so fast I can’t believe it. The trip was to the Big Hole River in Montana with friend Scott Sanchez (Chez). Chez and I were the hosts for a group of four anglers. This was a trip thought up and sponsored by Jeff Walker of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Jeff generously donated this trip for four to the Jackson Hole One Fly Foundation to be used as a live auction item for their fundraising dinner 2009. The One Fly Foundation is famous for carefully using its funding for various stream restoration projects throughout the Rocky Mountains. Jeff’s donation included three nights lodging at the spectacular Big Hole Ranch (BHR) and two days guided fishing through the Sunrise Fly Shop of Melrose, MT. To spice it up, Jeff asked Chez and I if we would donate our time and be the hosts of this great trip. Being that neither of us is as dumb as we look, we answered without much thought, “Absolutely!”
The lucky purchasers of this fun trip were Peter and Ellen Saphire of Washington DC. As you may have guessed the Saphires’ are long time customer/friends of mine and Scott’s. We were excited when we found out they got the trip because although we’ve been talking fishing with them for almost twenty years, we’ve never actually wet a line together. They brought along their twenty-six year old son Jesse, whom I’ve known since he was ten and Peters brother Andy whom we met for the first time.
We all arrived for dinner on Saturday night. For Chez and I it was a four hour drive from the Jackson area. I’ve been to the BHR before but it’s been at least eight or nine years. It was just as beautiful as I remembered it. Jeff Walker himself awaited us and our great weekend started off with some wine tasting followed by a fantastic dinner. After dinner, Andy broke out some mean cigars so we sat on the porch till 11 pm and talked.
Morning came fast with sunrise at 5:45. We had a delicious breakfast and off to the Sunrise Fly Shop we went. We had three guides waiting for us. I was excited to see that two of were old friends of mine, Chuck Page and Rick Rossi. The way the day sorted out, Ellen and I fished together with Chuck. Chez and Peter went with Rick and Jesse and Andy went with a guide named Chris. In MT, outfitters are not allowed three boats on the same stretch of the Big Hole River so Chris, Andy and Jesse went on a different stretch than the rest of us.
The weather doesn’t get much better. As if the Big Hole River isn’t beautiful enough, skies were a rich blue without a cloud in sight. The temperature was a comfortable 70 degrees with highs expected near 80. Even the mosquitoes weren’t as bad as they can be. The only hardship we faced was high water. With a huge thunderstorm that dropped heaps of rain on Friday and the first high temperatures of the year melting high country snow at an alarming rate, the Big Hole was swollen well above its banks. However, trips like this are planned far in advance so even though we knew fishing would be challenging to say the least off we went to give it our best shot.
The guides of the Sunrise Fly Shop have a longtime reputation as some of the best in the business. Chuck and Rick have been guiding the Big Hole for as long as I can remember. I knew that even under the difficult conditions everyone would get into some fish. Chuck rigged Ellen with a stonefly dry and dropped a nymph below it. Chuck would rather I did the same but I’m not much of a nympher and with the high water conditions; I was all about casting streamers. Chuck recommended his favorite bugs and I rigged them on my Ross 6-weight and my favorite streamer line, the RIO Aqualux.
Man did fishing start slow. I rolled a fish in the first minute and then we went two hours before seeing another. Chuck was in awe at the increased water levels. All the places his clients caught fish on previous days were deep underwater and our day was quickly becoming a “You should have been here yesterday event”. Finally, Ellen actually missed a take on her dry fly only to recast and catch a gorgeous brook trout on her nymph. The skunk was out of the boat!
Getting the skunk out is usually all it takes to improve the day. Sure enough, Ellen caught three more fish on her nymph. It seems what we really needed was some hot sun to get the insect life and the fish moving. I finally broke down and started nymphing from the back of the boat. I don’t use an indicator and was a little rusty at first. Then, just before the lunch spot I nailed a hefty 18” brown.
In the afternoon Ellen put on a show. While I managed to catch five fish total for the day, Ellen managed to catch at least ten. Under unbelievably tough fishing conditions she kept her fly in the water and took advantage of the very few opportunities. Just to give you an idea how tough the fishing was, our other two boats together landed a total of four fish!
On day two my fishing partner was Jesse. Jesse and I were the odd boat out and while the rest of our group went on the same stretch with Chuck and Rick, Jesse and I went with guide whom I’d never met before, Ryan Barba. Ryan moved to Melrose from Vermont and bought the Sunrise Fly Shop five years ago with his friend and business partner Eric. He’s young and enthusiastic and an excellent hard working guide. We floated from Divide through the Big Hole Canyon to Melrose. Although the water levels stabilized, the river was roaring. You had to be quick with your casting or you would miss the prime spots fast. Ryan rigged up Jesse with a salmon fly dry and no dropper. He encouraged me to use a streamer so I set up my usual double streamer rig like I’ve described in past blogs.
I could see the river was roaring, but when we pushed off it was apparent there was more water in the river than meets the eye. Ryan had to back-row his butt off just to keep us anywhere in the game of pounding our flies to the bank. Miraculously, in the first ten minutes I nailed a scrappy rainbow that not only fought hard but in his last attempt to escape jumped in the boat. Luckily I released him unharmed.
Fishing remained steady for me. I followed up the rainbow with three nice browns including one so beautiful that we stopped for several pictures. Naturally with me, anytime I see a fantastic trout I photograph it for a future painting. Things were going a little slow for Jesse so Ryan took off his dry fly and set up an indicator and two nymphs. Minutes later Jesse started landing some fish. Jesse has been fishing as long as I’ve known him so he can get the fly where it belongs. Once he got the hang of the nymph he started nailing some fish. He caught several nice browns and some trophy whitefish. We were getting it done in the difficult conditions.
The river was cranking so fast that we did the normally full day float in five hours. That was way too short for a day of fishing so Ryan took us back up river for a second float. We decided to give the dry flies a second chance and this time they worked. We weren’t exactly crushing the fish, but both Jesse and I managed to catch several more nice fish.
I waited far too long since my last visit to the Big Hole River. The Big Hole is one the great western rivers and truly one of my all-time favorites. Its scenic beauty and high population of quality trout is what makes it for me. Best of all I got to fish with old friends and new friends which is what this year is becoming all about. For now its rest up and slow this summer down. I have to finish a cutthroat painting then take Granny fishing on Wednesday.