I was lucky enough to be going fishing during the warmest month of the year in a place so full of beautiful water and big trout that I daydreamed about it for weeks. Floods, storms, grizzly bears, and even a warning from a mentor were not going to get in the way.
For some, fly fishing is an obsessive sport that drives the afflicted to bouts of monomania. A psychologist I know, who likes to fish, compares it with gambling.
My wife has come to accept my hobby so long as I only indulge in it at times when she won't be outnumbered by our two children. She kindly let me go to Montana with my mother and nephew while her mother was in town.
My plan was to land in Bozeman, drive to our family place near Twin Bridges, fish six days with pauses to sleep and eat, then come back replenished.
Dusty was right that the big snows had limited where I could fish. I would have loved to hunt fat brown trout on the Madison near Ennis, for instance, but in fly-fishing parlance, that part of the river was blown out. All the churning water makes it hard for the fish to see a fly, and also makes navigating the river dangerous. In late June, a man drowned when his raft flipped while fishing the swollen Big Hole.
Luckily, Twin Bridges has many options for fishing locations. It sits at the confluence of some of the greatest trout water on earth. In town, the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Ruby Rivers join to form the Jefferson, which flows about 80 miles before meeting the Madison and the Gallatin to become the Missouri. Aside from these renowned rivers, there are spring-fed creeks, mountain streams, lakes and reservoirs. Plus, Yellowstone Park's lifetime of fishing is only two hours away.
In my week, I fished five big rivers, three creeks, and a mountain lake, all stretches I had never seen before. My choices seemed unlimited.
By the time I arrived, a beautiful thing had happened: the Big Hole had dropped and cleared. It was not just fishable but fantastic. I was a happy man because the river has the greatest combination of beauty and bounty of any I have ever fished.
A lot of big rivers take weeks to clear after mountain snows begin to melt. But I learned that the Big Hole clears quickly and fishes most days.
One day, I fished with Greg Smith, the owner of the Four Rivers fly shop in Twin Bridges. We picked a section lined with red-rock canyons, cottonwood groves, and ranches that were lush and green from all the water.
Greg, who has fished the Big Hole since the late '80s, says its landscape and waters are more diverse than any he knows. "Canyons and meandering meadows, flats, riffles, buckets, pools, drops, fast water, slow water: it's all here," he reflected.
Happily, we saw an abundance of the kinds of bugs that trout like. Two kinds of stoneflies were hatching from the river's depths, along with caddis flies and a large mayfly called the brown drake.
Fly fisherman watch the bugs that are hatching, because trout will often key in on one kind of offering at a time. If you can figure out what that is and match it with an artificial fly, you might catch a lot of trout. That day, despite all the flying bugs, the fish seemed more interested in what fishermen call nymphs: immature caddis and mayflies yet to emerge from the river. We drifted them under a bobber that dipped at the pull of a fish. Once my fly seemed to hook on the immovable bottom. Then it moved hard downstream and bent my rod.
"There is something heavy on there," I told Greg.
But then there wasn't. Whatever it was (a giant brown, I suspect) had straightened my hook and gotten away. Those are the ones you remember, more than the other brown and rainbow trout and mountain whitefish we brought to net.That day was enough to make a great trip, but I had plenty more adventures. Another day was spent on a creek called the Bloody Dick. Its lazy current wound through an open meadow that was a perfect spot for my nephew to practice his cast. It also gave up three dozen brook trout.
We also spent time wading the Beaverhead and hunting wary trout on a tributary called Poindexter Slough. And since we could, we slipped down to Yellowstone, where the abundant snow offered an unexpected gift: the Firehole River, with its incomparable geysers and steaming banks, was still fishing. Normally, thermal springs make it too warm for trout by July.
In above my waist on the upper Madison one afternoon, I wondered whether I would have to risk deeper, faster water if a bear wandered down the bank. A few days earlier a mother grizzly had killed a man in the park. Luck gave me a beautiful rainbow trout and no bears, but when we drove past the same section later, two grizzlies bumbled along the opposite bank.
On my last fishing day, I headed back to the Big Hole. I floated in a drift boat with a group of friends until the day's last light. This time, we caught fish on dry flies while the air was thick with caddis and the big drakes.
As we cast to rising rainbows, I asked my friend Will Casella whether he knew a prettier trout river. Though he has guided and fished around the world from Russia, to Mongolia to New Zealand, he was stumped.
My old teacher Dusty, it turned out, was half-wrong. But all the extra water draining down from the mountains would also make him half-right: The rivers would fish well long into the autumn. September would certainly be epic.