Big Hole River: An unplanned canyon run

Blunder on the Big Hole

There are a variety of possibilities regarding why I missed a takeout on the Big Hole River last Saturday.

Could have been foggyness from the night prior at Wise River Club. Or it could have been due to a continuation of those evening antics while we drifted from Dickie Bridge toward Dewey, for what was going to be a quick morning/early afternoon float. Or it may simply have been that the water was flowing faster than we thought and we cruised right by Dewey, all of us staring at the north bank, before we ever thought we could have been there.

Regardless, the canyon below Dewey wasn’t an especially great place to be during high flows, in a low-side drift boat, with four men and a hefty cooler aboard. As soon as I realized our blunder—which marked the first time in 20 years I’d missed a takeout—I recalled that someone lost their boat in that section the previous week. And, over the years, I’ve heard stories of other boat wrecks and even deaths in that gnarly canyon.

I knew we were in for it after the first big rapid, which kind of sucked me in before I knew what was happening, and it’s a miracle that I kept the boat straight, while taking serious water over the bow. I quickly realized that I’d have to be really “on” to get us through the canyon and to our new destination, the takeout at old Silver Bridge. I don’t know how many more rapids we negotiated, five, six or seven at least, but we did so wearing life jackets and me saying, “Uh, I’d hold off on fishing through this one guys.” Some listened, others fished.

Through  each rapid I kept the boat as straight as I could and eased to various positions through the runs to avoid boulders. A couple times I shot narrow gaps between boulders and the rocky bank. To say that my adrenalin was elevated is an understatement. I don’t consider myself a whitewater dude. I prefer rivers like the Beaverhead, Missouri and Clark Fork. So this was a real test and the first time, other than a run through the Madison’s Kitchen Sink a couple years ago, that I’d ever worn a life jacket while rowing a Montana river, and the only time I’ve required my company to do the same.

In the end we made it through the canyon unscathed, all hands accounted for, and then we were happy we’d made the extra run. But we still had a problem—how to get back to Dewey. One of the guys, Wolfie, and I walked up to the highway to thumb a ride. We walked about a mile before a truck stopped in the middle of the narrow road, on blind corner, about 200 yards ahead of us. Wolfie screamed, “Let’s go,” and it was off to the races, Wolfie in full waders and me in wader-pants and spiked boots. We were out of breath when we jumped into the bed of that pickup truck, taking up stations next to a cardboard-boxed brand new refrigerator, standing vertical in the bed of the pickup. I prayed we wouldn’t get rear-ended and that I wouldn’t end up crushed underneath a Frigidaire. Talk about a lame way to go.

Fortunately, we were out of there before another vehicle arrived and after we picked up our rigs at the Dewey access we came to an easy conclusion: the other guys didn’t know that we’d gotten a ride. For all they new we were still hoofing it up the highway. Time was on our side. So what to do? A stop at the Dewey Bar for a shot of Cuervo and a beer, and a good laugh with all the locals lapping up their favorites on an early summer weekend. I guess we could have stayed for two or three and feigned unsuccessful thumbing, but we decided we’d get back to the boys and yank the boat from the drink. Besides the cooler was in the boat and that left open all possibility.

The fishing last weekend? Weird, at best. We took some decent fish in two days on the Big Hole but it wasn’t red-hot and the big golden stones everyone was talking about never materialized. Not a single one. We did see some caddis and PMDs but not in numbers. Had a lot to do with the weather, I’m sure. We woke next to the Wise River Club on Saturday morning and there was fresh snow on surrounding

hills. Despite a lack of bugs, a few curious fish rose to big golden stone imitations. A few others nipped at big streamers. I would call the fishing a disappointment, only because those sections of the river have produced so well before and people were talking it up like the dry-fly action was strong. I know the area is loaded with rainbows and some nice browns, but they weren’t out to play. The Big Hole? I don’t know when I’ll fish it again. Maybe when it’s on the serious drop and the hoppers are out. And that could happen soon with all the warm weather forecasted in the next 10 days. I guess I can look at it this way: at least I’m alive to have another go of it.

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