Big Hole River Salmonfly Blitz—all or nothing

When in Rome.

Want a deal? Book for June.

Montana’s outfitters and guides are reporting good bookings for 2011 with the exception of June.

That makes sense because, as I write this, the snow is falling in southwest Montana, adding to an already solid snowpack. So, I know what everyone is thinking—the latter part of May and all of June will be blown-outs-ville in Big Sky Country and the rest of the West.

That’s not necessarily true and I know that by learning the hard way—I used to predict runoff and Mother Nature always took me by the arms and slammed me into a brick wall, meaning I used to get phone calls and e-mails from angry people saying,
“You blew that prediction!”

Typical brown from the Big Hole.

This is what I know now: runoff doesn’t just depend on snowpack. Instead, it is influenced by all kinds of things including the length of warm spells and cold spells during spring, and the amount of rain or low-elevation snow we get in April and May. Lets say we get a few days of hot weather followed by a few days of cold weather and that cycle repeats itself over and over. We’re golden. No major runoff and fishable water throughout.

On the other hand, if we get some prolonged heat the rivers are going to blow out. Here’s the deal though: June provides awesome hatches in the Rockies, chief among them the giant salmonfly. And one of my favorite places to fish that hatch is on the Big Hole River south of Butte, Montana and west of Twin Bridges.

The river is a true freestone and offers varied sections. Salmonflies come off throughout the river, but the best fishing typically is found between Wise River and Glenn, meaning the upper river and the canyon sections.

According to Dan “Rooster” Leavens, who owns Stonefly Inn and Outfitters in Twin Bridges (see ad to the right offering a killer deal on guided float trips), high water or not the salmonflies will be out by June 10 and they’ll stick around, probably, through the Fourth of July. And he’s not predicting runoff either.

“The runoff could be high this year or maybe it won’t be,” he said. “It’s all about spring rain and snow and temperatures. You play the hand your dealt. Given good conditions on the Big Hole you whack them. If not you hit the upper Beaverhead, which is really good and not influenced by the runoff. There are other options, too; if the Bigh Hole is out you could go to the Madison or, worst case scenario, we could drive an hour-and-a-half and hit the Missouri.

“So, I think it makes sense to take chances on the water conditions and come in June,” Leavens added. “If you hit it right you’ll have some of the best fishing of your life. And the Big Hole is special. It’s one of the last large freestone streams left and it’s beautiful; you drive through the high desert to get to it and when you first see the river it’s like an oasis with green everywhere and major cottonwoods. And I love the diversity in hatches; one hour you might bang them on a bank with salmonflies and then the next bend you see caddis coming off and risers eating them. After a couple hours you may switch to a crayfish and catch a couple big fish. By the end of the day you may have 15 different fly patterns on your patch and you caught fish on all of them.”

One of Leavens’ best tactics during the salmonfly hatch is to run two Chernobyl style salmonflies, one with flotant on it and another without. The lead fly rides high and mimics and adult stonefly on the surface while the trailer drifts just under the surface mimicking a drowned bug. Leavens says that combination is “deadly.”

Another option to think about if the water is high, but fishable in June is streamers. The Big Hole is a good streamer river and there are some big rainbows and browns to be had, especially on the lower reaches.

There. If June is open for you and you don’t mind playing the wildcard, come to Montana and book at trip with Stonefly Inn or Four Rivers Fishing Company or Sunrise Fly Shop. All of those outfits can lead you to great days on the water in June, whether that’s floating the Big Hole, Madison, Beaverhead, Ruby or even the Missouri.

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