Solo on the Big Hole

Fly Fishing, Fishing, Big Hole River

Solo on the Big Hole

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Drew Hulse

The hazy work of learning to fly fish. 

In Montana, you may mountain bike, you may kayak, you may climb, you may ski. You may even hunt. But you must fish. 

At least that’s what the locals told me—if not directly, then implicitly, through the raised brows of utter shock when I said I’d never fly fished before. So, several weeks after moving west from Georgia, I asked a man at the local fly shop to show me the best way to tie on a fly. He watched me until I had it perfected. But I learned there is much more to being a fly fisherman than tying on a fly.

I left the shop with a box full of “purple chubby” flies—the man swore purple worked best—and headed west from Bozeman. An epic fishing, camping, skiing, and climbing road-trip outlined in a previous O/B feature (Spring 2017, p. 98) enticed me to explore beyond the mountains that had framed my vision since arriving in Montana. The early-September heat had subsided, the river opened after a long closure, so I opted to wet a line instead of climb. The pursuit of my first fish on a fly rod would begin on the fabled Big Hole River.

I valley-hopped to Dillon and then veered onto Hwy. 278 toward the southwestern fringe of the state, the Big Hole Valley. The space between the silent, towering mountains was so vast and empty it was like driving through a distant planet. Mosquitoes pattered on the windshield while the radio searched endlessly for a frequency.

As darkness fell, I pulled into the Twin Lakes campground in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Folding down the back seats, I arranged a mattress of cardboard and towels and looked through the sunroof at the stars, slowly dozing off.

The morning sun illuminated the dew-covered windows. I drove out of the campsite and, flicking the windshield wipers and rubbing sleep from my eyes, I saw the Big Hole River for the first time. The river flowed softly along the valley floor. It paralleled the highway through Jackson and Wisdom, shimmering brighter as vast plains gave way to canyon walls. The stretch near Wise River teemed with ripples, rapids, and ample fishing access. I followed the river through the gorge, pulled into the gravel lot of Divide Bridge Campground, and was wading through cold water by 9am.

Photo by Craig Hergert / MT Panoramic

An hour passed without a nibble. I became more aware of the fly’s weightlessness. With each cast, the energy distributed itself throughout the line, which seemed to consume all of the fly’s potency.

I hiked downstream to find a new spot. Mud collected and dried on my shoes. Mayflies swarmed the shoreline, congregating in the brush, landing alone on the water’s surface like little sailboats. Among the ebbs and flows was an eddy, which formed a shallow pool near the bank. On the far end of the pool, where idle water and quick current formed a seam, the current sucked leaves and bugs downstream. I waded in. My fly landed in the current, drifted downstream past me, and dragged the end of my line.

When I was a boy, my grandfather would take me out in a canoe on the Gulf of Mexico to catch speckled trout. I’d watch quietly as he slid my hook through live shiners before handing the rod to me. Back then, I enjoyed fishing even without catching. On this day, however, I craved physical validation for holding a rod.

Fishermen floated down the main flow of the Big Hole on rafts. I noticed that the way they commanded the line—always working the slack by their waist, rolling in and out like the current—gave them complete control of the fly. I pulled more line from my reel, flicked the rod behind me, and felt a hiccup of resistance. I whipped the rod forward and watched my line fall uselessly to the water. No fly.

Latched to a branch high up in a cottonwood tree behind me, it looked more like a fly than it ever did on my line. Purple and defiant. I trudged to the shoreline in a sudden, stubbed-toe type of anger, took a seat on a rock, and rummaged through my pack. I sliced off a cylinder of salami with my pocketknife and ate it with cheese.

A few moments passed before I tied on another bug, running through the steps one by one in my head. My grandfather had baited his hooks with one slow, visceral jab; tying my fly involved looping, threading, and applying saliva for lubrication. I gave the tippet a firm tug to secure the knot, clipped the loose ends with my forceps, and stepped back into the river.

I let out some slack to initiate a cast, my head swiveling backward now to predict its trajectory. The fly whizzed into the current and bobbed downstream. I was daydreaming, casting robotically like a metronome, when something struck the surface, tension running through my line.

My grip tightened. The sensation in my arms stiffened my whole body. I lifted the tip of the rod, eons late in my inexperience, but the tension was still there. Erratic spasms rattled through the cork. I started reeling. Solo on the Big Hole, I broke into a broad smile as the fish came into sight.

I tenderly unhooked him, and he lingered by my feet—both of us needed a moment to collect ourselves. I was surprised by how well he fit his environment. He was a little guya brown trout, sleek and spottedand the current flowed past him as it would a stone. Then, he flicked his tail fin, veered away, and disappeared.

Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

The Big Hole was calm again. My grandfather and the canoe drifted back to mind, and suddenly I knew why they had remained with me all these years. This memory—deft hands baiting a hook—was stronger than the memory of reeling in. As a boy, I was chasing something, and it wasn’t a fish on my line—it was the fisherman with me in the canoe. I wanted to be like him. He didn’t always lead me to fish, but he always put a rod in my hands.

Looking across the water, the river suddenly took on three dimensions. Surely the same stones at my feet were out there all along, but they had only just calcified in my mind. I imagined fish navigating them, addressing them one by one searching for nymphs and waiting for flies to land on the surface above them.

I fished a while longer and caught—and released—one more. I broke down my rod and slid it back into its case as rafts continued to float past me, and I felt that I, too, was a fisherman.

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