State of the Fishery – Big Hole River

It’s still winter in Montana, but soon time to be out on the river – but first get a license!

Happy New Year!

If your year revolves around fishing and hunting, today is the beginning of a new year, a new Montana fishing and hunting license year, that is. Here in western Montana, with our ready access to trout streams, lakes, mountains and river bottoms, and still just a few hours from prairie country, we’re blessed with abundant opportunities to get our money’s worth out of our license dollar. So, before heading out for late ice fishing or early fly-fishing, be sure to see a license vendor or go online to get licensed for those early outings.

The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited is having monthly State of the Fishery meetings this spring. In February, FWP fisheries biologist Jim Olsen reported on what’s happening on our area’s premier trout river, the Big Hole.

The next TU meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. on March 9 at the Pour House on Harrison Avenue in Butte, with FWP biologist Jason Lindstrom reporting on what’s happening on the Upper Clark Fork river. All these meetings are free and open to the public. In April, Matt Jaeger and Ron Spoon will report on the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers.

These monthly meetings are in addition to the annual GGTU spring fundraising banquet taking place Friday evening at the Butte Plaza Mall Event Center. It might already be sold out, but you can check on ticket availability by calling 560-2050. As for Jim Olsen’s report, one of the highlights was that in 2016 there wasn’t any noticeable Saprolegnia fish die-off.

Saprolegnia, you might recall, is a fungus-like organism present in all waters, and often infects fish with a moldy appearance, and is sometimes a fatal infection. There was a significant die-of of adult brown trout in the Melrose section of the Big Hole River in October 2014, and another, though less serious, die-off in 2015. There was virtually no Saprolegnia-related die-off in the fall of 2016.

Olsen attributes the Saprolegnia problems to weather. In 2014 and 2015, October weather and water temperatures in the lower Big Hole were somewhat above long-term average. In 2016, however, there was significant rainfall in September, which increased water flows and lowered water temperatures.

Olsen also reported on a water analysis looking for the pathogen that causes proliferative kidney disease, which caused a big fish die-off last summer on the upper Yellowstone River. The pathogen, tetrocapsuloide bryosalmonae was found to be present in the Big Hole, though there has been no known affect on fish populations.

A Rocky Mountain whitefish, the fish most vulnerable to last summer’s PKD die-off.

Olsen noted that trout populations in the Melrose stretch of the river have rebounded, with juvenile fish thriving as well as fish migrating into the area, possibly including rainbow trout migrating up from the Jefferson River.

Mountain lakes were a concluding highlight to Olsen’s report to TU. When rivers start to drop and get warm, he suggests that mountain lakes might be a great option for anglers. He says, “Mountain lakes have a lot to offer, including solitude, good exercise, great scenery, and a variety of fish.”

He says that in the Big Hole drainage, there are 137 lakes, and 101 of them are known to have fish. Some 30 of those lakes are stocked on a regular basis (every few years, that is), and many others have self-sustaining fish populations.

The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest has published a guide to all the mountain lakes in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest (also available online). Further, Olsen has created a spreadsheet of the mountain lakes in the Big Hole drainage, and the George Grant Chapter will have that spreadsheet posted to the Chapter website (

Olsen named some favorite lakes (sorry—not enough room here), but, in general, he likes lakes that have some shallow, muddy bottoms or reefs, with weed patches. Backpackable float tubes are an excellent way to access those fishy waters.

The presentation included photos of some serious fish, so when late summer comes and you’re ready for a hike, there’s the possibility that your reward might be the trout of a lifetime.

2 thoughts on “State of the Fishery – Big Hole River

  1. Total lie about not having a fish die off in 2016. I personally observed several big breeder browns dead in the dewey to silver bridge area in early oct. Part of the reason not as many fish were observed is the water was higher then in 2014, or 15, and most likely washed down river. I also saw several large whitefish in the spring of 2016 with the fungus on their face.. BS to fwp who are suppressing the truth for the sake of the tourist dollar. Size and quantity of browns is down drastically from 2014. Not just my opinion, but that of several other fisherman and a couple guides willing to tell the truth.

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