Rattlin’ the Big Hole River

Eric English enjoying some evening fishing.

To catch a grayling. That was the challenge.

We made a new friend this year, making connections through a Facebook fly-fishing group. Eric English is an emergency room physician from Richmond, Virginia and he has a serious fishing problem. He’s part of the so-called gig economy, doing stints at hospitals around the country, hopefully where he can catch fish, and between gigs, surprise, surprise, he goes fishing.

One of his regular gigs is the hospital in Sidney, Montana, and from that base he’s made trips to Spring Creek in Lewistown and the Madison River. I extended an invitation to come and fish with me on the Big Hole.

Things finally worked out and he scheduled a trip to Butte, then to Idaho to fish the Henry’s Fork and Silver Creek. One of his goals was to catch a grayling, a fish he’d never caught before.

I warned him that, while I can put him on water where I’m pretty sure grayling are present, catching a grayling is still a spin of the roulette wheel.

Eric made it to Butte and I took him to a stretch of water I’d fished on the 4th of July and had good luck, catching not only a grayling, but a Big Hole Grand Slam of sorts, landing rainbow, brook, and brown trout, plus a whitefish. I guess a true grand slam might include a westslope cutthroat trout, as well, but on the Big Hole, cutts are really too rare to have reasonable expectations of catching one.

Thunderstorms had rolled through during the night and a cold wind was blowing when we got to the river—not good for fishing but we started working our way up the river.

I caught the first fish, a whitefish, and from there Eric took over. In short order, he caught a whitefish and, happily, his first grayling, though just a little 6-incher. We worked our way to a pool I regard as magical, where a few years back I’d hit it when the fish had one of those feeding frenzies. During the course of that rainy afternoon, I’d caught well over 20 fish, including that Grand Slam. It was one of those insane days when I’d cast a fly and good-sized trout would fight over it.

A nice Big Hole arctic grayling. Mission accomplished!

It wasn’t that insane this time, but Eric did well, catching several brook trout and then a larger grayling, this one about 12 inches. I was standing next to him after taking some photos of the grayling. On his next cast, no sooner had his fly hit the water than a brown trout hit it, completing his Big Hole Grand Slam.

The next day we fished the lower Big Hole, downstream from Melrose. Sorry to say, the fish weren’t biting at all, though Eric did catch one respectable brown trout.

After a lunch break, we tried a different spot, near a bridge. We blanked on fish but on the walk out, Eric said, with a sense of urgency, “Snake!” I stopped and looked around, not seeing anything, and he grabbed my shoulder to keep me from moving and pointed to a spot just six feet in front of me. There was a 5-foot rattlesnake, cocked and loaded and with a chip on its shoulder. It had likely been resting under a slab of bark next to the path, and both of us, and my Lab, Kiri, had walked right by it earlier. It was thoroughly ticked off at us for upsetting his/her afternoon nap and wasn’t going to put up with any more of our nonsense.

An uninvited rattlesnake guarding its territory on the banks of the Big Hole River.

From a safe distance I took some photos and then we found a different way out, safely away from our venomous friend. For some odd reason, an air-conditioned bar with cold beer seemed the logical place to spend the rest of the afternoon.

We sent Eric on his way the next day to catch more fish in Idaho. He found success there, even on the fiendishly difficult Silver creek. But, he didn’t have the rattlin’ good time he had on the Big Hole.

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