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Big Hole River
Fly Fishing on the Big Hole River Fall of 2006
Country  United States
State  Montana
 - location Skinner Lake, Bitteroot Range, Montana, Beaverhead
 - coordinates 45°10′28″N 113°30′43″W / 45.17444°N 113.51194°W / 45.17444; -113.51194
Mouth Jefferson River
 - location Twin Bridges, Montana
 - coordinates 43°34′04″N 112°20′21″W / 43.56778°N 112.33917°W / 43.56778; -112.33917
Length 153 mi (246 km)
Montana rivers with the Big Hole in the southwest

The Big Hole River is a tributary of the Jefferson River, approximately 153 miles (246 km) long, in southwestern Montana in the United States. It rises in Skinner lake in the Beaverhead National Forest in the Beaverhead Mountains of the Bitterroot Range at the continental divide along the Montana-Idaho border in western Beaverhead County. It flows northwest and north, past Wisdom and between the Anaconda Range to the northwest and the Pioneer Mountains to the east. It flows around the north end of the Pioneer Mountains, then southeast, past the town of Wise River, Montana, where it is joined by the Wise River. Near Glen, Montana it turns northeast and joins the Beaverhead River near Twin Bridges to form the Jefferson.

The river is an historically popular destination for fly fishing, especially for trout. It is the last habitat in the contiguous United States for native Fluvial Arctic Grayling.[1] Historic conflicts between ranchers in the valley who depend on the river for irrigation and recreationalists have been mitigated through the creation of the Big Hole River Watershed Committee (1995). Though their Drought Management Plan is a model effort of cooperation between ranchers and recreationalists in the valley to preserve the watershed for all concerned, the "trigger" levels in the plan are well below biologically-based ("lower wetted perimeter") levels needed to restore the now nearly extirpated Big Hole River grayling.[2] Despite the "best" efforts of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, the population of Big Hole River grayling continues to decline.

After years of debate by all interests in the Big Hole watershed, in April 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Fluvial Arctic Grayling from Endangered Species candidacy, which has resulted in a lawsuit by The Center for Biological Diversity and other interested parties.[3]

The US FWS decision was politically mandated as a top-down decision by Julie MacDonald, the former Department of Interior official who has since resigned in disgrace. Characterized as a "science vandal" and "the Interior Department's Nero," an Office of the Inspector General investigation found that "MacDonald has been heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endandered Species Program's scientific reports." In the case of grayling, MacDonald ignored clear genetic differences between extremely rare fluvial (river) grayling and relatively common lacustrine (lake) grayling.[4].

The river is a Class I water from the Fishtrap fishing access site downstream from Wisdom to its confluence with the Jefferson river for the purposes of public access for recreational purposes[5].



At the time Lewis & Clark "discovered" the Big Hole River watershed, it was a buffer zone between several rival Native American tribes including the Nez Perce, Shoshone, Salish, and Blackfeet. Lewis & Clark considered navigating up the Big Hole River, but chose the slower-flowing Beaverhead River instead. Trappers from both the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company and the American Fur Company exploited the region from about 1810 to the 1840s. Miners and homesteaders settled the area between 1864 and the early 1900s.

In 1877 the U.S. troops under John Gibbon fought the Nez Percé Indians along the Big Hole River, during the Nez Perce War in the Battle of the Big Hole. The site of the battle along the North fork of the Big Hole is preserved as the Big Hole National Battlefield.

The establishment of Butte, Montana as a mining center and the coming of the Northern Railroad in 1871 assured Big Hole ranchers and farmers of a steady market for their beef, horses, mules, hay and dairy products. As a great improvement for preserving the wild hay for winter feeding of cattle, Herbert S. Armitage and Dade J. Stephens patented the "Sunny Slope Slide Stacker" in 1909. This device, commonly known as a "beaverslide" remained popular until the 1990s, when it was largely displaced by mechanized equipment for producing large round bales.

In the early 1960s, the US Bureau of Reclamation proposed building the Reichle Dam near the town of Glen along the Big Hole River. Conservationist George F. Grant, Trout Unlimited and local ranchers combined forces to oppose the dam, successfully defeating the proposal in 1967.

Today, fewer than 2500 people inhabit the 2,800 square mile (7,250 km2) Big Hole River watershed.

Angling The Big Hole

Upper Big Hole River near Jackson, Montana November 2008
Big Hole River near Twin Bridges, MT, October 2007
Rainbow Trout From Big Hole River near Twin Bridges, MT, October 2007 (Released)

The Big Hole river has been a destination for serious trout fisherman since the late 1880s when The Angler's Guide, an Eastern angling journal advertised the Big Hole as a national destination fishery for grayling and trout while promising daily 40 lbs catches.[6] Although the river still holds some native Cutthroat trout, their populations are almost non-existent. Instead, the river holds healthy wild populations of Brook, Rainbow and Brown trout which were first introduced into the Big Hole in late 1880s as hatchery operations began in Butte and Bozeman, MT. Native Mountain Whitefish are also prevalent in the river. In the 1980s, the state of Montana began stopping general stocking of all Montana rivers. The last hatchery fish were stocked in the Big Hole in 1990.[7] Dozens of guides, outfitters and fishing lodges offer guided fishing on the Big Hole and its tributaries.

Sections of the Big Hole,[8][9]
Section Description Prevalent Species
Skinner Lake (Headwaters), Wisdom, MT to Fish Trap (River Mile 81) This is the slow moving, high meadow stretch of the Big Hole. It ends at the last public access site on the river: Fish Trap. The meadow stretch is home to a few remaining native Fluvial Arctic Grayling and a good population of exotic Brook trout. Rainbows and browns are few in this section.
Fish Trap to Melrose This section is characterized by bouldered pocket water as it flows through a narrow canyon. This is excellent stone fly water. This section has 5 public access sites: Sportsman Park (Mile 78), Dewey (Mile 57), Greenwood Bottoms (Mile 57), Powerhouse (Mile 52) and Maidenrock (Mile 48). Rainbows dominate brown trout in this stretch 2:1 with approximately 3000 fish per mile.
Melrose to Twin Bridges, MT This section is characterized by cottonwood bottoms with braided channels and long, slow pools. This is also excellent stone fly water. There are public access sites at Salmon Fly (Mile 38), Brownes Bridge (Mile 32), Kalsta Bridge (Mile 30), Glen (Mile 25), Notch Bottom (Mile 18), Pennington Bridge (Mile 9), High Road (Mile 2). Browns dominate rainbow trout in this stretch 2:1 with approximately 3000 fish per mile.


  • The Big Hole River Foundation—To understand, preserve, and enhance the free flowing character of the Big Hole River and to protect its watershed, culture, community and excellent wild trout fishery.[10]
  • The Big Hole River Watershed Committee—The Big Hole Watershed Committee (BHWC) was formed in 1995 by several Big Hole ranchers and conservationists who feared an ESA listing for fluvial Arctic grayling. The Watershed Committee has reached out to local and selected interested entities and developed a viable community-based consensus group that has won the trust and respect to forge solutions to difficult problems that will impact the river today and tomorrow. Sadly, the committee has precluded activist voices such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Montana Wildlife Federation.
  • The Center for Biological Diversity – Combining conservation biology with litigation, policy advocacy, and an innovative strategic vision, the Center for Biological Diversity is working to secure a future for animals and plants hovering on the brink of extinction, for the wilderness they need to survive, and by extension for the spiritual welfare of generations to come.[11]
  • Western Watersheds Project – The mission of Western Watersheds Project is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and litigation[12]
  • Trout Unlimited – Trout Unlimited's mission is to conserve, protect and restore North America's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.[13]
  • Montana River Action - The clean flowing waters of Montana belong to the people and are held in trust by the State for a pollution-free healthful environment guaranteed by our Montana Constitution. Montana River Action's mission is to protect and restore rivers, streams and other water bodies.[14]

See also


Big Hole River Grayling
Big Hole River Watershed Map
  • Munday, Pat (2001). Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole & its People. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press. ISBN 1585743313.  
  • Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (1995). "Measuring Devices on the Big Hole River" (Helena, Montana: Department of Natural Resources & Conservation).
  • Probasco, Steve (1995). River Journal: Big Hole. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publishers. ISBN 1571880062.  
  • Holt, John (1996). Montana Fly-Fishing Guide-East. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1585745294.  
  • Ted Williams, "Who Needs Grayling?" Fly Rod & Reel (November/December 2007): 18-24.
  • Sullivan, Gordon (2008). Saving Homewaters-The Story of Montana’s Streams and Rivers. Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press. ISBN 0-88150-679-2.  


  1. ^ FWS (2004). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Assessment and Listing Priority Assignment Form for fluvial Arctic grayling (distinct population segment of the Upper Missouri River), commonly called Montana Arctic grayling. November 30, 2004.
  2. ^ BHWC Drought Management Plan
  3. ^ CBD Press Release
  4. ^
  5. ^ Stream Access in Montana
  6. ^ Munday, Pat (2001). Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole & its People. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press. pp. 100. ISBN 1585743313.  
  7. ^ Munday, Pat (2001). Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole & its People. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press. pp. 108. ISBN 1585743313.  
  8. ^ Munday, Pat (2001). Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole & its People. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press. pp. 133–136. ISBN 1585743313.  
  9. ^ Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks - Big Hole River
  10. ^ The Big Hole River Foundation Website
  11. ^ Center for Biological Diversity website
  12. ^ Western Watersheds Project website
  13. ^ Trout Unlimited website
  14. ^ Montana River Action Website

External links


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