The Unbeatable Beaverhead

The Unbeatable Beaverhead

Through thick and thin, 'The Beav' has been Montana's premier big-fish river

  • By: Norm Zeigler
As a dispassionate scientist, Dick Oswald is a Dragnet kind of guy ("Just the facts, ma'am"), not given to flights of fancy. So when he says of Montana's famed Beaverhead River, "There's really nothing like it" in the state for numbers of big fish, he can be taken at his word. Oswald, an aquatic biologist in Montana for more than three decades, has been studying (and fishing) the Beaverhead for 26 years. In his job at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional office in Dillon, he has seen the river through great times and not-so-great times.But he has never seen it through fishless times. Steve Bielenberg of High Plains Drifter outfitters, who spends more than 75 days a year fishing extensive stretches of the Beaverhead both alone and with clients, is more colorful in his assessment: "Oh man, it's got some slobs." Even now, in the wake of a six-year Western drought--2005 was a normal precipitation year, but it will take several such years to officially "end" the drought--the Beaverhead remains Big Sky Country's premier big-fish river. I fell in love with "the Beav," as it is affectionately known just over half a decade ago, and since 2001 it has been my home water for good portions of the warm months, flowing past my cabin outside Dillon. It is an easy river to love, and a wonderful river to fish. The Beaverhead is a classic tailwater river, beginning at the bottom-release outflow from Clark Canyon Dam in far southwestern Montana. The dam, built in 1964 by the Bureau of Land Management for irrigation storage, created Clark Canyon Reservoir by impounding the waters of the Red Rock River along with those of Bloody Dick, Horse Prairie and Medicine Lodge creeks as well as other sources draining the eastern slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains. Like all first-rate tailwaters, the Beaverhead's exceptional trout fishing derives from the reservoir's chilly, nutrient-rich depths. In normal- and above-average precipitation years this inflow creates conditions--abundant habitat, plentiful food sources and a reliably ample cold-water supply--that produce phenomenal big-fish populations. During the Beaverhead's most recent peak years in the late 1990's, Oswald and his research colleagues recorded upwards of 800 brown trout over 18 inches per river-mile in one study area, with more than 275 over 20 inches. And their study monitored only the brown trout population; in the upper few miles of the river there is also a substantial minority of rainbows--about one for every two browns. Because of the river's dual purpose--recreation and irrigation--in drought periods fish, farms and ranches compete for the same water. Reduced outflows in non-irrigation periods and (from anglers' perspective) excessive drawdown by pumping can have drastic effects on the fish. In recent years the biggest problem has been dramatically reduced winter releases--sometimes as low as 25 cubic feet per second. According to Oswald, the resultant extreme low-water conditions in the upper river have caused stresses resulting in significant big-fish mortality. In low-water conditions, large fish are more vulnerable than small fish. On the Beaverhead this is especially true during fall and winter, when the bigger browns' energy reserves and immune systems are depleted from spawning. But it is important to keep things in perspective. To steal from Mark Twain: Reports of the Beaverhead's demise have been greatly exaggerated. It is still a hugely productive river. The numbers of fish in Oswald's study stretch--1,500 per mile--have remained fairly constant, though the biomass has been reduced. That means there are fewer large fish. In absolute terms, there were a little over two tons per mile of brown trout in the late 1990's. Currently, Oswald says it is "a little over a ton a mile." But this reduced biomass still translates to 300 fish per mile over 18 inches, and 40 per mile over 20 inches. The only comparable river in Montana, Oswald says, is the Bighorn and, "If you put it on a surface area, the Beaverhead would outdo the Bighorn… The Bighorn is probably at least four times as wide." Tim Tollett, owner of Frontier Anglers in Dillon, began fishing the Beav in 1977 under the tutelage of the river's doyen, Al Troth. "It's a changing fishery all the time, yet it remains the same, if that makes any sense," Tollett says. "It's definitely in a class by itself," for fish 16 to 21 inches. From its origin at Clark Canyon Dam the Beaverhead tumbles, twists and winds northward through widely varied countryside for 69 miles to its confluence with the Big Hole in Twin Bridges. But the most storied stretch, and the stretch with the largest numbers of big fish, is the upper nine miles, from the dam downstream to Pipe Organ Rock. Bielenberg knows it intimately and fishes it as skillfully as anyone. But it was not always so. "When I first moved here it just baffled me," he says. One July morning last summer Bielenberg, High Plains guide Kyle Rausch and I climbed into Rausch's drift boat at High Bridge, where Interstate 15 spans the upper Beaverhead. Though it was late July, the air temperature was 49 degrees. With a brisk wind blowing downriver and the canyon still partly in shadow, it felt 10 degrees colder. Our rods were set up with fairly standard upper-Beav rigs: a split- shot at the tippet end and, above, two small nymphs tied on as droppers off the leader. The strike indicators were about six feet up the leader. Rausch pushed off from the ramp and we bounced down through a small "raffle" (more than a riffle, but not a real rapids). Within a few hundred yards the current swung the boat into a sunny stretch of the canyon and Rausch dropped the anchor in the shallows along the right bank. When we stepped out onto a stone-and-gravel bar I was glad I had put on my breathables, but Bielenberg and Rausch, toughing it out, waded wet. One secret to success on the upper Beav is picking the right water. This task presents a bigger challenge than most rivers, because there are few classic pools and tailouts, few backwater pockets, few inlet streams. "The confusing thing is all this non-descript water," Bielenberg says. At the head of the bar heavy current swept down a deep channel, burbling up calf-deep over the bar and scouring its outer edge. It was a spot that did not look like anything special. But in 10 minutes Bielenberg and Raush proved that it was, both landing healthy browns in the 16- to 17-inch range. Rausch had worked a 10-by-10 pocket at the top of the bar and Bielenberg had probed a larger stretch two-thirds of the way down. This kind of fishing involves a constant search for subtleties: a green weed line in a braided riffle that indicates a small trench, an inward-curved depression on the edge of a bar, a broad flat paved with baseball-size rocks, seams and drift lines insinuated into the main flow. "It's a very technical river," Bielenberg says. More than most other rivers, success on the upper Beav depends on picking the right water, the right drift, the right flies, the right amount of weight and other factors. Making these judgments correctly is how Beaverhead guides earn big tips. One of the most important parts of the dynamic is the volume of water being released from the dam. This morning the river was bulging at its banks, with more than 700 cubic feet per second sluicing down through the canyon, intended for farms and ranches far downstream. A discharge of 200 to 350 cfs is more to most anglers' liking, but thanks to the legerdemain of modern nymphing, the upper Beav is almost never blown out and unfishable. In high water and low, the right tactics will catch fish. Willow thickets line the banks of the upper Beav in many places. That, combined with the often swift, deep water and limited walk-in access make it pretty much a floater's river down to the Henneberry Bridge. Many of the brief wadeable stretches can be reached only by boat. Hatches, as predictable as the calendar on some streams, are hard to pin down on the upper Beav because they can be stimulated or squelched by a change in the water release. But in various months there is the usual array: PMD's, Tricos, caddis. There is also a cranefly hatch, and summer can be good for hoppers if the river is low enough. As the sun climbed high above the canyon, it became a postcard-perfect Montana summer day, with a cloudless blue sky and a light breeze. We fished with focus but at a leisurely pace, stopping often to wade and prospect. Bielenberg and Rausch got into a comfort zone, finding and landing fish regularly. Admittedly, fast-water nymphing is not my forte, and I gave a pretty good demonstration of how to bungle the upper Beav's "technical fishing." Daydreaming, I reacted too slowly to subtle takes, setting the hook too late and missing fish; I set too hard, breaking off a big one; I nicked and lost a couple; I misjudged the complex drifts. Just over halfway into the float, Raush landed the fish of the day, a sparkling bright beauty of a 20-inch rainbow. By the time we ended the float at the Henneberry ramp I had landed two small and one medium brown trout, but my fishing partners had caught a handful of medium to large fish. Depending on whom you talk to, the upper Beav ends at Pipe Organ or Grasshopper Creek, slowing down in wider meanders as the valley floor broadens. The river is squeezed in again briefly near Barrett's Rock, about six miles before reaching Dillon, then continues north and eastward into the miles-wide expanse of floodplain, prairie and ranch country on the way to Twin Bridges. The water I love best is the stretch from Barrett's to the Selway Bridge, at the north end of Dillon. This could be called the middle reach. Except in periods of high releases, it is a slow, gentle, low-gradient flow, more spring creek than freestone stream, though truly neither. In this section, the river-as-conundrum is a distant memory, having yielded to more classically readable water of pools, pockets and runs. Depending on time of year, flow, hatches and local weather, it is a river of many options. High flows tip the scales in favor of nymphs, while the periods between large irrigation releases can bring good dryfly action. Because of inflow from springs and feeder creeks--i.e. Grasshopper and Poin-dexter Slough--during drought periods this stretch tends to fare better than the upper Beav, which is almost totally dependent on dam releases. Hatches on the middle reach, in approx-imate order of emergence during the season, include Mother's Day Caddis, Baetis, Yellow Sallys, PMDs, Tricos, caddis again, and hoppers. Oswald says there have been no formal population comparisons on the middle reach, but my experience is that browns predominate by at least a 10-to-1 ratio. Access is spotty--mainly at bridges and via the public land along Poindexter. Though this stretch is more wadeable than the upper few miles, drift fishing from a raft or boat presents the most advantageous angling opportunities. Since most of this water is off limits to commercial float-guiding operations, it also offers relative solitude. Just as upriver, it can be productive to stop and wade in prime areas, but remember to respect private property by staying in the river. Bielenberg and I fish it frequently during my Dillon sojourns, and I have learned a good bit by following in his bootsteps. One July morning last season, he and I set out from the Highway 91 South bridge near exit 61 off of I-15. Though the temperature was in the high 40's, the forecast called for it to hit 80 by midday. With low to moderate dam flows it would be ideal hopper fishing, and we were hoping for the best. But only a few days before, the irrigators had cranked up the release to more than 600 cfs. This would be another nymph day. In a six hour float-and-wade outing on the so-called "Tash to Trash" stretch (from the Tash Ranch to near the Dillon dump), we reveled in the world-class fishing as well as stunning panoramas and numerous wildlife sightings, from ducks, sandhill cranes, doves and pelicans to two velvet-antlered whitetail bucks crashing and splashing across a ford. Because of the high flow we observed only a couple of risers during the float. Briefly--and without results--we tried hoppers. But fishing the Beav tandem-nymph rig we consistently caught fish. We mixed up our offerings: LaFontaine Caddis Pupa Emergers, Olive Hare's Ears, Pheasant Tails, Prince Nymphs, Sparkle PMD Emergers. And we caught fish on most of them. Bielenberg is not hesitant about naming his favorite fly for the middle reach: "Thank God for the Beaverhead, and thank Gary LaFontaine for the Caddis Pupa Emerger." Tollett's top three nymphs are Flashback Pheasant Tails, his own T-Bur Stones and Sparkle Spiders. But even in this section, the Beav is famously fickle, and one of the keys to consistent success is flexibility on choice of tactics. "It can change from one day to the next if they start releasing water," Bielenberg says. "Hell, it can change from one hour to the next… It's not an easy river to figure out, that's for sure." This day we hit it right. By the time we put the boat on the trailer at the dump road ramp, we had landed more than a dozen and a half fish between us. My biggest fish of the day I lost when it got into a thick patch of weeds. Below Dillon, fish numbers decline precipitously and access is difficult--but many of the trout are large. Last April, I was fortunate enough to get on a mile-long stretch a few miles northeast of town. Tossing a Woolly Bugger in a feeder creek, I landed a brown to make anybody's day: a 23-inch hook-jawed male as thickly muscled as a rodeo bull. There are some things the Beaverhead is not. It is not a remote, wilderness river; it is not an easy, predictable water. But the numbers and size of fish make it a river no avid trout fisherman should miss. As with all great trout streams, the availability of good water flows over a period of years will determine the Beaverhead's future. According to Oswald, 200 cfs would be an ideal minimum flow. But at the time this story was written, plans called for another winter of damagingly paltry 25 cfs releases. Anglers continue to press for more water. One man who has been at the forefront of the fight is local author, bamboo rod builder and Trout Unlimited activist Jerry Kustich. "Even 35 (cfs) would be better than nothing," Kustich says, "but I just don't see it happening." For now, he and many others of us must hope that the next few winters bring plenty of snow and rain. If this happens, this top-notch river should again become a truly awesome angling phenomenon. Tollett recalls a time when "I spent five days fishing there (the middle reach) when I was just a kid getting started and caught 60 browns over 18 inches." In recent years, one other controversy--far out of proportion to its significance--has dogged the Beaverhead. Complaints of some Montana residents that too many guide boats and tourists on the upper Beav were pushing them out prompted changes in weekend regulations. Guided float trips and float-fishing by non-Montana residents are prohibited on Saturdays from High Bridge to Henneberry from the third Saturday in May to Labor Day. On Sundays in the same time period a similar restriction applies to the stretch from Henneberry to Pipe Organ. But contrary to the implications of some press accounts, there is no conspiracy to shut down this world-class fishery to non-residents, and the locals are still as friendly as ever to anglers from around the globe. For more information about fishing the Beaverhead contact: Steve Bielenberg, High Plains Drifter, 406-683-8170, highplainsdrifter.com; Tim Tollett, Frontier Anglers, 406-683-5276, frontieranglers.com; Kim McLaughlin, Uncle Bob's Outdoors, Inc., 406-683-2692, unclebobsoutdoors.com.