The Beaverhead near
Twin Bridges, Montana
Two of my dear ol' aunties mentioned to my mother that my fishing stories have more to do with drinking than with fishing. In consequence of that criticism, I submit this semi-technical account of fishing on the Beaverhead, above it's confluence with the Big hole on the Jefferson River, near Twin Bridges, Montana.
The following is a recount of a story told to me by our friend, Tony, who lives in Ramsay, Montana and who introduced Doug and I to the Beaverhead part of the Jefferson River. Since everyone's got to have their own drift boat, Tony bought Doug's older, hand-hewn wooden dory, the "Rub-a-Dub-Tub". At first glance, The Tub looks like a nicely crafted McKenzie/Rouge-style dory, though it's not as streamlined as modern river dories. Its sides are almost 4 feet high - making for significant drag in even a light breeze, which is one of the reasons Doug bought a Clackacraft. He was tired of being blown up river and having to row like a slave at sea in order to make the take-outs before midnight. Mostly, the Rub-a-Dub-Tub is a hybrid of someone's Dad's ideas, probably birthed in a home garage with a bunch of birdfeeders and doghouses.
Though the Beaverhead is usually the color of weak coffee above its confluence with the Big Hole, its murky holes contain abundant, large browns with hooked noses and stickery teeth. Tony likes to float-fish from above the confluence to about 5 miles down through their united lineage using tan and gray muddlers, black and green wooly buggers with gold chrome, and glittery gold, treble-hook Rapalas with crimped barbs for catch and release purposes. Of course, if bugs are coming off the water, you can always use an Elk-hair Caddis pattern, not too small. You want something you can see against the green water. On iffy days, orange and yellow attractor patterns and Royal Wulffs are good. Never get on the Jefferson without a grasshopper, either, if the weather is going to be hot.
Tony puts The Tub in at Twin Bridges' community park and takes out on BLM property above Silver Star. This stretch of the Jefferson is not very technical, except for a rare submerged Cottonwood tree after a heavy rainstorm. The first stretch of this run is not too scenic, unless you're into cement blocks and other aggregate concretions. The Beaverhead is heavily used for agricultural purposes and is confined like an irrigation canal between artificial banks of cement blocks with an occasional iron Re-bar sticking out. Above the confluence with the Big Hole, most of the land is privately owned, though in Montana, that is not a fishing issue. Rather, you look out on the backyards of houses and see people's laundry and hear kids barking and dogs giggling in the background. The river character changes below the confluence to a braided-meander with shallow sandbars and abundant islands, which make for diverse wade fishing and nymphing of the riffles. This rest of this expanse runs through natural over-bank flood plains, heavily treed with cottonwoods and bushes, being chock full of wildlife. You'll always see deer and maybe something more unusual, like a skunk or Big Foot, even. However, the main channel is consistently deep through this flood plain and allows for dory expedition, even when local irrigation makes the river run low in the late summer months.
The lack of professional shuttle services in this vicinity means that Tony has to coordinate with his buddies to get the boat around. Tony will often extend a spontaneous invitation to a bunch of guys at one time, hoping someone will turn up. One time, a group of 7 big guys with names like, "Tank" and "Bubby", showed up with all their gear, lunch and 15 cases of cheap beer.
Tony has a magic way of assessing disaster. He's confident and competent - a good combination when you need to get a tricky job done. He'll roll a great big fat cigar around on his jaw while he's thinking, then he'll usually provide a solution. At that time, Tony eyeballed the crew and their mass of stowage, rocked back and forth from one leg to the other, as he's known to do while he's thinking, and rolled the cigar around from one corner of his mouth to the other. In a few minutes, he had a plan: two guys standing, two guys sitting up front, one helmsman in the middle, two guys sitting, one guy standing in the back. They'd have to stack the cases of beer as benches. (Sooner than later, they wouldn't have to worry about that commodity any more.) Everyone put this vision into action -- not wanting to be left behind, confined like an exile to fish from the banks of the community park, only to return home without having gotten on the river at all. When they disembarked, the tall sides of The Tub were submerged to within 3 inches of the gunnels. She groaned a little, too, bobbing down-stream.
Casting aboard The Tub had to be accomplished in regimens, 3 at a time. Not everyone in Tony's crew used the popular patterns. Most of them used Rapalas and found satisfaction in trolling behind the brave wooden boat or just flicking the lure along side, or even under the keel for those Navy Seal type trout. A few of them had worms, though, of the real and alive variety, as opposed to the rubber ones, and maybe even some Powerbait, if worse came to worse. All in all, fish were going to be had. Everyone was glad to be included, looking forward to a fine day on the river, far from thoughts of oil to be changed, gutters to be repaired, manure to be spread, and the likes of a bazillion other weekend duties waiting for their attention at home.
Though Tony is a bonafide, country-raised Montana native, he's traveled and fished with a global variety of fancy-pants, politically correct fishermen, and has an influence on the fishing practices aboard his vessel. This was fortunate for the crew of The Tub, as most of the barbs were crimped. Also, Tony had a preference for practicing catch & release procedures. However, sometimes the method of release included stepping on the fish's head and yanking the hook (and lips) off the fish's face. Another method was to hug the flapping critter to your chest with an arm and rip the gear out of its mouth with your other hand. Freeing the trout was more like getting rid of a sticky old sock. You grip the freed fish like a machete and fling it overhead baseball fashion as far across the water as possible, as though that distance were part of the performance. In this way, the men were practicing Montana-style catch & release. It was better than biting their little heads off, squishing the guts out the gaping hole and stuffing them in a pocket. The effort was in a primary state, in need of future nurturing. Mostly, though, large, terrible trout were kept in the bilge near the feet of the hunter, to be made into dinner when they got home.
The worried helmsman could only use the oars to direct the submerged belly of the engorged dory down the main channel. The Tub lumbered slowly, slightly dipping from side to side. The men were careful to hold their positions and use their weight to keep the gunnels above water. The first 2 miles of the Beaverhead below Twin Bridges, being confined by steep banks of cement, runs deep and sure requiring little negotiation from the oarsman. Occasionally, though, the sound of flat-hull scraping over some hidden threat resulted in momentary silence and big eyes from the crew. But, the reliant Tub just kept drifting on.
Unfortunately for the underwater fauna, the arrival of this nearly submerged vessel hailed what seemed to a trout to be a very interesting clutter of brightly colored, glittery, clicking and flicking devices, probably like a school of minnows or some other underwater hatch accompanying an errant manatee. So, it was that Tony's crew managed to bring a keel-load aboard of assorted size Browns with a rare Rainbow and even one tenacious crawdad, clinging and cursing in crustacean-style to a poor, shredded worm's neck, the head having been severed off by some quick, nimble old fish as a favorite trout joke. Some of the fish were so large they could impress professional tuna hunters (if a tuna hunter were to be taking holiday on the Jefferson River). These especially large animals accumulated and their weight added to The Tub's cargo.
About mid-morning, the crew was coming up on the Beaverhead's confluence with the Big Hole. Tank had been operating the anchor for drag effect to slow The Tub down. He also had his line hanging over the stern dragging a gold and silver Rapala in a nice foam-line. The Tub entered an eddy and began to spin at her own free will, uncontainable by, Bubby, the helmsman. Tank's line became tangled up in the anchor line and he launched into a hoopla over the mess, blaming the guy at the oars. So, another guy, Chuck, addressed the problem by chomping Tank's line off with his teeth and, at the same time, nursing his own line over the stern. That action enraged Tank and words flew. During this tirade, Chuck got a strike and began reeling his line in, which also became entangled with the anchor line. The result of that bad luck was a stern discussion between Chuck and Tank, the latter of which was holding an empty rod in his hand.
Of course, when Tank pulled up the anchor to retrieve his lure, he also gave Chuck's line a liberating chomp. This made Chuck even less amiable. The intensity of the spat went up a notch and the whole rest of the crew now ate up this amusement. When Tank finished pulling the anchor clear of the water, everyone saw that an enormous Brown trout flopped around, dangling from the anchor line with a lure stuck in its lip and two different colored leaders wrapped around its poor body. Everyone was just amazed at this sight. Chuck immediately claimed the fish to be his own, caught on his line that Tank bit off. Tank disagreed. This fish was hooked on his line that Chuck bit off - and he qualified even further, because he was the one operating the anchor line and tangled leaders, which ensnared the trout.
The ensuing argument took on serious magnitude until Tony intervened by offering to examine the lines and lure as an uninterested third party. Tony inspected the fish to make sure it wasn't foul hooked, then the lure and leaders. Tony announced his findings and all seemed clear whose fish it belonged to. But, words of frustration and bickering continued to be passed between Tank and Chuck not only the rest of the day, but for the rest f their lives. The element of suspicion is that Tank could describe the trout-catching leader, but not his lure, and Chuck could not only describe the lure, but he also presented a duplicate from his pocket. Therein lies the discrepancy of Tony's call to this day.
In the middle of this fine expedition, in the middle of this fine day, in the middle of a particularly deep and rushing part of the Jefferson River, an astute one of the crew noticed a knothole the size of a slice of bologna about 6 inches up from the floor in the side of the wooden dory. The knothole was bulging at its seam and leaking beads of water. If that plug were to give, there would be a gush of water that could cut a man in half. The hull would most likely split in two from the release of pressure between the river on its outside and the weight of the 8 big men on the inside. The knothole was fret with sweat. They all looked at the disk as if some radioactive grenade had fallen to the floor from outer space.
As I said before, Tony has a magic way of assessing disaster. With realistic authority, Tony directed the helmsman to steer for the nearest bank, and he somehow managed to swing the bow over. The dory slid to a comfortable rest about 5 feet out from the shore, but in shallow water. Like Viking arrivals, the men dispersed themselves and their gear to land and immediately sought bushes. Tony and one of his mechanically deft crewmembers reviewed the situation while the others lightened the horde of solids (Vienna sausages, bananas, string cheese, other man-food...) and liquids (beer) by consuming them for the sake of safety. A reconsolidating of the necessary items (leftover beer and empty, crushed potato chip bags) made for the dory to be much roomier than before. Now, only 3 at a time were permitted in the boat. The rest had to wade-fish from the bank, moving downstream to keep up with the dory. Every once in a while, Tony would administrate an exchange between drifters and waders. At the end-point of an island, gear and men were transported together to the next landing, which allowed all of them to refresh their beer holding gullets.
All in all, a great time was had and many fish were caught that day, (and some trout were released with or without parts of their face). The Tub was deemed by everyone to be a fine fishing vessel, a boat to be reckoned with by professional standards. Tony was a lucky man to have such a dependable dory. The only glitch in the day's events might have been Tank and Chuck's entanglement, though that situation also provided much entertainment to the rest of the group. Perhaps the worse they experienced occurred as a result of the shuttle, in that they couldn't all fit in the crew-cab pickup. At that point, some of them opted to wait for a ride rather than participate in another of Tony's problem-solving schemes.
All text, photos and graphics © Michele Murray.