When my guide, Kelly Kimzey, went silent, I knew the fish wasn’t just an above-average brown trout. It was mid-September, and I was a couple of hours into a three-day trip on the Big Hole River in Southwest Montana. Shortly before I hooked the fish, Kimzey had tied on a size 14 Parachute Adams. I was skeptical of the fly choice, as I hadn’t seen a single trout rise in more than an hour. But I also know better than to question my guide—especially one who’s spent his entire life fishing the Big Hole. So I started casting.

My fly landed at the top of the pool, and I watched it slowly drift through the hole. “I wouldn’t be surprised…” Kimzey said, letting the thought go unfinished. Right on cue, a nose emerged from the water, and the fly disappeared. I set the hook, and it felt like I’d snagged the bottom. 

Kimzey coached me through the initial minutes of the fight before he caught the first glimpse of the trout. Then he went quiet. From then on, our communication consisted of only a few words here and there. 

“Don’t horse him in.”

“Let him run.”

“Is he big?”

“He’s huge.”

A collage of three photos including a fly fisherman standing in a river, a fisherman holding a brown trout and a brown trout laying in a net
Clockwise from top: Kimzey ties on a new fly; a big brown lays in the net; Chelius with a 21-inch brown trout. Ryan Chelius

The Lodge

Earlier this spring, I was invited to the Complete Fly Fisher Lodge (CFF) in Wise River, Montana. Although there was some availability during May—when giant browns are crushing streamers—I wanted to be there when I could throw small dry flies to big trout. So I locked in three days of fishing in mid-September. 

When I finally turned into the Big Hole Valley, I was greeted by lush fields, beautiful ranches, and that small-town Montana feeling. All of which was on par for Wise River, with a population of under 50 people. The rolling hills and mountains in the distance led down to the river that the road follows. After gazing at the scenery, I turned down the driveway of CFF.

The main building sits just yards away from the banks of the Big Hole, and the dining room overlooks the river. The property includes six stand-alone cabins and three suites in the main lodge that can accommodate up to 20 guests. I was lucky enough to stay in one of the riverside cabins that offers remarkable views of the river, valley, and Montana’s iconic big sky.

Make no mistake: The Complete Fly Fisher offers five-star accommodations; everything is first-class. Still, what I liked most about their setup was that it felt more like trout camp than staying at a fancy lodge. The riverside rooms resemble small log cabins—each with its own porch. They overlook the giant lawn where there is a massive fire pit for anglers to enjoy and share stories after a day of fishing. There’s also a fly shop on site with waders, boots, and rods for guests who don’t have gear.

The food served at CFF rivals the swank lodging. The chefs prepared some of the best dinners I’ve had in recent memory. They served delicious appetizers, two-course meals, and desserts each night. One of my favorites was the wagyu filet mignon with sauteed asparagus, mashed potatoes, crispy onions, and a huckleberry red wine reduction. The Tuscan bisque and pistachio crusted lamb chops weren’t bad, either. And each morning, guests are served a full breakfast. Lunch orders are taken the night before and then given to your guide in the morning. My riverside meals included a sandwich, chips, fruit, soup, and dessert.

a collage of three photos including a plate of pasta, chairs around a fire pit and picture of a river
Clockwise from Top: Braised pork shank, fennel sausage, tomato, rigatoni, ricotta di bufala, fresh basil, and toasted breadcrumbs for dinner; the view of the Big Hole from the CFF dining room table; the CFF fire pit and deck. Ryan Chelius

On the first evening, I was greeted by Matt and Sara Cornette, the co-managers of Complete Fly Fisher. (The lodge is owned by John Barrett, Paul Moseley, Charley Moore, and Edwin Lewis.) I had the pleasure of sharing camp with Moore, who was part of the group-purchase shortly after Covid. Since their purchase of CFF, they made renovations to the cabins, bought new drift boats, and hired a new kitchen staff. All of which was noticeable.

Some of the guides and other guests joined us for drinks and appetizers before dinner, where we discussed the fishery, techniques, and the size of the fish we’d potentially catch. As the night went on, I no longer felt like I was in a room with a bunch of strangers. I felt like I was at trout camp.

The Fishery

The Big Hole River is home to brown, rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout. It is also the only river in the Lower 48 with a naturally reproducing population of Arctic grayling. This wide variety of species and wild trout has made it one of the most famous fly-fishing destinations in the country. As with any other river, the snowpack, water levels, fishing pressure, and water temp play a huge role in the quality of the fishing—so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

On my first morning, I hopped into a truck with my guide for the next three days, Kelly Kimzey. He is a Southwest Montana native and has been guiding on the Big Hole River for over 20 years. Kimzey was also the guide who helped land a 32-inch brown trout caught earlier this year by a CFF client. 

Right from the start, I knew I’d get along with Kimzey. He’s old school—two rods, a river hat, leather wading boots, a net, a backpack, and a plastic container full of an assortment of flies. No fancy waders. No sling pack. No endless fly boxes. He carried only the essentials.

fisherman holding huge brown trout while kneeling in a river
The author holds a 23-inch brown trout caught on the Big Hole River. Ryan Chelius

We started with a hopper dropper—a Chubby Chernobyl and a Black Perdigon. My first fish of the day was a respectable brown trout. Then after weeding through some whitefish, I hooked into a nicer brown—a female that measured 20 inches.

It wasn’t an hour later that I hooked into an even bigger fish. After it made multiple runs, Kimzey netted the 21-inch brown trout that was just starting to get its fall colors. Then the Tricos started to pop off, and the fishing got better. I weeded through more whitefish (which are a ton of fun to catch) to land a few more trout on top, including a cutthroat and multiple rainbows. By lunchtime, I had caught four species and two fish over 20 inches. The Big Hole was living up to its name. 

But the highlight of the afternoon, no question, was when I hooked into the fish that nearly left Kimzey and I speechless. After a 10-minute fight, Kimzey scooped the wild brown—all 23 inches of it—into the net. I hollered and high-fived Kimzey. We both admired the beautiful fish before sending it back on its way. It was the biggest freestone-river trout I’d ever caught.

That first day of fishing was one of the best I’ve ever experienced, so the rest of the trip was just gravy as far as I was concerned. On day two, we floated the river—and even though another 20-incher wasn’t in my cards, I still caught over 40 trout, plus my first-ever Arctic grayling. In some sections of the river, I got a strike on every cast. Most of the trout were in the 8- to 12-inch range—a sure sign of a healthy fishery.

The last day brought more of the same: Trout on dry flies. Trout on nymphs. Trout on hoppers. And plenty of whitefish. I caught more fish in the 12- to 15-inch range on day three and walked away from the river utterly gobsmacked. While I’ve heard the fishing pressure can be crazy during the Salmon Fly hatch and peak-summer days, I only saw two other anglers throughout my three days of fishing.

So consider what you want out of your Big Hole fishing experience. If it’s to throw big, articulated streamers for monster browns, then come in early spring. If you want to fish the famous salmon fly hatch and don’t mind crowds, come in June. You can’t go wrong throwing dry flies in July, either. But I would recommend visiting CFF and the Big Hole in September. The fishing pressure is virtually non-existent, the fish are starting to get their fall colors, and you can catch trophy trout with a variety of techniques.