The Bitterroot River is my home water. Born and raised in Montana I have fished the Bitterroot for over 30 years, 18 of which I have spent at Water Master Rafts. The river begins at the confluence of the East Fork Bitterroot and the West Fork Bitterroot near Connor, Montana. From there it flows North through the scenic Bitterroot Valley on its way to the confluence with the Clark Fork near Missoula, Montana. The Bitterroot River has gained the reputation as one of the premiere trout rivers in western Montana. This river has it all, runs, riffles, pools, flats, gravel bars and numerous braids and channels that combine to create a river of remarkable diversity. The Bitterroot River is a wild beast in and of itself. It takes experience, dedication, and most of all timing to experience great rewards. Fishing pressure ranges from high during specific hatches to low-moderate during the fall, which is somewhat surprising considering the significant growth in the Bitterroot Valley. The primary target species is rainbow trout. Brown trout are also found throughout the river in decent numbers and can reach the 20 inch range. Cutthroat trout, many of decent size, are also found quite regularly. Cutt’s are native to state and one of the feistiest trout in the river.
The fly fishing on the Bitterroot River generally kicks into high gear in the Spring during the Skwala stonefly hatch. This hatch generally begins in early March and can last all the way through the end of April. Coming out of the winter, this is a great chance for anglers to put the nymph rigs down and get into some dry fly fishing. The “Root” as they call it, generally warms up and starts fishing sooner than the nearby Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers. For this reason, fishing pressure can be heaviest at this time. Skwala stoneflies are the first insects to hatch. Look for three to four days in a row where the overnight low temperatures are above freezing. The warmth allows them to crawl from the rocky river bottoms to the banks where they return to the river much like typical terrestrials. Having the ability to be on this river multiple days in a row helps an angler understand the unpredictable behavior of this hatch and this time of year.
Walking the banks and picking up a rock or two will give great insight as to the state of the hatch. Spring weather in Montana is very volatile and can play havoc on the river, fish, fisherman and insects a like. Be prepared for variable weather. Spring in Montana can bring warmth and sun or snowstorms—sometimes all on the same day. The best fishing during the Skwala hatch occurs during the afternoon and continues until dark. On the Bitterroot River and nearby rivers, the Skwala hatches acts differently than the Salmon fly hatch. Skwala hatches tend to be spotty and are very dependent on weather. This unpredictable weather also causes the river to fluctuate in its spring flows, giving anglers an added challenge. This time of year, the fish are aggressive and unaccustomed to boat and angler traffic. This enables anglers to use 7 ½ foot 3X to 4X leaders, fish tight to the banks, and play fish in faster currents. Fish are generally found in deep runs or tight on the banks resting and seeking refuge from rising currents. These fish like a very low-profile insect sitting in the water, they like to see the fly float a bit, and a light twitch here and there keeps your fly looking lively. Remember, these are large, live insects falling into the water, make your fly appear to be the same. As April takes hold and the fish have seen countless Skwala patterns and many anglers, a great tactic is to start offering the fish a March Brown or Blue Wing Olive pattern. These two hatches directly follow the Skwala hatch and set in as the stoneflies start to diminish. These trout are very educated and are accustomed to seeing a wide variety of patterns so switching flies is a great way to stay ahead of the curve. I recommended that any angler traveling to the Bitterroot River during this hatch stop by one of the many local fly shops to pick up some of the new patterns that have been created specifically for this hatch by local fly tiers.
The lower section of the river, from the town of Stevensville to the mouth of the Clark Fork River near Missoula, has an extensive Northern Pike presence. Bad weather days and higher water conditions allow the trout fisherman a chance to target 30-inch pike on the fly. The Root is littered with back channels and sloughs that are full of pike and large trout eager to eat after battling another tough Montana winter. Don’t always be scared away by the weather! Pike eat in all conditions. This has become a passion of mine the last several years!
Beginning usually in early May, the Bitterroot River starts to rise with spring run-off, although it can occur earlier during warmer weather or later during cold springs. This makes planning a trip this time of year difficult to do far in advance. Since the Bitterroot drains some sizable mountain ranges that receive ample snow, spring run-off usually turns the river into a fast moving, muddy mass of water. Fly fishing during the height of spring run-off is difficult if not impossible. I usually turn to Still waters and tail waters during this time as many of our still waters have just lost their icy covering and home hungry trout. https://waterdata.usgs.gov/mt/nwis/current is a great site to look at stream flows and their history. I use this site to gauge safety, river patterns and thresholds as to what is fishable or not. Much of the River is delegated to artificial lures only and catch and release. It is always a good idea to pick up a current copy of the Montana fishing regulations.
The Bitterroot River generally begins to clear by late May or early June although in past years, I have seen the high water last into mid-July. As the river clears and recedes, the entire length of the river becomes a wonderful place for fly fishing with standard small dry fly patterns. Flies such as the Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams and the Pale Morning Dun can bring a hearty Rainbow or Brown to hand. At this point, the other local rivers are starting to come into shape. This attracts anglers and helps everyone spread out a bit. By the end of June, even during cold springs following heavy snowfall years, the Bitterroot River is generally clear and still has decent flows since intense irrigation hasn’t started yet. Its perfect timing, since one of the prime hatches on the Bitterroot occurs during this time, the Drake Hatch (Green and Brown). This hatch typically lasts into the middle of July. It is difficult to put down the dry fly rod and pick up your streamer rod. This time of year, on cloudy days, some amazing Brown Trout hammer streamers looking for a big meal. It takes a bit of dedication and different patterns, but I have landed many big fish this way and can it be an effective option when hatches are scarce and the weather isn’t cooperating.
Grasshopper imitations work well beginning in July and last through early September. During the middle to late summer, Hopper fishing can be found on the entire length of the Bitterroot. Hoppers are generally best fished right along the shoreline, focusing on undercut banks and natural obstructions such as downed trees. However, it never hurts to occasionally throw a hopper right out into the middle of the river, as the larger trout will come to the surface for the large meal a hopper provides. During early mornings, fishing a hopper/dropper rig with a nymph dropped 15-30 inches below can be an effective tactic while you wait for the day to warm up.
During the middle of the summer, besides using hopper imitations, anglers can also fly fish on top using small attractor dry fly patterns, such as the Madame X, the Renegade and the various Humpy imitations. During the middle of summer, fishing is best during the morning and evening hours—since this is when most hatches occur and because the water is cooler. Quite frequently the river is put on “Hoot Owl” restrictions during August. The water is low and the temperature is high, so fishing is prohibited from noon to midnight. Checking river conditions this time of year is again very important. As we move through spring, I will bring you updates as well as what to look forward to this fall in Western Montana.
Water Master Rafts
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Bigfork Anglers Fly Shop
405 Bridge St
Bigfork, MT 59911