Montana Fly Fishing
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The Bitterroot River
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The Bitterroot River is quickly gaining its reputations as one of the premiere trout rivers in the western part of Montana. Flowing through the scenic Bitterroot Valley, the Bitterroot River seemingly has it all. Runs, riffles, pools, flats, gravel bars and numerous braids and channels combine to create a river of remarkable diversity. Fishing pressure ranges from high during specific hatches to low during the fall - which is a surprise considering how heavily built-up the Bitterroot Valley has become in recent years. To top everything off, the Bitterroot River is formed by two very scenic forks, the East and West Fork Bitterroot River, each of which offer quality fly fishing in a beautiful environment.
The primary fish found in the Bitterroot are rainbow trout. Brown trout are found in the upper part of the river in decent numbers, although they are not of the monstrous size found in other Montana rivers. Cutthroat trout, many of decent size, are also found extensively in the upper portion of the river, especially upstream from Hamilton.
The fly fishing on the Bitterroot River generally kicks into high gear in the spring, during the Skwala stonefly hatch. Large brown trout are regularly taken during this hatch on the upper poart of the river, although they must be released, as the fishing during this time is catch and release only. The Skwala hatch generally begins in early March and can last all the way through the end of April. Any angler who will be visiting the Bitterroot River during this hatch should be prepared for all sorts of weather. Spring in Montana can bring warm, sunny days or snowstorms - sometimes all on the same day. The water will also be just a tad above freezing, so floaters should arrive with neoprene gloves and booties to keep the extremities from freezing solid. Anyone who will be wading should also bring some very warm, insulated waders. Using a thin wader designed for warm weather use will quickly freeze any angler down to the bone (see our Fly Fishing Waders section for more info about waders in general).
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The best fly fishing during this hatch occurs during the afternoon, particularly on days that are warm and sunny. Popular flies for this hatch include the Olive Stimulator and Skwala Stone, in sizes 6-8. For anglers unfamiliar with Skwala stoneflies, it is worth noting that Skwala hatches are different than the Salmon fly hatches that occur on the Bitterroot River and other nearby rivers. The hatches of Skwala stoneflies tend to be spotty and are usually localized on the same parts of the river from season to season. In short, don't expect the Skwala hatch to resemble a Salmon fly hatch, with massive quantities of bugs emerging from the river - with the hatch neatly and predictably making its way up or down the river. When searching for likely fly fishing spots during the Skwala hatch, concentrate your efforts on locating gravel bars that have smooth water - which are commonly found throughout the length of the Bitterroot River.
Beginning usually in early May, the Bitterroot River frequently begins to get blown-out by spring run-off - although it can occur earlier during warmer weather or later during cold springs. Since the Bitterroot drains some sizable mountain ranges that receive lots of snow, spring run-off can turn the river into a fast moving, muddy mass of water. Fly fishing during the height of spring run-off becomes difficult if not impossible.
The Bitterroot River generally begins to clear up by late May or early June. 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, such as the Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams and the Pale Morning Dun. Sizes of these flies should range from 8-14.
By the end of June, even during cold springs following heavy snowfall years, the Bitterroot River will generally be clear and still have decent flows, as the heavy duty irrigation use will not have started yet. It's perfect timing, too, since one of the prime hatches on the Bitterroot occurs during this time - the Green Drake and Brown Drake hatch, which can last into the middle of July.
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The best time to fly fish during this hatch is during the afternoon, especially on overcast days. Popular fly patterns for this hatch include the March Brown, Quigley Cripple and the Green Drake Wulff. A number of local fly patterns, tied by local fly-fishing shops, are also very popular and change from year to year. It is recommended that any angler who will be venturing out to the Bitterroot River during this hatch stop by one of the many fly shops to pick up some of the new patterns that have been created specifically for this hatch.
As the Bitterroot River is in Montana and flows through a broad, open, agricultural valley (although the agrarian nature is fast changing due to the explosive growth in and around Missoula), it should come as no surprise that fly fishing using grasshopper imitations becomes excellent beginning in July and lasting through early September. Hopper fishing works well on the entire length of the Bitterroot during this time period. 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. Most Hopper patterns work equally well for the Bitterroot River, and should vary in sizes between 2-8.
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. Fishing will be most productive during the height of summer in the mornings and the evenings, as the hatches generally occur during this time and because the water will be cooler than during the heat of the day. The best dry fly fishing in the middle of the summer will be found on the upper portion of the Bitterroot River, between Hannon Memorial FAS and Wallace Crawford FAS.
Some of the best, and most difficult, fly fishing on the Bitterroot River occurs during September and October during the large Trico hatches. Fishing during this hatch is demanding, as the flies are tiny, the leaders are long and light, and presentations is key. Accurate cast to rising trout and drag free floats are a primary requirement for fishing success during this time. However, for the angler who is comfortable fly fishing under these circumstances, some very large rainbow trout and an occasional large brown trout await. When fishing during this hatch, don't ignore the many braids and channels of the Bitterroot River, especially those found around Darby and again further downstream near Missoula. Popular fly imitations for this hatch include the Parachute Adams, Sparkle Dun and the Parachute Trico, in very small sizes ranging from 18-22.
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