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.
General Bitterroot River Fishing Information
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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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