Get ready everyone. This year is going to be for real in the Bitterroot Valley and Southwest Montana. I have not seen the snowpack this thick in all my years in Montana. Granted, I’ve only been hanging around here for 20 years, but this one is impressive. With snow continuing in the high elevations and cold miserable weather the norm, this pack is hanging on late into the year with full force.
We have already seen a few releases from the occasional warm weather spell to give us an idea of how much is up there. When the sweet weather hits for real, especially if the rain accompanies it, these rivers are going to fill their banks like never before. With all that said, we are pretty stoked to see such an excellent snow pack in the Bitterroot. Big water means long lasting cold river temperatures and lots of food in the river. Trout will fill themselves and have a good healthy year as long as our temperatures can hold up throughout the summer. The river will be scoured clean, channels will change, and logs and even boulders will shift all about the river creating new habitat. Be heads up everyone as this is going to be a doozy. Let’s have fun out there, bust out the big rods, and get to cranking on those oars.
This year’s Skwala hatch has been extraordinary at times, and downright hectic at others with rising river flows and cold temps. We have pulled it off every day that we’ve been out, but we are often resorting to nymphing while waiting on a patch of good weather and crossing our fingers for a decent hatch. Just when everything settles down and we start to see some consistency in our fishing, the damn river spikes and we are left twiddling our thumbs waiting for it to stabilize.
All complaints aside fishing has been very good. We try to approach the river as an angler, not taking anything for granted and not expecting it to be the same day after day. With lots of experience, knowing the runs that hold fish and where to find them, one can search them out using all methods of fly fishing to have a successful day out there. Maybe we’ll get to throw that dry fly all day. Maybe it will just look pretty on the side of the boat while we’re catching good fish underneath in the bigger flows.
I’m not sure how many years we’ve fished together, but these guys are some of my very favorites year after year. Easy going, great fishermen and casters, and tough as nails when the weather gets nasty; traits every fishing guide appreciates in a client. Craig and Lyle show up every fall to the Bitterroot, sometime between late September and October, and they bring their A games every year.
Mahoganies and Hecubas are the bug of choice right now, especially with our weather turning cold and wet on the Bitterroot river. Mornings can see a handful of Pseudos, but the real action is later in the day when the bigger mayflies start to pop. Some days are just too damn nasty to get any real hatch coming off, so a slowly retrieved bugger will do the trick, waiting for that heavy pull as the bug comes cross current back to the boat. Being a versatile angler has it paybacks, not afraid to throw some junk when you realize that elegant dry fly just ain’t gonna cut it today.
The heat is cranking up in the valley for midsummer, it’s great to spend days on the cool river, catching shade up high on the river system from the towering pines and firs. Cottonwood takes over near Darby, mixed with large ponderosa pines that provide good shade and fish refuge to the main river. We’re starting to get out earlier and earlier to beat the heat, and finding good fishing to boot. Upriver we can take our time a bit more as that water is so cold it takes a while for the bugs and trout to get active, even on the hottest days.
Well the bugs have popped pretty early this year, even though the water is ripping along pretty good. I was kinda hoping they’d hold out a bit longer until water levels dropped, but smoke em when you got em, eh? I just came from Rock Creek and not much is happening over there except for high speed hang on for your life runoff, so the Bitterroot is a welcome sight with the upper portion dam controlled. The boat traffic can get a bit hectic during the salmon fly hatch, but what river doesn’t get busy when the bugs are in?
Running different stretches of the Bitterroot, we can find solitude even in the busiest of times. Good guides instructing our anglers in proper techniques gets the job done on any water, any river. Knowing entomology and how it relates to different parts of a river system can greatly improve your success rate behind the fly rod. When salmon bugs are popping way upstream, other insects are starting to crank up downstream, long away from the rolling whitewater and canyons that house the famous stonefly. Drakes and goldens can fill the void of salmonflies and provide just as good fishing, and on a water type slower and easier going. Catch them where you find them, don’t be afraid to search around in places you wouldn’t first guess.
These are perfect days, they won’t last forever as the summer is coming and runoff could come any moment. Embrace them as they come; the fields are turning green in the valley, mountains white and loaded with the water we hope to get all through the summer, the tree buds waiting to pop. Fishing is good to grand some days, this was one of them shared with good companions on a perfect weather day. May it last forever….
This season looks as good as 2011, as far as snowpack in the high country, and cool temperatures keeping it locked up and the river flows stable. Big and stable. Friends are still skiing and will be for some time to come, while our Bitterroot river is alive and fishing well on our first hatches of the season. Skwala stoneflies are hatching routine now, and the first of the March Browns are here and building every day.
The river is gonna be big this year, same with the Big Hole which feeds from the same mountain ranges as our river. Its been double historical flows for the last month, and a long winter with never ending shitty days and cold temps have kept any signs of runoff at bay. The river and the bugs are happy despite the fickle days, and afternoons produce excellent dry fly fishing for a few hours or better on the pleasant days.
We have a couple weeks of predictable fishing, maybe more, until that big snowpack starts to let loose, and then we’ll see how this year’s runoff shapes out. Right now the valley is just waking up, no leaves yet, deep white mountains overhead, brilliant sunshine followed by a snow squall every thirty minutes or so, and great early season fishing: it feels like a perfect Montana spring.
When the skies look like this in September, best get the trailer hitched up and get downriver, quicklike! Dark heavy days are the catalyst for exceptional mayfly emergences, and this time of year the Hecubas and Mahoganies are ready to pop, just give them a good reason. We still have Tricos in the morning, though they could be some other little TMF, and they provide interesting target fishing first thing.
The real deal comes later. Midday when things warm up and if the weather isn’t too crappy, which sometimes can happen, the holy grail of mayflies may bless you with their presence. On some days, which we witnessed once in a five day trip, the river went absolutely bat shit crazy with bugs, followed by the fish. I made sure we were in some serious big fish water around the witching hour, and suddenly twenty to thirty pigs started slurping mayflies right before our eyes, slashing hard at the big duns. Soon enough, it is all over and the river fades back to calm, time to row out.
We’re starting to see the signs of Fall here in the Bitterroot Valley, thank God! It’s been an interesting summer, teetering on the edge of fire danger but dodging the bullet every time. Roaring Lion blew up last month while we were floating the Wally Crawford section right adjacent. Seeing a small plume of smoke, my front angler turned and asked “is that a fire?” I said I hope not, and within 45 minutes all hell broke loose. You can read about the rest of it from the real journalists, I’m just a fishing guide.
So fishing is pretty damn good in the mornings on tricos and the occasional big whack on a searching pattern. On the cooler mornings we are having, we’re getting back to normal fishing hours, without having to be on the water pre-7am and can show up at a gentlemanly 8-9. Traffic is low where we’ve been fishing, preferring the down river stretches this time of year to the upper canyon.
Right smack dab in the heart of the season is when the Bitterroot River sees it’s most consistent days, weather wise. Ha. Fishing is great when and where you can find it, and playing the traffic game can really help this time of year. I like to get out very early right now to avoid the crowds, relative term of course here in Montana, and get a move on the day before things heat up too much. Fortunately, the weather has been very cooperative this summer, with plenty of moisture when we need it most and bearable temperatures.
Bug-wise any little dry fly will do the trick right now, and later in the afternoons we are seeing some crushing takes on hoppers and big uglies. Some days the fishing can get slow, especially if several boats are in front of us pounding away at the water. This is when I will switch tactics, and simply fish an outfit that they are not. On most Montana rivers, this can be one hell of a good play, and the added traffic pressure forces you to fish a rig outside the usual box. Streamers midday in low water? Hell yes! At least give it a roll and you never know, you may find the best fishing on the river.