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.
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.
Some of our favorite trips are with father/son groups, helping both Dad and Lad to hone their fly fishing skills, and giving Dad a much needed rest at coaching the youngster. We’ve got this! Youngsters respond well to patient guiding, listening with full attention to the lessons we teach. With a clean slate to work on, good guidance will stick like glue to an interested lad, as long as the lessons are simple and straightforward.
So off on another ten mile float of the Bitterroot, I started these two in excellent water, albeit very quick with the spring thaws. I worked quickly and efficiently with the youngster, keeping the lessons useful and to the point. Being avid fishermen in the Northeast already, both Dad and son picked up our Montana style quickly, putting those lessons to work immediately on the river.
By midday, we were a well oiled machine, making great casts and drifts to many hungry trout, and with proper fish fighting techniques many strong fish came to our net. By our day’s end, both my fishermen had experienced nymph fishing, dry fly, and even a good amount of streamer chucking, catching fish on almost every discipline of river fly fishing. These are lessons which will stick, as these techniques are applicable across many types of fly fishing situations, regardless if it’s Montana or Vermont. Thanks to those Dads out there for bringing those wee lads into our boats and letting us plant the seeds to our future fly fishermen!
The easy days of pre-runoff are long gone, and with them go the predictable water flows and insect cycles we’ve grown accustomed to. March Browns and Skwalas are still hatching every day, but that sure doesn’t mean anyone with fins is actually looking at them. When the water starts to spike in the spring, things can get a bit dicey out there on the river. Bugs will still hatch for the most part if the weather is conducive, but the added river flows charging down the valley keep the fish busy finding new homes and lies, virtually eliminating any rising activity until things stabilize.
Now is when your fishing guide is worth their weight in gold. Those easy single dry fly days are history, and plugging along with such rig will lead to a long beautiful day making casts, but that’s about it. With our feet in the river daily, a good guide can make a tough river fish spectacular with the right setup and instruction. What may look like a turbulent, flooded river basin to many, is actually an oasis to the fish, filled with food and hiding spots not usually available at lower flows. Big trout move to feed in this kind of water, coming out of their deep winter holes to lie in ambush positions throughout the river. Gravel bars littered with tree stumps become flooded and then attract fish to their refuge, more than doubling the available hideouts throughout the basin.
So some days you have to say screw the dry fly, at least until things really get cooking, and bust out the junk. Being a good fly fishermen means dealing with adversity and finding success whenever and wherever you may find yourself. If the dry and the five weight ain’t gonna do it, bump up to the six and the bobber, or grab the seven and the biggest ugliest thing in your box and start ripping casts. One way or another we’ll figure them out, and we’re having a blast in the process.
I’d have to say it’s here full swing, or at least enough to have some great consistent fishing throughout the main part of the day. Skwalas were hatching well a couple days ago, with just a few Baetis and possibly a March Brown or two on our float trip. Lots and lots of skwala nymphs are staged near the shoreline ready to pop. We started early enough in the day things were quiet, and a simple nymph rig brought up lots of mighty whiteys for the little guy in the front, while Dad threw a dry and found a couple willing fish.
After a great morning and river bank lunch, we set out full dry fly for the remainder of our long float. Quite a few fish rose to our bugs, the little guy putting the wood to ’em and Dad missing most, but having a great time and seeing lots of great eats. Most water with the right habitat for trout was holding a willing fish, and some banks several. Eventually the window closes for the day, and as evening approaches the fish settle down and the bite turns off. Time to head for the corral after a fine day.
Our winter of 2014-15 turned out to be pretty dismal, with warm dry weather dominating the bulk of the winter season. Snowpack was barely above 50 percent in some valleys and not much rain ever came to help out. So, we knew it was coming at some point; low, warm water conditions and river closures.
The Bitterroot has closures on the main river starting at 2 o’clock to fishing, so we fish early and run scenic floats in the afternoon. We are still fishing in the mornings until the heat cranks up and the river goes quiet around 2, then hang out and grill up a big riverside picnic on the nearest gravel bar. Brats, burgers, and a cold one isn’t such a bad way to go during the heat of the day. With the rods put away and everyone kicking back, we head on home. Full days can still be run on the West Fork, and soon enough the main river will have restrictions lifted with the coming of fall.
A phone call this previous winter set this trip in motion: six guys from Texas coming to fish Montana with us, staying up the West Fork in a secluded vacation rental. Chad, Chris and myself picked up the gang early the first morning to see what we’d gotten ourselves into. Right from the start, these guys were a hell of a group to fish with: good humored, good friends, easy learners, and awed with our pristine mountain environs. Sometimes us guides can take for granted the sheer beauty of our workplace, and groups like this remind us to look around and appreciate the scenes we’re floating.
With three days scheduled to fish the Bitterroot, we decided one day upstream on the West Fork, one day on the mainstem, and the third an audible depending on the previous two. Day one took us deep down the upper canyons throwing mayflies and caddis bugs amongst the boulder gardens. With fast water pockets and rapids throughout, the cool waters fished very well throughout the day. Our group learned how to adapt to the quick mountain water these trout live in, dialing in casts and mending like mad to draw fish to their dry flies.
Next day we toured our group down to the main river. After a day of ripping down the canyons, the main Bitterroot was a welcome sight with long smooth glides and easy fishing scenarios. Put a good cast and mend out there and let ‘er go! Long drifts equal big fish in the right spots. With afternoon temps soaring over one hundred, we swam as much as we fished later in the day. As Redfish fishermen, these Texans are accustomed to high temps and cooling off in the flats, so hourly dunks were the norm.
After our third day up the West Fork again, our now dialed in fly fishermen took advantage of many opportunities they missed the first day. With a couple days of guide beatings under their belts, many spots inaccessible became easy casts and a slam dunk fish on. This is one of the huge advantages to multi-day trips, and a joy for us guides to witness, as our customers get better and better day after day, making for great fishing and easing our jobs each day. So thanks to this group from Texas, you were a blast to guide and spend time with on the Bitterroot River, and we hope to see you in Montana once again someday.
As hard as it is to peel yourself away from the Salmonfly craze of the mountain rivers, you are always glad you did when you are standing at the Wolf Creek boat ramp at sunrise. Gulpers and sippers work the greasy water, while pelicans and seagulls flop and squawk on the goose shit covered islands. Bugs are already peeling off the river, their obvious dun forms gliding lazily into a twenty inch rainbow’s mouth. Ah, the Mo! Back Home.
Don and I have fished this river many times together, probably more than any other river. We just keep coming back; or at least Don keeps calling me and booking trips, so I’m all in as long as he is! You never know what you are going to find on the Mo, maybe nothing. This is a tough river: definitely not for the beginner if you have any hopes of seriously throwing a dry fly. That takes a different beast. Patience and precision are absolute virtues on the Mo, and the more you have the more you unlock the river. Untouchable fish start to become possible, and eventually even predictable. But I better watch what I say lest the Mo Gods punish me next time with howling winds and frog water.
This trip goes down as an all time epic Missouri foray. Three days we gave it hell: first boat in every morning, and on our favorite haunts while the water was still fresh and the fish just starting to move. We search out flats where the river shallows up to knee deep or less, some of them football fields in size. When the hatch gets cranking, PMDs in this case, fish move onto the flats to feed where the bugs are most plentiful and accessible. A cautious eye will find pods of feeding fish, sometimes almost indiscernible in the rippled water.
This is when it gets glorious on the Mo. Slipping out of the boat and into the flat on foot, risers eventually surround you. Some are untouchable because of the angle, and some are just too far to get an effective drift. But once again, patience and precision are the name of the game. A well placed, mended, and drifted bug has every chance of bringing home a twenty inch rainbow on that long piece of 5x terminating a fourteen foot leader. Anything less than perfect, you might as well throw rocks at them.