Tag Archives: bitterroot river guides

Bighorn River Annual

bighorn riverLate in a long Montana winter we start thinking about spring and the moment we can finally put the skis up for fly rods again.  Actually though, junkies such as ourselves never take the rods off the dash to begin with, except those damn speys don’t fit up there, or anywhere for that matter, as we swing for steelhead all winter.  So as late February turns to March and I’m already fielding Skwala Q and A’s, trout it is once again and away with the speys as our guide season approaches.

bighorn countryAs with the last two years we kicked it off with bang on the Bighorn River in south central Montana, famous for its high trout numbers and solid fishing.  Good friend Trent organized our crew of miscreants, setting us up in a sweet little ranch house just up from the Bighorn access this year, rather than the quadra-wide at Cottonwood Camp from last year.  Evening tunes, ribeyes, a few cribbage battles, and lots of laughs and BS greeted us every night we rolled off the river: great times!

bighorn countryWe fished three days on the Horn, covering every mile from Three Mile access down to Two Leggins, nearly thirty miles of river.  Day one is the let’s not get our asses kicked and go where we know it’s good day, so Three Mile to Bighorn was the play.  It’s a lovely sight to see only a few boat trailers in the 3 mile lot at 9am, and we essentially had that section to ourselves, plenty of water to go around.  Right away the fish were happy, rising steadily to a midge hatch rolling off and eating the dry fly quite well.  bighorn riverNothing big but what the hell, dry flies in February is music to anyone’s ears. Eventually G-gnat dries gave way to sow bugs and san juans on the bobber, and we found fish in all the right places.  The streamer game played well in the morning and decent throughout the day, but often after watching fly rod rookie Dan put on a nymphing clinic up front with Chris rowing him, I switched out to the orange orb as well to get in on the action.  Lots and lots of fish in this river if one knows where to look and what they like eat!

bighorn countryDay two, different story.  Bighorn down to Mallards is another beast altogether with water types a little flatter than the upper glory water and not as many definite fish holding runs.  We found enough fish to occupy us in beteween our water thrashing, searching for the thousands of fish you know live in that river, but definitely got spoiled on day one finding fish everywhere.  But that’s what you get for a bright and beautiful almost 60 degree bluebird day in February, your ass kicked.  Dan even got to bust out the sparkle shirt.  Funny how it works that way with fishing.  Pray for the worst possible stuff you can handle, minus the lightning.

bighorn countryWe definitely got the weather on Day three, dark low clouds rolling into the area and rain predicted, so our group split up on river sections.  Not wanting a repeat of yesterday, one boat went back to the holy waters up top, and I don’t blame them a bit, and the rest of us went Lewis and Clarking down to Two Leggins from Mallards. Armed with streamer rods and plenty of provisions, mostly beer, we set out hopeful with the good cloud cover and dark skies.  And we were rewarded for our gamble right away, hooking up in the first couple of runs on good sized fish.  As the day progressed, the bite got better with fish absolutely crushing our bugs.  I had one fish Jackie Chan my streamer, coming a foot out of the water in a brown trout kung fu move, then come back to eat it hard on the return cast and hooking up.  Nothing like a good streamer brown trout attack!

bighorn countryRemember that part about pray for the worst possible stuff you can handle?  I forgot to mention it gets a bit windy sometimes on the Horn.  As all good things must come to an end, our perfect fishing weather finally did as well, changing from a gentle breeze down river to a howling gale coming upstream in our faces.  Thankfully we had a smoking good day with lots of good fish, so we knew we deserved some penance for our glories, plus we kinda knew where we were in the float, nearing the takeout.  Gotta take those lumps out there every now and again.  Hoods up and sterns downstream we battled it out til we finally arrived at the ramp with light to spare.

bighorn countryAfter one last night of cocktails and camaraderie, our group packed up and said goodbye to each other and Bighorn country.  New and old friendships were kindled on this trip, as many of us were strangers to one another three days ago.  Half of our group headed for the hills from whence they came, while the other half decided to squeeze in a quick run on the Yellowstone on the way back.  If your gonna drive over a hundred miles paralleling world famous trout water on the interstate, salivating on the steering wheel and swerving with the fish eyes going on, might as well check it out, eh? And yeah, it was good!  I’ll keep that story to myself, no kiss and tell on freestones!  Hope to see all of you again next time.  JFbighorn country


BC Steelhead

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-22Every Montana fishing guide worth his weight in IPA dreams up some sort adventure after the season; call it a closure to the rigors and pains, glories, and utter defeats of a long season on the water.  All of us need that something to keep us smiling and hanging in there through the final days, knowing adventure waits.  Well, my group dreams big.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_54-96Steelhead enter the coastal rivers during mid to late summer, slowly making their way upstream to their spawning grounds.  Some rivers are hundreds of miles upstream of the main arteries, such as the Salmon river in Idaho, and this journey takes months for these fish to make it into these waters.  From the Columbia to the Snake confluence, then up the Snake to the Salmon, and up that long canyon of No Return to the upper reaches where we target them throughout the winter, my local steelies run somewhere near 900 miles inland to their final destinations.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_54-16So back to the adventure.  Chris, Alex, and myself decided this would be the year to visit the North country, the land of endless rivers and mountains: steelhead country…BC.  I’ve been there twice, some 15 years ago earning my stripes as a young fishing guide.  I traveled with seasoned veterans, swinging old school shooting heads on mono running lines with single handed 8 and 9 weights.  Nowadays we throw the spey primarily with various tips, but the single hands still have their moments.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-4-3On November 2nd, thirty hours north and west of the Bitterroot, we struck our first camp on the bottom of the Morice river near Houston, British Columbia at about three o’clock.  We’d traveled over fifteen hundred miles through the previous day and night, traversing most of Montana and BC, including the Banff and Jasper Provincial Parks and Jasper Ice fields Parkway in the dead of night with a foot of snow covering the roadway.  We set up a 15×16 foot wall tent for cooking and partying, as well as personal tents to sleep in so as not to be hearing your neighbor snore, or be mauled by the local black bears breaking into the wall tent for our food.

bc shuttle bikeWith my nephews little motorbike as our shuttle, we toured the wild Morice for a few days up from camp.  Only knowing point A and point B, everything in between was a mystery.  Oh what amazing steelhead water!  It was hard to pinpoint anything particular as everything looked and felt beautiful on the swing.  We connected on fish, me striking first and Alex next, with Chris hooking more but landing none, stuck in the shithole.  We could have spent weeks exploring the Morice and expecially the Bulkley, flowing some 90 kilos north of our camp into the Skeena, but we have only so much time.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-45Kispiox. That was the final destination on this journey.  I have old time connections to friends in that country, and sure enough, that phone number from over fifteen years ago still worked.  With a point to start and some old memories, we found my old stomping grounds on the Kispiox and began a day of fishing the classic runs.  We found fish and decided the rest of our time would be spent there, knowing world record steel come to that drainage.  A long drive back to the Morice and a last camp night, breakdown at dawn, and on to the next adventure.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_54-33So another week we spent in an epic camp on an epic beach on an epic steelhead river, throwing down in a wall tent with propane heater, cook stove, lantern, tables, two fly tying vises occupied at all times, the other guy(me), filling beer orders and heating dinner in the pot, prepared and vacuum sealed back in Montana.  Swing runs were out the door, which we’d start or end on sometimes at dawn and dusk, one last effort to find the tug you hadn’t had in days.  We found fish, but suffered mightily as well.  I went many days without a tug, beating myself into a madness: skip food, water, definitely have beer, swing, step, pile into boat, repeat on next run.  Repeat for days.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-46-2As our trip drew towards a close and the BC late fall weather started to crank up, we started thinking of heading south.  Our last couple days of swinging were our best, finally figuring out the runs and feeling like fresh fish had come into the river.  Classic runs that had kicked our asses for days started to produce beautiful chrome fish, hot and wild and eager for the swing.  We stayed as long as we could, but he time had come.  Two weeks in the wilds of BC was all I could ask for from my real life, and I’m damn thankful for that, so we rolled up the tent and packed er up for the land of milk and honey, Montana, 2200 miles and 30 hours away.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_53-15-2I, we, will be back.  Other destinations are already in the mix for next year, we’ll see what shakes of them.  Skeena country is magical if you are of the steelhead type, endless tribs as big as our Missouri in places, and most easily the size of the Clark’s Fork or Bitterroot.  Wild steelhead are all that roam there, no supplemental hatchery fish, so every basin is as it was and how it shall be forever and amen.(Minus the occasional gigantic Canadian mine/pipeline…don’t get me started.)  Give a nod to British Columbia and their efforts at preserving wild steelhead runs and the habitat that supports them, many and most rivers untracked and roadless to their headwaters.  So many options, from helicopter drops on uncharted waters to DIY dirtbagging at the K’San campground,  steelhead will take you there.

Wrapping it up

bitterroot river fallOur days are short and the night are getting longer.  Rifle season for elk and deer is in full swing, and the winter snowpack is forming in the high country and slowly migrating down into the valleys.  Our guide season is in its final throes, those rugged souls who fish with us well into October and brave the unknown conditions.  The Bitterroot will fish as long into the season as one is willing, provided you are prepared for cold conditions and short windows of opportunity on the surface.  When you do find them feeding, though, it can be an amazing experience: alone on a Montana trout river and fish like these spread out rising river-wide.  See you next season.

Fall on the Missouri River

missouri river brown troutFinally the time has come that all us river rats beg for all season: fall in Montana.  It’s been a tough summer since the snow burned off and the heat kicked up in July, but a few well timed weather systems saved our asses, keeping water flowing in the rivers and quenching the fires that inevitably come with the dry conditions.  Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel: the nights are cold, days are shorter, and the Missouri is fishing like we know it can.

missouri riverWe spend a lot of time on the Mo during the fall months.  Anyone who has experienced a decent day here–not to mention those lucky souls that have hit it perfect– is essentially hooked for life.  She’s got you.  Guides included.  Fish start to stack up in all the right places to feed heavy on the fall bugs, Baetis and Pseudos primarily.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_52-22This fall fished well for us, though the summer moss hung on longer than we’d like and dry fly opportunities were limited.  Once the daily rig was determined, nymphs more often than not, the fishing was consistent and down right smoking hot at times.  Look for moving riffles and drop offs with the right depth, and fish were all over the place.  The dry or die mentality had to be kept in check, though, as most fish just weren’t coming to the surface reliably enough to target them.


Low Water August

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.

Missouri River July

Missouri RiverAs a Western Montana fishing guide, we all get the willies when we are  headed to the big river, the Mo.  We’re super stoked to get a chance at the big rainbows and killer dry fly possibilities, but we are also nervous as hell that we’re gonna get our asses kicked!  This river can be brutal sometimes, challenging everything you have to make good casts and see the fly, let alone landing the heavy duty fish the Mo puts out consistently.

Missouri RIver

Fortunately for Chris and I, our group of four were up to the task and the Missouri river smiled upon our efforts.  Caddis, PMDs, and a smattering of little mayflies peeled off the water from early morning to late evening, providing lots of visual targets for our fishermen. Many years guiding the Bitterroot and Big Hole with these guys, we wanted to show them what Montana dry fly fishing can really be like: huge rainbows sipping sub16 dries in shin deep riffles with finger burning runs after the set!

Missouri RIver

So thanks to our diligent fishermen and to the spirits of the mighty Missouri for giving us a great trip.  Everyone stuck a few great fish and held in there when the going got rough, something one must power through on every Missouri trip.  See you fellas next time.

Bitterroot River 3Day

bitterroot river guidesA 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.

bitterroot river guidesWith 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.

bitterroot river guidesNext 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.

bitterroot river guidesAfter 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.

Missouri River mid June

missouri river rainbow bitterroot river guidesAs 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.

missouri river rainbow bitterroot river guidesDon 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.

missouri river rainbow bitterroot river guidesThis 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.

missouri river rainbow bitterroot river guidesThis 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.

Big Hole mid June

bitterroot river guides big holeIt’s been a great week on the Big Hole for the mid June happenings: Salmonflies and Goldens rushed through the river and belted off tremendous hatches, making for excellent fishing throughout the week.  Some days were pretty slammed with boats-I must have seen 60 last Saturday on Divide to Melrose-but there’s plenty of good fishing for those in the know.  Most boats are playing Hank Williams Jr. on a D battery boom box and chucking Rapalas and spoons so really no threat there.  Just smile and wave and hope they chuck you a beer while we get down to business with the sneaky dry flies.

bitterroot river guides big holeI ran this week for the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River, guiding new guests to the lodge and showing them the best of the river.  We fished approximately 60 miles of the Big Hole: from the upper water at East Bank to the lower end at the Notch Bottom, the river entirely different at each end.  The week started strong on Salmonflies and Goldens, but eventually I had to resort to the sneaky stuff to really find the fish.

bitterroot river guides big holeSometimes our hatches get a bit played out, to say the least.  Guides start hucking Salmon bugs weeks before the hatch-I am guilty-and the fish are pretty much hook shy by the time the ol’ hatch comes around.  Well, throw it while you can, and when it’s not working, go smaller.  Then smaller again.  Until you start finding bugs the fish will take vigorously, as well as searching out water not being hit heavily.  There’s a bit of guide knowledge not to be taken lightly!  Look where people are NOT fishing, or at least not fishing well.  Heavy water, strong insides, deep under willows, and back channels are all places not overfished.  Keep searching; the fish are feeding somewhere on something you have in your flybox!

Summer’s Rollin’

bitterroot river guidesHere we go, the journey begins.  Fishing is pretty stellar at the moment, and I only see it getting better for the next few weeks.  Pre Salmon and Golden stonefly fishing is off the hook if you know where to look.  The main Bitterroot is shaping up sweet and the upper end is a wonderful as ever, a third the size of the mainstem.

bitterroot river guidesSo it’s off to the races on the river for us guides.  I’m slammed with personal trips until August, starting tomorrow on the Big Hole.  The boys are manning the homefront, taking guide calls and setting up trips.  Schedules are getting tight so get to us sooner than later to book a fishing journey with us.  Reach us by email or phone, numbers on the contact page.  See you on the river.