Fishing the Bitterroot

There is some great fishing on the Bitterroot River right now.  We’ve been latching into solid cutthroats and a few browns here and there, with the fish still stacked from their Salmon fly binge of the previous month.  Drys have been working right out of the gate, with other methods of fly fishing also working just fine, that is if you want to stare at a bobber all day.  No thanks.  I actually haven’t put a bobber on the line in weeks, keeping with simple one fly riggings that are simple to cast and very effective.  Find the right bug, find the right spots on the river, and there are hungry trout ready to be caught!

Day Three

bitterroot river guidesLast blog I wrote preceded our actual fishing, so I figured I’d wrap up our three day trip with Jack and the guys with one last post.  As anticipated, we saw some pretty amazing fishing out there on the Bitterroot river.  With Salmonflies still in the picture, our hookups were many and hard pulling, the fish stuffed from the big bugs and at least 20 percent heavier than normal.  Soon enough the dry bite came around and we enjoyed consistent action on top for most of the day.

bitterroot river guidesWe topped it all off with some fine burger grilling at lunchtime and apple pie and ice cream we managed to keep frozen deep in our coolers.  So, good fishing seems pretty much everywhere right now if you know what to look for.  I’ll be guiding the Big Hole Monday through Saturday of this week looking for those buttery browns, so tight lines and stay tuned.

Chasing bugs on the Bitterroot

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton  montanaMaybe it’s a bit early to write this one, we still have one day left to guide this group, but we’ve had some pretty solid fishing in the two out of three days with these fine natured chaps.  As the title of this blog goes, we’re chasing the big bugs on the Bitterroot and having great success at finding them.  Our first day found us way up the river system, looking for smaller fast flowing water that is so conducive for salmon flies.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton  montanaTrying a few anticipated patterns for the day, we laid into quite a few trout right off the bat, letting us know our bug choices were right on the money.  No need to change a sure thing, we stuck with pretty much one setup throughout the day and put the hammer down on many gluttonous fish, their bellies gorged from all the bugs they’re inhaling.  There is nothing like fishing size four dries in heavy water with fish leaping to take the fly near the overhanging willows.

Today our group toured some lower water just to see what’s up out there and escape the salmon fly fever.  Solid fishermen, these guys are versatile enough to make it work with a variety of rigs, which is what we needed today.  With nothing really taking the top spot on rigging, we caught fish on dries, streamers, back drags, swings, and full on bobbered up.  After exhausting every conceivable rig, my boat finally said to hell with it, and we dropped “riffle bombs”, Jack’s terminology for a heavy stonefly nymph and worm.  And guess what, it worked like a charm!

Tomorrow is our last day with this great bunch of guys; hopefully we can show them some fine fishing.  Our plans for the third day have altered a bit from the original: instead of heading even lower down the system, we’re thinking that first day up river maybe wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  Not wanting to jinx the fish karma, we’ve settled on an original float a little in between the other two days’ floats, and with some fine casts and blood, sweat, and tears on the oars I think we’ll see some amazing fishing in the morning.

Big Hole Salmon Fly Time

big hole brownThe time is a’coming around again: Salmonflies on the rivers and the fish are looking up!  We’ve been dragging nymphs and buggers for an eternity it seems; Skwala season is long behind us along with the gentle stream flows that occur that time of year.  The rivers are ripping along at a good spring clip and the water is perfect for the almighty giant of the summer’s bugs.  Get ready folks, this could be one hell of a year out there for the Salmonfly!

big hole brownThis weekend found me on the Big Hole running a guided float with long time brethren: many years we’ve spent chasing brown trout together on that river.  My troops fished very well, a bit out of control at times chucking one last shot in the willows, but hey, it’s that time of year and one must pay to play.  Good casts and drifts brought up solid fish to the fly, not all day, but enough to keep us interested while the action ebbed and flowed throughout the float.  Eventually the fishing got downright smoking hot, with big browns chomping hard in all the right spots.  Make your cast and mend equals fish on!

big hole brownOur second day of fishing took us intentionally far far away from the Salmon fly madness on the popular water.  Day one was too good to try and replicate, so our group toured seldom fished haunts deep in the lower river valley.  Always beautiful scenery but a roll of the dice on the fishing, we threw the book at ’em while taking in the solitude and challenge of the lower river.  We found the right setup eventually, and continued to lay into a great day of fishing with the river all to ourselves.  So here’s a big thanks to this group from Seattle: seven years now I’ve had the pleasure of guiding them through the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River.  See you next time fellas!

Running the scenic trips

bitterroot river fishing guides scenic floatBig water is all around Southwestern Montana at the moment, especially the Bitterroot.  Until things settle down a bit, why not still enjoy the river in a safe and leisurely fashion with a beautiful Bitterroot scenic float?  This scenic trip, though, had me a bit on edge since the Root was actually a foot above flood stage at 9000 CFS; did I mention that?

Well, after thoroughly informing my floaters what was happening out there, they decided what the hell, let’s do this!  I am an expert oarsman, but not an idiot, so my faithful guide Chris and I hauled the boat up to Hannon and set out to scout the rampaging river for the next fifteen miles.  What we saw out there was one of the coolest experiences I’ve witnessed: the river could have floated a battleship out there, let alone my little 13 foot NRS.  We found we could go anywhere in the entire river bottom: islands, cottonwood stands, people’s back yards!

bitterroot river fishing guides scenic floatOur scenic scout and float the next day were a huge success.  With life vests fully adorned and safety first in my mind, we ran 23 miles of the Bitterroot in about four or five hours.  Boulders could be heard tumbling and clunking underneath the boat in the torrent, while my eyes scouted miles ahead for trouble in the form of downed timber and strainers.  I don’t recommend the common leisure boater pull this kind of float, but I do trust my abilities and that of my crew to safely navigate our waters and enjoy the resource in all stages of the season.

Big Hole on the Rise

While the Bitterroot River is up and pretty much unfishable, we took a drive over Lost Trail Pass to search out some fishy water on the upper Big Hole.  Unlike many freestone rivers, when the Big Hole is up it remains quite fishable on its upper reaches.  With meadows and rolling pine hills surrounding the river for the upper forty miles or so, the runoff comes peacefully down the drainage until the eventual canyons at Wise River and Divide.

bitterroot river guides big hole montana-4Pulling up early in the morning after a dawn departure from the flooded Bitterroot, we were pretty stoked to see the river meandering along just like always.  The tea colored waters had risen a foot in the last few days, but we only knew from looking at the USGS hydrograph as the change was almost imperceptible to the eye.

bitterroot river guides big hole montana-2Buggers, streamers, and nymph rigs were the choice of the day; little dry fly activity was expected though March Browns hatched well in the afternoon, bringing up a few little risers.  We found good consistent fishing from noon onward, almost entirely on nymphs.  The streamer game just never played for us even though we gave it our best for the sixteen miles we floated.  Some recent photos have us jonesing for a big brown, and I mean a big boy like the one our Hamilton High School principle just caught.  Fish like this one will keep you coming back to the Big Hole.

bitterroot river guides big hole montana

Shoulda been nymphin

The river has been looking great, even though the levels are up a bit from normal and we all know what is to come soon with the big snowpack.  We ran a lower river float checking channels and different lies in the big water.  Streamers did for nothing; we spent the early morning hours stripping, dredging, and mending our bugs for not.  Towards early afternoon and the end of our float, we finally bobbered up and immedialtly hooked up.  Well, shit.  I guess we could have tried that about six hours earlier and our float could have been much more productive.  We finished the last bit with the bobs and hooked or landed several more fish in the obvious lies.   So until the warmth and the rain get to the river, keep a bobber close at hand.

Ups and downs; Still pre runoff

We checked out the Bitterroot a few days ago just to see.  You know, just to see for ourselves what’s happening out there.  She was at 3500 at Darby, a pretty fishable level in my opinion, so even though most folks will give you the poo-poo about fishing right now we figured it could be done.  While the main stem of the Bitterroot is chugging along, channels like the ones pictured are filled up and looking good.

Well, it pretty much sucked.  I did catch a small brown and a squawfish and had another fish chase the streamer, but the Bitterroot was obviously off color and flowing fast.  Now if you take a look today at the USGS Streamflow, three days later, things are starting to look pretty good.  The river has dropped nicely down to 2900 cfs at Darby, which should clean things up and stabilize the fish.  We’ll be checking soon to keep an eye on the fishing before the big water cometh.  Gotta go to know.

Solid Bitterroot Fishing

west fork bitterroot cuttThe river is on the fluctuations of a big spring, up one day and then dropping after a few cold nights.  We’ve been at it through snow and rain, wind and shine, finding pretty good fishing through it all.  Adversity is definitely the name of the game; lots of rigs, lots of poking around checking all the holds.  Every type of fly rig has its time to play throughout the day: streamers for a few runs, then fish a dry through the riffles and slough mouths.

west fork bitterrootAny spotted fish is catchable right now, and right about two o’clock the March Brown mayflies have been peeling off, bringing quite a few fish out to feed.  Throughout the upper Bitterroot, we’ve found many sneaky little spots that have steady rising fish, but you have to search closely and fish a ton of water to find them.  Once you do, bingo.  We have plenty of equally sneaky hand tied patterns in Skwala and mayfly that work excellent, with fish moving hard to the fly and eating them fool hearty.

Sticking a toad

covershotWell, while I was out on a guided float chasing Skwalas and mayflies, my guides were up to no good, as you can clearly see, chasing big Bitterroot brown trout, and definitely not using dry flies.  Trout eat a little of everything, mostly aquatic insects, as they forage throughout the day in rhythm with the daily bug cycles.  When the hatch at hand gets going, large numbers of fish feed throughout the river to take advantage of the increase in bug activity.

bitterroot brownThen there’s these guys.  Hatch be damned.  Browns like this rarely fall for your ordinary insect imitations, their feeding patterns are impulsive, and their foraging is more like hunting and killing.  These are the predators of our peaceful little rainbow/cutthroat stream: no little trout is ever really safe.  That’s why we protect our beloved little dinks by targeting these bruisers with the only thing they consistently hammer: Streamers.  Heavy, colorful, flashy minnow imitations with big ass googly eyes fished on a clear, sink tipped seven weight.  Oh Yeah.

brochureshotStreamer chucking is not for the faint of heart, and many can’t handle it.  Heavy stiff rods and weighted lines wear a person out, especially if one’s cast is inefficient, so we guides use caution when introducing our anglers into this realm:  short periods keep our guests from getting frustrated and beat down.  Now when it’s a crew like these two river monkeys in the photo, there’s no holds barred.  Ten miles of swollen off color river, a half rack of Coors, and hundreds of heavy casts went into that one brown trout.  Every cast has the promise of another leviathan: it may be the first deep log jam at daybreak, it may be somewhere on mile seven, or it may not happen at all.  Keep hucking.