Here we are finally getting well into August. The Bitterroot River has come down considerably and is at near normal flows for the most part. Unfortunately our wet spring turned into a very dry summer, but thankfully we had enough money in the bank, i.e. snowpack, to hold out pretty well thus far.
With all of the vegetation that grew this season we have an absolute mega plethora of grasshoppers near the riverbanks. Everywhere I walk in higher grass is covered with the little buggers shooting off every direction clacking their wings. Well, guess what, that gets some serious fish looking for a size 6 bug skated across their lairs.
Hopper fishing is exciting to say the least. Our anglers have lots of opportunities at fish, and also opportunities at very big fish like the ones pictured. Grasshoppers provide a large food source when really not a whole lot of other bugs are hatching on the river at this time. We are able to fish heavy lines and move the bug erratically to draw up big strikes. Twitch that bug and hold on…
What are year it has been and continues to be! August has come around and we are seeing just as good fishing now as we did back in June, if not better. This is often very rare for us as by this time of year our water temps are hot, the fish are condensed tightly in the runs, and we are seeing tougher and tougher fishing conditions. Not this year.
2018 has been solid as can be as far as the river health and our fishing goes. We have had hardly any hiccup, none really, with the late season coming upon us. Though our mayfly and caddis fly hatches are minimal now, we are seeing the elusive nocturnal stones emerge as well as the start of our hopper days. We are able to run the entirety of the Bitterroot River system, rather than being confined to the upper reaches due to high water temperatures. What a joy to be able to tour down stream and see no one for several days in a row, searching out wild rainbows and the occasional big cutthroat trout living deep in the lower reaches!
It has been a hang on to your seat type of June already. The enormous snowpack has finally started to cut loose and has really made things interesting on the Bitterroot and Big Hole rivers. We are still finding good clear water, but there are some days we are running very high up the system to find it. Our flows are double the norm which has made for interesting days floating long stretches, sometimes 20 miles or more. By covering more water we are able to search out enough holding areas to make a good day for our anglers. Sometimes a fantastic day.
The big water has definitely got the fish feeding hard. Contrary to some beliefs, big water is very healthy for trout. When the water is murky and fishing seems impossible, when you do actually catch a fish he is absolutely stuffed full like a little football. It’s just a matter of there is so much food in the water and low visibility that your bugs often have a little chance of finding the mouth of a trout. That’s where we come in.
This season’s salmon fly hatch has been disappointing honestly. With the high flows often surging week to week, the salmon bugs are having a tough time finding the right conditions to hatch. We’ve seen plenty here in there and had occasionally explosive days of dry fly fishing. But just like Skwala time, the river has been unpredictable and salmon flies really don’t like that. They like a gradually falling river with nice sunny temperatures to heat them up and promote their hatching. Not this year unfortunately for the little buggers.
Tough weather has pretty much come day after day, but we are still having a great time out there salmon flies be damned. Running a variety of tactics and different bugs under the surface we are finding lots of good healthy fish ready to eat the fly. Sometimes you have to take them how you can get them, and big hungry trout are always on my list of things any way I have to do it.
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.