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Montana's Bitterroot River


By Deanna Lee Birkholm


"I'm a member of the 20-20-20 club. Have you ever heard of that one?"

Castwell replied seriously, not knowing if our guides question was some local joke, "No, don't think I have."

John Miller, (who is no longer guiding) flashed a big grin. "Well, it's catching 20 fish, 20 inches or better on a size 20 fly in one day."

"That's really something," letting out a "wow" in the same breath. "Where did you do that?"

"Just about here," as John pointed to a long run below us. Carefully avoiding areas that might contain trout, he beached the driftboat. We all watched currents and seams for signs of actively feeding fish.

"Any noses sticking out anywhere?" I asked.

"It's still a little early," John remarked, "Why don't you work the edge of that far seam?"

Here on the Bitterroot, a variety of trout are available. Brooks, browns, rainbows, and westslope cutthroats . . . punctuated with the local mountain whitefish. Not a trout, and considered "trash" by some, locals find them very tasty smoked.

The seam where the faster current collided with a long flat slick was perfect trout feeding water. On the back side of the flat was a 200 yard long, deep, undercut bank.

Castwell picked a spot half-way down the run, and I started at the bottom and worked my way upstream. Casting a size 16 'fish-finder' (a full palmered grizzly hackle fly) I hooked a few small rainbows and finally landed a couple twelve to sixteen inches. But no browns.

We watched as a variety of insects appeared. Caddis, Yellow Sallies, and Golden Stones. A mixed bag.

Castwell worked his section with similar results using a small Cinnamon Caddis. Once we had worked the water to our satisfaction, our guide asked, "Would you like to see how my DHI works?" We had earlier discussed our preference for dry flies, and while we knew nymphs would work, it just wasn't what we wanted to do on this celebrated water. But it would be fun to see it.

John's invention, The Dead Head Indicator, was developed to use with double taper lines, since it is roll-cast and mended. Two nymphs, one on a dropper about 8 inches below the first is attached to the DHI. The "indicator" is a large, brightly colored puff of antron yarn treated with floatant. Since it is firmly clipped onto the line, it can be cast without concern for it falling off. (Some strike indicators are simply stuck on, and will easily dislodge.) Local fishermen nick-named the DHI the "old ball and chain."

As John made his first roll cast he warned, "I'll probably have to get the trash out first." Rocky mountain whitefish. Half a dozen casts later, - and half a dozen whitefish later- John remarked, "That ought to be about all of them."

John ducked hhis head and fired his 10ft.,5wt, IMX,- made an upstream mend and within seconds had a nice brown. Keep in mind he is fishing the same stretch we had just worked with our dries. Another 'Chuck & Duck" cast and a larger Brown. This scene was repeated half a dozen times in fifteen minutes.

All that was lacking for another 20-20-20-club membership was having more trout over 20 inches. This system certainly produced fish. It helps, of course, if the stream you are fishing has fish. The Bitterroot, south of Missoula Montana has an envied reputation for producing fish and insects.

Earliest of Western streams for a major hatch, the Bitterroot is host to a large gray Stone fly, called a Nasqually (or skwala.) This hatch can come off as early as March. In years where water levels are within stream banks, dry fly fishermen clean up. Catching large trout so early in the season makes suffering through winter almost bearable.

As on most water, the fly hatches vary by season and overall weather patterns. Always stop at a local fly shop and ask, "what's hatching." Locals in the Hamilton Valley look for pale morning duns (#14-18), caddis (#12-16) and blue winged olives, (#16-18) in early to mid June. By mid-June the salmon hatch (#2) green drake and golden stone, (#10) through June and into August. Mid-August additions are light cahil (#12-14) and trico in #18-20 which still show though September.

Mid-September bring on fall green drakes, (#10) and red or mahogany quill. Blue wing olives prove rewarding all the way into October. Check out the Eye of the Guide for our recommendation for October as well.

Access on the Bitterroot is limited, although the state of Montana has established public fishing accesses. Between Stevensville and Darby, a thirty-mile plus run of river, are five "official" state access points. Access areas do tend to be over-fished.

Your best bet is to hire a guide for at least a half day to learn the diversity of the water and fishing methods.

Montana law does make all streams public, however that does not mean you can trespass on private land to get to the water. Several bridges also provide some wading access.

Civilization may not be far away, but many stretches of the Bitterroot give the impression of wilderness. Douglas firs, service berries, eagles and ospreys, and mule deer tracks on the soft banks combined with a Montana blue sky make this a great place to fish! ~ The LadyFisher (October 6th, 1997)

Fall on the Bitterroot


October can be the dream month for those who love fishing the Bitterroot. Family vacations are over. The river is left to the serious fishermen who come to fish and spend their entire time wading or floating. No distractions from the family obligations of summer holidays.

Hunting seasons have also started, taking away even more individuals from the river who both hunt and fish.

September changes in the river, caused by less water from Painted Rocks Dam, dwindles the river flow. The Bitterroot slowly returns to it's meandering pattern that will last throughout the winter. It will lessen in volume and cool as the days and evening grow colder.

Guide Bill Bean

Leaves are turning to yellow and red, larch needles carpet the ground in gold. As the leaves begin to fall in the river it will change the patterns of the fish. Fish spook easily with the shining leaves reflecting light during the day. It will also cause some confusion with fishermen as they see the leaves and mistake them for turning fish in riffles and pools.

This month will one of the most beautiful on the river. Take advantage of our natural resource and fish until your heart is content. ~ Bill Bean

About Bill Bean

Bill Bean's Fishaus in Hamilton Montana, provides professional floating and wading guided trips to most rivers in Western and Central Montana. Some of the rivers: Bitterroot (his home river), Beaverhead, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Big Hole, Missouri, Gallatin and Madison. These rivers are all accessible and within easy driving distance from Hamilton. The Fishaus is also an excellent choice for your fly gear needs!

Bill, an experienced guide, has personally fished these waters. He and his team of guides furnish superior lunches with the full day float, and snacks with the half day floats. The guides also provide you with the entomology of the rivers to enhance your opportunities to catch fish. Whether you are a novice or an expert fisher person you will have all the help that you need or want.

All floats are fly fishing and catch and release only. The rivers are excellent wild trout fisheries and the Fishaus is committed to preserving them for future use. For more information contact: Toll Free: 1-888-363-6158 or (406) 363-6158. ~ DB

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