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Fly Fishing the Bitterroot River Montana
Type of Stream: Freestone and Tailwater
Species: Rainbow, Cutthroat, Brook and Brown Trout (Rare Bull Trout can not be taken)
Location: Southwestern Montana
Nearest Town: Missoula and Conner, MT
General Description of the Bitterroot River:
The two forks of the Bitterroot River start from melting snow in the Bitterroot Mountains in Southwestern Montana. The Bitterroot has a split personality since the West Fork is a tailwater stream and the East Fork is a freestone stream. They come together near Conner, Montana to form the main stem of the Bitterroot River which flows 75 miles to join the Clark Fork River at Missoula. From the Bitterroot River to the west is the Bitterroot Mountains and to the east is the Pinter Peaks of the Sapphire Mountains; scenery at its best. Some of the scenery is due to the Bitterroot flower that happens to be the state flower. In addition, wildlife abounds including mule deer, elk bears and cougars.
The East Fork of the Bitterroot flows for about twenty miles before joining the West Fork. to form the main stem of the Bitterroot. The East Fork is a small stream containing mostly small Westslope Cutthroat trout and brook trout. The trout are plentiful and this headwater stream provides plenty of action making it a delightful fishing experience.
There are approximately ten miles of the West Fork above Rocks Lake near the Idaho and Montana border and it contains small brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout. Below the lake, the West Fork tailwater runs about fifteen miles before its confluence with the East Fork. The water below the dam is released from the bottom of Painted Rock Lake and runs cold and clear all year long. This water contains some larger trout and has a moderate flow making it easily waded.
The East and the West Forks of the Bitterroot are joined just above the little town of Conner to form the Bitterroot River which has a good population of rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout, some as large as 20 inches. Bull trout also inhabit this section of the river but they can not be taken. The upper section of the main stem remains cool during the summer thanks to the contribution of cold water released from the bottom of Painted Rock Lake. This main stem downstream from Conner is still relatively small with numerous riffles and pools; and it can be floated or waded. The scenery remains spectacular with cottonwood and aspen trees lining the banks of the stream and the angling pressure is not as great in this section.
From Conner, near where the two forks join, downstream to Hamilton, the water is mostly moderate to fast flowing. From Hamilton downstream to Victory the water is used for agricultural purposes and the river can get rather low creating a slower rate of flow suitable for wading. Gravel bars and diversion dams exist along this section of the Bitterroot River.
From Victor to Florence, the fishing is good however the river becomes too warm for good trout fishing during the late summer. There are no diversion dams so floating is an easy method to reach those slow moving pools that can hold large trout. From Florence to the Clarke Fork River, the Bitterroot doesn't have as good of a population of trout as the section above Florence, but some large rainbows have been caught in this section. The river can become too warm during the late summer.
Fishing the Bitterroot River:
After spring run off, and the salmon fly hatch, water is pulled off to support agriculture and most of the fishing is contained in the upper reaches of the river. The mayfly and the caddis fly hatches are good in the summer giving way to the tricos, October caddis and brown drakes hatch later in the year.
Spring is an excellent time to fish the Bitterroot River starting with the salmon fly hatch after spring run off. However, be sure to check the regulations as special regulations may be in effect.
Summer can provide some excellent fly fishing especially in the cooler waters of the West Fork and the upper reaches of the main stem. Some sections will be too low or too warm however. Pale morning dun and spotted hedges will be good flies to have in your fly box and be sure to include nymph patterns.
Fall and Winter:
Fall is an excellent time to fish the Bitterroot River as there is plenty of hatching activity including a second brood of blue winged olives. Include some terrestrial and some streamer patterns to fish near the under cut banks. Winter can provide some limited fishing as well.
For the East Fork take Highway 43 west from Wisdom to intersect Highway #93 that follows the East Fork from Conner to near Sula. There are several fishing access sites along the road as well as private property in this section. Follow the East Fork Road through National Forest Land for the upper reaches. The West Fork is accessed from County Road 473. The main stem of the Bitterroot River can be accessed at the Hannon Memorial Fishing Access just below Conner and through its entire length by following Highway #93.
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