Our days are short and the nights 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. JF
Finally 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.
We 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.
This 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.
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.
As 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.
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!
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 all next time!
A 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.
With 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.
Next 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.
After 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.
As 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.
Don 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.
This 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.
This 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.
It’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.
I 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.
Sometimes 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!
May is often a tough month to fish Montana: high water, unpredictable weather, hatch envy, etc. Most years this holds true, as rivers just become straight up unfishable for a couple weeks with dirty water and logs coming down the pipe. This year has been quite a bit milder on river flows due to a warm winter and fairly low snow pack, making the usual barrage of runoff merely a swell in the lower river valley for a spell.
So what that boils down to is that fishing has been essentially uninterrupted during this runoff. Fishing is consistent on most reaches of the Bitterroot, Big Hole, and Missouri right now, and I don’t foresee anymore huge snowpack fluctuations affecting flows for this season. With that water consistency has come some fine fishing and bug hatches to match. Low water years, as we’re seeing right now, will bring epic hatches to the rivers: lower water allows consistent flows and more solar energy to warm huge populations of insects at one time, rather than high water years which have fluctuating levels and temps causing trickling hatches through a long period. Our Salmonfly hatch should be a wall banger this season with no floods on the horizon in mid-June.
The rivers are prime and fishing is good right now, if one knows where to look and how to pull it off. We do. Though the dry fly is still a bit away to truly turn the corner on the season, we’re finding good fish eating nymphs and buggers throughout the river systems very consistently, with a bit of dry fly opportunity in the afternoons. Trips are already running strong and summer is quickly approaching with Salmon bugs and Goldens on the horizon; get in touch with us before we’re slammed for the season, and we’ll be seeing you on the river. JF
What a great Skwala and March Brown season we’ve had here in the Bitterroot Valley! Our weather and river levels remained perfect from the first week of March until this last week of April, and the bugs and fish responded with solid daily hatches and heavy topwater feeding. Can’t say I threw any nymphs this whole season.
Which is probably about to change, as the Bitterroot is starting to bump up with the coming of May. Soon the Skwalas will fade away from the spotlight, and caddis will replace our coveted stoneflies. As the Bitterroot rises, fishing can be much less consistent, and downright tough if the river has just bumped any significant amount. Nymphing and streamers become our new staple to deal with the heavy flows; trout hunker down and feed subsurface on all the food blasting through the water column.
So thank you to all the brave souls who fished the early hatches with Bitterroot River Guides. We saw tremendous fishing this year, and we were able to pull off every trip on a single dry fly. Each day had high points where the fishing was red hot, especially around two o’clock on the mayfly hatch, and the Skwalas hatched consistently throughout every day I was on the river, bringing up good fish.
We’ll see how runoff shapes up this year: it’s not looking like a whopper snowpack so we should be throwing a line through the whole season. The Missouri is fishing excellent right now, and will continue to just get better as summertime approaches. Being controlled by Holter dam, the Mo keeps in good shape throughout runoff with Blue Wings and Caddis hatching profusely. The Big Hole also fishes well through the runoff, mainly the upper third of the river, as this is the time to hunt big browns with streamers. Get in touch with us and let’s go fishing!
These waters bind us: to the river, the fish, the mountains that feed them, and the friends we share them with. Time spent on a trout stream is food for the soul, enjoying the natural cycles of the day and moods of the river. While fishing ebbs and flows throughout the day, we work together to figure it out, changing tactics and mindsets on the sight of a bug or a switch in the wind. In tune. Fly fishing tunes us to the river, the environment, each other.
Drawing upon a bond formed on the banks of the Big Hole river almost twenty years ago, I recently had the pleasure of fishing with a true master of the art of fly fishing, David Decker. Owner and outfitter of the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River, Montana, David is like a father to those of us guides lucky enough to learn from him. I can truly say that everything I teach on the water today, starts with something I learned from David and the other veteran guides from the Complete Fly Fisher. Those bonds run deep as the gut of the Kispiox and wide as a Missouri river sunset.
So with Skwala stoneflies and March Brown mayflies hatching in full swing on the Bitterroot, a true master casting from the bow, and twelve miles all to ourselves, David and I shared another day to keep close to the heart. The fish were looking up, and nowhere was out of reach or out of drift. Everything is possible. We ran with the mood of the river, keeping and eye on the natural cycles and currents, knowing the next run may be jamming while this one is quiet.
Our bugs were Big Hole style tied by David the night before in Wise River: no foamy Bitterroot flare, just natural fibers and buggy proportions. Another lesson from the old days: keep it natural, simple, quick to tie. And they worked, well. The Bitterroot is really shaping up fine this year with consistent Skwala and mayfly hatches day after day. Our water is holding up good, with cooler temperatures and high country snow keeping the water locked up in the mountains to use later down the road; a fine summer awaits us. So here’s to old friends and teachers, and the waters that bind us together. All photographs in this post were taken by David on our trip, his love of the wild trout evident in yet another art form.