Dry Rot in the Bitterroot

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

We managed to fit in a Father’s Day float on the Bitterroot River, and it was a good one. We got fish on dry flies from the launch ramp even before we’d finished pumping up the raft — fishing at put in is one of the benefits of not being responsible for rigging up the boat.

There weren’t many bugs on the water, but despite that we quickly settled on Golden Stones as the fly of the day, and brought a mess of cutthroats to the net.

It was one of those days that keeps me coming back to the Bitterroot more than 15 years since I moved away. It’s a fun little river to float. Year in, year out, during July, the Bitterroot provides some of the best dry fly fishing Montana has to offer.

It’s just that Father’s Day isn’t in July. This year it was on June 21, and that’s almost two weeks before you can usually count on the dry fly action on the Bitterroot to be light’s out.

A look at the U.S.G.S. River Data Web site explains why. The river gauge in Darby measured just a hair more than 900 cubic feet per second the day we floated, and that’s   a great level to fish the Bitterroot. At that flow the river is usually falling and clear, the water temperatures are still cool, the hatches are plentiful, and the trout feed aggressively in a drifting smorgasbord of mayflies and stones.

Wet Wading on the Bitterroot River. Photo by Tony Reinhardt.

Wet Wading on the Bitterroot River. Photo by ©Tony Reinhardt.

The problem is that on or about the Summer Solstice, the Bitterroot is usually running more than twice as high as the flows we encountered that day. At higher levels, the Bitterroot can be a challenging float, and more than a touch dangerous as this river is jam packed with root wads and other woody debris. Usually mid-June is a bit early for the Bitterroot to be this low and the fishing so wide open.

Things are just as dire across most of the rest of western Montana. The late June flows on the Middle Fork are already below 3,000 cubic feet per second. So much for big waves on Bonecrusher this year.

That USGS map of Montana has become a Web site of horrors. In late June, Western Montana was riddled with dark red spots signifying river gauges measuring streams in the 10th percentile of average flows for this time of year.

What’s it all mean? Well, the 10th percentile in June means most rivers will be nearly bone dry in August. And low water means elevated stream temperatures. Montana rivers are filled with wild trout — a testament to the great productivity of those rivers and the way anglers have embraced catch-and-release fishing, at least as far as river angling goes. Since Montana rivers are not stocked, catch-and-release is necessary to maintain healthy fish populations.

But once river temperatures rise into the 70s, catch-and-release and then recatch, turns into catch-and-release then die, as fish can’t recover in warm water low in dissolved oxygen.

The heatwave expected for the region in this week will only make things worse. It will take a miraculous shift in the weather, bringing significant moisture to Western Montana, to head off a summer marred by smoky, vista-obscuring skies, and rivers closed to fishing to protect wild trout.

The closures will probably hit rivers such as the Bitterroot harder than the forks of the Flathead. The Bitterroot is an over worked river, with major diversions throughout the watershed. All that diverted water does a fine job growing things like alfalfa and cattle, but it wreaks havoc on fisheries, especially in drought years. Much of that diverted water eventually returns to the river, but after its been spre


thumbRob Breeding writes an outdoors column for the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell.  He teaches journalism at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming.