By MATT DEVLIN
The Bitterroot River, commonly referred to as “The Root,” flows south to north through the knee-wobbling vistas that are the Bitterroot Valley. The main stem of the Root begins at the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River, both of which are phenomenal and unique fisheries in their own rights.
Fishing the East Fork
The East Fork is a fairly under-explored piece of water. I won’t say too much more than yes, it is worth wetting a line. There is a good population of brown trout that tend to enjoy eating big stonefly dries during runoff, as well as streamers and rooster-tail lures later in the year. I do not recommend floating the East Fork unless you do it just after peak runoff and you are an expert on the sticks (oars).
Fishing the West Fork
The West Fork of the Bitterroot, for all intents and purposes, begins below Painted Rocks reservoir. The river, some twenty-plus miles from the dam to its confluence, is marked by a fairly high gradient, providing for very technical rafting but excellent trout habitat.
The West Fork provides anglers, both fly and spin, with one of the best opportunities in the state to catch the famed “grand slam” as Brown Trout, Rainbows, Cutthroat, Cutt-Bows, Bull Trout, and Mountain Whitefish are all present in good numbers. The river becomes crowded during runoff, as the fishing is consistent, and the water clarity is much better than any of our local rivers.
Fishing the ‘Root’
The Bitterroot is so gosh darn charming. It is the sort of river that can beat you up a bit one day, and show you the pearl the next.
To fish the Bitterroot River in western Montana is to educate yourself in the subjects of patience, humility, and optimism.
The general character of the ‘Root changes dramatically from year to year because the substrate is mostly fist to pea-sized gravel, and is subject to being pushed around quite a bit during runoff. This fact only adds to the river’s mystique, but it also adds to her danger.
The Bitterroot is statistically one of the most dangerous rivers in the state and should be avoided by all but the most experienced oarsperson except for the lowest of August flows.
The river flows north from the confluence of the Forks all the way through the Bitterroot Valley until it meets the Clark Fork River just below town at the Kelley Island braids.
The Root has an exceptionally long dry fly season, starting with Skwalla stoneflies in March and ending with grasshoppers and mahogany mayflies in October.
The density of fish in this river is quite low, as low as four to five hundred fish per mile in the lowest reaches. But the trout grow quite large, since they’re given room to spread their fins, if you will. The trout in the Root are also susceptible to large streamer patterns and lures such as rooster tails and small Rapalas.
|March-April||Skwalla, Bitterroot Stones, Nemoura||March Browns, Blue-Winged Olive|
|June-July||Salmonflies (West Fork & Upper Main Stem), Golden Stoneflies, Little Yellow Sallies, Lime Sallies||Green Drakes, Pale Morning Duns, Pale Evening Duns|
|July-August||Golden Stoneflies, Grasshoppers, Ants||Tricos, Hecubas|
|September-October||Grasshoppers, Beetles, Ants, Flying Ants||Tricos, Mahogany Dun, Blue-Winged Olives, Pseudos|
Cliff Notes Fishing Regulations
- Catch-and-release for cutthroat trout on all stretches of entire drainage
- East Fork: bait permitted. Three trout limit, including rainbows and browns only, with one permitted exceeding fourteen inches
- West Fork: bait permitted. Three trout limit, including rainbows and browns only. No size restriction listed
- Darby-Como Bridge: artificial lures only, no killing of fish
- Como-Tucker Crossing: bait permitted. Three trout limit, including rainbows and browns only, with one permitted exceeding fourteen inches
- Tucker-Florence Bridge: artificial lures only no killing of fish
- Florence-Confluence with Clark Fork: bait permitted. Three trout limit, including rainbows and browns only, with one permitted exceeding fourteen inches