How to Escape the Boat Hatch


It’s no mystery that during the months of March and April, the Bitterroot has really good dry fly fishing. Well, at least sometimes.

What people don’t realize is that some of the fishing across the rest of the state can be pretty amazing as well.

The Missouri, for example, always seems to have really good fishing during these same months. The midge hatches can be thick, and with the right conditions the streamer fishing can be incredible. Legendary days can be had below the Deerborn as the river bumps and pours thousands of bugs (especially worms…) into the great Mighty Mo’.

The Big Hole is also a nice wild card option this time of year. As the water drops the big browns line the banks and eat streamers with reckless abandon. When the water clears there can be good blue wing hatches, and even a skwala or two.

Nobody ever fishes these rivers because the Bitterroot’s reputation has grown to an almost supernatural status. This reputation is probably deserved, but after a while I find myself wondering if it’s really worth it.

Bryce McLean and a hearty Blackfoot trout

I grew up down in the Bitterroot, and I remember the days when you used to never see a single boat between Tucker and Bell on a Sunday. Nowadays, it’s not rare to see between 10 and 20 boats in that section on a Tuesday.

The truth is, we are probably just as much to blame for hyping up ( or over-hyping) the skwala hatch as much as anybody. So with this in mind, I have decided that it is time to share one of my favorite “Not-the-Bitterroot” options.

Number one on my list, without a doubt, is the lower Blackfoot.

I’m not talking Whitaker bridge or Riverbend. I’m talking about Johnsrud to Weigh Station. In the past, this section of river has received a high amount of scrutiny due to its large population of little trout, which on certain days, were a little bit annoying. This is no longer the case.

In the past month, I have seen more big browns and rainbows out of the lower Blackfoot than I have in the previous four years combined (seriously). It is common to see a few big fish down low this time of year because the water is much cooler than it is during the summer months, but not at the rate we have been seeing them lately.

The most intriguing thing about what we have been seeing is the large number of big, healthy, hard-fighting rainbows, much like those found in the Clark Fork.

This could be the result of many things. It could be the result of a few good years of having plenty of water, or the removal of the dam at Milltown.

To be honest, I don’t care what the reason is. All that really matters is that the Blackfoot is fishing well, but there is a catch: You have to nymph to get fish to eat.

If you do go up high on the river you can actually get a few on dries, but not many. If you’re like me, that really doesn’t matter. All you need to do is throw on a brown or black rubberlegs in a size six or eight and a split shot to get it down. We even fished two rubber legs at once. Just make sure your rig is heavy enough to get down as fast as possible, and fish every inside corner hard. The fish will stack up in certain spots so once you find them you will almost certainly catch more than one.

At this point the Blackfoot is a little blown out, but by the time you read this, it will most likely be back on the drop. When this happens, it will start to fish very well again, so it could be back in shape during the early days of this week.

So if you’re getting a little tired of waiting in line to get your boat in, head to the Blackfoot.

Dry flies are fun, but not as fun as having a section of river to yourself.


Fishing for more tales from the river? Check out Matt and Bryce’s other posts: Skwalla Season on the Bitterroot River, Zen and the Art of Not Fishing At All, and An Ode to Brown Trout, or visit the Fish It archive.

Be sure to visit the Make it Missoula fishing page.


Photos of Missoula Fly Fishing Experts Matt Devlin and Bryce McLean

Matt Devlin (left) is originally from Annapolis, Maryland and learned to fool trout on the technical waters of the Gunpowder River. He has fished in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Indiana, North and South Carolina, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. He thinks about flies and fishing a whole lot.

Bryce McLean (right) was born and raised in Montana, and has been fly fishing here for almost 20 years. He first learned to fish on the Missouri River, but when he was ten, his family moved to the Bitterroot Valley. He’s been fishing the Bitterroot River ever since. This has been his second season guiding the Missoula area rivers, which he consider to be some of the best trout fisheries on planet Earth.