In Love with a River: Montana’s Bitterroot River


We’ve been getting it while we can.  During Skwalla Stonefly season here in Western Montana, you tend to divert any and all free time towards fishing, especially when the dry fly fishing has been as silly-good as it has been.

You see, there is a constant and unpredictably imminent fear of runoff, or at least bumping water.  You watch the weather predictions and the river flow data like a mountaineer at base camp, contemplating a run up to the summit.  Windows can close quickly.

So you go out there when the Bitterroot mountains are spitting sideways snow and rain towards the river, into your face, up under your glasses and buff.  You huff and puff on your frozen hands between productive banks.  You endure.  When it turns on and you are drifting big dry flies to some of the river’s biggest fish, your deepest angling needs are quelled for a while, if not satisfied all together.

My Love of fishing the Bitterroot River.

Josh Rokosch with an upper Bitterroot cutthroat.

This past week I met up with an old Fish It friend, Mr. Josh Rokosch.  He is known for boisterous hook-sets, deep thoughts, and his unmatched vigor for fishing, oh and his luxurious golden hair—like one of Botticelli’s angels.  He loves our sport as much as anyone, and to spend a week when the Skwalla fishing is prime is an opportunity that seems less likely to rise with each passing year, as we all stagger ungracefully, towards our “30s”, and impending adultness.

But for now we are still able to sneak away, to conveniently end up back in Missoula in early spring, and fish our faces off.  We spent the week on the Bitterroot, where all this hype started.  It is overwhelmingly true that the periods of epic fishing for this hatch are fewer and sparser, the effect of fishing pressure is not lost on us.  But for those that are willing to think outside the box, and put in the time, it is still the best dry fly fishing of the entire year, honest.

Our one secret to success that I will share is that we chose to fish sort of “in between” stretches of river, that is to say that if you ask around and get creative, you can find put-ins, sometimes less improved that are located in between the more popular launch and take-out sites such as Tucker or Stevensville bridge.

The other tactic, ‘cut from the same cloth’ as they say, is to try to be on the river when the hoards of well-wishers are not.  Think about it, even when the daytime high will only reach 40 degrees, there is still a “heat of the day” period, and these early season stoneflies will be most active during that time.  Hint: it may be a whole lot later in the day than you think.  In this sport you have to be willing to try out new tactics rather than accepting the status quo.  If you don’t, your success rate will be rather status quo, mundane, ordinary.

In love with the Bitteroot River, Western Montana

Me, loving my day on the Bitterroot River with a 20″ brown trout that ate a skwalla stonefly .

Also, we fly fishermen are a superstitious lot, and it seems Josh’s and my fishing improved throughout the week.  You see, we hadn’t fished hard together in a couple seasons and juju or panache with ones fishing partner is something that is developed not given.

You could say things started to gel, and the days fell into a rythym.  So much is about rhythm…that of the river, that of your cast, that of an actively feeding trout.  When you notice, appreciate, and celebrate these rhythms properly that is when a river will show you the pearl.  That’s a Jack Kerouac reference, and I’d like to think that most of our readers will appreciate it.

My favorite College professor, actually the only College professor that I ever really liked, was named Bryan DiSalvatore, and one afternoon we were in his office discussing something that I had written.  What I had written was not about fishing, but we appreciated each other, and therefore were making gracious small talk, you know, off the clock.

My love of fishing the Bitterroot river in Western Montana

Why is the Bitterroot my favorite river to fish? “Because she’s the hardest to catch fish out of”. Bitterroot rainbow.

Whenever someone asks me how I ended up in Missoula, my identity as a trout bum is quickly unearthed.  Furthermore, he asked me a simple question, “Which river is your favorite?”  Since becoming a fishing guide I’ve acquired an auto response to this question, and like most such responses procured in the truck or in the boat moments, the effect is a stale, hackneyed, version of the truth; in this case I ask the questioner which of their children is their favorite or something along those lines, sometimes I add an all-knowing wink, but the effect is diplomatic and satisfactory.

On that afternoon in Mr. DiSalvatore’s office I answered truthfully.  I said, “The Bitterroot is my favorite.”  He asked me why, and I told him…again with honesty, “Because she is the hardest to catch fish out of.”

Check out the video of me and the Fish It crew spending some time on the water fishing both the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers on Thursday (4/25/13)



Read more about Fishing the Bitteroot River, the Clark Fork River, Rock Creek, and western Montana Lakes.

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Matt Devlin Fish It Missoula BioMatt Devlin is a fishing guide in Missoula MT.  He enjoys dry flies, “floating with the bros”, attempting to get his labradoodle to chase tennis balls, and writing.