The Bitterroot River is located just south of Missoula in a picturesque valley made famous by Norman MacLean. The Selway-Bitterroot Mountain Range rises above the Bitterroot, offering a scenic backdrop befitting a day on the water. The headwaters of the Bitterroot River begin 80 miles north of its confluence with the Clark Fork River. For over half of that distance, the river moves quickly and delivers anglers classic runs, deep bends, riffles and pools full of Rainbow, Westslope Cutthroat, and Brown Trout, as well as Mountain Whitefish.
The Bitterroot is one of our early rivers. It starts fishing well before snowmelt, around the middle or end of March. The Bitterroot can provide anglers some of the best early-season fishing opportunities in the state, and the Skwala stonefly hatch during March and April is the first steady dry-fly action that we tend to see. From then on, snowmelt and runoff usually drive us away from the Bitterroot through May and early June, though flows tend to settle, and fishing revives by the end of June. After that, it’s game on; with the season is in full swing, we find great nymphing on the Bitterroot, and days pulling streamers are memorable, fun, and regularly productive. But the Bitterroot really shines as a dry-fly river, and action on top can be had throughout most of the season.
March through May
Rainbow, Brown, Montana Whitefish
9ft, Five or Six Weight Fast Action Fly Rod
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Located just south of Missoula, the Bitterroot River offers some of the best early-season action in Montana. The annual Skwala stonefly hatch in late March is what we wait all winter for, as it provides the first consistent dry-fly fishing of the year. The Bitterroot is a classic Montana stream; it twists through a long valley lined with cottonwoods. Rising in the background is the stately Selway-Bitterroot Range, which makes a fittingly impressive backdrop for a day of Montana fly fishing.
In the words of my good friend and colleague John Herzer, the Bitterroot River offers the illusion of seclusion: on many sections of the river you really don’t see any roads, hear any traffic, or see any homes. The Bitterroot Valley is broad and the river braids frequently, changing its attitude and structure each year. It remains consistently quiet, though, and makes an angler feel well off the beaten path even though the fishable water wanders through a relatively populated area. From the headwaters (keeping in mind the flow tends north), the Bitterroot flows through the towns of Darby, Hamilton, Stevensville, and Lolo, but most of the time you’d never know that a town was anywhere nearby.
Spring hatches on the Bitterroot are fairly reliable, and as mentioned above, the Skwala stonefly hatch is the headliner. Skwalas are complemented by March Brown mayflies and Blue Winged Olives, and these three hatches headline March and April action. The Summer season features Pale Morning Dun and Green Drake mayflies and magnificent snowfalls of caddis. By mid-August, terrestrials are in play and hoppers, beetles, and ants begin to move fish consistently. Throughout most of August and September, guides will generally rig up a classic hopper/dropper rig and head out with confidence for the day.
The Bitterroot is one Montana’s most iconic streams. It is diverse, beautiful, and full of trout. The Bitterroot offers great angling opportunities throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall, and it is sure to provide anglers with a definitive Montana fishing experience.