Bitterroot Fly Fishing
An Angler’s Guide
Planning a Bitterroot fly fishing adventure this year? The Bitterroot River is a freestone river nestled beneath towering cottonwoods and ponderosa pine in western Montana. On top of breathtaking scenery, the Bitterroot invites anglers to try their hand at astounding numbers of rainbow, brown and native westslope cutthroat trout.
The Bitterroot rewards anglers using various techniques from its headwaters to its confluence with the Clark Fork River in Missoula. Still, it can be a perplexing and challenging river at times. Here’s our guide to Bitterroot fly fishing, one of the most beautiful rivers in Western Montana.
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Bitterroot River Bio
The Bitterroot River begins at the confluence of the East and West Fork of the Bitterroot just south of Darby, MT. The East Fork begins in the Anaconda Range and the West Fork begins in the Bitterroot Range before dumping into Painted Rocks Reservoir. During the warmer months, this stretch of the West Fork beneath the dam provides cool, clean flows when finding this elsewhere is difficult.
Downstream, the main stretch of the Bitterroot River picks up multiple spring-fed creeks before meeting with the Clark Fork River west of town. All of these tributaries provide unique challenges and fly fishing opportunities. Depending on the time of year, however, these tributaries contribute to dynamic water conditions.
Some of the most insane spring runoff events can be seen on the Bitterroot River in the spring. Flows on the Bitterroot River can increase tenfold from its lows in the winter to its peaks, upwards of 15,000 cfs, in the spring months. This creates a unique environment in the Bitterroot River floodplain, where it is not uncommon to see moose, deer and elk foraging or traveling down corridors to this area.
Spring runoff can also change the structure of the Bitterroot into a completely different river. Learning and adapting to the changes this runoff creates is part of the challenge we love about the Bitterroot. In the winter months flows recede to a few hundred cfs, however flows typically stabilize around 1,000 cfs in the prime summer months. Montana runoff is never the same, however, so staying up to date on the latest weather patterns and flows is crucial in preparing for a Bitterroot River fly fishing trip.
Give us a call, visit our Missoula fishing reports, or find data on your favorite stretch on the USGS website.
Make no mistake, these high flows can be dangerous to both wade and float fishermen. However, this influx in flows catalyzes kickass spring fishing. Our first major hatch, the skwala stonefly hatch, precedes spring runoff. It is a sight to behold. Some of the earliest dry fly fishing in the West can be found on the Bitterroot in late March and April because these sz. 10-12 stoneflies are out in full force.
Planning For Bitterroot Fly Fishing
Planning your Bitterroot River fly fishing trip can feel overwhelming with so many spectacular hatches to choose from. Fish up to 20+ inches eat flies through the entire main channel of the Bitterroot, up into the East and West Forks as well. Our most popular stretches are lower in the Valley, but we often venture to and from upstream of Hamilton depending on the time of year. The lower Bitterroot is bigger water with less braids to split and fray the river, while the upper Bitterroot is smaller and hairier with many braids and split offs.
Additionally, the lower stretches of the Bitterroot are home to longer runs, tail-outs and deeper troughs, while the upper Bitterroot consists mostly of riffles and small, intricate holding water. Different sections of the Bitterroot are truly unique experiences with their own character and scenery. Check out our hatch calendar to find out when you should plan your next Bitterroot River fly fishing trip.
With such a range in flows, this river can accommodate anglers fishing from foot or from a drift boat. We often field questions from apprehensive anglers that fear the Bitterroot is too big to wade. While this might be fair during some times of year and in some sections, there are many braids and side channels (as well as many marked public access points) that you can start out from. The main channel also fishes well on foot, yet requires a different approach than your typical small creek.
There are plenty of buckets and troughs in the larger sections of the Bitterroot that may go unnoticed to the untrained eye. Like anywhere, finding these areas where fish haven’t seen a million flies and picking them apart often leads to the most success.
If you’re new to Missoula fly fishing, swing by the shop and let someone on our team point you in the right direction.
Gearing Up For Bitterroot Fly Fishing
Your favorite 9’ 5 wt gets the job done on the Bitterroot, but other rods can be fished depending on what you’re looking to do. When I launch my drift boat, I like to carry a 9’ 4wt for pesky dry fly sippers, a 9’ 5wt and/or 6 wt for my favorite hopper-dropper set up or heavy nymph rig, and a 9’ 7wt for streamer fishing. You can wet wade your way through scorching Montana summers on the Bitterroot, so waders and boots are really only necessary in our shoulder seasons and winter months. Unless you’re looking to sweat off a few pounds, don’t worry about packing your waders in July.
Bitterroot Guided Fly Fishing
Some of our guide’s favorite stretches of any of our major rivers in the area are on the Bitterroot River. Many of our biggest fish of the season come out of the Bitterroot from anglers of all different skill levels. The challenge of feeding one of these fish is something we love to share with our clients and customers. Choose from our various Missoula guided fly fishing trips! We offer full day float trips from a drift boat or raft, as well as half day Bitterroot fly fishing trips. The multitude of public access boat ramps allows anglers to have the Missoula fly fishing experience they’re looking for and plan trips that fit with their schedule. Our guides have fished this river for over 20 years and love to share this river with experienced anglers and first timers alike. Check out our guided trip options if it seems like this river is for you.