Montana‘s Bitterroot River is aptly named after the state flower, which one can find throughout the Rocky Mountain range. The river begins at the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot near the small town of Conner, Montana. It then flows south to north for eighty-four miles, where it dumps into the Clark Fork River just west of Missoula. The Bitterroot flows past the beautiful Sapphire Mountain range, where most of Montana’s sapphires have been discovered.
The Bitterroot can be over 120 feet in width in various places, making it a larger river in size compared to places like the Ruby or Beaverhead. It is also very wade-friendly, usually no more than three feet deep in most areas. While this is great for the angler who prefers pursuing fish on foot, it can make floating the river a bit tricky at times. Many guides opt for rafts instead of drift boats to pull the boat over shallow riffles at times.
The Bitterroot River’s proximity to Missoula and the greater Bitterroot Valley doesn’t receive as much pressure as one might think. There’s quite a lot of water for anglers to spread out. The Bitterroot is a freestone river. Thus several sections get too warm to fish during the hottest weeks of the summer. Anglers fishing the Bitterroot will consistently catch rainbow trout over browns; however, there is a decent population of brown trout in the upper sections of the river and cutthroat trout.
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Sections of the Bitterroot River
Upper Section (Hannon Memorial to Bell Crossing)
Beginning just upstream from the town of Conner, this part of the river is well-known for its wade-fishing opportunities, healthy trout populations, and riffle fishing. The river isn’t too wide here and has a higher gradient than the lower sections. In turn, this creates a riffle fishery somewhat similar to the Madison River. In addition, this section is furthest away from Missoula, which provides anglers some seclusion when fishing. The average size of trout is a bit smaller here versus further north. But what you lose in trophy-size potential, you gain in scenery and solitude. The water here remains cool throughout most of the summer thanks to the cool water flowing down from Painted Rocks Reservoir. The further you go downstream during hot summer months or minimal flows, the less likely you are to experience good fishing. Consider staying up high near Hannon Memorial if you’re fishing in mid-July through August.
Once you pass Wallace Crawford, the Bitterroot begins to braid and create numerous side channels open to exploring. These side channels are great for wading anglers, and some can be accessed via boat after the run-off. In addition, the trout are generally larger than the fish found just below the confluence. Anglers can target fish via the many gravel bars, drop-offs, deep pools, undercut banks, and bottom structures. The downside of this section of the river is that it flows past Hamilton and Victor, Montana, where agriculture is the main economic driver. This results in substantial irrigation use, which can lead to lower flows. In addition, unlike the section below Hannon Memorial, this part of the river has a lower gradient, which creates slower flows. In the middle of the summer, with low and slow-flowing water, this area of the Bitterroot can heat up fast. Thus, it is best fished pre-run off, post-run off, and later in the fall.
Lower Section (Bell Crossing to Clark Fork)
Below Bell Crossing, the river begins to widen, and the amount of water flowing through picks up. This results in deeper water, which makes wading a bit more complicated. But with the amount of cooler water and deep holes, the rainbow trout population improves. It can heat up in the summer, so it is best to fish here during pre-run off, post-run off, and again in the fall. Unlike the section below Wallace Crawford, this part of the Bitterroot doesn’t have the number of side channels and higher gravel bars. It is primarily deep, slow-moving water great for nymphing, streamer fishing, and dry flies during certain occasions when there is a hatch. Bell Crossing is only a forty-minute drive from downtown Missoula; thus, the fishing pressure here can be steady throughout the summer. It’s best to fish on the weekdays! If you decide to float this part of the Bitterroot on the weekend, you may have to navigate your way through the inflatable tube hatch. Because it is slow-moving and there aren’t any diversion dams, it’s a popular place for recreational floaters.
From Florence Bridge downstream to the Clark Fork River, the Bitterroot begins to braid again, creating numerous side-channels for solid wade-fishing opportunities. Because it is close to Missoula, you will most likely run into other anglers and recreational floaters when fishing this section of the river. As usual, the further away you move from cold water sources, such as the Painted Rocks Reservoir, the fewer trout you are likely to find. But generally, lower sections of rivers, particularly freestones, host trophy-sized fish, and the Bitterroot is no exception! Some of the larger rainbow trout are caught below Florence Bridge. It is best to fish here in the Spring, early summer, and fall. The water can quickly heat up during the summer, resulting in poor trout fishing. Anglers can also target bass and northern pike in the lower reaches of the Bitterroot using crayfish flies and large streamers.
Seasons on the Bitterroot River
If there is one thing that the Bitterroot River is famous for, it has to be the skwala hatch that occurs in mid-to-late Spring that provides some of the best dry fly fishing all year. The water is cool, and the fish are hungry after a cold winter, and the size 8-12 skwalas provide the perfect meal. Anglers from across the state venture to the Bitterroot each Spring to begin fishing large, foam dry flies well before any salmon flies show up in Montana. If you decide to come to Montana to experience this epic hatch, keep in mind that Spring can have some interesting weather patterns. Some days it may be in the seventy-degree range, and other days there can be a complete downpour of snow. Be sure to pack accordingly, and always bring a jacket and some extra layers with you. To effectively fish the skwala hatch, try to be on the water during the afternoon, mainly sunny and warmer days. Look for gravel bars with slower and softer water, large rocks, and undercut banks.
The Bitterroot is generally fishable throughout run-off in certain sections other than the main stem. High water can give anglers access to the various side channels to target fish on March Browns and BWOs. Some of these side-channels are fed by natural springs, which allows them to clear up faster than the main stem. During high water, it is best to go with a guide or an experienced oarsman. The Bitterroot can throw some tricky situations your way within a moment’s notice.
The Bitterroot returns to shape around early June, which is a terrific time to be on the river. Nymphs, streamers, and dry fly fishing work well throughout the month. In late June, hatches of green and brown drakes occur, which will last into July. To effectively fish the green drake hatch, look for riffles and faster moving water during periods of low-pressure systems. Green drakes are somewhat clumsy mayflies. It can take them a while to get rid of their shuck and into the air; thus, fishing cripples during the hatch is a great way to catch fish. Brown drake nymphs are referred to as “burrowers,” as the nymphs burrow in silt and soft sand before swimming to the surface to hatch. Try to find sections with slow-moving water and sandy bottoms. The hatch generally occurs in the late evening and can last into the night. Before a brown drake hatch, slowly swinging large (size 8) soft hackles can produce explosive eats.
Sections of the Bitterroot River also flow through open fields, which provides excellent hopper fishing opportunities in the late summer. It pays to keep an eye on water temperatures and flows during this time. Anglers may have better success fishing hoppers tight to the bank higher up near the town of Conner, Montana, come August. Fishing in the early morning and late evening hours is also a good idea, not only for the fishing but for the fish.
Longer leaders, lighter tippets, and precise casting are needed when the water levels drop in August, especially during hatches of tricos. Take your time, and fish up high where you can get into riffles that provide oxygen to the water.
The autumn season is a great time to fish the Bitterroot. In late September, tricos can bring pods of fish to the surface. Tricos are small mayflies between sizes 18-22. Much like midges, anglers can fish larger fly patterns (size 16) that represent a cluster of tricos, then drop a single trico a foot behind your lead fly. Later on, hatches of BWOs, mahogany duns, and October caddis occur. Streamer fishing can also be phenomenal for brown trout.
Popular Bitterroot River Flies
- Sparkle Duns (size 12-20)
- X Caddis (size 10-20)
- Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Stone (size 4-12)
- Chubby Chernobyl (size 4-14)
- Amy’s Ant (size 10-14)
- Pink/Black Morrish Hopper (size 8-12)
- Sweetgrass Hopper (size 8-12)
- Rusty Spinner (size 12-20)
- Film Critic (size 14-18)
- Buzzball (size 16-18)
- Two Bit Hooker (size 12-18)
- 3 Dollar Dip (size 12-18)
- Pheasant Tail (size 12-20)
- Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-14)
- Red Copper John (size 12-18)
- Zebra Midge (size 14-18)
- 20-Incher Stone (size 4-12)
- Galloup’s Barely Legal – olive/white (size 4)
- Galloup’s Dungeon – olive, black, white, yellow (size 4-6)
- Home Invader – black, white, olive, yellow (size 6)
- Bow River Bugger (size 4-6)
- Sparkle Minnow Sculpin (size 4-8)
Making the Most of Your Trip
The Bitterroot River flows through the Bitterroot Valley, one of the fastest-growing areas of the state. It has numerous small towns that provide great shopping, restaurants, and various recreational activities. It’s worth exploring the area before or after your Montana fly fishing vacation. Below is a list of things we recommend checking out:
- Missoula, MT – Missoula is a funky college town in western Montana where the University of Montana is based. It has excellent restaurants, nightlife, numerous bars and breweries, and shopping. Several outdoor brands are headquartered here, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, OnX Maps, and Big Sky Brewing.
- Concerts – Attend a live concert at the KettleHouse Amphitheater. Several big names play here each summer, such as The Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top, Sheryl Crow, and Robert Earl Keen.
- Hiking – The Bitterroot Valley is one of the most beautiful places in Montana. Explore the land by going on some great hikes such as the Baker Lake trail, Mill Creek trail, Bear Creek Trail, and Camas Lakes trail.
Missoula River Lodge – When it comes to pure dry fly fishing, the rivers in Missoula’s vicinity provide some of the best opportunities! Former NFL linebacker Joe Cummings is the owner of A Classic Journey Outfitters, the outfitter for the Missoula River Lodge. Throughout the season, his team of guides pursues trout on famed rivers, including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Rock Creek, and the Missouri River. Accommodations for packages are at the Missoula River Lodge with three different fully-furnished locations, all on the centrally-located Clark Fork River. A Classic Journey Outfitters is our first pick in the Missoula area and is the total package when it comes to lodging and world-class fishing. The Missoula River Lodge has rightly earned a reputation of putting guests into fish on a dry fly, making for a great Montana fly fishing experience.
Other Nearby Rivers: