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Bitterroot Valley Alternatives
by Ben Romans

Small-water options in one of Montana's most popular valleys.

According to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP), the Bitterroot River is one of the most heavily fished rivers in the state, ranking just behind the Missouri, Madison, and Bighorn rivers that carry nearly twice the water volume. Drought and wildfires have slightly diminished the crowds in recent years, but the Bitterroot can still be a difficult place to find seclusion, especially during heavy hatches.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Several valley tributaries are surrounded by the Bitterroot National Forest and accessible by trails. Not only can you escape the crowds, these waters offer the chance to catch wild fish in a beautiful surroundings. Snowfall in the Bitterroot watersheds was slightly above average last winter, so they should be full of cold, clean water through the summer and fall.

Outside the national forest boundaries, the valley's tributaries are fishable under Montana's Stream Access Law. Anglers who enter the water without trespassing are allowed to travel up-and downstream as long as they stay below the historical high-water mark. However, the private property reaches of most of these tributaries offer poor fishing because they are often dewatered for irrigation. For more information on Montana's Stream Access Law and the 2006 fishing regulations, visit http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/default.html

The latest Forest Service maps offer clear details of the borders between public and private land, and are available at any Bitterroot National Forest office or by calling the headquarters at (406) 363-7100. The two maps ($7 each) divide the Bitterroots north and south, so make sure that the region you plan to fish is covered on the map before you buy it. The maps are especially useful for streams that weave in and out of private and public land.

Pack light when fishing these tributaries. Bring only one fly box with Royal Wulffs, Humpies, Stimulators, Parachute Adams, and any other general dry flies, tippet, and leaders you need to fish in a small chest or lumbar pack. Wear lightweight wading shoes for hiking and crossing the water, but avoid wading whenever possible to protect the streambottom. The trout are small, and casting room may be tight, so 5 to 7.5 foot, 2 to 4 weight rods are perfect. Carry plenty of drinking water. Hiking in the hot, dry summer climate dehydrates you quickly.


West Fork

The West Fork of the Bitterroot River rises deep in the Bitterroot Mountains in southwest Montana, near the Idaho border. It quickly gains volume and has decent fishing for trout before emptying into Painted Rocks Reservoir. Accessing this portion of the West Fork is easy, since most of it flows through the Bitterroot National Forest and is closely followed by roads.

The best fishing begins below the reservoir. Most of this 25-mile section is a moderate-sized stream with riffles, pools, boulders, and logs that make it perfect for wade fishing during the summer and early fall. Time your visit to avoid the crowds in June and early July, especially between the West Fork Ranger Station and Conner. Subsiding runoff makes the West Fork high enough to carry boats--sometimes as many as 50 a day during the Salmonfly hatch.

Rainbows, cutthroats, and cuttbows make up most of the trout population in this stretch, though browns are often caught on streamers or large drys in low light. There are fish here that can measure over 20 inches, though most average 6 to 16 inches. The West Fork, along with many of the other valley tributaries, also holds bull trout, a federally protected fish that must be released. Visit http://fwp.mt.gov/bulltroutid/ to learn how to identify bull trout and for more information on recovery efforts.

Stock your box with large, bright flies like #8-12 Stimulators, #10-16 Humpies, #10-12 fluorescent orange and yellow Parachute Stimulators, and #10-16 Royal Wulffs. They are easy to see and float high through the fast riffles. Fish key on Salmonflies in June and early July, shortly followed by Golden Stones, then Green Drakes, Yellow Sallies, Pale Morning Duns, Baetis, various caddis species, and hoppers.

You can access the West Fork by taking West Fork Road from Highway 93 approximately four miles south of Darby. The lower portions of the river are surrounded by private land, and unless you walk a long distance from downstream, or enter upriver and float through, access is difficult. There is a bridge access to the lower river on Conner Cutoff Road, three miles from the junction of Highway 93 and West Fork Road. Upstream in the Bitterroot National Forest, access points are plentiful. If you want to overnight on the West Fork, Alta Campground is a few miles upstream from Painted Rocks Reservoir and is also one of the best access points on the river. Rombo Campground is another good access (with picnic tables and toilets) located just downstream of the reservoir.


East Fork

The East Fork of the Bitterroot is one of the most beautiful and easily accessed streams in southwestern Montana. It begins on the Continental Divide deep in the Bitterroot National Forest and merges with other high-mountain springs and streams, gaining volume before meeting East Fork Road. As it follows the road, there is some fishing access, but most anglers fish the portions between Conner and Sula. After Sula, the river runs north--parallel to Highway 93--for approximately 10 miles before merging with the West Fork.

The stretch of river along Highway 93 is broken with riffles, moderately deep pools, logjams, boulders, and large eddies that shelter 8- to 18-inch trout. The East Fork gets low and warm during the summer, so the best time to fish it is early and late in the season. Approach carefully: The water is clear, and when the sun is high, fish can easily spot you. The water is easy to wade, but most of it is reachable from the banks.

Like the trout in the West Fork, the fish eagerly strike brightly colored patterns like Stimulators and Royal Wulffs, but caddis and Pale Morning Dun hatches often trigger surface feeding. If the fish refuse to rise, try small Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, or Muddler Minnows cast near undercuts, into the river's deepest holes and eddies, or into shaded banks. Stoneflies and an abundance of hoppers also provide excellent fishing.

Spring Gulch Campground is located three miles north of the Sula Ranger Station. The river between the Spring Gulch Campground and the Sula Country Store flows mainly through national forest land. Upstream of Sula, most of the East Fork is surrounded by private land up to the Jennings Campground. The portion downstream from Spring Gulch Campground flows entirely through private land to its confluence with the West Fork. If you enter from a public access, you can walk along the river below the high-water mark, but you need to be familiar with the borders between public and private land as shown on the latest Forest Service map.

Because of the crowds on the main stem, the East and West forks see more anglers than the other tributaries, so give other anglers space. The effects of poaching, highway construction, and habitat loss are taking a toll on these waters, so be careful when releasing fish.


Lolo Creek

In 1805, Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery camped near the junction of Lolo Creek and the Bitterroot River while they prepared to cross the Bitterroot Mountains into present-day Idaho--a trek that would prove to be the most arduous of the expedition. Fortunately, today Highway 12 parallels the creek from the town of Lolo for nearly 30 miles, and has dozens of roadside access points.

Mining, development, and logging almost ruined the fishery several times in the past 150 years. But the creek has come back strong and now hosts browns, rainbows, brookies, cuttbows, and cutthroat that average 6 to 12 inches with an occasional fish between 14 and 18 inches. Lolo Creek is only 12 miles from the center of Missoula, meaning you can finish dinner and be ankle deep in time for any evening bug activity.

Lolo Creek trout receive enough pressure to make them more challenging than fish in the other tributaries, especially on the lower stretches or when water levels drop. Nonetheless, the water is fun to fish, and there are great hatches throughout the season, including decent Salmonfly and Golden Stone hatches. Also bring an assortment of patterns for Pale Morning Duns, Blue-winged Olives, and caddis, as well as #12-14 attractors (Royal Wulffs and Trudes). The creek's banks are lined with brush and overhanging trees, so try beetle or ant patterns if fish aren't responding to anything else.

The creek follows Highway 12 almost to the Idaho border, but some lands, especially on the lower reaches, are private so you should seek permission to cross any areas that are fenced or posted. Access is less of an issue on the upper reaches where most of the creek is bordered by Bitterroot National Forest land. If you're hungry or thirsty, you're not far from Lolo Hot Springs, Guy's Steakhouse, or the Hayloft Saloon. Earl Tennant Campground is 8 miles from the town of Lolo, Lolo Creek Campground is 15 miles away, and Lee Creek Campground is 26 miles.


Blodgett Creek

Before the forest fires of 2000,

Blodgett Creek was the most scenic tributary in the Bitterroot Valley. The fishing is still good, but charred trees now dominate much of the canyon scenery.

The creek begins at the outflow of a lake deep in the Bitterroot Mountains and flows east, meeting with the Bitterroot River near Hamilton. In the lower reaches it is nearly devoid of water in the summer, but upstream in the national forest there are more than 12 miles of fishable water. The water is known for its abundance of cutthroat and brook trout, but there are also rainbow and brown trout.

Blodgett Creek fish hide under logjams and boulders, and the riffle-pool character of the water creates excellent dry-fly fishing conditions. Casting room is tight for the first mile because of brush and trees. However, if you hike upstream, the water opens into long, slow pools and it's easier to cast. Though you won't always see the trout in these pools, they often charge from their hiding spots to take a swat at a fly.

Public access begins at the Blodgett Creek Campground and trailhead. From the town of Hamilton, turn west onto West Main Street. After leaving downtown, turn north onto Ricketts Road, and then west on Blodgett Camp Road and follow the signs. The trail follows the creek for about four miles until a bridge crosses the creek, offering some great views of the canyon. From there, it is approximately 8.5 miles to Blodgett Creek's source. One word of caution--the standing charred trees are weakening with time and can fall without warning, especially if the wind picks up.


Kootenai Creek

One of the most rewarding tributaries in the valley is Kootenai Creek. A hotspot among hikers, this tributary is known for its moderately difficult terrain and rocky landscape.

The lower stretches drop fast in elevation, and the first few miles of water inside the national forest is made up of large, deep pools (too deep to wade) and small waterfalls. The best way to approach these fish is from downstream at water level, walking along the edges of the creek and presenting your fly upstream into the head of the next pool. Most of the fish are rainbow or cutthroat trout averaging 6 to 10 inches, with the occasional brookie. The canyon opens a few miles up the trail, with better fishing, but the rocks and brush make casting difficult in some areas. Seven-foot, 2-, 3-, or 4-weight rods, and 6- to 8-foot leaders work best.

To reach Kootenai Creek turn west onto North Kootenai Creek Road from Highway 93. The road turns to dirt halfway to the trailhead parking lot. Do not enter the water until you pass signs on the trail indicating that you've entered national forest lands--the area before that is private land.

The Bitterroot Valley is one of the most spectacular regions in Montana, and there is no better way to experience it firsthand than by hiking along one of its tributaries, plucking wild trout from the water with a dry fly. The waters are the breeding grounds for future generations of both wild and native fish, so handle them carefully. While visiting the Bitterroot Valley, don't shortchange yourself. Avoid the crowds, lace up your boots, and discover the secrets these little waters hold.


Other Waters to Consider

The Bitterroot and Sapphire mountain ranges have miles of accessible streams and tributaries. Though they don't offer opportunities to catch large trout, they are great places where you can have fun catching many small fish with a 2- to 4-weight rod. Here is a list of other tributaries worth exploring and how to reach them. For more information or to obtain maps, contact the Bitterroot National Forest headquarters at (406)363-7100.

Tin Cup Creek, a small tributary, rises deep in the Bitterroot Mountains and holds 6- to 12-inch brown, cutthroat, and brook trout. Some of the creek winds through a steep canyon, but a well-maintained trail follows it for the entire length offering excellent access. To reach the trail, turn west onto Tin Cup Road just south of Darby.

A dirt road follows Lost Horse Creek for 20 miles, and it is one of the most heavily fished tributaries in the valley. However you can park at one of the dozens of pullouts and catch several 6- to 12-inch trout without seeing another person. Turn west onto Lost Horse Road between the towns of Hamilton and Darby.

Access to Bear Creek downstream of the national forest boundary is difficult because of its drop through a steep gorge and private property. Upstream, this small water has good fishing for brook, rainbow, and cutthroat trout if you are willing to bust through the brush. A good trail follows the water. To find it, turn west onto Bear Creek Road, just south of Victor, then north on Red Crow Road, and then west again on Bear Creek Road.

Mill Creek begins at the outflows of Mill, Lockwood, Sears, and Hauf lakes, and flows for nearly 18 miles before merging with Fred Burr Creek near Highway 93. The lower stretch is surrounded by private land, but the upper portion flows through the national forest and is followed by a well-maintained trail. To find it turn west on Dutch Hill Road, then south on Main Street, then north on Mill Creek Trail Road.

Big Creek is one of the Bitterroot's largest tributaries and has good fishing for cutthroat. A trail that is also popular with horseback riders follows the creek to the headwaters. Turn west from Highway 93 on Bell Crossing, then north on Meridian Road, west on Curlew Orchard Road, then northwest on Curlew Mine Road. Curlew Mine Road becomes Big Creek Road.

Skalkaho Creek's lower half is surrounded by private property, but the upper half is closely followed by Route 38 (Skalkaho Highway) and offers good access to the creek and its 6- to 14-inch trout. The watershed is one of the most scenic in the Bitterroot Valley, and moose and elk are common, so carry binoculars and a camera. Turn east on the Skalkaho Highway just south of Hamilton. There is a nature trail 11 miles up the road, and Black Bear Campground is approximately 2 miles farther. Both locations offer excellent access to the creek.


406-363-5334, toll free 877-877-9378.





Fly Shops

River Otter
(406) 273-4858

Chuck Stranahan's Fly Shop

Angler's Roost
(406) 363-1268

Fishaus Tackle

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