Tag Archives: bitterroot river guides

Testing the Bitterroot

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaRunoff is here to stay, so it looks.  I believe we have seen the peak of the high water barring some serious rainfall, so a couple boats worth of us gave her a shot Monday.  Big and cold as we figured, the Bitterroot looked pretty good as we set out from Veteran’s bridge on the north end of Hamilton.  Headed for Tucker crossing, we planned to fish streamers and nymphs as no dry fly activity is anticipated for a while on this river.  With beautiful blue skies and bright warm sunshine, the streamer bite was slow if not non existent for my boat for much of the day.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaNymphing it up a bit after some time with no swipes on the big bug, I was able to ding a handful of fish from some obvious runs.  With the water big right now, casts are long and weight is heavy to get that thing down to where the fish are holding.  One may have to cast a good twenty feet above your spot and mend the hell out of it to reach the goods.  Once I found the drifts, though, there were good bows and a few whiteys packed in to those runs.  I pretty much ran the same drifts over and over once I found a fish, and continued to hook up in the exact lie every time.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaAs our day wore on and the Ranier ran low, we finally found some fish willing to participate with the streamer gig.  Eating it slow and deliberate and sometimes on a back dredge, a few good browns and even a small bull trout took advantange of our bugs.  We had success on a whole series of patterns, from dull black to flashy white, but not enough to nail down one particular pattern as their favorite that day.

Early Big Hole Run

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaAn early morning phone call sent me packing: Slim wants to go fishing.  One should never pass up an opportunity such as this, especially when the Big Hole is at prime flows for finding big browns on the upper river.  This guy and I go way, way back, and his knowledge of this famous river is second to none: every bank, boulder, inside turn, and mid river riff have a story.  Twenty years of doing this stuff and one can pinpoint a memory to a single orange rock two feet under the tea stained water.  As of today, I have my own rock that is branded into my mind forever.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaRight off the bat, pulling out from the put in, an absolute toad destroyed my streamer on the third cast of the day behind said rock.  I mean he straight pounded that bug, coming well out of the boiling water tight behind the boulder.   And I missed him miserably.  That one really stung.  Fortunately, the fish were charging hard and giving me plenty of chances.  After landing this nice brown merely one hundred yards later (which was dwarfed by the fish I missed. weep), I switched from fishing to rowing and watched Slim put on one hell of a streamer clinic.  Never missing a bucket or dump in, browns and brookies came from all directions to attack that fly.  Using sneaky streamer techniques rather than sheer power casting and stripping, we coaxed dozens of fish to swipe our bugs down deep as well as exploding on them right at the surface.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaAnother day and another stretch of water, with the same killer overcast and slight drizzle as the previous outing, Slim and I started finding fish throughout the float.  Keeping the same general streamer setup, those browns came hard at the bug.  Some favorite channels held pockets of fish where we had multiple swipes, then it might slow down for a bit and soon pick back up on a good bank.  Towards dark the bite got intense; what a blast to see so many fish swiping at the fly even though we missed most of them.  A fine two days of fishing, I’d say.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaA final treat to the trip I forgot to add was that we bonked a few brookies for the pan when we got home.  Actually char, the Big Hole is loaded with these fiesty little buggers, and there is no better ‘trout’ for eating than the brookie.  While passing through Wisdom, I happened to bump into my neighbor and his daughter out on a fishing excursion of their own.  Not bashful in the least, this little Montana girl wanted to check out my days catch, and then left pumped up to go into the mountains with her dad and catch her own.  Gotta love this place.

Staying on the Railroad Ranch: Harriman State Park

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Elk, moose, griz, swans, loons, wildflowers, and  alpine vistas barely begin to describe Harriman State Park, several miles south of Island Park, Idaho.  Also known as the Railroad Ranch, this eleven thousand acre property surrounds the Henry’s Fork of the Snake and the adjacent countryside for miles on either side of the river.  Owned in the early nineteen hundreds by railroad investors, this retired ranch is now a designated state park and vacation destination for those seeking solitude and world famous trout fishing.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montana

Now, fortunately us weary travellers find ourselves in the finest company with an invitation to stay at the historic Harriman ranch for a couple evenings.  We give a big thank you to Garth; Stuart; Trouty; and Doug who made this all possible, hosting a weekend getaway of old time college compadres and allowing us youngsters to tag along and drink all their beer.   And fish.  Fish our asses off.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaRailroad Ranch was still closed to fishing, seen in the upper photo meandering towards the front of the ranch where we stayed.  Poking around on public roads downstream of Osborne bridge, we found some classic dry fly water to test our 6X skills on wary risers.  Smooth wide water with Osprey working above, we found one fish rising cautiously on about a two minute cycle.  Thinking I’ve got this, I slip down way above him through the sage and sneak out on the shoreline.  Without a cast, the wake at 100 ft tells it all… Fail.  Not wanting to waste the day on pissed off impossible fish, we roll downstream past upper and lower Mesa Falls to check out the Warm River, some fifteen miles downstream.  From the campground at the bottom we stroll upstream to find beautiful dry fly runs, compliment with much more cooperative rising fish.  Mostly little browns ate our caddis bugs, and occasionally a better fish would sip here and there only to vanish at the feel of our drifts.  Mending drifts into the dark, we finally hiked our way back to the rig and dodged elk for the twenty miles back to the Ranch.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaOur final day of fishing takes us back downstream to the Warm river access on the Henry’s Fork, where those two rivers join forces.  Headed down to Ashton for the day, we set off to figure this thing out.  I’m going with the bobber. Screw it.  Throwing streamers burns up too much water, and even though there are ten million caddisflies in the air, not one fish can I see eating them.  Slow but steady, we nymphed up fish throughout the float with mostly little guys shaking the rod tip.  The dry fly bite came on in the afternoon, and we started picking up hot rainbows that ripped pretty good for their size.  Eventually we came into Aston and had to wrap this journey up.  With six hours of driving and four mountain passes to get behind us, we turn her north and head home to Montana after three killer days of chasing wild trout on the road.

Henry’s Fork of the Snake: Box Canyon

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaWith the Madison in the rearview and perfectly good pavement leading south, our early season journey continues onward towards West Yellowstone and eventually the Henry’s Fork of the Snake in Idaho.  Sharing the same stretch of river with us on the Madison, Dan Delekta, old school outfitter and longtime friend of mine, invited Chris and I to his almighty flyshop on our way south, Beartooth Flyfishing.  Until you witness it, you’ve never seen so much fly fishing gear arranged per square foot of space.  Fourteen thousand items without counting a single fly!  We’re talking the whole frigging enchilada fly fishing extravaganza: lines, leaders, reels, flies out the wazoo, tying materials, every bead and hook known to man, rods, custom rods, custom bamboo rods (I held a $4000 bamboo), waders, etc…. Definitely check this place out if you find yourself in Cameron, Montana.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaNext stop Island Park, Idaho, home of the world renound flyshops Mike Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Anglers andTroutHunter.  We stopped into TH to get the scoop on the box canyon, and we must tip our hats to the precise report we received from these boys.  Hooked up right off the bat, Rockhold and I sought redemption from last years ass whoopin we received from the wiley old box.  Dropping all sense of pride and ethics, we bobbered up and nymphed the bottom out of that baby from the dam below Island Park reservoir all the way to the takeout near town.  What a difference a year and a little closer look at a piece of water can make.  We crept our way down the canyon, fishing anything and everything that had any depth or hold.  First the fish were eating Missouri style midgey stuff for us near the dam, but we soon discovered they would absolutely inhale Chris’s West Fork stonefly patterns on 3x.  Simple choice there.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaLedges and mid river boulders played the best for us, with sturdy rainbows hanging in all the choice water.  Jumping and running like mad, these fish could straight get after it in the heavy currents of the box.  Most everything was around fifteen or sixteen inches and fought like a fish much bigger than their stature.  Solid takes and predictible lies, the box treated us kindly with a hell of a days catch of colored up bows.  Wrapping up the day in Island Park, we cruised a few miles down the road to our final destination of this road trip, Harriman State Park and the lower Henry’s Fork.

Madison River Montana: the 50 mile riffle

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaHave you ever been on a piece of water searching for a good trout lie, but you just can’t seen to find any holding water.  So… you just keep on throwing that bug into the best available water for the present moment and Presto!, big brown coming out of nothingness.  Soon you learn that “holding water” is relative to each river, and water that I might not usually deem cast-worthy is where all the fish in this river live.  Essentially they have to live in this type of water, because the stretch of the Madison we fished this weekend really never changed from the moment we set out from Macatee bridge ten miles down to Varney.  Granted, there are some boulders strewn about from Montana’s glacial history, but aside from that I don’t know if I ever saw water deeper than two feet.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaFortunately, as all weathered and beaten guides do, we persevered.  Seven weights and streamers are always a good fallback on unfamiliar water, especially shallow unfamiliar water with no definition that’s hauling ass for Three Forks as fast as the Madison valley winds blow.  Streamers stay high in the water column for snag free fishing, and you can cover beaucoup territory with a strong cast and a fast strip.  We started with the old faithful flashy white and turned a few right away, but they seemed timid to engulf it.  Sneaking it up a notch, we switched to the old faithful flashy black and started working the bug slower and more deliberate.  Bingo!  Fish Awn!  We still had to strip like madmen to keep up with the Madison river flows, but once we felt the bug was in the good stuff we’d slow the retrieve and really dance it through the “hole”, all two feet of it.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaAnd there they were, nice browns and rainbows that put up hella fights in the strong currents.  We didn’t catch a slew of fish, but Chris and I can each say we learned a bit more about the Madison and can respect the opportunities this river holds on the right days.  Fishing was downright hopeless at times with the gale force winds this valley dishes out, and we were both lucky not to lose our hats when the midday gusts let loose.  But as I said previously, persevere.  Patience, persistence, precision, Sierra Nevada, and little luck is all a couple of road weary fishing guides need to get it done in unfamiliar waters.

A look at Pre Runoff

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killer greg thomas photo

Well, the river is making some bumps and the fishing is getting less predictable as we move away from the early conditions of this spring.  The March Browns and Skwalas are giving way to caddisflies as May gets started, and finding rising fish is getting trickier as water levels fluctuate.  To look back at the early season, it was definitely one to remember.  Starting in mid March one could find Skwala risers pretty frequently, and by the end of that month it was on fire on stones and mayflies.  We never got slammed by the early bumps of the river, which provided perfect conditions for both aforementioned critters to hatch profusely and bring up the fish en masse.   This river definitely produces world class hatches and blue ribbon fishing all the way.

Skwala and March Browns on the Bitterroot

Here finally comes another spring in Montana.  We’ve eeked through the long chill, and even though the snow squalls persist to this day, spring is really happening around here.  We guides have already logged many days throwing nothing but dry flies, a major benefit to those of us who live in the temperate Bitterroot valley.  Skwalas started popping over a month ago and the March Browns came out in full force early to mid April, making for the best and most consistent early season fishing I’ve ever witnessed.  The midday mayfly hatches began around two and would cease by 4:30 of so, with pods of heavy fish rising steadily at a voracious pace.  Absolutely this was  some of the heaviest feeding this river has ever shown, and the big boys were up pushing for the first swipe at a well drifted bug.

Winter Steelhead on the Salmon River

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaJust can’t get enough, can you?  I have to admit, this steelheading thing is straight addictive.  Once we learned these fish are merely an hour and a bit from Hamilton, one just can’t help themselves.  So here we go again, Chris and I decide just one more trip down south will be the end all to the season.  Late November, the earlier fall weather giving way to winter, we boogied out of Darby towing a raft in a full on blizzard. Lost Trail pass was four wheel drive all the way while wondering what our dumb asses are thinking trying this late in the year.  Finally hitting the Salmon, we get to see what we’re looking at as far as actual river conditions.  Not to bad, really.  Just a little slush here and there but full on fishable from our perspective.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaWe post up camp for the night and awake to a seven degree morning.  “Hey, how’s the river look?” I ask, huddling the Mr Buddy heater in the tent.  “Not good.”  ” Should we go?” ” Might as well, we’re here.”   Confidence.  If your gonna be stupid you have to be tough.  Being in no real hurry to commence the madness, we fire up my frozen diesel and sit in the comfort of the heated cab while waiting on espresso pots on the MSR outside.  Eventually we set sail and floated a short stretch with a ton of good water, as long as the slush cleared enough to get a drift through.

bitterroot river fly fishing guides hamilton montanaAt three o’clock the magic happened.  Battling slush and frozen guides, lines, beers, boats, you name it, we finally pulled it off.  Every run we knew was choked with slush and ice, especially in the sexy gooey water where the steelies hang.  Screwdaddled on every turn, we laid our coins on our final and all time epic run, Power Eagle.  It actually had a different name up to this point, but from now and forever it shall be Power Eagle.  With Chris sitting up front and me in the rear, we worked that run like a well oiled machine, while anchored just perfectly beside the goods.   With the ice clearing and run opening up, we finally willed those damn steelies out of their lies.  Four fish in the last hours of the last day that river will be floated for the rest of the year.

Steelhead on the Salmon River, Idaho

bitterroot fly fishing guidesGod bless Idaho.  I used to drive 31 hours from Wise River, Montana to reach Smithers, British Columbia where the turnoff for one of the most famous steelhead rivers in the world, the Kispiox, can be found if one is heads up enough to find it.  That’s all I ever knew of Steelies until I learned a little bit about our neighborly southern state of Idaho last November and December.  Driving just an hour past Lost Trail, Chris, Ian and I found ourselves on some sexy looking runs with nines in our hands, looking at deep gooey tailouts and bottomless inside turns.

bitterroot river fly fishing guidesNow to step back a bit, we planned on just buying one shuttle for this float and staying out overnight on the river.  We decided on our chosen water from Ian’s and local know how, then loaded up his big battleship steelie boat with all the camp necessities, including wood, and set off onto the mighty Salmon.  Ian, an Alaska native and guide there, dialed us in right away on how to get it done with these fish.

bitterroot river fly fishing guidesSitting just where you’d expect once you have the eye for it, Salmon River steelies were plentiful throughout the twenty mile stretch we ran.  Swinging and nymphing, we dinged many many steelies both days of the float, and even got to keep a few hatchery fish to fillet out at the end of the day and cook on the grill in camp.  The best fish was just under 32 inches, with most between 26 and 30.

bitterroot river fly fishing guidesCamping on some deserted island on the river, we grilled a sacrificial fillet that first night with butter and cajun blackening, paired with Sierra Nevada and bratwurst.  Now if you’ve never grilled the day’s catch late at night over open coals, you’re missing out big time.  This was the most incredible fish I’ve ever laid into, hardly resembling their brethren the rainbow but more similar to the Pacific salmon of Alaska: rich and filling, Salmon river steelhead rival any fish around for table fare.

bitterroot river fly fishing guidesWe woke to clean skies and another day of steelie hunting.  We searched as we floated, eyeing up runs for the tell tale water signatures that hold the fish.  One run that raised our antennaes ended up producing nine fish that first encounter, and has since become our all time sweetest steelie lie, Power Eagle. We kinda found fish here there and everywhere that first trip, sometimes going for a mile with nada then suddenly doubling up on some good looking bank.  With another night approaching, we wound it up and headed for the corral.  The rig was a blessed sight with its heater and stereo after more than 24 hours on the water.  We caught enough keepers for everyone to take a couple home, which we filleted on the spent aspen leaves covering the lower end of the boat launch, giving thanks for an amazing trip and fresh bounty from the Salmon.

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