Copyright 2013 James Marsh
Fly Fishing The Bitterroot River In
The main stem of the Bitterroot River is formed by the
confluence of the West Fork of the Bitterroot, a tailwater,
and the East Fork of the Bitterroot, a freestone stream.
The main river flows through the Bitterroot Valley on its
way to the Clarke Fork River in Missoula, Montana. The
Bitterroot Mountains form the western skyline and the
Sapphire Mountains form the eastern skyline. Fly fishing
the Bitterroot River is usually a very neat adventure.
Each of the two forks provide about twenty miles of
fishing. The main stem of the river flows for seventy-five
miles through a fairly well developed area of Montana on
its way to Missoula. Most of the Bitterroot Valley is used
for agriculture purposes but there are a few ranches.
Both grass and timber line the banks of the stream.
The Bitterroot is an excellent trout stream consisting of
diverse water and some quality hatches. Cutthroat,
brown, brook, and rainbow trout can all be found in its
waters. The Bitterroot River overall is approximately
seventy-five miles long from the junction of the East and
West Fork just below the little town of Conner to where it
meets the Clark Fork River near Missoula, Montana.
You will find some beautiful riffles, shallow and deep
pools, and some fast, deep runs. It has just about
everything that makes it a good trout stream.
There are Special Regulations area's, so where you fly
fish the Bitterroot River can make a difference in the
The uppermost section of the Bitterroot, running from
Conner to Hamilton, consist mostly of fast pocket water
and it offers excellent dry fly, nymph, and streamer
fishing opportunities.The river tends to stay cooler in its
upper section. It's headwaters of both forks stay cold
year-round. Below Hamilton, the river slows somewhat
and more and more riffles become available for the dry
Once the river reaches the valley, it flows fast large
trees consisting of cottonwood, aspen, and fir.In the
lower section, the river flows past some ranches and
Both the East Fork and the West Fork of the Bitterroot
offer great trout fishing opportunities. These two forks,
along with the larger main stem, provide a tremendous
diversity of water. There's small stream headwater
fishing, tailwater fishing, and varying water types in the
main steam that ranges from long, slow moving deep
pools with short sections of riffles connecting them to
faster water with lots of riffles and runs.
Bitterroot River, Montana
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Recommended Tackle & Gear
4, 5 or 6 weight
Dry fly: 9 &12 ft., 5 or 6X, Nymphing: 71/2
ft., 3 or 4X, Streamers 0-2X
Dry fly: 5 or 6X, Nymphing: 3 or 4X,
Best Fly Rods:
Perfect Fly Supreme Four, Superb Five or
For 4/5/6 fly line
Fly Floatants and Misc Items:
Floatants, KISS Strike Indicators
Tools & Accessories:
Nippers, forceps, retractors, etc.
From Conner,near where the two forks join,
downstream to Hamilton, the water is usually
best fished using very short, up and up and
across presentations. Below Hamilton, you will
find larger water that moves slower and longer
cast may be needed. Both types of water
provide excellent fishing.
Below the little town of Hamilton, the Bitterroot
flows for about twelve miles to the town of
Victor. This section is good dry fly and
nymphing water. There are lots of pools
connected by short sections of riffles and a few
fast runs. You will find some fallen timber in the
river, providing cover for the brown trout.
Special Regulations apply. You should
check the current Montana Regulations
After the runoff subsides, springtime is
the most popular time to fish the river.
Fishing can be great in the first part of
the summer, but can slow down in
parts of the river during late summer.
The West Fork stays cool year-round.
Fly Fishing Guide to the Bitterroot
The methods and strategies you use for fly
fishing the Bitterroot River depends on the
section you are fishing and the time of year.
The East Fork of the Bitterroot River is a
freestone stream subject to the whatever
Mother Nature brings to it. It flows for about
twenty miles before joining the West Fork to
form the main stem of the Bitterroot. The
upper part is followed by the East Fork Road
through National Forest Land. Highway #93
follows the East Fork from Conner to near
Sula. There are several fishing access sites
along the road and some private property in
this section. This is a small stream that
contains mostly small Westslope Cutthroat
trout. The fish are plentiful and the stream
provides an action packed, fun filled fishing
The West Fork is a tailwater below Painted
Rocks Lake located near the Idaho and
Montana border. There are approximately ten
miles of the stream above the lake. It
contains small brook, cutthroat and rainbow
trout. It can be accessed from the
West Fork Road. Most of it lies on National
Forest land. To your right is a
thumbnail image of Painted Rocks Lake. The
West Fork tailwater runs about
fifteen miles before its confluence with the East
Fork. The water below the dam runs clear all
year long and can even be fished during the
spring runoff. It has some good sized rainbow,
brown and cutthroat trout. Most of the water is
of moderate flow. It is easily waded.
The two forks of the Bitterroot join just above
the little town of Conner. The main stem,
downstream of Conner, is still a small size and
provides excellent wading and floating
conditions. It has a good population of
rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout. There's a
public access just below Conner, the Hannon
Memorial Fishing Access. This upper section is
still cooled during the summer from the West
Fork flows of cold water released from the
bottom of Painted Rock Lake.
There's also some braided channels and
plenty of undercut banks. Below the town
of Victor, the Bitterroot flows about
thirty-five miles before it enters the Clarks
Fork River. This section gets warmer in the
summer because the water flows slower
and the stream is much wider.
Access to the entire Bitterroot River is
great because highway #93 following the
main stem and the East Fork throughout
their lengths. The West Fork is accessed
from County Road #473.
It has lots of riffles and is surrounded by
some very nice scenery. Its fish may not
be quite as large as they get downstream,
but you most likely won't be crowded.
The next section flows between the towns
of Hamilton and Victory. There the water
is often used for agricultural purposes
and the river can get rather low. It is
broken up in many areas with split
channels. This is a good section to wade.
Most of the time the flows are slower than
most everywhere else. There are many
gravel bars along the river, along with
several diversion dams in this section.
Fishing access sites are available.
From Florence to Victor, the river can get
too warm for good trout fishing during the
late summer, but its great most any other
time. There are no diversion dams and
the river can be floated fairly easy. The
fish population is probably slightly higher
than it is upriver. There is plenty of deep
water in large, slow moving pools that can
hold trout. The fish in this section are
larger than most of them found upstream.
The biggest problem is the traffic during
the late spring and summer created by
From Florence to the Clarke Fork River,
the Bitterroot River takes on a slightly
different appearance from the section
above Florence. The braids, channels
and islands return. The stream doesn't
have as good of a population of trout as
the section above Florence, but it does
hold some very nice trout. Large rainbows
have been caught in this section. The
river slows down again, and the water can
become too warm during the late summer.
Bitterroot River Hatches and Trout
Our information on aquatic insects is based
on our stream samples of larvae and nymphs,
not guess work. We base fly suggestions on
imitating the most plentiful and most available
insects and other foods at the particular time
you are fishing. Unlike the generic fly shop
trout flies, we have specific imitations of all the
insects in the Bitterroot River and in all stages
of life that are applicable to fishing. If you
want to fish better, more realistic trout flies,
have a much higher degree of success, give
us a call. We not only will help you with
selections, you will learn why, after trying
Perfect Flies, 92% of the thousands of our
customers will use nothing else.
The hatches on the Bitterroot River varies
with the sections of the river. Some of the
insects are only found in certain types of
water, so keep that in mind. You want find
Trico mayflies in the fast water of the
headwater sections, for example.
The Blue-winged Olives are among the most
important hatches. The BWOs start hatching
about the middle of March. It can last until the
end of April. A second hatch takes place
starting about near the end of September. It
can last until the first of November, depending
on the weather.
Another important mayfly is the Pale Morning
Dun. They hatch starting about the middle of
June and lasting until as late as the first of
August. There is a Brown Dun hatch that
takes place about the last week of March and
through the month of April.
The only other substantial hatch of mayflies
are the Tricos. These hatch on the slower,
smoother sections of water during August and
Caddisflies can be the most important insects
at times. Spotted Sedges are the most
plentiful species. They start hatching around
the middle of July and can last through the
month of August. There is a Little Black
Caddis hatch, called the Mother's Day Hatch,
that starts in mid April and last through the
month of May, depending on the section.
The big October Caddis hatch from about
the middle of September through
October. There are several other species
of caddisflies in the Bitterroot River but
they usually don't exist in plentiful
About the first of March you will find two
species of stoneflies on the Bitterroot
River. The Winter Stoneflies hatch until
about the middle of April. Skwala
Stoneflies start abut the middle of March
and last through the middle of April. The
Salmonflies usually start about the first of
June and last through July, depending on
the section of the river. About the first of
June the Golden Stoneflies start hatching.
They hatch through the month of July,
depending on the section of the river.
Yellow Sallies, or Little Yellow Stoneflies,
hatch from the middle of May all the way
through the middle of August, again,
depending on the section of the river.
Make sure you have a good selection of
streamer flies. The river has plenty of
minnows, baitfish species and sculpin.
Streamers work great early and late in the
day, and when the water is stained from
Terrestrials become very important during
the months of July, August and
September. Imitations of ants, beetles,
and grasshoppers work great at times.
Midges hatch throughout the year but are
most important during the months of
March and October.
Use our "Perfect Fly" hatch chart" and
select your flies for the time you will be
fishing. Please give our flies a chance to
work for you if you haven't done so
already. We feel confident that you will be
more than satisfied with them.
Early fall can be another popular time for
fly fishing the Bitterroot River.
It is possible to fish the West Fork during
Bitterroot River Fishing Report:
11/30/13 Want to remind everyone you can
fish the Bitterroot River year-round. Catch and
release rules are in effect when the normal
Montana season is closed.
12/02/13 Our local Bitterroot contact reporting
water is still stained but clearing in the lower
sections of slush. Temperature reached near
38 degrees yesterday. Fishing should pick
back up with the nicer weather. Water is
running its normal level.
Thumbnail Images: Click to enlarge
Thumbnail Images: Click to enlarge