ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

A summer on the Bitterroot

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 9/9/20

A very long time ago, in what seems like another life, I had the opportunity to fish the Bitterroot River in Western Montana for most of one summer. At the time I was a student enrolled in the School …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

A summer on the Bitterroot

Posted

A very long time ago, in what seems like another life, I had the opportunity to fish the Bitterroot River in Western Montana for most of one summer. At the time I was a student enrolled in the School of Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana in Missoula. Because of my inability to pass a plant physiology course offered during the spring semester, it was necessary for me to re-take it during the summer in order to graduate. So, here I am, in “Big Sky Country,” surrounded by the Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Big Blackfoot Rivers and Rock Creek. Some of the best trout fishing in the country, at the best time of the year, with just one course to manage and a ton of free time!

In early summer of that year, probably in mid-June, a friend and resident assistant (RA) in the dorm where I stayed, knew I fly fished and invited me to go to the Bitterroot River with him; he explained that there were trout rising in the river on a reach near Stevensville. So, off we went on a rather gray but warm afternoon. When we arrived, the river was still in the midst of spring runoff but clear and somewhat wadable. My friend, who was about 6’4” and 240 pounds, was able to cross pretty easily. At the time, I was 5’8” and about 150 pounds, so when I got about halfway across, the water approached the top of my waders, and I began to “float” almost loosing my footing. Fortunately, I was able to back out of the Bitterroot and helplessly observe my friend land several large rainbow and cutthroat trout. Never one to give up, especially  when really good trout fishing was available, I rounded up two friends, rented a raft from Bob Ward’s in Missoula, and headed back to the Bitterroot. I don’t remember all the details of that trip, other than we were able to inflate the raft, paddle across the river to the pool where we saw trout rising. I do know that we did hook and land several nice rainbows.

By the Fourth of July, runoff slowed and the flow in the Bitterroot receded enough so that wading was possible and it was easy to cross. During the months of July and August, I fished that section of river at least once a week. By then, all my friends had graduated and returned home, so I pretty much fished alone. During those two months, I saw one fisherman; a far cry from the number of anglers fishing the Bitterroot these days!

While I didn’t recognize the different species of mayflies that were on water, the Eastern fly patterns that I had in my fly boxes worked just fine. In July, there where dun-colored flies hatching that appeared similar to our Quill Gordons and Hendricksons. As the season progressed, the mayflies were smaller and lighter in color—probably pale morning duns.

Looking back, after all these years, I still recall that the mayfly fly hatches peaked by late July and pretty much ended by mid-August. Sound familiar? That’s exactly what happens with our hatches in the Catskills, except they begin in late April and, for the most part, end by late July. So, there is about a two-month difference between the time Catskill hatches begin and end when compared to those in western Montana.

As August waned, flow in the Bitterroot continued to drop and warm, the hatches ended and fishing became more and more difficult. It was at that time I took a friend just returning from officers candidate school in Washington State and his dad to the river. Due to the low flow and lack of flies, it was almost embarrassing to try and fish the river. I don’t think that we rose one trout on that trip!

By the end of August, I stopped fishing the Bitterroot. The river was low, the hatches over and it was time for me to pack up and return to the Catskills, degree in hand. The morning I left, I walked around the “Oval” at the University several times, conflicted about my decision to return to New York State. Missoula had been my home from the fall of 1961 until August of 1965. I had good friends, Kate and John, and loved the “Big Sky.” Nevertheless, family and the Catskills called, so off I went. But I’ll never forget that summer on the Bitterroot and my four-plus years in Montana—the best years of my life!

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