Bitterroot River

Crossing over from Idaho to Montana, Highway 93 plunges down the mountain to meet the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River and the beginning of the Bitterroot Valley. Bordered by the Sapphire Mountains to the east and the Bitterroots to the west, the river and highway stretch over 70 miles to join the Clark Fork River near Missoula. The Bitterroot River has few rivals for dry fly fishing and easy access. Along the course of this river, visiting anglers will find excellent campgrounds, great side-trips to explore, along with hidden lakes and seldom visited creeks. Its rugged west-slope mountains cradle one of the nation's largest wilderness areas, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The freestone canyon feeder streams offer some of the best creek fishing in Montana.

Thanks to the support of local guides and outfitters and Trout Unlimited members, the state implemented over 50 miles of catch-and-release zones and trophy management areas. Rainbows in the upper sections average 800 to 900 per mile along with an equal number of browns. Outfitter Dave Odell of Anglers Afloat rewards his clients with a specially designed coffee cup when they catch a 20-inch trout. These "trophy" coffee cups used to be rewarded for an 18-inch trout. A number of years ago he was giving away so many that he upped the qualifications to 20 inches. He champions the Bitterroot River as a great fly-fishing river. He now awards just as many cups for 20-inch catches! The Bitterroot River deserves high praise.

The upper stretch from Hannon Memorial (junction bridge with the West Fork Road just below Connor) to the Como Bridge is one of the most popular floating stretches, but floating anglers must understand that they will be sharing the river with other floaters. In spite of the increased traffic, this section offers some of the highest fish counts, although there has been a small decline in the number of trophy trout (18+ inches). The upper stretch all the way down to Angler's Roost Campground provides a mixed forest floor, gin clear water and lots of riffles and runs. This freestone stream slows down to riffles, runs and pools behind the city of Hamilton. The town section provides lush cover right down to the water's edge.

Below Hamilton the river loses its many braids and flattens out to receive the broad valley floor. The midsection of the river historically has suffered from de-watering and warmer temperatures. With the addition of habitat improvement for feeder stream spawning and increased regulations, along with guaranteed minimum stream flows, the middle section of the river has experienced rejuvenation. From Tucker Crossing just south of Victor to the Florence Bridge, catch-and-release regulations have steadfastly increased trout populations in both numbers and size. Years ago I disliked having to guide on this section, even though I lived within a mile. The trout populations were thinner than in the upper river, and the warm water in mid-summer created a crapshoot at best. Today this section is one of my favorite sections year round.

With the exception of those diehards who refuse to say "when", the season officially kicks off with the Skwala stonefly hatch in mid-March and early April. Bill Bean of the Fishaus in Hamilton figures the hatch is good for a full six weeks if the weather cooperates. "One pattern to use for the Skwala is a bullethead fly tied with a black egg sack and dark body," he said. "The underwing is dark brown deer hair. The fish seem to look for this hatch to begin their yearly feeding habits, and with the size of this stonefly, they can build bulk fast." Keep in mind, however, that weather patterns at this time of year are unpredictable. During my 15-year tenure as a guide, I was often asked about the weather and the best time to book a trip.

The weather and words such as 'typical' and 'normal' are based on 30-year cycles. Since I began guiding in 1981, I have dropped those words from my vocabulary. During the normal years I would tell people the Bitterroot would be prime during the last week in June through July. September would see a return of water, as irrigators cut back on their watering and the river would cool along with the nights. Correspondingly, the hatches return mid-day and late afternoon. Typically, the canyon creeks warm up later, and the insect hatches appear later as well, which makes some fun and cool fishing in August.

I recommend waiting until mid or late July for fishing those creeks, but as for the Bitterroot River, I would say, based on a typical year, to plan your fishing after the river seriously begins to drop after run-off. Call one of the local fly shops for accurate information. During April through June the river explodes with mayfly and caddis hatches on warm cloudy days. May and June typically see the Isoperla stonefly, Salmon Fly activity on the forks and the eagerly awaited green, gray and brown drakes. Mid-summer settles into an early morning appearance of smaller mayflies which necessitates smaller tippets and size 14-18 Pale Morning Duns, Light Cahills and Parachute Adams. Chuck Stranahan of Riverbend Flyfishing in Hamilton recommends the Quigley Cripple during the drake hatches.

To borrow a wonderful phrase from Dave Whitlock, the heat of August brings forth "hoppertunity time". Terrestrials supplement the finicky appetite of Old Man Brown along with the tiny Tricorythodes mayfly. Bring your raingear with you in August to arm yourself against the LATS (Late Afternoon Thunder Showers). An effective hopper technique for cutthroats is to dress a Muddler and fish it both as a hopper pattern next to the bank as well as a sculpin pattern on the drift.

Bill Bean describes the summer fishing as "a continual opportunity for dry fly action. With the abundance of mayfly hatches, the expert as well as the novice fisherman can do well. If you are not capable of matching the hatch, a well-tied attractor pattern such as a Stimulator will usually do the trick. Opportunities abound for fishermen who prefer wading, as well as those who prefer floating from a raft or a personal watercraft. Many access sites provide the wading fisherman ample stretches to spend a few hours or the entire day."

Falling cottonwood leaves and the orange splendor of mountainside tamarack signal the arrival of the giant orange caddis fly, as well as progressively larger mayfly hatches such as the size 10 rusty, green Emphermeralla Heccuba mayfly. With school back in session and many of the fly fishers replacing their rods for bows, shotguns, rifles and chainsaws, the river offers up her finest fishing to the solitary fisher.

River description by David Archer


Imagine that you have driven to the main stem of the Bitterroot River, where the West Fork of the Bitterroot joins the main river. From this point, moving north towards Missoula, I have outlined access points along with links to creeks and lakes on our progression north on Highway 97 to Missoula, Montana. Be sure to visit Western Montana's Best Creeks and the sections covering Western Montana Lakes, Float Trips, and Back Country Fishing, as well as the separate section on camping, which includes forest service campgrounds and RV campgrounds.

Bitterroot River Access / Hannon Memorial / West Fork

As you cross the Highway 97 bridge south of Darby, you will see a boat launch to the right and a small campground to the left.

Darby Bridge

Darby bridge has a small access on the south side of the bridge for floaters. Please do not block this access, and don't cross the bridge, as it is private and posted. If you are going to wade fish, keep in mind that all of the surrounding banks are private property so stay in the streambed. From Highway 93 in downtown Darby, turn east on Tanner for two blocks. Turn right on Water Street for a half-mile. Turn left on Darby Bridge Road.

United States Forest Service

Bitterroot National Forest Information Center, Darby, Montana. Warning - 25 mph! (Ask David Letteman.)

Highway 97 mileage marker 35: Wally Crawford Fishing Access

Often referred to as the Como Bridge access, this is without a doubt the most popular stretch of water above and below the bridge for floaters. Although the fishery has withstood the increased pressure, as the summer flows decrease the larger fish head for cover. Plan on seeing up to 10 other floaters on a hot summer weekend. Floaters from Wally Crawford to Angler's Roost must portage around Sleeping Child Dam, which is easily done. Launching upriver, the floaters have a choice of floating down from the town of Darby for a short run or putting in above Darby at Hannon Memorial Access, where the highway crosses the river again south of Darby. All of these access points are good fishing areas for foot fishermen.

Angler's Roost Campground / Hamilton, Montana

A few miles south of Hamilton, the highway crosses the Bitterroot River. This is also a popular section for foot fishers. Angler's Roost owners have generously allowed floaters to launch their rafts from their campground. Be sure to sign their guest book and park in their designated parking spots. Show your appreciation by doing some business with them in their store.

Bitterroot River Access: Hamilton

To the south of Hamilton the Bitterroot River is crossed at the Silver Bridge. In spite of heavy fishing pressure as well as swimmers, fishing is good downstream from the bridge to Blodgett Park, a short distance downstream. The river braids through this section, and it provides excellent cover from downed cottonwoods.

Bitterroot River Access: Hamilton Sewage Treatment Plant

Don't let the facilities dissuade you. Some of the best fishing on the Bitterroot River runs behind the town of Hamilton. Turn west at the light at Adirondack Street from Highway 93. Two blocks up, turn right on Seventh and then immediately bear left. You can also reach the river by turning west on Main Street and driving a short distance to the Main Street Bridge.

Bitterroot Access - Hamilton, Montana

The northern entrance to Hamilton offers three choice access points. The first is the Woodside Road turn-off to Corvallis. You will find a parking area by the bridge for boat launching. Next is Blodgett Park, which offers day use only. At the approach to the city limits, you may also access the river at the silver bridge.

Tucker Crossing Fishing Access / Highway 97

From Highway 97 near the mileage marker sign 56, look for the access road on the east side of the highway. You will see a nice parking lot. In typical years I would not recommend floating downstream as the channel often splits and braids. The shallow water can make for some tough floating. This is also a popular site for walk-in fishing from both directions. On the other side of the highway, if you turn to the west, you will be on Bear Creek Road, which will take you to both the Bear Creek trailhead and the Fred Burr Creek trailhead.

Victor Crossing

The bridge at Victor Crossing washed out in 1997, but it was replaced in the summer of 1999.

Victor, Montana

Victor has a great steakhouse and a great Mexican restaurant and the Hamilton House Bar serves a great fish dinner! Sweathouse Creek is a small creek right above the town of Victor. A narrow canyon with fast, tumbling water, fishing is good for 6- to 9-inchers. From the town of Victor, turn onto Main Street and then right on Chief Victor's Camp Road and then left on Sweathouse Creek Road to the trailhead.

Bell Crossing Fishing Access

Turn east from Highway 97 near the mileage marker 61 sign. Opposite the turnoff to Big Creek Lake, Bell Crossing is a state access point to the river for floaters floating down to Stevensville. Wade fishers will have to hike both upstream and downstream for selective fishing.

Stevensville, Junction to Highway 269

Turn east from Highway 97 towards the town of Stevensville for Bitterroot River access, Stevensville Bridge, and Burnt Fork Creek. The Stevensville Bridge is a popular put-in and take-out point for float fishers either floating downstream to Florence or floating from Bell Crossing Bridge to the Stevensville Bridge. This is a good access point for foot fishermen upstream or downstream. The entire area is a managed trophy trout section and, as such, is catch and release. During the last few years, the stretch from Stevensville to Florence has seen an increase in the number of boats plying the river on any given day of the season.

This section of the river can be fickle and torment floaters all day, or it can reward you with a most memorable day of fishing. I will confess to fishing a number of seasons without catching a trophy trout on the Bitterroot River (20+ inches). September 1997, I slipped my Little Dipper drift boat into the water at the Stevensville Bridge and within the first two miles I had caught a 23-inch brown, an 18-inch rainbow and a 17-inch rainbow.

I celebrated all day long as I floated down the river. The moon and planets and stars were surely all aligned.

Poker Joe River Access (Florence Area)

Look for the sign south of Florence on Highway 97. During the heat of the summer, fish a nymph on the bottom, or fish a hopper with a dropper down past the rip-rap car bodies above the railway bridge. This area is good foot fishing in the fall. Prior to the run-off in 1998, I floated through this section during an incredible drake hatch. I couldn't believe the number of 12- to 14-inch rainbows. Regardless of how poorly this section fishes during the heat of the summer, I can assure you that you are dragging your lure over more trout than I could imagine until I saw them all boiling on the surface. Yes, I caught a lot of fat fish, but I must confess that it wasn't easy. On every cast a regatta of brown drakes surrounded my fly. One other shore fisherman was on the stretch above me. After a while I walked up to him eager to share my experience. "Can you believe it?" I said. He replied, "Unbelievable, but you should have been here yesterday!"

Florence, Montana

Florence offers gas, food, bars and Rhino's sporting goods store, where you can buy a fishing license. After 18 years of being a resident of Florence, Montana, I packed into Peterson Lake with my donkey, Buddy, and two of my students, September 25, 1999. Peterson is only five miles into the wilderness, right above Florence. The trail is difficult in places, but the view is spectacular. A popular hiking spot for the locals, the fishing is, nonetheless, good for small 7- to 9-inch rainbows. Peterson is one of the few lakes in the Bitterroot Wilderness that can be reached in three hours, less if you are under 55 and in good shape! The lake is beautiful and fishes well at both the inlet and outlet, which is typical of most mountain lakes. A number of nice campsites ring the lake.

Duffy Lake, less than an hour's hike away, has a reputation for being the better fishing lake. We didn't make it to Duffy. Saturday morning the mountains were clouding up with telltale signs of snow. When my two senior students arrived at the house, I attempted to let them off the hook, but they just derided me for being a sissy. Besides, they pointed out, the paper said the clouds would break up in the afternoon and Sunday was supposed to be sunny with mild temperatures. Off we headed to a mountain lake just a few miles from my house. The trailhead is up Sweeney Creek. Take the Sweeney Creek Road, which is 1.5 miles south of Florence's only traffic light. From Highway 93 to the trailhead is approximately seven miles.

By the time we had Buddy unloaded from the back of my pickup truck and headed up the trail, the wind was blowing corn snow. When we reached the ridge, to drop down to the lake, the slightly warmer winds plastered us with wet snow. By the time we had our tents set up, it was cold and miserable. We spent the next three hours curled up in our sleeping bags. By 5 pm the snow stopped and the boys crawled out to fish. I started a huge "white man's" fire, and watched as the two young men pulled in fish after fish on a nymph setup I had devised for them. My wet feet never thawed. The next morning we woke to four inches of snow. After breakfast we took a vote to head home, even though the blue sky was breaking across the jagged cliffs and peaks above us. Packing out we stopped in awe at the beauty of the lake and the canyon. By the time we reached the truck, the Bitterroot Valley was bathed with the prospect of a return to Indian Summer. Thirty minutes later a Montana "Gotcha" clobbered us with cold winds and snow on the valley floor. I can't wait to return in the spring. If you are in the Missoula area, and you are not troubled by other hikers, Peterson Lake would be a great day hike or an overnight camping trip if you were pressed for time and wanted a wilderness experience.

Bitterroot River Access: Florence Bridge

As you enter Florence, watch for the Conoco Gas Station. Turn onto the East Side Highway and drive one mile to the bridge. The Florence Bridge is a popular exit point for floaters entering the river at Stevensville. This section of the river can be very productive fishing or VERY slow fishing. It is especially good fishing during the Skwala hatch during the spring and later when the autumn nights cool the river.

Chief Looking Glass Campground

Chief Looking Glass Campground is a beautiful campground and local swimming hole. Watch for the sign between Lolo and Florence. This section of the river is poor fishing during the summer as the water is slow and warm. Comparatively speaking, this section has a low fish count, but I would recommend fishing this area in mid-September during the Ephemerella Hecuba mayfly hatch. The pattern is a size 10 rusty, green.

Lolo Sewage Treatment Plant

River access. Turn east on Glacier Road. A few blocks down Glacier Road, you will come to a T-intersection in a residential neighborhood. Turn left and follow the road to the sewage plant where there is a day use area on the river. This is the logical exit point if you are floating down from the Florence Bridge or Chief Looking Glass Campground, but you have to drag or carry your raft or canoe up to the parking lot. It is a LONG day's float from Florence!

Blue Mountain Road (Look for the big athletic center a few miles south of Missoula.)

Blue Mountain Road follows the Bitterroot River until it intersects with the Clark Fork. The first fishing access is Maclay Flat. Blue Mountain Road turns to the Southside Road that goes all the way to Petty Creek, which is an exit on Interstate 90. The road winds around the hillsides for miles. Sometimes it follows the Clark Fork River; at other times it follows the ridges far above the river. If you plan on wade fishing the lower Clark Fork, this is the road for you. It may also be accessed from Interstate 90 onto Reserve Street. Follow Reserve Street until you come to Mullan Road (Perkin's Restaurant). Turn right on Mullan Road. Follow Mullan Road until you come to Kona Bridge Road. Turn left on Kona Bridge Road until it intersects with Southside Road. Follow the signs to Deep Creek Shooting Range, and you will know you are on the right road. Past the turnoff for Deep Creek is the Old Harper's Bridge, which is a takeout point for floaters launching from Spurgin Road.

This area of the lower Clark Fork is a challenge for beginning fly fishermen, as it has long stretches of flat, unproductive water. The Clark Fork does not have high trout counts, but when you find one trout, you usually find a pod. I do not recommend this stretch for wade fishers during the heat of August unless you are on the search for sippers. If it is an overcast day in August or September with the promise of some light showers, do not pass up the opportunity to fish the Clark Fork.

Highway 93 (Reserve Street)

Traveling north on Reserve Street, cross South Avenue to Spurgin Road. Spurgin Road Fishing Access is tucked behind a very affluent neighborhood. In fact, you drive right between two fenced homes to get to the day use fishing access. When you reach a T-intersection, just turn right and then left as Spurgin Road takes a jog. The access has a boat launch, but during dry years you will have to drag your boat down to the Bitterroot River where it joins the Clark Fork River.

This is the end of the access points for the Bitterroot River. If you are a float fisherman, be sure and read the article on Bitterroot float trips. And don't overlook the Bitterroot creeks, especially if you have young anglers in your group.


Side Trip: East Fork of the Bitterroot River

Sula, Montana offers a gas station, private campground and country store. Just past this facility is the East Fork Road. At the bridge, turn east on East Fork Road. From here, the wilderness trailhead for the East Fork is 17 miles. Until you reach the national forest boundary, the creek runs through private property. The last four miles are dirt road. Plan on hiking up the trail at least an hour for better fishing in the beaver ponds. The East Fork is a beautiful creek. In addition to the great scenery, the creek is loaded with small cutthroats in the 6- to 9-inch range with an occasional 12- to 14-inch "lunker". The East Fork along Highway 97 is also fun fishing for smaller trout, although early in June some big fish are caught during the Salmon Fly hatch. From the highway Jenny Creek Campground is 10 miles and offers four camp units with toilet facilities. Martin Creek Campground is 16 miles and offers seven camp units with water and toilet facilities.

A few miles south of Hannon Memorial, you will see a sign to Connor. When you cross the bridge by the Connor store, you have just crossed the East Fork of the Bitterroot. You must enter the water from the bridge. I suggest wading downstream for some fun fishing in what is actually creek-sized water later in the summer. Wait until the summer has arrived so that you can stay in the water and easily move downstream without trespassing on private property. The East Fork braids in this area and becomes quite shallow, but some heavy 12-inchers make their home here, as well as a few lunkers.

Side Trip: The West Fork of the Bitterroot River

About four miles south of Darby, Highway 93 crosses the Bitterroot River. Just after the bridge make a left turn on the West Fork Road. The West Fork meanders and plummets down through the canyon from Painted Rock Reservoir. Above the reservoir the West Fork is a small brushy creek. The road mostly parallels the West Fork, although most of the property is private. Nonetheless, sufficient access will keep an angler busy.

Although progressively smaller as you head towards Idaho, the West Fork is over 40 miles long, and it is followed by a paved road to the dam and then a dirt road most of its length. Beautiful scenery and a clear running stream, combined with good catches of rainbows and cutthroats, make this a must visit if you are in the area. Surprisingly, the West Fork is lightly fished after the June Salmon Fly hatch.

Set your mileage marker to zero, as what follows is a mileage summation of what lies ahead as you explore the West Fork Road. (Montana uses highway mileage marker signs, which makes it easy to locate an access road to the river.)

MM 0: Junction with Highway 93.

MM 3: Connor Cut-off to Highway 93: Connor has a country store.

MM 3.2: Access to the West Fork: This is private property. A popular take-out for canoes and rafts, this private property was posted a number of years ago. As of 1998 people were still using this site to exit the river with their rafts, but I do not know the status now.

MM 6: Baker Lake access road: Road 363; trailhead 10 miles. Baker Lake is a popular local fishing spot less than two miles from the trailhead on an easy trail. Under 10 acres, it is good fishing for small 7- to 12-inch cutthroats.

MM 10.9: Easy to miss, this access has one tent campsite on the river.

MM 11.9: A primitive campsite only with access to the river for rafters and canoeists.

MM 13: State access point for launching rafts or canoes.

MM 13.1: Boulder Creek, Sam Billings Campground: Road 5631; one mile. Boulder Creek is a brushy little creek with lots of small pocket water for small cuts. The campground has 11 camping units, toilet facilities and no water.

MM 13.9: Ranger Station.

MM 17.9: Rombo Campground: 15 camp units. Water, garbage, toilet facilities. Fee area. Excellent access to the river as well as beautiful campsites right along the river.

MM 21.5: Dam, Access to Bluejoint Creek: Bluejoint Creek is accessed by crossing the dam road and traveling to the north side of the lake. Bluejoint Creek has easy access. Fishing is good for 7- to 12-inch cuts.

MM 21.6: Little Boulder Bay Boating Site: Toilet facility and swimming area.

MM 23.5: Slate Creek Campground. Four campsites, toilet facilities, boat launch and beach area. Take the Nez Perce Road just above Boulder Creek Campground.

MM 25.2 Painted Rocks State Campground: Camping, picnicking, toilet facilities, boat launch and beach. Pack-in-pack-out policy with voluntary donations for maintenance.

MM 29.5: Alta Campground: 15 camping units. Water, garbage, toilet facilities. Fee area. Alta is a beautiful campground above the lake. At this point consider the West Fork a creek, and a beautiful one at that!

MM 29.8: Hughs Creek is a small, tumbling creek with easy access for small 6- to 9-inch cuts.

Side Trip to Tin Cup Creek near Darby, Montana: Look for J&D Body Shop on the left. From Highway 93 the road to the second trailhead is 4.5 miles. At 3.5 miles a sign will direct you left across a bridge where there is a trailhead. Continue straight one mile to the second trailhead which is through a piece of private property, a generous act of kindness these days.

The lower section of the creek that parallels the road is poor fishing for small trout. From the second trailhead to the first creek crossing is a 20-minute hike and another 20 minutes to the Wilderness Boundary. Tin Cup Creek looks better than it fishes.

I found the best fishing, naturally, in the wilderness area above and below the second creek crossing for 7- to 9-inch cutthroats. The trail is one of the easiest trails to hike of all the canyon creeks. The scenery is stunning, and the pools above the second creek crossing are beautiful and large, although the size of the fish varied little. Looking at the high water mark tells the story of a harsh environment during spring run-off.

Side Trip to Como Lake, Little Rock Creek and Little Rock Creek Lake: From Hamilton drive on Highway 93 south a few miles from Darby, Montana. From Highway 93 to the boat launch is approximately four miles. Como Lake is a large lake, almost three miles long. Although it is popular with water skiers and jet skiers, it provides only fair fishing for smaller trout. The lake is subject to extreme draw downs during low water years.

South Side: Boating area, large parking area, floating dock, boat ramp and dispersed picnic area with drinking water, toilet facilities and garbage service. Rock Creek Horse Camp: nine camping units; two accessible camping units; toilet facilities; no garbage service.

North Side: Lake Como Campground Area: 11 camping sites; one accessible site; one group camping site; electricity, drinking water, accessible toilet facilities and garbage services. Campground hosts. Fee area.

Upper Como Campground Area: 11 camping sites; drinking water, toilet facilities and garbage services. No electricity. Campground hosts. Fee area.

During the past couple of years campground facilities have been upgraded, along with a new boat launch. The outlet is Rock Creek, which is diverted into an irrigation ditch. The creek is almost completely de-watered as it enters the Bitterroot River. From the north side campground an eight-mile trail loops around the lake. The trailhead to Rock Creek is 3.5 miles. Just above the lake are falls. The creek is excellent fishing for 7- to 10-inch cutthroats above the lake.

Side Trip Como Lake: Little Rock Creek

Follow the signs past the Como Lake boat launch up a dirt road for another three miles. The dirt road traverses the mountain in a series of switchbacks overlooking the lake for a breathtaking view. The road crosses over the ridge with an equally stunning view of El Capitan Peak. The road is bumpy and rough, but it is suitable for passenger vehicles with sufficient clearance. From the trailhead you will walk a short distance to an overlook of Como Lake, Rock Creek and its falls and Little Rock Creek canyon with El Capitan looming at the head of the canyon.

Saga: Little Rock Creek Lake Fishing Trip

Little Rock Creek Lake

The lake is 4.5 miles from the trailhead. The trail is both steep and rough. In many places water spills down the trail, leaving muddy bogs. Shadow eagerly ran up the trail. A few minutes later we met a Minnesota family heading out. No one in the party was a fisher, but they were detailed in their descriptions about all the leaping trout around the shoreline. What was their guess as to my hiking time? About two hours, they replied. From the trailhead to the lake, the hike took me three hours, and the return trip was only slightly shorter in duration. The trail gets thin in places, but I found the blaze marks on the trees and the piled rock cairns.

Although I had only an hour to fish, I was delighted with the numerous 9- to 10-inch cutthroats I caught in an hour's time. I caught all of these trout on the same caddis fly. I was letting it sink and twitching it. They would hit it on the slow retrieve or when I paused. They would follow the fly right into my shadow. Reluctantly, I headed down the trail. I had asked the Minnesota couple to leave a phone message on our phone recorder for our bed and breakfast so that Pauline would know where I was and that I would be getting back after dark. The next time that I return to Little Rock Creek Lake I will get an early start so that I can fish both the lake and the creek and still have time for a nap!

Side Trip: Highway 97 mileage marker 29: Darby, Montana; Tin Cup Creek

Look for J&D Body Shop on the left. From Highway 93 the road to the second trailhead is 4.5 miles. At 3.5 miles a sign will direct you left across a bridge where there is a trailhead. Continue straight one mile to the second trailhead which is through a piece of private property, a generous act of kindness these days.

The lower section of the creek that parallels the road is poor fishing for small trout. From the second trailhead to the first creek crossing is a 20-minute hike and another 20 minutes to the Wilderness Boundary. Tin Cup Creek looks better than it fishes.

I found the best fishing, naturally, in the wilderness area above and below the second creek crossing for 7- to 9-inch cutthroats. The trail is one of the easiest trails to hike of all the canyon creeks. The scenery is stunning, and the pools above the second creek crossing are beautiful and large, although the size of the fish varied little. Looking at the high water mark tells the story of a harsh environment during spring run-off.

Side Trip: One Horse Creek and Twin Lakes: From Hamilton take Highway 97 south towards Darby, Montana. Look for the turn-off past mileage marker 37. From the highway to the creek is approximately four miles. From the highway to the first lake is 20.5 miles. One Horse Creek offers great picnic sites for the first five miles, but the fishing is poor, as the creek is very small. If you plan on driving to Twin Lakes, be sure you have a truck, preferably a 4X4. The road is rough for 16 miles, and you will average 10 miles an hour. The first lake is drawn down in the fall and is very shallow, which would account for the poor fishing.

The upper lake is said to be fair fishing for small cutthroats. Plan your trip so that you return in the evening as moose, elk and deer are frequently seen along the road. Twin Lakes offers one campground, Schumaker Campground, which offers Five camping units, toilet facilities, and no fee.

Side Trip: Roaring Lion Creek, Sawtooth Creek

South of Hamilton on Highway 93, the highway crosses the Bitterroot River by Angler's Roost Campground. Look for Roaring Creek Road about eight-tenths of a mile from the bridge. The trailhead, a popular trail with horse people and hikers, is approximately 3.5 miles on a bumpy road. The trailhead has no campground or picnic site. The creek is fished heavily, and the majority of fish caught are in the 5- to 7-inch range. Roaring Lion Creek and Sawtooth Creek are located in two canyons side by side. However, access to Sawtooth Creek is from the Roaring Lion trailhead. "The distance from the trailhead to the first Sawtooth Creek crossing is approximately three miles. The first two miles of this section are in excellent shape. Between mile two and three, the trail generally is in good shape with several steep pitches. After the first creek crossing, the trail varies from fair to poor...." -USFS

Side Trip: Sleeping Child Creek, Skalkaho Creek

Look for the Skalkaho Highway south of Hamilton on Highway 93. The highway actually turns south. Water diversion for irrigation and increasing development has impacted the fishing for the first 12 miles along Skalkaho Creek. Public fishing begins around mile 13 at Black Bear Campground. The best fishing is found in the upper reaches for 7- to 9-inchers between mile markers 15 and 19. After mile marker 19, the road climbs high above the creek. Look for pocket water, as this is a very small crick. Look for Sleeping Child Road, which continues south off of Skalkaho Road. Sleeping Child Creek is not worth fishing as it runs through so much private property. Hiking into the headwaters is also not worth the effort, in my estimation, given the proximity of other great fishing creeks in the area.

Side Trip: Main Street, Canyon Creek, Blodgett Creek

Follow the directions to Blodgett Canyon as Canyon Creek is the first canyon south of Blodgett. Look for the Forest Service sign (road #735). Canyon Creek is a small, brushy creek that supports 6- to 8-inch cutthroats, but the creek is tough to access and even tougher to fish. The trail is steep. I would not recommend the trail for small children. However, from the Canyon Creek Trailhead, take the Blodgett Overlook Trail for a spectacular view.

"The Blodgett Overlook trail is open to hiking and mountain biking, but no motorized use is allowed. The trail winds around Romney Ridge and provides hikers with a scenic view of Hamilton, Blodgett Canyon, Canyon Creek and Canyon Creek Falls. This gradual 1.5-mile trail winds along the southeast facing hillside of ponderosa pine, arrowhead balsamroot and exposed bedrock covered with ground moss and lichen. There are numerous benches along the way to rest on and enjoy the view. The trail ends at the steep cliffs of Blodgett Canyon Overlook." -USFS

Blodgett Canyon Creek

Traveling on Highway 93 through Hamilton, turn west on Main Street. After you cross the Bitterroot River, Main Street changes to West Bridge Road and then to Canyon Creek Road. From the intersection of Main Street and Highway 93, the distance to the campground and creek is 5.7 miles. The road out of town meanders until it intersects Blodgett Camp Road. Turn left on Blodgett Camp Road, which is designated as road 736. The last two miles to the campground are on a dirt road. Blodgett Canyon Campground offers six camping or picnic units, toilet facilities, no charge. It has excellent shaded picnic sites for those hot days in August. Blodgett Canyon is noted for spectacular rock formations. The creek is excellent fishing for small 6- to 10-inch trout.

Side Trip: Mill Creek

Turn west on Dutch Hill Road from Highway 97 near the mileage marker sign 52. Drive 2.5 miles until you arrive at Bowman Road. Turn left on Bowman Road. Drive three-tenths of a mile and turn right at the Mill Creek Trailhead. The trailhead is one mile. Mill Creek is a small creek tumbling down a steep canyon. For the first mile the creek is right along the trail and offers lots of pocket water for small trout.

Mill Creek fishes almost the same as its neighboring creeks, although I believe it gets a little more pressure. During the first half-mile the creek parallels the trail through a steep section of the canyon. Boulders ranging from the size of bean bags to bunk beds slow the water as it tumbles down the canyon into little pockets and pools. All along the trail are scuffmarks and slides left behind by eager fishermen. Looking down the 15- to 20-foot slides, I decided to wait. When the trail was only four or five feet above the creek, I scrambled down the trail and caught my first 9-inch cutthroat on a small hopper.

After I had released the fish, I thought of the question posed to me by a guest staying in my bed and breakfast. An accomplished fisher from back East, he asked me in all seriousness what I considered a pan fryer. I glibly mumbled, "I don't know. Anything that fits in a frying pan." No response was forthcoming. It was, after all, not a question to be expounded upon. Later I discovered I did indeed have an exact definition of a pan fryer. A pan fryer is an 8- to 9-inch trout with its head and tail cut off, and it fits perfectly at the bottom of a 5½-inch, official Boy Scout mess kit.

Side Trip: Bear Creek, Fred Burr Reservoir

Turn west from Highway 97 south of Victor, Montana. Bear Creek is recorded in my endless favorite creek list. The first quarter-mile of the trail winds above the creek through a talus slide. Looking across the canyon and listening to the beckoning call of the creek softly extolling its piscatorial praise of native cutthroats, I broke a vow I made to myself sometime around my 50th birthday - stay on the trail!

For years I have held the belief that 80 percent of anglers are too impatient to walk up the trail more than a half-mile. I also harbor the belief that 90 percent of serious fishers under the age of 50 look for areas that they are convinced no one else would bother hacking their way through the brush to reach. My third belief is that 75 percent of proficient fly fishers will pass up fishing a hole within the first half mile convinced that the local bait bugaboo has decimated the pool. A hodge podge of contradictory beliefs? Of course! Acted on? Absolutely!

So there I was, poised high on the canyon trail overlooking a canopy of treetops and gnarly brush. "Don't do it," the 53-year-old in me warned. "Don't listen to that old curmudgeon," the kid in me responded. "You are only as old as you DO. Think of all those untouched pools. No one is going to bail off this trail after just leaving the parking lot. Even the impatient ones are going to go further on. And the serious guys are going to pass it up figuring the campers will have hit it pretty hard." Good point, I thought to myself. This could be worth the effort.

Off the trail I plunged into the Heart of Darkness. Bruised and scratched, only 30 yards off the trail, I was down on my knees thrusting my rod through any patch of light I could find. The horror! Even Shadow, my faithful Lab companion, was disgusted with me. When I finally broke out onto the creek, it was no more than a series of thin braids with little holding water. I finally worked my way up to the point where the creek was one, and after catching a number of fat 8- to 10-inch cutthroats, I was one with the creek, the canyon and the cascading brook. At one juncture I caught a small bull trout and a nice 10-inch cut in a pool right below the trail. A familiar worn path led from the trail to the pool. Unlike my youth during the '50s and early '60s, I am glad we live in a time of catch and release. I have no idea as to the fishing further up the trail. I only covered the first mile!

Fred Burr Reservoir (Victor)

Follow Bear Creek Road west towards the mountains until the road intersects with Red Crow Road. Turn west on Red Crow Road. The road will veer to the left (south), but keep straight ahead on Fred Burr Road for 1.5 miles to the trailhead.

Private landowners restricted access to the National Forest in Fred Burr canyon until 1995. Fred Burr Creek is heavily traveled by hikers, bikers and riders. Most of the trail is actually a jeep trail that leads to Fred Burr Reservoir, which is approximately five miles from the trailhead. Fishing along the creek is excellent for small 6- to 9-inch cutthroats. I spoke to a number of horseback riders coming down the trail, and all of them seemed pleased with the fishing in the reservoir. Huckleberry hounds, watch for those tiny purple treats along the trail late in July for an extra bonus.

I fished the creek in July with Tony Swallow, a long time volunteer and board member for the local public television station. We only covered the first mile. Tony was one of those rare anomalies who had reached middle age without ever fly fishing. I assured him he could be successful on his very first outing with me as his instructor. Over confidence on my part? A touch of braggadocio after 15 years of being a fly fishing guide? None of the above. Summer fishing on any of the Bitterroot's canyon creeks should be considered one of those basic laws of nature - you will catch fish.

Keep in mind, however, that you must adhere to four principals: (1) Keep your fly high and dry. (2) Be sure your fly floats naturally without any line drag. (3) Allow your fly to land gently. (4) Get in the middle of the creek and cast upstream. Tony, hoping to catch at least a couple of fish, followed all of the above rules and lost count after catching 10 feisty trout.

Saga: Biking for Beatitudes and Beauties

On August 13, 1997, I replaced a flat tire on my mountain bike and cleaned out the saddlebags of old candy wrappers from a previous trek taken a number of years ago when I bought the bike as a way to keep in shape. I waited all morning, gauging the rain clouds over the Bitterroot Range. Finally, after pumping up the tire and my confidence, I decided it was now or never. I started up the Fred Burr Reservoir Trail at 11:40. At 11:42 I was walking. The entire trip, with intermittent riding, took an hour and 40 minutes.

I had only gone a short distance when my seat dropped, my knees pushed up to my chin, and I was soaked. My raincoat was tucked in my saddlebags, and I was hot and panting. Shadow's tongue was still concealed as she kept turning back waiting for me. Reluctantly, I put on the raincoat that I have been trying to wear out for 17 years so I can buy a Gore-Tex model. The coat was bought at a ranch supply store in Bozeman; made from rubberized canvas, it is destined to be a real Montana heirloom.

Huffing and puffing, my resolve weakened, and I thought of locking the bike to a tree with my combination lock, but I could not recall the numbers. Did I use my birthday numbers, my Social Security numbers or part of my telephone number? I gave up trying to remember. All I could think about was the ride down the mountain trail. Finally I arrived. It was pouring, and I huddled under a tree that a group of men and boys vacated just as I arrived. They, too, were soaked. They informed me that the fishing was lousy and headed on down the trail. Shadow and I shared a ham sandwich, and I hiked to the back of the lake up the trail to fish the upper portion of the creek. In spite of the rain and fogged up glasses, I caught a number of colorful cutthroats from 8 to 10-inches. I made a few sloppy casts on the lake on my way back, and then I headed back down the trail, pleased with the beauty of the lake and the fun fishing I experienced.

Grasping the handlebars of my mountain bike, I prepared myself for the ride down the trail. My thoughts turned to Kiddo, a childhood friend who I had thought of for the first time in probably 35 years, on my way up the trail. As I pushed my bike up the trail earlier, my sweating brow and the long haul reminded me of Turnbow Canyon Road and a summer day in 1957. After visiting a half-dozen secondhand stores, I found my treasure, a 20-year-old beat up baby buggy. I had promised Kiddo the adventure of his life, a soapbox ride from the top of Three Palms down to the valley floor.

Dismantling the buggy, I had the best ball bearing wheels and axles that money could buy, short of buying the official Soap Box Derby wheels, which only rich families could afford. We built the racer with the axle cut and mounted on a wide two-by-four with a large bolt in the center. The back axle was only about two feet wide. Our steering was a hemp rope nailed to the front two-by-four with a couple of old rusty nails. We pulled the racer up through the canyon for over six hours, stopping only to eat our lunches.

Reaching the top of the canyon divide, we could see the three palms above us gently swaying from the afternoon Santa Anna breeze. Off into the distance, we could see miles of carefully laid out orange groves. Kiddo was a new friend. After his father died and his older brother was jailed, his mother packed up her family and moved to the country. Kiddo looked tough for a fifth grader. He wore a ducktail haircut that I admired greatly. He wore peggers, all of which my mother disapproved. But my mother encouraged the friendship, as she saw a very gentle and kind young man hidden behind the gang look of the fifties. Kiddo rarely laughed, but when we shoved off and began to pick up speed down the canyon, he laughed with gusto. We both began shrieking and whooping with reckless abandon, and reckless it was. Our makeshift brake broke on one of the first turns. We had passed the point of stopping, reaching speeds that I would have to guess was in excess of 40 miles per hour. Our laughter quickly subsided, replaced by white knuckles and quick maneuvering on hairpin turns. Suddenly, coming around a bend, we were faced with a sedan right in front of us traveling down hill. I had a quick decision to make -- shoot off the cliff like a Stinger missile, be decapitated by a 1948 Packer or pass on a blind curve.

I attribute that reckless moment as part of my rite of passage. In the split second that I jammed my right leg forward to turn the axle, I knew the fear that all parents harbor for their sons. After I shot through the blind corner, Kiddo and I laughed hysterically. Kiddo's laughter was from turning to look at the old lady's expression; mine was initiated from a vision of death as the tears streaked from the corner of my eyes. Three miles down Turnbow Canyon Road, we lost a wheel. Kiddo shifted and two blocks later we crashed into a curb and were thrown into an orange grove. Bruised and dirty, we looked at each other and began laughing again. It was cool under the shade of that orange tree, and we lay on our backs for a long time just laughing.

Kiddo's mother, after losing her next eldest son to insanity, packed up her fragile family and moved to her rural hometown in Kansas. Two years later I received a report of Kiddo's death when he was thrown from the back of a pickup truck on a Kansas farm road.

I pushed off on my mountain bike and thought, I still remember you, Kiddo. The return trip took less than an hour.

Side Trip: Big Creek and Big Creek Lakes (back-packing trip)

Turn west. The turn-off for Big Creek is between Victor and Stevensville on Highway 93. Look for the dirt road directly across from Bell Crossing Road. You will see an electric company's fenced substation across from the access road to the east. The headwater trailhead is approximately four to five miles from the highway. The road makes a few turns, but it is clearly marked with Forest Service signs and arrows. Big Creek is probably the most popular creek in the area, as it carries the most water and offers a more graduated drainage. It was not uncommon 10 years ago to land rainbows and a few browns in the 12-inch range. Now the creek is over populated with 3- to 5-inch cutthroats in the canyon below the trailhead.

A short walk up the trail, however, will keep a fisher busy with 6- to 10-inch cutthroats. The trail to the lakes is approximately 12 miles and offers wonderful fishing all the way. Having once decided I would cut and hack my way through the brush to reach seldom if ever fished sections of the creek away from the trail, I will assure you that the fishing isn't much better than what is easily available to you from the trail.

Big Creek Lakes

Big Creek Lakes is really a misnomer as it is really just one large 240-acre lake that splits into two lakes on low water years and during the fall. My son and I fished this lake in late August 1996, and it lived up to its reputation. The lake is loaded with 12-inch rainbows, and although I had heard that it was not uncommon to catch trout in the 16-inch range, we couldn't find them as the 12-inchers were harassing us on every cast. What fun we had. We caught fish on drys, nymphs and streamers. The scenery is breathtaking as the shore is edged with conifers in a large glacial canyon. For those individuals who are somewhat reluctant to meet the challenge of a 12-mile backpacking hike, I would recommend backpacking seven to eight miles and camping on the creek; then hike up to the lake the next day with just a lunch and fishing gear. This is the best of both wilderness experiences, and it is just a few miles above the populated Bitterroot Valley!

Side Trip: Burnt Fork Creek, Gold Creek Campground

Gold Creek Campground has four camping units, toilet facilities, no water, no fee. It is not advised for RV or large camp trailers. I recently returned to Burnt Fork Creek after at least a 10-year hiatus. When my two sons were young, we would travel up the Burnt Fork for our first spring outing of catching little cutthroats and roasting hot dogs to celebrate the coming of summer. For solitude and fun fishing for small fry, the Burnt Fork is unsurpassed. From Stevensville's Main Street, drive one mile south to the Burnt Fork Road. Turn east and travel 10.1 miles to where the paved road curves to the right. At this point the road changes to Burnt Fork School Road. Exit from the paved road straight ahead on Mid Burnt Fork Road. Follow this dirt road approximately six miles to the Gold Creek Campground. From the Gold Creek Campground, you can continue on the same road for 2.4 miles until you come to the end of the road at the trailhead. The road is bumpy and narrow at this point, but it is still suitable for passenger vehicles with sufficient clearance.

Covered with a canopy of alder and mountain mahogany, the creek is shrouded in shade, which produces brilliantly colored cutthroats. Unlike their cousins in the Bitterroot River, who are drenched with sun all summer, the Burnt Fork cutthroats have a swath of bright orange from their jaw all along their underbelly. Their dark back and shaded penciled sides provide distinct markings, and best of all every pocket of water holds two or three 7- to 9-inch fish.

Like the creek I grew up on, this is not a place for purists and dry fly fishermen. The creek demands stealth and swing casts. A short, stout 3X leader provides all the necessary tensile strength when you miss a strike and find your fly snagged on a branch overhead. I recommend the bow shot for those hard-to-reach pockets where you can't even swing your fly. Get down on your knees, grab your fly between your fingers with the hook facing up, bow your rod, aim and let fire!

I recommend using a size 10 Girdle bug or Yuk Bug. Fish them just like a dry fly. Naturally they will sink, but their white rubber legs in the dark, moss lined pools provide a lure which is easy to follow. When you see a trout flash, set the hook just as you would a dry fly. Here is a very small creek for the entire family to have fun.

Side Trip: Kootenai Creek Trailhead

Look for the sign north of Stevensville on Highway 97. The trailhead is two miles from the highway. Kootenai Creek is a fast, tumbling creek heavily used by rock climbers, backpackers and local fishermen. It is a great place to wet a line during the heat of the summer. Shaded most of the day, the creek offers an abundance of 6- to 8-inch cutthroats. This is pocket water fishing, and as such it requires scrambling up and over boulders and staying right in the water. Don't come too early, however, as the creek rages down the mountainside long after the Bitterroot has settled into its summer flows.

Side Trip: Bass Creek, Charles Water Campground

Charles Water Campground offers 20 camping units, four picnic spots, water, garbage and toilet facilities. The trailhead is 2.5 miles from Highway 93. The campground is designed for trailers and RVs and is very nice. The creek is a brushy tumbling creek with difficult access. Nonetheless, there is fair fishing for small trout wherever you can climb down off the trail to a pocket. It is a moderate hike to the picnic spot. The area just above the shallow ponds is good fishing for small cutthroats.

Saga: Bass Creek

When two four-legged animals come face-to-face on a precipitous trail at a blind spot, you have the makings of a high-country rodeo. Shadow, my black Lab, let out an alarmed woof. The mounted rider in the rear yelled, "Bear!" The horse reared, the rider grabbed the pommel with both hands, and I flashed forward to a courtroom where the first question asked of me was, "Did you have your dog on a leash and under control?"

"But your honor, not all the blame should rest solely on my shoulders. Shouldn't there be some shared responsibility with the wife who mistook my Labrador retriever who weighs 80 pounds for a premature grizzly release? And what about the husband? What's a pampered, citified horse doing on Bass Creek Trail? And what about Shadow? Doesn't she have the right to let out a choked snort when she is confronted by an alien sighting? Why, the man had on a huge white Stetson, a scarf and a John Wayne shirt with a string of buttons in a figure seven configuration!"

I wish I could say I made it all up, but it happened. I was horrified as I watched the horse spin on the up side of the trail with the rider holding on for dear life. I walked to higher ground where the horse could see us and talked to the two riders, but the horses were in a panic and would not come up the trail. I quickly leashed Shadow and walked down the trail, and all was well. The husband was apologetic for his horse, saying the horse had been trained around dogs and shouldn't have reacted. I was feeling much relieved when he openly confessed to his share of the responsibility. It seems that he had just looked down the cliff and thought to himself, "Oh, please, God, don't let me run into anyone on this spot." Suddenly Shadow appeared, his wife yelled, "Bear!" and he spooked an already panicked horse that was suffering from altitude sickness.

Bass Creek Lake trail winds up the canyon for eight miles to the lake at an altitude rise of over 3,000 feet, according to another middle-aged hiker I met. I planned a one night stay-over, and in retrospect I made the right decision. The lake was not at all as accommodating as Big Creek Lakes, my previous summer trek. I was too exhausted to hike to the back of the lake in search of a relatively flat 6X6 spot to pitch camp, so I joined the other two hikers and set up my camp on the level top of the earthen dam.

On the way back down I fished the creek in a beautiful park setting, but between the flies and the mosquitoes, we were punished severely for my off-trail fishing adventure. Sitting on a log in the middle of the tiny creek, I caught five small cutthroats, about the same size and the same number I had caught on the lake the previous evening. What Bass Creek lacks in fishing prospects, compared to the other creeks in the area like Kootenai Creek, it makes up for in scenery. One hour up the trail is a great picnic spot where the creek flattens out above an old timbered dam. The water is shallow, and it makes for a great day's outing for children. If you have never taken an evening stroll along one of these creeks, do so and discover the Bitterroot wilderness.

Side Trip: Lolo Creek

Exit Highway 93 to Highway 12 West in Lolo, Montana. Just a few miles south of Missoula, the community of Lolo rests at the junction of Highway 12, which leads to Idaho and the Lochsa River. A resting place for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lolo Creek parallels the highway for over 30 miles. Hosting a variety of species of trout, the creek proffers smaller 7- to 9-inch trout with the occasional spawning laggard. Years of logging and drought cycles have taken their toll on this pristine little crick. It gets pounded late spring and early summer. Some of the ranchers are becoming quite irritated over liberal interpretations of the high water mark. For a little seclusion, look for National Forest land where the creek falls away from the highway. Spring runoff turns this gentle canyon creek into an angry avalanche of water.

Lewis and Clark Campground: 15 miles west of Lolo. 17 campsites. Drinking water. U.S. Fee Area.
Lee Creek Campground: 26 miles west of Lolo. 22 campsites. Drinking water.

Side Trip: South Fork Lolo Creek

For years I had disdained fishing Lolo Creek, knowing it was heavily fished and heavily de-watered. But then I learned of the South Fork of Lolo Creek. It is a beautiful creek and loaded with 7- to 12-inch trout after you hike up the trail a few miles. If you would like to visit the South Fork of Lolo Creek, turn west on Highway 12 in Lolo and travel 10.2 miles until you see the sign for Elk Meadow Road on the left. Follow Elk Meadow Road 2.4 miles until it forks.

Follow the signs to the South Fork Lolo Creek Trailhead, which is two miles to the left. When you cross the bridge, you are at the trailhead. Just below the bridge is a parking and unloading zone. This spot is a picnicker's dream. Walk down the closed road a hundred yards to a field of daisies and bluebells. I fell in love with this spot on the creek. When I was there, July 19, the yarrow was in bloom as well as a number of other wild flowers. This beautiful creek is only 14.5 miles from Lolo, and it is perfect for children.

Saga: South Fork Fishing

After huffing and puffing up through a series of switchbacks and then hacking my way down a steep canyon with downfall (an apt description), I was poised for my first cast at what looked like my only opportunity after such an arduous descent. The creek was raging, and I could see that it was still too early to wade up the creek and avoid the brush and downed lodge pole. Stepping into the creek, I made my first cast, and my faithful Labrador mistook the move for a crossing. Later I recalled reading about Jack London's dog Buck in Call of the Wild. In a demonstration of obedience, Buck almost plunges over a cliff.

Shadow is not nearly so dutiful; she is more on the impetuous side. In she plunged at the worst place. Shocked, I stood powerless to help as she tumbled and glided through a series of falls and chutes. Swinging to the far side about 20 yards down the creek, she reminded me of an Olympian kayaker. She didn't whine, but her forlorn look and those droopy wet ears clearly communicated that we were separated, and she wanted me on her side of the "Creek of No Return".

The far side provided three or four separate pockets to fish. In a space of 40 yards I caught six fish, the largest a 12-inch German brown. I also landed a 10-inch rainbow and four very small cutthroats. Satisfied, I looked for a crossing, knowing I would be back later in the month when I could stay in the creek and have more freedom of movement. Shadow refused to cross at the spot I selected and we subsequently lost considerable ground. Although it was less harrowing than her first crossing, I was still concerned for her. She appeared to shake both the water and the experience off as she lunged up the mountain with her faithful master huffing and puffing behind her. Up the mountain she would run and then back down to stop in front of me with tilted head. I couldn't tell if she was giving me a look of kindness or pity as I groped for every lodgepole in my reach.

Float Trips

Float Trip 1: West Fork of the Bitterroot
During spring and early summer, this section can be dangerous. Check with one of the shops for the latest information.

Float Trip 2: Hannon Access (the bridge just south of the West Fork Road) to Wally Crawford (Como Bridge)

By far this is the most heavily floated section, yet the fishing is excellent. Plan a full day float or a short float to Darby Bridge.

Float Trip 3: Wally Crawford to Angler's Roost Campground

Be sure to register at Angler's Roost. Plan for a full day float, and be prepared to portage at Sleeping Child Dam.

Float Trip 4: Angler's Roost to Woodside (Corvallis Bridge)

Be prepared for a sharp turn and a huge rock just above Hamilton's Main Street Bridge. Below the bridge you will have to portage around a diversion dam. If you go over it, unload your passengers on the right bank above the dam. After you float under the silver bridge south of town, the river forks to the left past Blodgett Park (an exit site) or to the right. The right channel gets very low late in the summer, and the left channel can be snaggy and dangerous during high water.

Float Trip 5: Corvallis Bridge to Tucker West

Stay in the left (west) channel. This mid-section of the river from Tucker West to Bell Crossing loses a great deal of water from late July on, which makes for slow floating and, on low water years, some boat dragging.

Float Trip 6: Bell Crossing to Stevensville

A full day float.

Float Trip 7: Stevensville to Florence

This is a very full day float if you fish hard. Plan on taking out after the cocktail hour.

Float Trip 8: Florence Bridge to Lolo Sewage Treatment Plant

This too is a very long float both in mileage and slow water. You may shave off a couple miles by launching at Chief Looking Glass Campground. Keep in mind that you will have to portage your boat about 40 yards up a bank to the parking lot. Due to the warm summer water conditions, the fishing is generally poor until fall.

Bitterroot River Mileage Chart
The following mileage between access points is approximate calculations starting from Missoula and moving to Hannon Memorial south of Darby.

  • Maclay Bridge (Missoula-North Avenue) to Buckhouse Bridge (Missoula-Highway 93): 5.8 miles
  • Buckhouse Bridge to Lolo Treatment plant: 10.5 miles
  • Lolo treatment plant to Chief Looking Glass: 12.7 miles
  • Chief Looking Glass to Florence Bridge: 2.2 miles
  • Florence Bridge to Stevensville Bridge: 10.1 miles
  • Stevensville Bridge to Bell Crossing Bridge: 9.5 miles
  • Bell Crossing to Victor Crossing: 2.7 miles
  • Victor Crossing to Tucker Crossing: 4.2 miles
  • Tucker Crossing to Woodside (Corvallis bridge): 4.8 miles
  • Woodside to Silver Bridge (Hamilton city limits): 3.1 miles
  • Silver bridge to Main Street Bridge: 2.0 miles
  • Main Street Bridge to Angler's Roost: 4.5 miles (Ask for permission at Angler's Roost campground.)
  • Angler's Roost to Como Bridge: 9.8 miles
  • Como Bridge to Old Darby Bridge (private): 6.3 miles
  • Old Darby Bridge to Hannon Memorial: 3.8 miles