Montana Fly Fishing 4 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Bitterroot River in Montana

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

July 3, 2017

Bitterroot River Montana

Situated in between the Sapphire Mountains and the Bitterroot section of the Rocky Mountains is a scenic and lush area known as the Bitterroot Valley. It is in this valley that one of the best trout fishing rivers in all of Montana lies, the Bitterroot River.

The Bitterroot stretches 80 miles from the East Fork Bitterroot near Missoula to the West Fork Bitterroot near Connor, Montana. All along its length, the Bitterroot is full of a variety of trout and other fish that have made it one of the best fly fishing river in Western Montana.

All along the length of this scenic river– and through more than half of the year– one can catch plenty of cutthroat trout, rainbow trout or brown trout.

This quintessential trout river is an amazing freestone river comprised of miles of fishing features around every bend. Between the two forks of the river, anglers will find 80 miles of log jams, drop offs, undercut banks and deep pools and over 20 miles more in the forks themselves.

About Bitterroot River

Joe Cummings, owner and operator of Classic Journey Outfitters and Missoula River Lodge, documents the 4-day pursuit of a beautiful 21-inch brown trout on the Bitterroot River in Missoula, Montana.

Aside from all of these features, the Bitterroot is an incredible fly fishing spot because it is a veritable bug factory from March to November, with thriving hatches of caddis, mayflies and stoneflies throughout the year.

All of this combines to make the Bitterroot the best dry fly fishing river in Montana and one of the best along the Rocky Mountains.

Even in non-hatch conditions, many of the largest fish in the Bitterroot will often rise to dry flies, and it is no wonder that it is growing in popularity as a fishing hotspot.

Partly because of this popularity, the area itself is a growing, thriving community that offers lots of great places to stay, eat and socialize. The Bitterroot Valley is a lush, lovely and charming area, even without the fishing.

Bitterroot River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of fishing access spots on the Bitterroot River in Montana

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks maintains 13 fishing access sites on the Bitterroot that provide access for both the wade fisherman and for those looking to float the river. Bitterroot Fishing Access Sites (FAS) are shown on the map above and in the table below.  Click the map icon to get driving directions to each FAS.

Fishing Access Boat Ramp Camping
Darby Bridge Yes No
Bell Crossing Yes No
Poker Joe Yes No
Florence Bridge Yes No
Tucker Crossing Yes No
Hannon Memorial Hand Boat Launch Yes
Angler’s Roost No No
Demmons No No
Forest Cooper No No
Woodside Bridge Yes No
Chief Looking Glass Hand Boat Launch Yes
Bass Creek No No
Wally Crawford Yes No

The Forks of Bitterroot River

Known to locals simply as “the Root,” the Bitterroot River has over 80 miles of lush fishing grounds. Depending upon what you’re fishing for and when, the Bitterroot is a great place to catch cutties, rainbows and browns.

The river begins at the confluence of the East Fork Bitterroot and West Fork Bitterroot close to Connor and flows through the lush and scenic Bitterroot Valley on the way to the confluence of the Clark Fork near Missoula.

On the east side of the valley are the beautiful Sapphire Mountains, and the Bitterroot Mountains– a range within the Rocky Mountains– are on the west.

One interesting aspect of the Bitterroot River that aids in its capacity as a great fishing location is the flow of the stream itself. The Bitterroot is one of the few large rivers that flows from south to north.

Bitterroot River Flow and Current Conditions

Bitterroot River USGS Flow and Gauge Height

  • Streamflow: 3370 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 7.62 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph

Bitterroot River Fishing Tips

The upper portion of the Bitterroot River consist of a nice mix of woodland and grassy banks and is easy to wade.  Dry flies are the preferred ammo of choice, regardless of whether the fish are actively rising.

Further downstream, as the Bitterroot heads toward Missoula, the current slows and log strewn corners and grassy undercuts harbor more and larger rainbow and brown trout.

Floating the Bitterroot River is a popular approach on the lower river.  Here you would be best using dry flies from the boat. Particularly during summer, double and single dry flies dominate the fishing. Using dry fly rigs from the boat, presenting the fly ahead of the boat in a drag free manner close to the structure will get you the most success.

For nymphing on the Bitterroot, you could use a short leash with a short leader to two beaded nymphs with no weight. However, be careful of the many root wads and downed trees while doing so.

Best Time to Fish Bitterroot River

The Bitterroot offers great fishing opportunities beginning early in spring all the way up through November.

  • March is when the first stonefly hatch begins the excitement, and the Skwala’s are the main attraction.
  • April kicks off March Brown and Blue-winged Olive hatches that present a great opportunity and are some of the most dense hatches of the year.
  • May ushers in Spring run-off as the snow pack begins to melt and along with it the infamous Mother’s Day Caddis hatch.
  • June bring two more stonefly hatches (Salmonflies and Golden Stones) and Green Drakes. These big bugs provide the opportunity to hook some big fish, particularly towards the East Fork and West Fork of the Bitterroot.
  • July brings more Golden Stoneflies, the first appearance of Pale Morning Duns and lots of Caddis.
  • August is when terrestrial fishing becomes the main game.
  • September begins some of the best fishing as the Mahogany Dun begin to hatch, and the cool nights cause the trout to grow more aggressive.
  • October is time for tiny Blue Wing Olives that blanket the water.
  • November sees the streamer fishing pick up as the trout continue to feed aggressively before winter begins.

Bitterroot River Fishing Report

There are a number of area fly shops that publish Bitterroot River fly fishing reports.  A few to check out are listed below.

Fly Fishing Gear for Bitterroot River

Because of the various opportunities presented with the many hatching year-round, the types of flies you will need will depend upon the time of year you plan to fish the Bitterroot. However, the river is always going to be great for many types of dry flies. A nine-foot leader and 3x tippet are recommended along with a 9’ five weight fly rod and WF trout fly line.

Visit our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Montana for more information on trout fishing in the great state of Montana.