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Having read volumes about fall fishing in Montana, I drove my RV with two pontoon boats on the roof from my home in Oregon recently, then caravanned around the state with avid angler and fishing buddy, Terry Shultz, who drove his own RV from New York. Terry had read about the huge rainbows in the Kootenai River in the Northwest corner of Montana, and he insisted it be on the list of rivers we try. Despite warnings from fellow anglers that the “Koot” is in decline, it turned out to be the gem of the entire trip.

The Kootenai River is a big, wide tailwater fishery with flows commonly at or above 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The upper section (just below the dam), is home to some huge fish, including the state record rainbow (over 38 inches and 33 pounds!) landed in 1997. Montana Route 37 runs along this section and has numerous access points. When we were there in late September, river flows were 7,500 cfs which made it easier to wade. Yes, it is indeed a big river when 7,500 cfs is considered low water. Even in lower flows, this water is challenging to read, and it is best fished from a drift boat. Hiring a guide is clearly a wise option.

We booked three guided days with Linehan Outfitters. When you fish with the Linehan outfit, you meet at their guide shack in Libby, where the guides determine which stretch each boat will fish that day. Our guide, Steve Shaw, knew the river intimately from over 20 years of experience, and it was a delight to fish with him. In addition to putting us onto fish almost constantly, Steve also provided excellent information about where and how to fish on our unguided days.

Our first two days on the “Koot” were among my best guided days in Montana. Day One, we floated from Thompson Bridge, a few hundred feet below the dam, to “Re-Reg” boat ramp. This stretch is known as the “lunker” section of the Koot. However, because of the low flows, we did not get out our streamers and target them. It seems the biggest fish here are nearly impossible to locate during low water.

On this rainy and overcast morning, I cast a #14 parachute Adams directly to pods of rising fish, both while wading and when drifting. In most pods, the less noticeable “sippers” were, on average, larger than the obvious risers, so you had to watch carefully and cast accurately for the best results.

For many years, the “Koot” has had a slot limit, which requires you to release all fish between 13 and 18 inches. This has helped create a healthy population of strong and willing rainbows in that size range. Before lunch, I landed at least 10 fish between 13 and 17 inches and 20 or so that measured 10 to 13 inches. In the afternoon, when the skies lightened, we switched to hopper-dropper rigs. Hits on the hopper were explosive but we hooked about 2/3 of our fish on the dropper. My largest rainbow of the afternoon measured over 18 inches. These fish fight very hard like the Deschutes red-side rainbows I fish for in Oregon but are less brightly colored. Despite the non-stop action on good fish, we did not see another angler or boat on the river that day!

Day Two, we floated downstream from the town of Libby. Skies were overcast with some rain and I fished an Adams all day. We found multiple hatches and lots of rising fish. While targeting rising fish was a lot of fun and very productive, a good presentation to visible structure such as logs or large rocks was also effective. Some of our largest fish were hooked in these holding waters. In one stretch, Terry and I had five what we called “consecutives” – that is, instances when he would hook a fish from the front and, before he could land it, I would hook up in the back, then he would repeat before I could unhook, and so on…. We also had five or six doubles – two fish on at the same time. The fish, on average, were heavier than the first day.

Leader length makes a big difference on the “Koot.” Typically, I used a 9-foot, 4X tapered leader with an additional two to three feet of 5X tippet added to dead drift the #14 Adams. This worked both wading and from the back of the boat. Terry, on the other hand, had good success adding a weightless dropper, especially prior to hatches, when the dropper probably mimicked an emerger. He allowed his flies to swing downstream and hooked several trout at the end of the swing. It was hard to believe that our second day was even better than the first. Once again, there were no crowds to be seen.

On our last guided day, the temperature dropped and the rain increased – far from ideal conditions. Hatches were sporadic at best. It is testament to a great river that what we regarded as a slow day yielded over 15 strong rainbows on dry flies.
No trip to this area would be complete, of course, without seeing Kootenai Falls, made famous in the movie River Wild with Meryl Streep. It is a short hike down a beautiful wooded trail and well worth the effort. For a day of fishing on your own in this area, a great option nearby is the Fisher River. It’s much smaller than the “Koot,” easy to wade and has access spots along the road. Turn right at Libby Dam to reach this lovely river.

When I return to Montana, if the “Koot” is fishing as well as it was this past fall, I think I will spend a full week fishing there, with at least the first day guided. If you can row but don’t have any way to bring your own driftboat, you can rent one. Next time, I would probably choose that option rather than bringing my own pontoon boats all the way from Oregon.

Our base for fishing the Kootenai and the Fisher was the town of Libby, about two hours from Kalispell. We stayed at the clean, quiet, Hook U Up RV Park about 16 miles from town near Libby Dam. Anglers Roost, a nearby restaurant, has great dinners and a friendly atmosphere. If you want a guide in the area, call Tim and Joanne Linehan at Linehan Outfitting Company. Their phone number is: 800-596-0034. Their web address is: They charged $425 per boat per day, including lunch. Joanne Linehan’s wonderful home-made lunches were an added touch that made our days on the “Koot” even more special. – Sonja Nisson.

(Postscript: If you are interested in RV-based, on-your-own remote Western fishing adventures, Sonja Nisson has a treasure trove of tips and ideas she’s eager to pass on. Whether we pass them on in the newsletter or on our web site will depend on the amount of feedback we get. So, please do weigh in if you have interest. Write: timjones@angling

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