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Last April I had occasion to visit the Missoula area and the Bitterroot tributary of the Clark Fork, which may be the prettiest river in Montana. Better yet, I was there during the now-famous "skwala" stonefly hatch, unique in the northern Rockies for the superb pre-runoff dry fly fishing it provides, bringing up the river’s big browns and native cutthroats in a surface-feeding frenzy. This can be a dicey hatch – when I arrived it was too cold, and when I left it was too warm – but when you hit it right, it’s unforgettable.
This phenomenon was described very well in the January 1996 issue of The Angling Report (see pages 1-4) by correspondent Greg Thomas and subscriber Marvin Schultz. The information in that report is accurate in every detail. My purpose here is to add some valuable new information on developments since then.
The Bitterroot Valley is the fastest-growing part of Montana, doubling in population the last five years. It’s become a worldwide center for pre-cut log home construction. But the unmined and undammed Bitterroot remains unspoiled, apart from some ugly riprap attempting to tame it. Fishing is an important part of community life and well-protected by private landowners. Indeed, part of this growth has included the establishment of some very high quality fly fishing services and amenities not available even two years ago.
Most notable is the Bear Creek Lodge (*), equal or superior to any Alaskan lodge I know. It is situated along its lovely namesake trout stream near the town of Victor on the edge of the Bitterroot Wilderness. This huge log mansion is perfect for a family retreat, especially one mixing fishing and horses, as there is a complete stable facility. The cooking of hostess Elizabeth Turney has been featured on national TV shows. Her co-host and husband Roland is an accomplished bush pilot, and he offers unique fly fishing trips to wilderness air strips in the Central Idaho backcountry.
Talia’s Bitterroot Lodge (*) is another new high-end option, an excellent choice for small groups of up to six people who are focused on fly fishing during peak periods of the season. The elegant, rustic lodge has every modern convenience available, plus gourmet food, in a serene forested setting right on the river. Guides can take you out daily or you can explore miles of water right outside the door on your own. Owner John Talia is one of the best fishermen and guides on the river. Stays of three to five days are suggested; call well ahead for bookings.
Grizzly Hackle (*), long Missoula’s best fly shop, now offers another new lodging option, called the House on Butler Creek. This lodge is centrally located to the area’s great fisheries as a whole, including the Blackfoot and Clark Fork as well as the Bitterroot. The facility was designed with the fly fisher and outdoor explorer in mind. It features five bedrooms, sweeping views of the valley and gourmet meals by owner Jim Toth’s wife Cassie.
There’s a new guide service of special distinction in the valley called Wapiti Waters (*), run by Jack Mauer out of Hamilton in close association with the nearby lodges. Mauer was the best guide on the Big Hole for years, and he’s now the best guide on the Bitterroot. I was lucky to go down the river with him and John Talia this past April during one of those perfect windows when the skwalas were peaking. It was the ideal opportunity to take the river’s big browns on top, or any other way. We caught at least 10 in the 18 to 22-inch-class and lost as many more to 24 inches, plus beautiful cutthroats too numerous to count. Both Mauer and Talia are great oarsmen and spotters, with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where the fish are. Mauer still guides on the Big Hole, which is two hours away, as well as on the Clark Fork.
Finally, there’s an important new fly shop in Missoula called The Kingfisher (*). This complete fly fishing headquarters shop prides itself on being hard-core ("It’s about fishing, not fashion"), and is run by veteran local guides Matt Potter and Jim Cox, with 30 years of experience as far afield as Russia. Cox is a specialist on the Blackfoot, which he says is vastly improved and every year yields his biggest fish. He also notes that there is a major skwala hatch on the Clark Fork too, in fact much heavier than the Bitterroot’s, with many healthy 14 to 18-inch populations. It’s a good alternative for large numbers of good fish, though not the trophy browns, for which the Bitterroot has no equal.
These other rivers nearby make planning to fish the Bitterroot/Missoula area a safer bet than it might be otherwise, for where one might be blowing out, another can be fishing great. Still, to catch this fabulous pre-runoff fishing just right, it’s important to plan ahead and try to be flexible in your short-term timing. – Hugh Gardner.