It’s chaos on the ‘root most spring days with untold numbers of rafts floating down the river, filled with anglers all hoping to get the first throw at fish looking up for stoneflies.
I didn’t make it this year because of deadlines with Fly Rod & Reel and Big Sky Journal, and I heard the wrath from friends. But my wife went to California last week and I headed to Missoula with the two young ones in tow. Part of the equation was my friend’s teenage daughters, a couple responsible girls who I could leave my girls with and rest assured everything would be ok.
With full cooler onboard we headed out on Saturday and arrived at Bell Crossing around 11 a.m. What did we find? One boat, two anglers, newbies from Oregon looking forward to a float down their adopted home stream. Where were the masses? Where were the anglers that everyone laments? The nearby Blackfoot was blown out. The Clark Fork, too. Rock Creek was probably gushing also. But the Bitterroot was looking clean, moving along no doubt, but highly fishable. And there was no pressure. Fact is, when the transplants spun around the first bend we never saw them again, nor did we see another angler. The river to ourselves.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many skwalas around, although we did see a nice hatch of March browns. The swallows took advantage of that hatch, but the fish gave those bugs no heed. Didn’t matter. I’m kind of into streamers these days, throwing a lot of Galloup inventions, and I wanted to see what a solid streamer day could be on the Bitterroot.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried this before; when I lived in Corvallis in the 1990s I threw for big fish every chance I got and that meant massive, weighted offerings that probably scared as many fish away as they drew near. But I remember one time, just above Bell, when I sank one of those big streamers into a major bucket, bounced bottom twice and hooked up on a monster. I never saw the fish, but the rod bent like I’d hooked bottom and then I felt the rhythmic pull of a large fish. I have no doubt it was five-pound or bigger brown, something the Bitterroot doesn’t kick out very often. I was pretty pissed when I lost that fish, but I marked the spot and vowed to dredge it again someday.
I didn’t get that chance Saturday, but we fished some absolutely gorgeous water for trout, checked some backchannels for pike, and ended up having one great spring day. The temperature was cold and snow weaved out of the Bitterroot canyons, but we were well fortified and kept at the streamer game until early evening. A friend, Dan, hooked eight fish and I hooked a few less than that, including one that threw the trailer hook, a fish I’d like to have back. Twenty inches for sure, maybe a bit bigger.
All in all, it wasn’t red-hot streamer fishing but how many fish do you need when there’s nobody on the water and one of your friends won’t even give you a stint on the sticks. “Just keep throwing,” he said a couple times, “this is the first time I’ve been out this year and I’m loving it.”
Like a lot of angling events, the skwala hatch brings scads of anglers to Bitterroot, a time when everyone feels they need to be on the water or they’re really missing something. And then something else happens; those anglers wander away and the river is there for the taking. I think that’s the deal on the ‘root right now. Decent fishing between hot weather, few skwalas, but some really good browns looking out from under the woody debris and logjams for streamers. Get it while you can.