Big Sky, Montana


Trout caught in Bitterroot River, Montana
Trout caught in Bitterroot River, Montana

The west has a certain draw to me where I yearn to get back to the Rocky Mountains year after year. The cool running mountain rivers are thriving with healthy wild trout populations which make the urge even stronger. The low humidity and dry air make for comfortable conditions in the summer. Flying tests my patience to the max, but it’s the quickest way to get there for sure. Thankfully our flights went fairly smooth with a short delay only putting us back half an hour. It always amazes me that I can wake up in my own bed and then fish the waters of Montana the same evening.
After landing in Bozeman, we got our rental vehicle which had Hawaii license plates. I scratched my head on that one. Needless to say other people noticed as well. In Ennis I watched a woman walk by and do a double take and then mouthed the words “that vehicle is from Hawaii”. On the Gallatin River a van pulled behind where had parked to fish and when I looked up a girl was taking a picture of the rental vehicle. I told Tara we’d get out and say “A-lo-ha” to everyone we saw. One look at us and my West Virginia accent, which everyone notices out there, would have caused more confusion I’m sure. After picking up our Hawaiian ride we drove to Twin Bridges and the Ruby River. We found this place by driving around years ago and caught some nice brown trout on hoppers. As a fisherman, I never forget where I catch fish.
We parked at the access and started walking down the river when Tara stopped and said “There’s a moose looking at us”. Sure enough, there was a cow moose about 75 yards away staring right at us. Cow moose with calves are known to be very dangerous as they’re highly protective of their young. “We’ll skip that bend in the river” I told Tara.
We fished the Ruby for an hour or so and never saw a fish. I’m not sure what was up as the water looked good and a few hoppers were jumping around in the fields. There were a few other fishermen on the river and I figure we were fishing behind them. Regardless, it had been a long day as we got up at 2:15 am, so we decided to drive to Dillon and call it a day.
The next morning we were both eager to catch our first fish of the trip. We drove through the Big Hole Valley over into the Bitterroot Mountain range. I had never fished the Bitterroot River before so it was all new country to me. Just like everywhere else in southwest Montana, the scenery was beautiful. The Bitterroot River is known for its west slope cutthroat population. The west slope cutthroat is a native fish species in Montana just like our brook trout are here. The Bitterroot has the biggest west slope cutthroat with fish up to 21 inches being caught there. Of course this was another reason why I wanted to fish it.
The first place we tried was below the east and west forks and it didn’t take long to find the first fish, however it was a whitefish. Whitefish are a good indicator species of good water quality but not what I came to Montana to catch. Tara can’t stand catching them and it makes me laugh every time she hooks one hearing her complain about it the whole time while she’s reeling it in. “Stupid whitefish” she calls them.
Not long after I released the whitefish, I caught another one. Of course Tara was laughing then. Finally in the next hole I found a small cutthroat that was willing to bite. He wasn’t big, but he was a cutthroat and that’s all that mattered.
The sun had climbed high in the sky and the daytime heat was setting in so I suggested we head upstream into the mountains to find cooler temperatures. We drove up the east fork to where the river turns away from the road and runs into the backcountry. It proved to be a good choice as every hole was full of cutties. We proceeded to catch several including a couple nice ones before I took a hard fall and a rock to the shin. Immediately a knot the size of a golf ball welted up. I was soaked as I went in almost to my neck. As I sat on a rock in pain Tara asked me what I wanted to do. “Keep on fishing, they’re biting too good to quit now” I replied.
After a few minutes the cool mountain water numbed my leg and I was back to fishing. I moved a little slower but still managed to tough it out and catch more fish. I honestly lost count of how many we landed. As the sun started to drop we hiked out of the backcountry, bruised but happy. We drove back to Dillon as the sunset over the Pioneer Mountains. The next day was action packed as a float on the Beaverhead River provided numerous big fish. I’ll talk about that next time. Stay tuned.

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