Trout Fishing in the Bitterroot Mountains*

Guest Writer George O Shields

“I fish because I love to … because I love the environs where trout are found … not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant––and not nearly so much fun.” ~Robert Traver

IN September, 1884, I joined a party of genial sportsmen at Fort Missoula, Montana, for a month’s outing in the Bitter Root Mountains. Our special mission was to hunt large game; but while perfecting arrangements for the trip, which occupied two days, and during the mornings and evenings of the several days occupied in traveling up and down the river to and from the hunting grounds, those of us who had our fishing tackle with us turned what would otherwise have been long hours of impatient waiting into merrily-fleeing moments, by luring the grand mountain trout (Salmo purpuratus) with which this river abounds from their crystalline retreats and transferring them to our creels and our camp table.

The Bitter Root is a typical mountain stream, rising among the snow-clad peaks in the vicinity of the Big Hole basin and flowing with the mighty rush imparted to it by a fall of 200 to 300 feet per mile, fed by the scores of ice-cold brooks that tumble out of the high ranges on either side from its source to its mouth. After traversing a distance of perhaps 200 miles, it empties its pure waters into the Hellgate River, just west of Missoula.

Its valley is two to four miles wide, and the lower portion of this is occupied by numerous ranches. soil is tilled by well-to-do farmers or “ranchmen,” to speak in the vernacular of the country, so that the angler, while within a mile or two of rugged mountain peaks, is still in the midst of civilization, where his larder may daily be replenished with nearly all the varieties of good things that grow on any New England farm. The banks of the stream are fringed with stately pines and cottonwoods, and in places with thickets of underbrush.

From a tiny brook at its source the stream grows rapidly to a veritable river of thirty to fifty yards in width as it passes on toward its destination. It sweeps and whirls in its course, here running straight and placidly for a hundred yards, then turning abruptly to right or left and returning almost parallel to itself, forming “horse-shoe bends,” “ox-bow bends,” compound S’s, right angles, etc.

In many cases it tumbles down over a long, steep pavement of granite bowlders [boulders], working itself into a very agony of bubbles and foam, and when the foot of this fall is reached it whirls and eddies in a great pool ten or twenty feet deep and covering half an acre of ground, almost surrounded by high-cut banks, and seeming to have lost its way. It eventually finds an exit, however, through an opening in the willows and masses of driftwood, and again speeds on.

In many of these large, deep pools whole trees, of giant size, brought down by the spring freshets, have found lodgment beyond the power of the mighty current to drive them further, and underneath these drifts the angler is liable to hook a lusty trout that will make short work of his tackle if he be not very gentle and expert in manipulating it.

This river may be fished from a canoe or boat, if it be manned by a master of the art of fresh-water cruising; but no amateur oarsman or canoeist should ever attempt it or he will surely come to grief. It may also be fished from the bank or by wading; and I have even known it to be fished from the hurricane-deck of a cayuse, so that all lovers of the gentle art may be accommodated.

A large bump of caution would also be a good thing for the man to take along who essays to wade it, for he will find places—slippery places—where even the wicked can not stand; for over the surface thereof flows such a mighty torrent of waters that his pride will surely have a fall, even if he do not; if he get out with a dry thread on his back he will regard it as a miracle and not owing to any skill or strength of his. I think a day on that stream will take the conceit out of any living man and show him what a poor, weak worm he is, if he get into some of the places I have been in. He will find himself in positions from whence he would give half his worldly possessions to be delivered; where he would forgive his bitterest enemy the meanest thing he ever did if he were only there and would cast him a friendly line.

The bed of the stream is composed of glacial drift, all the rapids being paved with bowlders varying in size from an inch to two or three feet in diameter. These are worn smooth by the action of the water and coated with a light growth of fungus, so that they furnish a very precarious footing at best, and when the power of the raging torrent is brought to bear against one’s nether limbs, he is, indeed, fortunate who is not swept into the pool below.

On the riffles or more placid portions of the stream wading is not attended with so much danger or difficulty. And while the angler beguiles the hours in dalliance with these beauties of the river, gazing into its crystalline depths and toying with its poetic denizens, a glance to east or west reveals to him scenes of even grander and more inspiring loveliness; for there, so close as to reveal their every rock and shrub, tower the shapely peaks, the shattered crags and beetling cliffs which constitute the Bitter Root range of mountains. And even in midsummer the fresh, pure breezes sweeping down from these snow-clad summits fan his parched brow and render existence, under such circumstances, the realization of a poet’s dream.

On a bright, cheery September morning, Private Westbrook, of the Third Infantry, and myself left camp as soon as the sun had expelled the frost from the vegetation. On the way down we caught a number of grasshoppers—the orthodox bait in this region—to fall back on in case of necessity; for there are days when the mountain trout, as well as his cousin, the brook trout of the East, declines the most seductive fly on the bill of fare, and will have nothing but his favorite every-day diet.

Arriving at the river, Westbrook skirmished through the brush until he found an alder about an inch and a quarter in diameter at the ground and ten or twelve feet high. This he cut, trimmed up, and attached his line, a number two Sproat hook and a split shot, put on a “hopper,” and was ready for business. remonstrated gently with him on the heathenish character of his tackle, but he said, pleasantly and politely, that it was the kind that generally got to the front when trout-fishing was the business in hand. He said the fancy rods and reels and flies were all well enough for those who wanted to use them, but he preferred something with which he could round up his fish and corral them without losing any time. He said it was all right for any gentlemen to spend half an hour monkeying a trout after he had hooked it, if he wanted to, but for his part, he never could see much fun in that sort of fishing. He thought it was decidedly more interesting to yank a fish in out of the wet the instant he bit, and then lay for another.

He walked boldly out into the stream, waded down a little way below the ford, on a riffle, till he reached a point where the water was about two feet deep and where it rolled sullenly and gloomily over a series of large bowlders.

Here he made a cast, and his bait had barely touched the water when there was a vicious rush, a swirl and a dash downstream, but the cruel pole was brought to bear in the opposite direction. Then there was a flop, a splash, a hop, skip and a jump, and a three-pound trout took a header and went down into the soldier’s haversack.

The bait was renewed, another cast made, and the act was repeated on a half-pounder. Then another weighing one-and-a-half pounds and a couple of about a pound each followed in rapid succession, when this portion of the stream failed to yield, and Westbrook moved on down. I followed along the bank and watched him for half an hour before attempting to rig my tackle at all. To watch the play of the various emotions on his hard, brown, honest face; to study the effect of the intense enthusiasm which possessed him; to note the utter disregard of personal safety and comfort with which he would plunge into the surging rapids and eddies up to his waist, or even to his arm-pits, wherever he thought he could catch a trout by so doing, was a genuine treat.

Finally I went back to the ford, jointed up my rod, put on a gray professor, and walking down the bank to a sudden bend in the river where the current had cut a deep hole near the bank, I made a cast. The fly dropped on the riffle just above the eddy, and as it floated gracefully on the little wavelets down and out upon the bosom of the deep-blue miniature ocean, it turned hither and thither with the capricious currents that played there, for perhaps five minutes. was just in the act of reeling up for another cast, when a gleam of silvery light flashed upon my vision, flecked with settings of jet and gold. There was a mighty commotion upon the surface and a monster trout leaped full into the air as he seized the feathered bait and then shot down, down into the crystal fluid, leaving the water in the vicinity of his exploit bubbling, effervescing, and sparkling like the rarest old champagne. For the nonce I was paralyzed with the suddenness and viciousness of his coming and going, and my reel was singing merrily when I awoke to a realization of what it all meant.

Then I thumbed the cylinder and checked him in his wild flight, but he continued to fight his way clear down to the lower end of the pool, a distance of twenty yards. Then he turned and came toward me with the speed of an arrow, but the automatic reel took up the slack as rapidly as he gave it. When within twenty feet of me he turned out into the stream, and as I checked him he again vaulted into the air and the sun-light glistened on his beautifully-colored sides and fins as he struggled to free himself. Finding this impossible he started for the bank, where brush and roots projected into the water; but by a vigorous and fortunate sweep of the rod I was enabled to check him again. Again he sounded and again rushed up, down, and out into the river, but the steel was securely set, and he was compelled at last to succumb. Gradually I reeled him in, and as I brought him up to the bank he turned on his side exhausted. He weighed two and three-quarter pounds and measured seventeen inches in length.

I took two others, nearly as large, out of the same hole, and then proceeding down fifty yards, I saw a large cottonwood tree lying in the middle of the stream where it had lodged and been securely anchored, probably a year or two before. The current had scooped out a great cavity about its roots and I felt sure there must be a giant old trout lying amongst them, but I could not reach it with a cast from the shore. To attempt to wade to it I saw would be hazardous, for the channel between me and it was waist deep and ran with all the velocity of a mill tail.

But what danger will not an enthusiastic angler brave when in pursuit of a trout?

I started in, and when half way to the trunk, would gladly have retreated, but was actually afraid to attempt to turn in the midst of this current, so I pressed forward, finally reached the trunk of the tree and climbed upon it. I made a cast up near the root and hooked a handsome fellow, but after playing him until I had him completely under control and almost ready to land, the hook, which had been but slightly caught, tore out and he drifted down the river on his side.

Another effort secured a two-pounder, and failing to get any further encouragement, I climbed into the icy torrent and with great difficulty again reached the shore.

A little further down I saw another very deep pool, into which a small, green cottonwood tree had lately fallen and hung by its roots to the bank. I felt sure of making a good catch here, for the hole was ten or twelve feet deep, and the driftwood that had lodged about this tree afforded excellent cover for the wary old fellows that always seek such secluded and impregnable strongholds. The fly settled gracefully on the surface at the upper end of the pool, and as it floated listlessly down toward the drift, Westbrook, who had come down and was fishing from the bank opposite, said:

“You’ll get a good one there, sir. That’s a splendid hole for a big old fellow.”

“I think so; but he seems backward about coming forward.”

“Maybe that … bird has scared him,” said he, referring to a coot that floated unconcernedly and even impudently about the pool, eyeing us without a symptom of fear, but evincing the liveliest curiosity as to who and what we were.

I reeled up and made another cast farther out on the pool. As the fly fell, Mrs Coot swam up to it as if inclined to pick it up. I almost hoped she would, for I should really have enjoyed yanking her a few times. But she thought better of it, and turned away. After exhausting all my ingenuity on this pool, and finding it impossible to induce a rise, I laid down my rod, picked up a rock, and threw it at the ill-omened bird, whom I blamed for my lack of success.

Westbrook took his cue from this and also sent a rock after her. Both made close calls for her, but she only scurried about the livelier, making no effort to get away. She, however, swam behind a projection in the bank, so that I could not see her, and I told Westbrook to continue the attack and drive her out.

He picked up another bowlder as large as a league baseball and hurled it at her, when the dullest and most “thudful” sound I ever heard, accompanied by a faint squawk, came from behind the bank.

“Well, bleach my bones if I haven’t killed her!” said Westbrook, as he threw down his hat and jumped on it.

Sure enough, he had made a bull’s-eye, and a mass of feathers floated off downstream, followed by the mortal remains of the deceased. And now the trout were jumping at these stray feathers, and returning to the siege, we each caught a good one at the lower end of the pool.

We had now about as many fish as we cared to carry to camp, and started back up river. On our way we met Lieutenant Thompson, of the Third Infantry—also a member of our party—who had left camp about the same time we did, and we stopped and watched him fish awhile. The lieutenant is a veteran fly-fisherman, and it is a pleasure to see him wield his graceful little split bamboo rod, and handle the large vigorous trout found in this stream … playing a two-pounder while holding a string of six others in his left hand …. He had also filled his creel, and on our return to camp we hung our total catch, with several others that General Marcy had taken, on a pair of elk horns ….

Trout grow to prodigious sizes in the Bitter Root, as well as in several other streams in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington Territory. Indians frequently spear them through the ice, or take them in nets, some of these weighing ten to twelve pounds each. But these large ones rarely rise to the fly. However, Colonel Gibson, of the USA, commanding at Fort Missoula, took one on a fly that weighed nine pounds and two ounces, and other instances have been recorded in which they have been taken by this method nearly as large. They have frequently been taken on live bait, and have been known to attack a small trout that had been hooked on a fly, before he could be landed.

While I was hunting in the Bitter Root Mountains in the fall of 1883, a carpenter, who was building a bridge across the Bitter Root, near Corvallis, conceived the idea of fishing for trout with a set hook. He rigged a heavy hook and line, baiting with a live minnow, tied it to a willow that overhung one of the deep pools, and left it over night. By this means he secured three of these monster trout in a week, that weighed from nine to eleven and a half pounds each.

The supply of trout in the Bitter Root seems to be almost unlimited, for it has been fished extensively for ten years past, and yet a man may catch twenty-five to fifty pounds a day any time during the season, and is almost sure to do so if he is at all skillful or “lucky.” I know a native Bitter Rooter who, during the summer and fall of 1884, fished for the market, and averaged thirty pounds a day all through the season, which he sold in Missoula at twenty-five cents a pound. Of course, the majority of the ranchmen along the stream do little or no fishing, but the officers and men at Fort Missoula do an immense amount of it, as do the residents of the town of Missoula; and visiting sportsmen from the East take out hundreds of pounds every season. But the stream is so large and long, and its net-work of tributaries so vast, and furnish such fine spawning and breeding grounds, that it is safe to say there will be trout here a century hence. The heathen Chinee [Chinese] has never been permitted to ply his infamous dynamite cartridge here, or in any of the streams of this vicinity, as he has long been doing in Colorado, Nevada, and elsewhere, and this fact alone would account for the unimpaired supply in these streams.

The reproductive power of the mountain trout is equal to all the tax likely to be levied against it here by legitimate sportsmen, and if dynamiting and netting are prohibited hereafter, as heretofore, no fear need be felt as to the future supply.

The market fisherman of whom I spoke was a faithful devotee to the fly, and never would use any other lure. A white or gray hackle was his favorite. He used a stiff, heavy pole, however, about ten feet long, cut from the jungles that grow on the river bottom, and a heavy line, a foot shorter, with double gut for attaching the fly. He fished from the shore or waded, as was necessary to reach the best water. He cast with both hands, and the instant the fly touched the water he would raise the tip so that the line would just clear, and then trail or skitter the fly gently, but rapidly, toward him. Thus, the line being taut, when the fish arose to the fly he would simply hook himself. Then he was ignominiously “yanked,” and either landed high and dry on mother earth or in the ranchman’s gunny-sack.

Although devoid of sport and requiring little skill, it was the most effective method of filling a “bag” that I have ever seen practiced. I have seen him take ten to twenty-five trout in an hour’s fishing and not miss a single rise. I had this man with me on a hunting trip, and whenever we came within two miles of a trout stream our table was sure to be supplied with an abundance of fish.

I visited Fort Maginnis in September, 1883, and during my stay, Capt F H Hathaway kindly invited me to spend a day trouting with him on Big Spring creek, a beautiful stream that flows out of the Snowy Mountains about twenty-five miles from the post. We left the captain’s quarters at noon, comfortably seated on his buckboard, while Sam, Fishel, and Dick Thomas rode their horses and drove a pack-mule, which carried a part of our provisions, the remainder being carried on the buckboard.

We covered the twenty-five miles by six o’clock, camping at the base of the Snowies, within two miles of the source of the creek, which source is a cluster of large cold springs. We pitched our tent on the bank of the creek, where it murmured sweet music in its course over the rugged bottom and lulled us into quiet and refreshing sleep with its rhythmical sounds. When we awoke the next morning the foot-hills all about us glistened with frost, and the high peaks, three or four miles away, were draped in a mantle of spotless white, which the storm-king had spread upon them a few days ago.

Notwithstanding the lateness of the season, a few musquitoes [mosquitoes] began to sing about our ears as soon as the sun came up. Fishel, who was full of droll good nature, observed them.

“Well, look here,” he said, as he broke the ice in the water pail and dipped out a basinful to wash in, “I’ll be … if here aint a lot of these measley musquitoes buzzing around here with buffalo overcoats on.”

The keen mountain air at this low temperature, and the grand scenery with which we were surrounded, combined to sharpen our appetites, and our breakfast beside a rousing camp-fire was enjoyed as only a meal can be enjoyed amid such surroundings. soon as the sun had risen high enough to banish the frost and warm the air slightly, the grass all about us was set in motion by thousands of grasshoppers who gamboled playfully, in order, apparently, to warm up their benumbed limbs and get an appetite for breakfast. All hands then turned out and harvested a goodly supply of them, for we had been advised that the trout in that stream would not take a fly so late in the season.

Then we proceeded to business; the captain and Dick fishing up the stream and I down, while Sam took his rifle and went across the hills in search of game. The stream, where we started in, was not more than three to four feet wide and two feet deep in the deepest holes, yet at the first cast I hooked a trout that after a few vigorous plunges took the barb off my hook and departed. I put on a new one and had better luck next time, for in another hole a few rods farther down I took one that weighed a pound and a half.

In the meantime the captain shouted to me, and looking up the stream I saw him displaying one of about the same size. We each followed our courses, and did not meet again for some hours, when the captain came down to see how I was getting on. He had eight and I had six, the average weight of which was over a pound each. He relieved me of my load and returned to camp, and from that time on did but little fishing himself, preferring, in the fullness of his generous nature, to devote the most of his time to accompanying me, showing me the most favorable points, exulting in my success, and in every way possible promoting my comfort. Whenever he left me for a short time he would send one of his men to take my fish to camp, dress them, and do anything and everything else possible for me.

I fished down the creek nearly two miles during the day, going over parts of the stream two or three times, not ceasing from the fascinating sport long enough to even eat a lunch that I carried in my pocket. Nor did I turn my steps toward camp until it became so dark that the fish would no longer rise. Then, when I started campward, I met Dick coming with an extra saddle horse which the captain had kindly sent for me to ride.

After supper came the always charming social intercourse around the camp-fire, the exchange of personal notes of the day’s sport—the experience meeting, so to speak. No one had misgivings to record so far as the fishing was concerned. had enjoyed his full measure of the grand sport, as was evidenced by the display of the several strings of salmon-colored beauties which hung around the camp-fire. There was not a fingerling in the entire catch. No one had caught a trout during the day of less than four ounces in weight, and very few of that size had been taken. The majority of them ranged between half a pound and two pounds, and the numbers were only limited by the amount of work each had done. My friends, being residents and accustomed to this kind of sport whenever they choose to enjoy it, had not cared to fish all day, and consequently had not taken so many as I, but had taken all they wanted.

The only man in the party who had anything to regret in the day’s experience was Sam. He had started a large bull elk early in the morning and had followed him several miles, but had not been able to get a favorable shot, though he had twice caught sight of him. We all sympathized deeply with him in his misfortune, for Sam is an expert shot with the rifle, and if he had ever drawn a bead on the game we should have had elk steak on our table at the next meal, sure.

We broke camp early the next morning and prepared to start for home, but decided to fish down the creek till near noon before leaving it. We drove down about a mile, when I alighted and started in, the others distributing themselves at other points along the stream. The trout rose as rapidly and gamily as on the previous day, and I soon had a load in my creel that pulled down uncomfortably. Among them was one old nine-spot which turned the scales at two and a quarter pounds after having been out of the water over two hours. He measured seventeen and a half inches in length.

The captain told me of a certain deep hole where he said an old pioneer made his headquarters, who had taken off two hooks and leaders for him on two different days during the summer. When I reached the hole I recognized it in a moment by the captain’s description. It was in a short bend or angle of the creek. On the opposite side from where I stood, and on the lower angle of the square, the channel had cut a deep hole under an overhanging bank, which was covered with willows. These drooped over the water and shaded it nicely. There was a slight eddy there and the surface of the water was flecked with bits of white foam which came from the rapids just above. What a paradise for a wary old trout!

I stopped about forty feet above the hole and put on one of the largest hoppers in my box; then I reeled out ten or fifteen feet of line and cast into the foot of the rapid. As the current straightened out my line I reeled off more of it and still more until it floated gently and gracefully down into the dark eddy, and when within two feet of the edge of the bank there was a whirl, a surge, a break in the water, as if a full-grown beaver had been suddenly frightened from his sun bath on the surface and had started for the bottom. I saw a long, broad gleam of silvery white, my line cut through the water, and the old-timer started for his bed under the bank.

I struck at the proper instant, and, bending my little split bamboo almost double, brought him up with a short turn. He darted up the stream a few feet, and again turning square about started for his den. I snubbed him again. This time he shot down the creek, and, turning, made another dive for his hiding place. Again I gave him the butt, but this time he was determined to free himself, and with a frantic plunge he tore the hook from his mouth and disappeared in his dark retreat.

My heart sank within me, when I realized that he was gone. He was truly a monster, fully two feet long, and I think would have weighed four pounds or over. I reeled up and made two or three more casts in the same hole. His mate, a comely-looking fellow, but not nearly so large, came out once and smelt of the bait but declined to take it. He had evidently seen enough to convince him that it was not the kind of a dinner he was looking for. I fished down the creek for an hour and then returned and tried the old fellow again, but he had not yet forgotten his recent set-to with me, and refused to come out. I presume he is still there, and will probably reign for some years to come, the terror of tackle owners, unless someone gets a hook firmly fastened in his jaw, and has tackle sufficiently derrick-like to land him; and whoever that lucky individual may be, I congratulate him in advance. My tackle would have held him if I had been fortunate enough to get the proper cinch on him, and the only thing I have to regret in thinking of the trip, is that I was not so fortunate.

We had enough, however, without him. We took home forty-eight trout that weighed, when dressed, sixty pounds, and of all the many days I have spent fishing in the many years long gone, I never enjoyed any more intensely, never had grander sport than in these two days on Big Spring creek.

It has been stated that the mountain trout lacks the game qualities of our Eastern brook trout. I have not found it so. They are quite as gamy, as vicious in their fighting, and as destructive to fine tackle as the brook trout, the only perceptible difference being that they do not fight so long. They yield, however, only after a stubborn resistance, sufficiently prolonged to challenge the admiration of any angler. I have caught a number of two and three pounders that required very careful and patient handling for twenty to thirty minutes before they could be brought to the landing net.

There are various other streams along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad which afford almost equally as fine sport as the Bitter Root, and some of them that are even more picturesque and beautiful. In fact, nearly every stream reached by the road, between Billings and Puget Sound, teems with these graceful beauties. By leaving the road at almost any point on the Rocky Mountain or Pend d’Orielle Divisions and pushing back into the mountains twenty to one hundred miles, the enterprising angler may find streams whose banks have seldom been profaned by the foot of a white man; where an artificial fly has seldom or never fallen upon the sparkling blue waters, and yet where millions of these beautiful creatures swarm, ready to rush upon anything that reaches the surface of their element bearing the least resemblance to their natural food, with all the fearless enthusiasm of untainted and unrestrained nature. In these wilder regions the tourist will also find frequent use for his rifle, for elk, bear, deer, mountain sheep, and other large game may yet be found in reasonable quantities in all such undisturbed fastnesses.

“Trout that doesn’t think two jumps and several runs ahead of the average fisherman is mighty apt to get fried.” ~Beatrice Cook

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

* George O Shields, Cruisings in the Cascades / A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, Amateur Photography, / Hunting, and Fishing (Chicago, New York: Rand, McNally, 1889), Chapter 26. Photos, quotes added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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