Big Sky, Big Rivers

[In which the lands and waters of western Montana are reflected in the 5th post of my series entitled “Top of the Rockies.” I’ve decided that I’ll need to do an additional post or two, concluding with Glacier National Park and Theodore Roosevelt in ND. As always, thank you for rambling along!]

Royal Coachman over tackle shop in Ennis

Driving north we took an old campsite of mine along the West Fork Madison River. There the main branch of the Madison had a high, uncomfortable flow so I opted for an evening of easy casting on the West Fork. Early the next day, we pushed on for Ennis, the famous river’s coffee and fly-shop haven where we settled in for breakfast.

The Madison near Ennis provided easier wading in its clear but rapid waters. Though I fished for only 90 minutes or so, I caught at least half a dozen brown and rainbow trout, all of them on the smaller side of life, though I had unsuccessful chases from a couple of finny submarines that almost caused a heart attack when they leapt for a high and dry Purple Haze.

Ennis has a fine distillery with tasting tables on its main street, and I think we helped support the business there (as is customary in our role as spirit hunters) but I don’t recall more than a taste or two because we had miles to go before the evening hour reigned us in at Sula. En route we stopped along the Big Hole River.

look familiar? at the Big Hole

I had enjoyed the Big Hole on a previous visit and even took a photo there that eventually became the masthead picture that adorns the home page of Rivertop Rambles. On this occasion we pulled up to a place too low, too weedy and too warm for a catch of grayling, though I found some colder water in a pool with rising trout. An Ant pattern accounted for a catch of two nice rainbows there.

rainbow from the Big Hole

We’d reserved a cabin at the Lost Trail & Hot Springs Resort in Sula, Montana and we arrived there in the evening just in time for some terrific beer and pizza underneath the ponderosa pines. The slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains grow impressive conifers (and trout streams).

a west-slope cutthroat

I noticed how many of the songbirds in this area remained busy raising a second brood of young ones. Rufous-sided hummingbirds, mountain bluebirds, and American robins nested close to our neat little cabin on the slope. After a round of fishing on the East Fork Bitterroot the next morning, a coyote and a small group of young Rocky Mountain sheep appeared before us on the roadway back to Sula.

young mountain sheep near Sula

High up in the national forest, the East Fork offered me some of the best fishing of this trip. The first of several 15-inch west-slope cutthroats was caught in pocket water only a few minutes after starting out. Wading was often difficult in this rocky stream, but the fishing was fast and furious (as it was on the West Fork for me back in 2010, but more on that in a moment). I found a long pool in the evergreens where the white water calmed down and provided the trout with excellent dining opportunities.


The first fish that came to me in the long pool was a brook trout followed by a lot of 10 to 15-inch cutthroats and then three whitefish waking up to their breakfast hour and closing down the show. Whitefish are salmonids that grow pretty large but tire quickly after their small mouths suck in a dry fly. A total of 16 fish were caught and released before I quit the East Fork in anticipation of proceeding to the West Fork Bitterroot, and all of those fish were hooked on a single Stimulator dry fly that remained in excellent shape.

cuttie with a previous hook injury

Unfortunately the West Fork was a fishing disappointment, especially in light of the excellent time I had there on a previous visit, but I’m glad I checked it out once more. The poor showing might have been because the midday heat was just too much and the hatch was off, but I caught nothing in the hour or two I spent exploring this venerable stream. It was time to push off and drive up toward Missoula.

smoke from forest fire near Missoula

Forest fires plagued the region that surrounded Montana’s second largest city, and the smoke from several fires seemed to follow us for a while, especially when we stopped to check on the Blackfoot River and its possibilities. It was too damned hot to fish the legendary Blackfoot. With an air temperature in the high 90s, it was hotter here than it was in Alamogordo, New Mexico when we started on our northward trek.

Clearly it was time to think about Glacier National Park.

a nice westslope from the East Fork Bitterroot

South Fork Flathead River near Glacier Nat’l Park

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Big Sky, Big Rivers

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    Awesome pics, Walt; they truly add weight to the words. My buddy Jeff, the aspiring mountaineer, will be heading through there next week as he heads west to attempt a summit of Ranier. He’s hoping to spend at least a night in Yellowstone.

  2. Jet Eliot says:

    I so enjoyed rambling with you through the Montana woods and rivers, Walt. Your descriptions are engaging and inviting, the photos and wildlife, gorgeous. And pizza and beer under the pines, ahh. My thanks…

  3. plaidcamper says:

    What a wonderful post, Walt! This is semi-familiar territory for us, but we’re not heading south this year, so this is a treat, and I read it with some yearning. The photographs are beautiful – particularly the shot of the whitefish over the golden river bed.
    The heat when we head down into Montana surprises us every time, and yeah, forest fires are huge every summer. I think there’s a big smoke jumper training centre near Missoula. Brave people.
    Very happy this series isn’t over yet! (And I’ll echo you and Jet – pizza and beer under the ponderosa pines, oh yeah…)

    • I knew we were getting close to your neck of the woods, Plaid, as we closed in on the shadows of Glacier and the Flathead tribs leaving the heat and smoke of Missoula behind us. Originally we had even hoped to enter your Canadian province but that was pushing it given our time frame. And the fact that I need a passport renewal. But maybe some year soon! Thanks, as always, Adam.

  4. Brent says:

    Here I am, a bit late! I’m glad we spent the day hiking in the Shenandoah National Park, or your pictures here would make me sorely miss the trip out west. It’s nice to see you take us (again) to the source of the iconic RR masthead. Here’s hoping (in a literary sense, since I know the answer in real life) that Glacier helped the temperatures cool down a bit!

  5. Temperatures sound good for this time of year!

  6. Ralph Long says:

    Cutts and Whitefish……it’s been many years. Thanks much for sharing Sir!

  7. Does life get any better than this? I think not. I’m glad you got the chance to revisit familiar places and make some new memories. Great post Walt, thanks!

  8. Les Kish says:

    Walt, I gotta give you credit for laying down the rubber, making tracks and covering the water. You did a lot with a limited amount of time.

  9. I am enjoying reading of your travels in the west!

  10. JZ says:

    Walt, sometimes the best laid plans can go awry depending the weather. When excessive heat and forest fires can prove to much for the fisherman. It seems like you always had a nice back-up plan. They say life is about constant adjusting and it seems you did that very well here Walt. Also, the sights and smiles along the way always make-up for broken plans. At least I think so! I could easily take a trip out west and never hold a fly rod and enjoy myself immensely. Although wetting a line would be tough not to do, laugh!
    Those purple haze’s and stimulators served you well I am sure. The fish there enjoy them as much as sunfish here enjoy small poppers at dusk on ponds. The pictures of the South Fork Flathead river brings back smiles to me, as do them westslope cutthroat trout. Such a wonderful place to visit and to wonder through. Someday I will go back and see the stars from that different angle. To witness beauty so grand that your breath is shortened and your thoughts still ramble-on longing. Thank you Walt for bringing them home and the kindness of sharing them to us…awesome!

    • JZ, you got it! Time is too short when on a trip like this not to have some kind of back-up plan. In my case, back-ups were plentiful because a northward journey along the Rockies presents so many choices, far more than any single trip could cover. For example, I couldn’t get to the Conejos but the Rio Grande was close enough and not so far off track that our timing would suffer. No problem! As for the South Fork Flathead, I didn’t get into the wilds above the reservoir as perhaps you did, but fishing on the Middle Fork made up for that a little (more to come in the next post!). You’re welcome, and thanks so much for your thoughts!

  11. loydtruss says:

    Really enjoyed reading this installment, those Bitterroot Mountains are awesome, along with the streams you fished. I assume that all the trout were landed on dries? Thanks for sharing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.