[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!]
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.