The West Fork of the Bitterroot River

It was on the suggestion of a friend years ago that we first fished the West Fork of the Bitterroot near Darby, Montana. On that mid-July day, as I played yet another 16+ inch rainbow that devoured my Orange Stimulator, I was hooked.

A tailwater, the West Fork flows from the Painted Rocks Reservoir for more than fifteen miles before joining the East Fork to form the Bitterroot River near Darby, MT. This mountain stream’s origin can be found near the height of land on the Montana/Idaho border in the Bitterroot Mountain Range. Here the small stream churns through a mix of forest and ranch lands before flowing into Painted Rocks Reservoir.

While small cutthroat, rainbows, and brook trout live in the stream above the reservoir, larger cutthroat, rainbows, and some big brown trout can be found below the dam downstream to the main stem.

Fly Fishing the West Fork

The West Fork flows 200 – 400 CFS in summer – just a delight to fish either by wading or by raft. Dropping in elevation from the dam to the valley floor in Darby, the fork is a winding, run-riffle-pool stream. A well-worn angler path is easily found leading from public accesses.

With small water such as this, if you are not having luck in the spot you are at, just walk upstream or down a short distance and behold, great looking trout water. And of course, the further you venture from the easy access spots, the fishing pressure drops considerably.

Nymph fishing the West Fork of the Bitterroot

A Scrappy Cutthroat Trout

West Fork of the Bitterroot River Below Painted Rocks Reservoir

West Fork of the Bitterroot River Below Painted Rocks Reservoir

Big River Sized Trout in Small Water

Perhaps the thing that I love most about the West Fork is catching big-river-sized fish in a wade-able stream. There is nothing like wading into a cold mountain stream in August, thigh deep, and catching 14-18+ inch trout.

And while that has been our experience with the West Fork, it was not to be this year. We planned our visit to coincide with the Spruce Moth hatch. What we found instead was no rising trout, no spruce moths. C’est la vie.

The Hatches

Hatches come later here – which is a huge plus in my opinion. In years past, after the Spruce Moth hatch ended on our home waters, we’d head over to the West Fork for more topwater action with the big bugs.

The same can be said for the Salmonflies and Golden Stones. The first time I fished a salmonfly pattern successfully in Montana was in July on West Fork – two weeks after it was all over on more famous Montana rivers.

Bonnie Mitchell of the Bitterroot Fly Company notes important hatches on the West Fork as Hoppers, Hecuba, and Blue Winged Olives. Her shop in downtown Darby offers fishing reports and maps of both the West and East Forks of the Bitterroot.

Map of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River

Fishing the West Fork of the Bitterroot River During the Spruce Moth Hatch

Fishing the Spruce Moth Hatch in 2014

Daisies growing along the River

Daisies Growing Along the River

Access To The River

Access to the river improves the further upstream you go.

High Bank

Just a half mile after the Conner Cut-Off Road on the left is the High Bank access. Here you’ll find gravel bars and easy access to the river. This is a really great place to start. Just 3.5 miles from the main stem, larger fish lurk in the deeper runs near High Bank.

Trapper Peak Job Corps

Primitive boat launch across a wooden bridge.

Applebury

A highlight for us this year was discovering the Applebury access near the 12-mile mark. In past years we drove right by on our way to favorite spots. This year when our favorite spots were so-so, we pulled in and immediately started catching nice Cutts. Applebury has a couple of primitive campsites and a launch.

West Fork Boating Access

Here you’ll find an improved launch and angler paths up and downstream. We walked downstream and found fishing improved the further I was from the access.

Lisa’s Corner

A spot on the Bitterroot just for me? Probably not. Near the 16 mile marker, there is a pull-out with a street sign indicating Lisa’s Corner.  Sweet water for sure! Find the path down the bank and fish upstream and the deep corner. From here on up, most of the riverbank is public with forest roads into good spots to dry camp and fish. Private land is pretty obvious, so avoid that.

Rombo Campground

Take the turn into the campground and pull over before you enter. Walk down the bank for access to some fishy spots.

18.5 Miles

Not signed, there is a forest road that leads to a couple of primitive campsites and a launch. Access the river anywhere along this bumpy road.

Alta Campground

Above Painted Rocks Reservoir, the Alta Campground offers access to the small West Fork. Expect small cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout here. If you are into Tenkara, bring your rod!

West Fork of the Bitterroot Above Painted Rocks Reservoir

Small Water Above Painted Rocks Reservoir

Tailwater Dam on Painted Rocks Reservoir

Dam at Painted Rocks Reservoir

West Fork of the Bitterroot River Stream Flow

USGS Stream Flow - West Fork Bitterroot River Near Conner, Montana

West Fork Fishing Restrictions

West Fork of the Bitterroot Fishing Regulations

Planning a Fishing Trip to the West Fork of the Bitterroot

The Bitterroot Valley has all the modern amenities. Great cell service, an eclectic collection of bars and restaurants, and a quality fly shop for every 15 miles of river. Take a turn off Highway 93 heading towards Painted Rocks Reservoir and services are scarce.

It is a 23-mile drive to the reservoir, much of which is a paved, winding road as the canyon narrows. Cell service ends after 4 miles so a little forward planning makes sense.

Gas up in Darby or Sula, Montana and grab a bag lunch, some water, and snacks while you’re at it. There are no gas/convenience stores along the way.

Nearby Fly Fishing Waters

In Montana, there are lots of great fly fishing waters to try. Here are a few that are close to the West Fork.

Kathy at Bitterroot Fly Company is an expert on the numerous mountain lakes in the area. Bring your hiking boots and pack rod to a wilderness fly fishing trip in the Bitterroots.

Cutthroat trout West Fork of the Bitterroot

Nymph Eater

 West Fork of the Bitterroot River Video

Darby, Montana

Darby, Montana is a cool western town. So cool in fact that the Paramount Network films this hit series Yellowstone there. They were filming in town when we were there. Neighbors in the campground had come to Darby just to see the ‘Dutton Ranch’. We were embarrassed we had never seen an episode. We have since remedied that.

A small rural town, Darby has a classic downtown strip. The candy store should not be missed. You won’t find any high-end jewelers but you will find a custom hat maker, several saloons, and delicious eateries.

To the west, Trapper Peak and the Bitterroot Mountain range offers many hiking opportunities for peak-baggers.

Bitterroot Side Trips

In this corner of the world, there is much to see even if you don’t fly fish. From hot springs to the battlefield, mountain lakes to mansions, here are some cool things to do in the upper Bitterroot.

Cliffs along the West Fork Canyon

Cliffs along the West Fork Canyon

Fishing the River From a Raft on the West Fork

Fishing the River From a Raft

The Necessities

Our picks for fishing information, food, and places to camp.

For This Adventure

In early August of 2020, we chose to camp at the Hannon Memorial fishing access to have cell service and catch up with emails and Red Sox baseball.

Here’s hoping for a vaccine or affordable remedies for Covid-19 for 2021 so we can return to our favorite restaurants and bars. After all, hanging out in a Montana saloon talking about fly fishing is second only to actually fishing.

So for this adventure, we fished, we grilled steaks at the camper, and we chatted about the day with adult beverages as the sun set below the high peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains to the West. Not bad. :)

West Fork Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat Trout at Applebury Access

Pie in the West Fork of the Bitterroot

Shivering and Cold, 14-year-old Pie, Refuses to Get Out Of The River

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