Fishing the Bitterroot in western Montana was my first time being up in the state. I left the fly shop one evening after work and drove for as long as I could, waking up along a river just outside Salmon, ID — brewing coffee and watching the water pass. Gradually shaking my morning pandiculation, coffee kicking in, I started to come together around Sula just as the East Fork began to take shape, we continued our journey north.
I followed the river to the main Bitterroot confluence, just outside Darby. The valley floor fastened between the Sapphire Mountains and the Bitterroot Range — narrowing at both ends, while the valley floor widened. The East Fork was littered with anglers, the abundant roadside parking full, and the thin and warm waters made up my mind. I turned my attention to the West Fork, a sharp left down a forest road lay thick with pine, guarding the sparse river access. Montana law states that most water is public up to the highwater mark, rivers are only to be entered at public land structures. Twenty miles into the Bitterroot wilderness and a few miles down-stream I’d found the piece of water I dreamed Montana to be.
All is quiet save the water and the trees, and I became immersed in the solitude of this version of the rivers I knew from home, the only difference here is that I’m truly alone. Big structure with big pockets and even bigger water pushed past me, pinning me to the water’s edge where I recognized maybe it wasn’t just me. I made a cast straight ahead tucking my fly reticently behind a rock just off the bank, thinking someone might be home, the fly, gently ebbing back towards me. When, at almost the last moment, out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash and then the blue-greened back of a Brown turning on my fly and finally, a wake, as the artificial is swatted aside by this not-to-be-fooled veteran… But, now I know they’re in there.