Bitterroot Winter Floats

Sure, the temperature outside is barely moving the needle from freezing right now, but not too long ago there was plenty of open water on the Bitterroot. Here’s a little recap from the warm spell, and some fish tales to get you ready for the next one. -D.T.

Warm coffee, cold beer and great winter Bitterroot conditions have Missoula anglers
out on the water every chance they can be.

Reports were coming in of good fish landed on the Bitterroot, so the first chance we got we shook off the boat and sent it skidding down the bank and over the ice. Yeah, I said ice. A short ice portage at the Victor bridge with a buddy in felt boots meant more slipping and sliding than effective boat towing, but a good running start and we were in open water with a whitefish to the boat in the first fifty yards. Yeah, winter sometimes means wading through the whiteys, but this time of year a tug is a tug- I’ll take a whitefish over a blank any time.

Iced-up back sloughs make for fun put-ins during the winter months on the Bitterroot.

When floating a river in the winter, you’ve got to put a lot more consideration into your exit plan than in the summer months. When the sun goes down, the chill on the water comes up quick and you should plan accordingly. To catch that nice afternoon sun and the bite that comes with it, we chose to take out at Bell’s Crossing, a short three miles downriver. In winter we have more success using the boat to taxi between wading spots, and there are plenty of fish-filled holes in that short stretch to keep the lines tight.

Low winter flows are also excellent for anchoring at a spot and getting some long drifts. Using a size 8-10 stonefly nymph as an anchor fly with a size 12-14 hares ear or a flash-heavy nymph like a rainbow warrior trailer fly can cover a lot of bases in the winter and similar combinations worked well on our last float. The combo I found worked out well was a size 8 brown and black leggy wooly bugger and a size 14 purple mylar prince. Both these year-round producers are great winter flies, and ran together will get you into some fish.

A smaller flashy nymph trailing a foot and a half to two feet behind a leggy wooly bugger is trout candy on the Bitterroot in winter months.


Winter wading usually produces better results than fishing from the boat. Nothing like pulling over and watching a buddy work the water on a sunny winter day- you might even forget your frozen toes for a minute or two.

We chose to fish it two ways, long nymphing runs with double rigs and streamers run low and slow. Both were successful, and the midge hatch in the afternoon might have produced some top eats if we’d given it a shot- but when they’re eating a zebra midge and a san juan worm consistently, why change a thing? In the winter the worm seems to be what gets tied on the most, but many days some good fishing can be had with streamers when conditions are right. The bright sun on this day didn’t do us any favors, but we still managed to force-feed some wooly buggers to some fish in the deeper runs.

When the middle of winter looks this nice, a bent rod is just a bonus.

If you’re willing to take the time to get the boat out in winter, make it worth your time and pack a good lunch and shorten your planned float to account for lots of wading time. Great fish are often found in the tailouts and shallow flats rising to midges, and deeper runs hold eager nymph eaters. Slow, steady water will hold fish in winter, but don’t be too upset if you run into a pod of whitefish  Good advice for a winter float is to get on and off the water early, and to float only a section of the river your familiar with; winter is not the time to scout new water by boat. Root balls, downed trees and shelf ice can turn even a familiar float into new water in the winter. Keep an eye on the weather and dress accordingly, and pack some backup layers in case things get nasty.  Stay safe out there and get off the water before the sun goes down over the mountains and you can scratch that fishing itch between snowstorms!


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