Southern Montana Tour

Southern Montana Tour

Carol Northcut | Wednesday, 30 August 2023

Last week we chased clean air because the Flathead Valley was getting smoke from all directions. The West Fork of the Bitterroot was the first stop. It was a much different experience this time, actually wade-able. The campground we found was below Painted Rock Reservoir, so a tailwater fishery, but it felt like a freestone. The largest fish was a 12” brookie hiding under a cut bank. The campground had just been “renovated,” so to speak, and was quiet. While walking back to camp from fishing, I saw one jackass peeing in the middle of his campsite. When he saw me, he turned and faced away. The twit was only 40 feet from a well-maintained outhouse! I swear, it seems like some guys think the world is their personal urinal. Where do they learn this? (Rhetorical.)

We fished the West Fork the first evening and several hours the next morning, then were off to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. We’d taken the Bitterroot route because the air was significantly cleaner that day, but it was clearing up at our true destination.


Driving eastward on Highway 43, we drove past the headwaters of the Big Hole and down into the valley. Settlers named it the Big Hole because it’s the highest and widest valley in Western Montana. Our first stop was at the Big Hole Battlefield memorial at the western edge of the valley. The museum portion was closed, but the views of the site of the 1877 massacre of the Nez Perce was visible. It is a sad story where 90 Nez Perce men, women and children, and 31 soldiers and volunteers were killed. I find it supremely ironic that, at the time, the whites called the indigenous people savages. The U.S. has much in its history to be ashamed of.

We drove through the towns of Wisdom and Jackson to wind up at the Bannock State Park “Vigilante” campground, the site of a well-preserved ghost town not far from Dillon, Montana. Bannock was the first capital of the Montana Territory, before it became a state, and the site of first major gold discovery in 1862. The museum was closed, but we were able to walk by all the buildings.


Up early the next morning, we started our drive to the ABW, past the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby and Jefferson Rivers. Aside from the fact that these are best fished from a boat, there was the issue of the declining fishery, so we drove past.


We finally reached our destination river and drove in40 miles to the campground near the wildernesstrailhead. Day one, we fished two of the Fishing Access Sites (FAS) a few miles below the campground. It was beautiful water but extremely slow fishing. Day two, we hiked 5-1/2 miles into the wilderness along the river. The parking lot at the trailhead had been wiped out by the June 13, 2022 flood that wiped out the Yellowstone River. It was weird and amazing damage to the asphalt (see picture). The first mile or so of the trail had been wiped out, and the Forest Service had to build a detour trail up over a ridge. Once over the ridge, the changes to the river became apparent even though we’d never been there before. The trail veered away from the river and occasionally reached it again. We only fished the accessible areas, unwilling to make our way through the dense foliage in bear country. The largest fish caught was an 8” rainbow. The rest were eager 6” brookies.


Day three we were too pooped to do much and we made the 450 mile drive home.