There are 101 Lakes in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana with proper names. In a few months I’ll begin my final countdown for my 5 year journey to hike and fish them all.
The result? A new book; 101 Lakes of the Bitterroot” a book that captures the essence of the Bitterroot Mountains, its lakes and people. Don’t worry though; I’m not giving up too many big fish secrets.
This book is meant to inspire exploration, provide historical perspective and tell a story of one backcountry angling enthusiasts’ drive to know the best this region offers.
This book will be a must read for anyone looking for a mountainous adventure away from the crowds – fishing poles highly encouraged.
Here is a sneak preview of one chapter… Please excuse the formatting differences between the book galley and this website.
I hope you enjoy it.
South, Middle and North
Brook Trout Rainbows
Toby L. Walrath
The name : The John Owen Donation Claim Survey completed in 1863 lists Kootenai Creek as “Lyons Creek”. In 1864 it was called Mill Creek, Kootenoy Creek in 1872 and Lion Creek in 1879. Eventually it was called Kootenai Creek after the Kootenai tribe of Native Americans known to have lived in the Bitterroot Valley originally called the Ksunka, meaning “People of the Standing Arrow.” To them, standing arrow meant strength, unity and dexterity. However, when the French first met the Ksunka, they called them Kootenai.
Getting there: Drive South on highway 93 from Missoula. The Kootenai Creek Road begins 6.5 miles south of Florence (about one mile north of the Stevensville junction). It is marked with a Forest Service Sign. Turn right (west) at the sign and drive two miles to the trailhead parking area. The trailhead has a horse loading ramp and parking space for about fifteen cars. It is recommended to do this trip midweek and get there early to avoid problems finding a parking spot. Don’t worry though, within three miles of hiking you’ll forget about the congestion at the trail head.
2700’ elevation gain, Middle Kootenai Lakes……. 8.5 miles
- Kootenai Lake…………………………………………….. 9 miles
- Kootenai Lake……………………………………………… 9 miles
All three Lakes round trip………………………………. 20 miles
Hiking the Place
I dropped the tailgate of my pickup truck as a trail runner donned with colorful running clothes disappeared into the timber. The area looked heavily used with beaten trails unveiling paths to rock climbing routes savored by granite gripping enthusiasts. It was getting late in the morning but the dew was still hiding from the sun and the air felt cool.
My fly rod rested neatly on one side of my pack while my spinning rod balanced out the other. I had my spinning rod on this trip because rainbow trout can be finicky and I heard North Kootenai held a few good fish off its rocky shores. I’ve caught plenty of rainbows on a fly rod but when these stubborn fish refuse to venture out of the dark safety of boulders finding them anywhere near the surface can take patience and time. On this trip I knew I would be short of the latter.
My companion on this trip was my hound dog Sapphire and I leashed her for the first two miles of beaten trail. The view offered stunning views along the way, a real treat so early in the trip. The trail was easy for the first few miles until I reached the wilderness boundary sign. I checked my phone out of interest and made a note that there is excellent cell phone service here before I turned it off, freeing myself from the techno-jumble that has increasingly competed for my time with the wilderness. Turning off my phone here was both a symbolic and practical measure to save my battery should I need it.
At about four miles I noticed a stand of Taxus brevifolia Nutt commonly called Pacific Yew, Western Yew or Mountain Mahogany. This type of tree is prized by bowyers who craft self bows that are both strong and durable. Few of these thirsty trees are found in this part of the country, but the Bitterroot Mountains seems to have just enough water stored by mountain creeks to sustain isolated populations of this utilitarian tree. I paused for a moment and tried to visualize finding one straight enough, cutting it down and working the wood fibers away until a bow materialized from its core. But the trees belong to the forest here and they aren’t mine to take.
Shortly after making my way through this thick over story a weathered sign nailed to a huge fir read; “Bass Lake” and under those words were carved; “Bass Pass”. The sign appeared to have been handmade decades ago. And just in case travelers are wondering which way the sign is intended to direct traffic an arrow has been etched into the tree below it pointing north. I didn’t see a trail but I wasn’t planning on a side trip so I made a note to return and continued on.
The trail disappeared a few times in the thick foliage underfoot and at times the only indication of a trail was hard ground making contact with the soles of my boots. The further I hiked the more “Bitterroot like” the trail became. The last few miles to South Kootenai Lake was a butt kicker, especially with a full pack. It took me most of the day to reach South Kootenai Lake which I had decided to go to first on account of the Salvelinus fontinalis that live there.
Brook trout are becoming rare in these high mountain lakes because the MTFWP has decided they don’t like them so much anymore. Aggressive bag limits in many creeks around the Bitterroot Valley; up to twenty per day, signal the end of these most beautiful and delicious fish. I know there are stuffy fly fishers who turn their noses up at the thought of keeping a fish but the non-native Salvelinus fontinalis will displace the native Salvelinus confluentus through competitive interaction.
Brook Trout and Bull Trout rely on the same creeks to spawn. As a result they will interbreed creating offspring which then become sterile hybrids, leading to a further decrease in bull trout populations. And so there’s another problem for the already struggling and protected bull trout.
Bull trout and brook trout aren’t trout at all, rather they are members of the salmon family and are actually char. Char are distinguishable from other trout by having light spots on a dark background and the absence of teeth on the roof of the mouth. Maybe that’s why they taste so good cooked over a campfire.
Whatever the reason, I found myself standing on a small rock with my fly rod strung and an Ausable Wulff secured to a 4x leader as I peered into the water with polarized sunglasses. I don’t scoff at all technology, especially when it helps me see fish. A swirl and subsequent ripples give up the position of a feeding trout and I have no idea what the potential for big trout are as I strip out a considerable length of line. With a flip of the wrist my yellow floating line contrasts nicely amidst the diluted reflections of the snow covered peaks blocking the sun to my right. I am finally fishing.
The first cast lands short but not so short that I recast. Hungry brook trout aren’t difficult to bring to a fly so I wait. Nothing happens. Another cast to a rise yields a strike which I miss because I’m so antsy and out of practice. I really want a brook trout. The third cast is to a fish that rises just three feet from shore and as soon as the fly lands a splash triggers an instinctive jerk and the fish is on. Brook trout will fight hard and this one doesn’t disappoint. Even at 10 inches the sporting effect of these little fish is worth the hike but this one is dinner, arguably of more value after a long day of hiking. I cast a dozen more times and catch two more fish along with an ill positioned spruce tree standing directly behind me at back-cast-level.
After untangling my fly thrice from this potential mood spoiler I move and manage to catch and release a couple more brookies before photographing a picturesque mountain side in the suns final illumination of the surrounding mountains.
I light a fire and listen to elk mewing until the smoke reaches their nostrils and the banging of my frying pan alerts one that barks at me. The distinctive alarm bark of an elk ”buhluoooup!” lets its herd members and me know it doesn’t approve of my presence.
I cook my trout feeling like an intruder, until the meat hits my taste buds. They are more than supplementing the ramen noodles I boiled. In fact they are the main course. Sapphire lapped up the unwanted portions of char and she seems to appreciate the flavor added to her ration of dried dog food too.
It’s usually the beauty of a place that I remember most and that I use as my primary reason for going. But it is really tough, maybe even impossible to beat brook trout fried over an open fire and as I savor the last bite it gets dark.
Perhaps all my senses were dulled at that point except my taste buds amplifying my usually lack luster culinary abilities, but whatever the cause, what I remember most vividly about South Kootenai is the taste of pan fried Salvelinus fontinalis .
The morning sun was pressing its rays down the mountainside as I broke camp and made my way through the snow and mud back toward Middle Kootenai, which is what the sign reads near the lake. On the map it is referred to as Middle Fork Lakes. Camping at Middle Kootenai makes more sense for an early morning departure so I push my way through the entanglement along a small creek to the lake which as far as I can tell is fishless. I fished it for over an hour and never so much as saw a fish at the head of the creek. If there are fish anywhere it would be there.
I made a mistake when I planned my travel from middle Kootenai Lake to North Kootenai. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been a difficult thing to plan but I was feeling tired on this first trip of the backcountry fishing season and made camp at middle Kootenai. With camp close to the trail junction for N. Kootenai it seemed like a reasonable compromise to day-hike to the rainbow trout held in those deep headwaters and it was. Except for a dangerous creek crossing between me and the trail junction.
On any wilderness travel it’s easy to become distracted by all the beauty in nature and embarrassingly, I missed key cues like a big sign nailed to a well branched tree, three times in a row. After crossing the creek with an incredible 200 foot drop to my immediate right I helped Sapphire across then made my way well past the trail junction. Without looking at my map I realized what I had done and hiked back to the creek crossing and having not noticed the trail made the rational decision to cross it again to find the trail that I must have walked past. Each time we crossed the creek Sapphires feet were washed off the rocks and she slammed into a rock; the only object keeping her from plummeting down the raging water slide. I leashed her on the subsequent crossings now totaling 6 (I said it was embarrassing) and became more nervous on each one.
(Note, the trail to N. Kootenai does not require a dangerous crossing. If you go to S. Kootenai it does and if you are crossing here, it is possible that the creek is impassible depending on snow pack and temperature.)
When I finally got to N. Kootenai the sun’s rays had a firm hold on the lake and I could see a tent close to the lake which I avoided. After several attempts to find my fly reel I was sure I had left it in my backpack back at camp – across the raging creek. But I had fortunately brought my spinning rod and I make no bones about casting a spinner into a lake after rainbow trout especially with no alternatives readily available.
The line is through my guides and my eyes are staring into the water when I notice two anglers on the far bank casting huge spoons from a slab of stone spreading softly into deep water. Just then through the glare of the sun I see the form of a fish and cast instinctively ten feet in front of it. Within seconds the heavy hitter makes his presence known and I am quickly reminded about all the reasons these fish with Pacific origins are so popular with sportsmen around the world.
Several jumps and leaps later the fish runs and runs hard, straight into the depths of North Kootenai Lake; so much for the reputation of lethargic high mountain lake trout. As the fat fish comes into the shallows and lies at my feet I forget for a moment that I am surrounded by this incredible beauty. The trout is covered in spots and the iridescent hues make me wish I had come straight here and fished. But quickly the realization that in order to catch brook trout and rainbows on this trip required that I take the route I did and I am thankful that I have the rest of the day left to catch more.
As I reach for my camera I find that I’ve placed my fly reel in my camera bag. And after a photo and a tail splashing release I pull the line through the guides and wait for more passing fish. Gray Ghosts and Mickey fins find the mouths of waiting trout and it just seems more fun on a 5 weight fly rod than it ever could on a spinning rod. A parachute fly is lying on the surface now when the final fish of the day interrupts the sounds of slapping waves and the wind forced by the continuous air currents of early summer.
Soon the two anglers I saw earlier are standing behind me and we talk for a while. They are two brothers barely out of high school who announce gravely that they haven’t caught a single fish in two days. The heavy line on their rods is likely the problem. A fact I point out as gently as I can and they immediately protest. Not wanting an argument on such a beautiful day I quickly change the subject and show them photos of brook trout from the previous day. I tell them that they’re easy to catch and only a mile and a half away. Within minutes the two boys are out of sight and I have North Kootenai all to myself.
The rainbow trout is referred to in scientific terms as Oncorhynchus mykiss . Oncorhyncus means “hooked nose” in reference to the hook or “kype” which develops on the lower jaw of breeding males. Mykiss seems to have originated from the Old Russian native name. Rainbow trout are members of the Salmon family and are related to Pacific trout and salmon.
The potential to land heavy weight Oncorhynchus mykiss from this lake exists and I wish I had more time to fish. Beware though that the prospect of landing twenty inch rainbows in quantity shouldn’t be the only aspect of a trek into this high mountain lake to hinge your measure of success. Partly because it’s just as likely that it won’t happen and partly because the beauty of this lake is so incredible I wouldn’t want anyone to miss the view for the sake of a trout, beautiful as they might be.
Bitterroot Trails Published by the BVHS 1982