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Bitterroot River

Gloriam Deo • Honor and Praise to the Maker of All Things

The Bitterroot River lies in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. It begins at the confluence of its West and East forks near Conner in southern Ravalli County, and flows north, 84 miles, to its confluence with the Clark Fork River near Missoula in Missoula County. Along the way, the Bitterroot flows north near the towns of Darby, Hamilton, Corvallis, Victor, Stevensville, Florence, and Lolo. The Clark Fork River drains the Rocky Mountains west into the Columbia River and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean.

The Bitterroot is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery

The Bitterroot River is one of Montana’s top fly fishing destinations. It is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery, with a strong, healthy population of native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout.

The Bitterroot is home to monster wild rainbows and, by reputation, some of the hardest fighting trout in the Big Sky state. The Bitterroot is one of the most productive trout rivers in Montana, and is the third most fly fished river in the state, behind the Madison and Big Horn Rivers.

Blue Ribbon trout fishery status in the United States is designated by government and other authorities to identify recreational fisheries of extremely high quality. The Bitterroot River’s official Blue Ribbon status is based on these criteria :

Water quality and quantity : water of sufficient quality and quantity to sustain a viable fishery.

Water accessibility : water that is easily accessible to the public.

Angling pressure : water that is able to withstand angling pressure.

Natural reproduction capacity : water that possesses the natural capacity to produce and maintain a sustainable recreational fishery, with management strategies in place that consistently produce fish of significant size and numbers for a high quality angling experience.

Specific species : Blue Ribbon status may be conferred based on a specific species, such as the magnificent native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout of the Bitterroot River.

The term Blue Ribbon is a symbol of highest quality, and refers to the Cordon Bleu, the blue ribbon of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit (Order of the Holy Spirit), the medal worn by the knights of the Ordre des chevaliers du Saint-Esprit (Order of the Knights of the Holy Spirit), an order of chivalry founded by King Henry III of France in 1578.

A similar term, “Blue Riband”, borrowed from horse racing, is an unofficial accolade given after 1910 to passenger liners in regular service crossing the Atlantic Ocean with the highest average speed. Thirty-five Atlantic passenger liners have held the Blue Riband, including 25 British, five German, three American, one French, and one Italian. The record set by the passenger liner United States in 1952 remains unbroken by any other passenger liner.

The term “blue riband” is encountered in English-speaking countries, although it is known as “blue ribbon” in the United States. Blue ribbons are awarded for first place in athletic and other competitions, such as county and state fairs. The term “blue ribbon” refers also to distinguished members of a group or commission who have convened to address a situation or problem, the usual usage being “blue ribbon commission” or “blue-ribbon panel”.

Montana Nicknames

Montana was admitted to the Union as the 41st state of the United States of America on November 8, 1889, and has acquired several nicknames since then, although none are official.

Montana is known as “Big Sky Country” and “The Treasure State”, as well as “Land of the Shining Mountains” and, more recently, “The Last Best Place”.

The Bitterroot plant

The Bitterroot River is named for the bitterroot plant Lewisia rediviva, whose fleshy taproot was an important food source for native Americans. The Salish called the river Spet-lum for “Place of the bitterroot” and In-shi-ttogh-tae-tkhu for “Willow River”. French trappers knew the plant as racine amère (bitter root). Jesuit priest, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet (1801-1873), the highly regarded “black robe” missionary among Native American peoples, named it the St. Mary’s River. By the time of the Washington Territory surveys of Governor Isaac I. Stevens in 1853, the name Bitterroot River was accepted.


The Bitterroot River watershed drains 2,889 square miles in Ravalli and Missoula counties. The Bitterroot River Valley averages seven to ten miles in width, and is uniquely flat for western Montana streams. The river begins at the confluence of its East and West Forks near Conner, and from there the main river receives numerous tributaries from the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east. The watershed is dominated by snowmelt in the spring, with large variations in streamflow and peak flows from mid-May to mid-June. The variation is compounded by upstream reservoir storage at Painted Rocks Reservoir on the river’s West Fork and extensive irrigation withdrawals farther downstream. The most severely dewatered areas occur along 12 miles of the river between Woodside Crossing near Corvallis and Bell Crossing near Stevensville.

Major tributaries are Skalkaho Creek and Lolo Creek

Skalkaho Creek is the primary tributary in the southern portion of the Bitterroot watershed, originating in the Sapphire Mountains, draining 132 square miles, and flowing 28 miles west-northwest to its confluence with the Bitterroot River. Lolo Creek is the primary tributary in the northern portion of the Bitterroot watershed. Lolo Creek is often completely dewatered along its lower two miles in late summer due to heavy withdrawals of water for irrigation and rural water use.

The Bitterroot River provides excellent habitat for wildlife

Although the Bitterroot River passes close by many residential areas, it is an excellent habitat for wildlife. Many species of ducks and waterfowl are common, along with osprey, bald eagles, and heron. Elk (Cervus canadensis), moose (Alces alces), and both white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) frequent the river to drink water and graze near its banks.

The most notable wildlife viewing locale along the river is the famous Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, named for U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana, a pioneer of the conservation movement. The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1964, is a 2,800-acre wildlife refuge located in the Bitterroot Valley, approximately two miles north of Stevensville and 25 miles south of Missoula in Ravalli County, Montana. The Refuge, originally dedicated as Ravalli National Wildlife Refuge, was renamed to honor Senator Metcalf in 1979.

The Bitterroot River is a renowned fly fishing stream, and many of its tributaries are important migratory corridors and spawning habitat for native westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi) and bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus). Other native fish include mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni), longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus), slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus), and longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae).

Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) are popular gamefish, but they are not native to the Bitterroot River watershed, and pose significant threats to native trout. In Montana, rainbow trout are only native to the upper Kootenai River in Montana’s extreme northwest corner. Non-native rainbow trout pose one of the greatest threats to cutthroat trout by hybridization, producing “cutbows”. In addition, non-native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) often displace native cutthroat trout and bull trout in small streams.


The towns along the Bitterroot River, including Darby, Hamilton, Stevensville, and Missoula are popular destinations for fly fishing, with rainbow trout being fairly prevalent, along with smaller populations of brown trout and westslope cutthroat trout. From the confluence of its East and West Forks near Conner to its confluence with the Clark Fork River near Missoula, the Bitterroot is designated a “Class I” river for public access and recreational purposes. The “Class I” river designation indicates easy, fast moving water, with riffles and small waves, and few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight, and self-rescue is easy.

In popular culture

The song “Bitterroot” by the Indigo Girls is about the Bitterroot River.