The bitter tale of a Bitterroot brown

MISSOULA, Mont. — My first fly-fishing trip to Montana's Bitterroot River turned out to be a personal big-fish story that actually has almost nothing to do with me, and you're going to have to trust me a little on this one.

The 26-inch, roughly 8-pound brown trout I caught Friday while fishing alone and yet with the help of so many others is a Bitterroot story you'll have to accept as true, because there is no record of this personal record.

There is no picture of my biggest brown ever on a fly. No pixels dedicated to the exploding hues of its spectacular sides.

No Facebook post. No Twitter feed. No witness. No evidence whatsoever that a wayward Oregonian and a brown trout of any size actually crossed paths during Friday's bitter snowstorm on the Bitterroot.

Granted, if fishermen are born liars, then outdoor writers may be nothing short of professional ones. Yet that has no bearing here.

Because, like evolution and gravity, this does not require your belief to be true.

Mid-November is a time for elk and duck hunting in Missoula. It also happened to be time for a weekend of Outdoor Writers Association of America board meetings.

Paul Queneau, Bugle magazine's conservation editor and a Missoula resident, prearranged some pre-meeting playtime for four of us on majestic ranchland along the famed Bitterroot.

Bucket Listing a Bitterroot brown was a no-brainer, but the logistics were a headache.

With no pack rod in my otherwise heavy arsenal, I borrowed one from a friend. But my neoprene waders were so green and smelly that TSA would certainly confiscate them as a biohazard at the airport.

An email to Queneau secured use of a pair of 5 mm waders, size 10 rubber boots attached.

Some fleece, a half-dozen fly reels and a dozen fly boxes later, I was in Missoula and ready for the Bitterroot.

Not really. I had no heavy coat or gloves, and the high for Friday was forecast at 16. That's not even acceptable in Celsius, let alone Fahrenheit.

I borrowed a hat and some gloves as we headed out into Friday morning's snowy darkness, three shotgunners and one fly-rodder.

Along the riverbank, I sat on the tailgate to pull on another man's glue-patched waders, which truthfully is more like getting hand-me-down boxers — acceptable in a pinch, but certainly not ideal.

The waders slipped on easily. Too easily.

The size 10 boots turned out to be 13s.

I put together the loaner rod and reached in to affix a reel to it when the latest reason never to pack without a list came to be.

Six reel spools with every imaginable type of fly line in the backpack, but no reel seat.

In babysitter-like fashion, Queneau came through again. He dug in his trunk and handed me an older fly reel — except he's right-handed and I'm left-handed.

The three shotgunners soon disappeared to their blinds as I walked blindly through the snows along the Bitterroot in search of cut banks and submerged logs that should hold fish.

Turns out these cut banks and logs are all a half-mile or more apart. For hours, my feet sloshed in another man's waders as I cast another man's rod worthlessly for browns beneath the duck hunters' ordnance.

Little did I know that one more thing not mine was all I needed.

I looked through one fly box and saw a bright red San Juan worm some old man traded me for a stonefly imitation in 1990. Fly-fishing with a worm always seemed somewhat scummy even for a journalist, so it never left the fly box.

But the air looked like some 4-year-old just shook a snow-globe, and I needed to get cracking.

I tied on the other man's worm, cast it under a cut bank and immediately learned why Bitterroot browns are bad-ass trout. The fish started tearing line as it surged downstream, then turned and charged me. As I was reeling dyslexically with the backward reel, this fish was having me for lunch.

Then it inexplicably shot sideways into a shallow channel and stopped, high-centered in the gravel.

I kept reeling until I reached the trout, leaned down and put my right hand over its fat tail. After some splashing, it calmed down enough for me to get the hero shot.

The brown somehow regained its pep. It hopped and splashed into the river, pulling the other man's rod and the yet another man's reel with it, my camera-phone still stuck beneath those borrowed waders.

If I'm going to buy a pack rod and a new fly reel, it won't be to replace those borrowed from other guys and lost.

I jumped into the Bitterroot and stepped firmly on the rod and reel.

But the fish was already gone, no doubt flipping its middle fin my way at that moment.

It was a long hike back in another man's waders.

But everyone got their gear back, the Bitterroot got to keep its big brown and I got a clear understanding of what it takes to catch a big Bitterroot brown and come home with proof of it.

Don't be such a mooch.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email Follow him on Twitter at

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