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Out of Bounds

Bitterroot Takes Another Angler

High water is coming soon. Until then, if you’re out on the water, take extra care.

By Rob Breeding

I don’t know if the Bitterroot is Montana’s deadliest river, but this time of year it sure seems that way. Last week another angler died south of Hamilton when a raft hit a submerged log and flipped.

The 76-year-old angler, a retired Associated Press journalist and newspaper publisher in Washington, was swept away in the current and drowned despite the efforts of his companions to revive him, according to a story published in the Ravalli Republic newspaper.

Chilling aerial photos of the raft, upturned and pinned against a log jam at a bend in the river, have been circulating for a week.

If you know the Bitterroot, that tangle of bleached timber was a familiar sight. This river is cursed with an overabundance of wood. 

Why? I’m not certain, but the forks of the Bitterroot flow through heavily forested portions of the southern Bitterroot Valley, so there’s an ample supply of downed trees in the channel and maybe the flows never get high enough to flush them out.

It’s the small size of the river that leads to overconfidence. That, and the abundance of newcomers who see folks having fun on the river, note the Bitterroot lacks any rated whitewater, and assume it’s an easy place to learn.

I learned there. When I first set out to be a fly fishing guide the plan was to work on the Bitterroot. I spent a lot of time there during a late winter and early spring improving my skills rowing anglers fishing the skwala hatch. I was ready to work the season when the  river finally came down after high water and got in a couple of good trips before the Fourth of July.

But it had been a dismal snow year and the Bitterroot dropped quickly. After the Fourth, trips dried up along with the river and I ended up working on the Flathead for the rest of that season.

The following year I planned to return to the Bitterroot. I’d become reacquainted with an old friend in Hamilton, a former police officer who had started outfitting and selling real estate. We made preliminary plans for a scouting trip on the East Fork and the twins were coming along to enjoy the float.

The weather had other plans. It warmed up considerably in the days before the trip and I ultimately decided to leave the raft in Kalispell and substitute a hike up the Blodgett Canyon Overlook Trail. There was no reason to be on the East Fork with the river blown out. My friend Dave, however, risked it. When his raft encountered a log jam in a spot near Highway 93, one I’d spied while driving past many times, it flipped. 

Dave’s wife survived. Dave didn’t.

I never did guide again on the Bitterroot. My short guiding career lasted just a few seasons, working out of West Glacier on the North and West forks. I got to be pretty good on the oars on both those waters, though I had a few mishaps, including nearly ejecting one daughter from the rear seat once when I misread the water at Screaming Right. Both Forks commanded my respect. I can feel the chemical change of my activated flight-or-fight response even as I sit here just typing these words. 

Still, I’m never quite as on edge on the Forks as I am when I navigate through the wood debris that gathers in the Bitterroot south of Hamilton, near where that poor soul drowned.

High water is coming soon. Until then, if you’re out on the water, take extra care. Remember that even the most tranquil stretch of river always retains the power to kill. And when high-water comes up, unless you really know what you’re doing, golf for the next month while the rivers clear.

There’s no float trip so important it’s worth the possibility of not returning home.