HAMILTON – A bass is not a trout.

For some well-intentioned members of the Ravalli County Tourism Business Improvement District, that became painfully clear when the calls started coming in about a new billboard that welcomed people to the Bitterroot Valley with a big picture of a bass and a fisherman casting a plug.

“It’s beyond comprehension that someone would make that kind of mistake,” said Dale Burk, a longtime Bitterroot fisherman. “If we were in Arkansas, it would have been fine.”

Robbie Springs of Stevensville serves on the five-member volunteer board of the county tourism district that has been working hard to promote the Bitterroot Valley for several years.

“We formed to bring destination tourism to the Bitterroot,” Springs said. “We all know that the Bitterroot Valley is a beautiful spot, but it hasn’t been promoted at a high level like Glacier or the Flathead. Some visitors may have heard about the Bitterroot River, but they really don’t know where it’s at.”

The organization is funded through a $1-a-night fee collected from people staying in motels and lodges in the Bitterroot Valley. Its initial focus was to create a website that promotes the area.

Once that project was completed, the group’s marketing plan called for designing a billboard that would encourage visitors to stop and stay a day or two.

Springs said they discovered that billboards were controlled by a couple of companies in the state and it was challenging to get one.

About six months ago, a sign company offered the organization a billboard just north of Lolo.

“We were really excited at that point,” Springs said. “The five-member board decided it should feature the wonderful fishing we have here.”

And so they told the billboard company to design a sign that included a fisherman, fly and a fish.

The designer apparently wasn’t a fisherman.

Unfortunately, neither were any of the five members on the board.

“The proof came back,” Springs said. “None of us are fisher people. We didn’t realize that we had the incorrect species. It was in no way malicious. We really intended to create an image that was welcoming to our valley.”

Springs said they’ve heard from quite a few trout-loving residents.

“There have been lots of calls, especially from fishermen,” she said. “They told us that we had the wrong fish, wrong plug, just everything about it was wrong.”

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The board met last Tuesday and decided the billboard needed to come down and a new one – with the right fish and fisherman – should go up in its place.

“It can’t happen overnight,” Springs said. “We do want to reassure people that it is going to happen.”

The new billboard should be up in the middle part of April.

Longtime fishing outfitter and Bitter Root Water Forum Board Chair Eddie Olwell said he’s certain people will be happy to hear that.

“I’m sure it was well intended, and being a person in the recreation business, I appreciate the spirit of it,” Olwell said. “I was disappointed that they got it so wrong.”

After spotting the big bass for the first time, Olwell said he had considered tracking down its owner, but he decided that might be considered nitpicking.

And then he went to his favorite brewery where everyone was talking about it. 

“People were kind of wild about it,” he said.

While some say there are a few bass lurking about in the lower reaches of the Bitterroot River, Olwell said he’s never seen or caught one.

There are some bass in the ponds at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, but only youngsters can fish for those.

“Montana is the Mecca of fly fishing for trout, that's known not only in the country, but around the world,” he said. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the Bitterroot come to fish for trout. It’s such a big part of our economy and so ingrained in us, it’s surprising to see something like this.”

“I’m sure they got an earful,” Olwell said.

From a market research point of view, Springs said the mistake did offer some insight.

“We do know now that people look at billboards,” she said. “Even driving by at 65 mph, people were able to identify that the fish was the wrong kind. They are definitely looking.”

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