The Bitterroot River has a reputation of being a river on the move.
Even in the upper reaches of its west fork, the high water that comes each spring brings a new opportunity for the river to veer off to carve out new channels that offer good habitat for trout and new dangers for those who come here to catch them.
Last week, in between oar strokes, longtime Bitterroot fishing outfitter Jenny West’s voice had a touch of awe when she talked about the changes she’s seen on the river every year.
“It’s always been amazing to me how a river can move these huge rocks,” West said. “The river used to go left right here and now it’s going straight. There’s a huge log jam right around that corner. It’s a very nasty spot. Why is the river moving like that? There can be a lot of reasons why.”
“When you spend a lot of time on the river, you get a chance to learn its rhythms,” she said. “At the same time, you know that any day the river can change. A tree can fall across it from a windstorm or a beaver at work. You always have to be paying attention.”
West’s raft was one of six that launched earlier this week as part of the West Fork Task Force’s first woody debris assessment tour of the West Fork of the Bitterroot.
Made up of federal, state, local and private stakeholders, the task force’s mission is to seek common ground that both preserves the woody debris that’s so important to protecting natural stream function and aquatic habitat while ensuring that floater access to the river doesn’t disappear.
The task force was formed after some voiced concerns about people cutting trees that had fallen into the waterway. While the state requires people to obtain a 310 permit from the local conservation board before obstructions are cut away, that’s not always happened on the West Fork.
That portion of the river — especially the upper reaches above the confluence of Nez Perce Creek — is narrow and wild. It flows mostly through national forest lands and trees often end up in the river.
It’s also an incredibly popular stretch of river after high water ebbs and the salmon fly hatch begins.
On this week’s assessment float, Bitterroot Conservation District Supervisor Kent Myers joined Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park Regional Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel to float that upper stretch with several other stakeholders.
They found two spots where the river was completely or partially blocked by large ponderosa pine trees that had fallen across the waterway sometime since fall. At one point, the floaters had to lift their raft over a huge pine. Expert oarsmen were able to sneak through a narrow opening between the root ball and bank at the second spot.
The two places offered a look at both the challenges and benefits that woody debris brings to the river.
“When a tree falls in the river, a lot of things happen that we want,” Saffel said. “It slows the water down and provides a place where fish can rest and feed. It also provides cover. It can also help the river scour and create a nice pool.”
The tree also deflects water from one side to the other and helps to extend the length of the river’s channel. If the river runs straight, it’s likely to down cut and the habitat diversity ends up being lost.
“If we have a diverse habitat, the river will hold more fish,” Saffel said. “Those side channels are a good place to rear small fish. We want to try to maintain that dynamic as much as we can.”
Patience might be the key.
“The immediate compromise may be leaving those trees in place through high water,” Saffel said. “If we leave them there for a little bit of time, the river will scour to the side. We will add channel length and anglers will get access if we can be patient long enough to see how it turns out.”
Floater safety is an issue that often comes up when chainsaws appear.
“People should expect that there will be hazards in a river,” Saffel said. “There needs to be a clear expectation that you don’t know what’s around the bend. In some cases, maybe that means people need to get out of their boat and scout ahead.”
“These rivers are wild places,” he said. “The expectation should be that it might be dangerous.”
Floaters who aren’t familiar with a river can stop by a fly shop and ask about potential hazards, but Saffel said even those folks can’t say for sure that a new tree hasn’t fallen and blocked the river.
Myers said the conservation district is working with Trout Unlimited to map the woody debris on the river, but he’s not certain that information will be offered to the public any time soon.
“One of the things that we wrestle with is that our primary focus is not on river safety and access,” Myers said about the conservation district. “Our focus is habitat and stream function. We can’t make the river safe for everyone. That’s not an appropriate goal. The onus is always on the person in the boat and their skill level.”
The impetus behind the formation of the task force was the growing number of complaints about the illegal cutting of wood out of the river and along its banks.
“We are trying to be proactive and make people aware of the 310 law,” Myers said. “The fact is that cutting wood in or along the river can be detrimental to the river itself. While there’s no shortage of wood in the Bitterroot River, cutting one log or limb in the wrong place can have a big impact.”
“It’s very difficult for making any overarching rules or guidelines,” he said. “You have to look at each situation on an individual basis.”
Downstream, West floats along a stretch of the river where someone has been blocking up logs that had grounded huge root balls that partially armored the bank.
“That big stump right there always had a big fish right underneath it,” West said as her raft drifts by. “It’s going to move now when the high water comes. That’s a sentimental little spot for people who fish this river all the time. It was a good place for trout and now it’s going to be gone.”
“Wood is good and foam is home,” she said. “There were some beautiful horseshoe bends here once, which slowed the river down. Over time, it’s straightened out and the river runs faster now.”
There may be times when there’s an emergency and something has to be cut right now, but West wants the public to understand the need to apply for a 310 permit that comes with the benefit of knowing their actions won’t harm the river and its trout.
“No one wants to make this river look like a ditch,” she said. “There are old logjams that have been here for a while and lots of new stuff coming in. We need all of that for habitat.”