The wish list for upgrading three fishing access sites in western Montana is one step closer to becoming a reality.
Rory Zarling, recreation director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2, said funding is in place to complete the work at the Bitterroot River sites near Stevensville; the West Fork of Bitterroot west of Connor; and on Rock Creek west of Phillipsburg.
“All are very popular neighborhoods,” Zarling said. “One is right in the heart of Rock Creek, another is the state’s only fishing access site on the West Fork of the Bitterroot, and the other is right in the heart of the Bitterroot River in Stevensville. These are all high-profile sites.
While the state still needs to take a few more steps on each of them, Zarling expects work to begin on the sites as early as this fall and, if not, for sure in 2023.
“All three are funded,” Zarling said. “These are the only three to be fully funded in our region at this point.”
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The busiest of the three would probably be the access located just west of Stevensville where the floaters have launched their boats for years.
Work began last fall on the new John Owen Fishing Access Site with the installation of new fencing and the planting of trees and shrubs to protect the river bank immediately downstream of the place where people launch their boats.
The state plans to expand the site on the 6.25 acres donated by Myla Yahraus of Fort Owen Ranch to include enough parking for about 30 vehicles and trailers, four campsites, a concrete latrine, and trail connections. This work will take place just east of the boat launch.
Currently, Zarling said FWP is working with the Montana Department of Transportation to develop a plan to safely move traffic and pedestrians through the area. In the meantime, the current site is open and is already seeing traffic from fishermen anxious to embark on the first early spring hatches.
“I’m sure it’s going to be very busy very soon,” Zarling said.
Upstream from the West Fork of the Bitterroot, the state is working on a unique project at the C. Ben White Memorial Fishing Access Site, located approximately 3 miles above the confluence of the West and East Forks of the river. Bitterroot.
The 97-acre site was acquired by the state in 2020 following a partnership that included the landowner, Bitter Root Land Trust and several community entities.
Unlike any other fishing access site in western Montana and possibly the entire state, the site will provide access to both the river and thousands of acres of national forest land. The site has land located on either side of the roadway.
In the near future, plans are to engrave the new parking lot on the upper portion of the parcel which will provide parking for a new trailhead that connects to a trail built last summer to join Bitterroot National Forest land.
“The trail connects to a very extensive network of roads and trails that will provide access to miles and miles of national forest land,” Zarling said. “As far as I know, this is the only fishing access site in the state that connects FWP land to Forest Service land.”
On the property adjacent to the river, the state plans to expand the fishing access site parking lot, build several campsites, and install two concrete latrines.
“This is a high priority project,” Zarling said. “We have received funding through the Bitter Root Land Trust and a number of other community organisations. It is a community/multiple organizing effort.
The new trail should be ready by summer. Zarling expects work on the fishing access site to take place this fall or be completed in 2023.
The project on Rock Creek has been in the works for at least 20 years.
“In the past, it didn’t work before for one reason or another,” he said. “We couldn’t get the financing, or the necessary permits, and the property was sold.”
The state does not own the Gillies Bridge property, but a conservation easement allows it to build the new Westslope Fishing Access Site, located about 15 miles west of Phillipsburg on Highway 348.
This site has preliminary stakes in place as a consultant works to make final adjustments to the plan for new fishing access. Again, Zarling hopes construction will begin this fall, but is certain it will be finished by 2023.
“The focus is on completing these three projects,” he said.