Overview: The Flathead is truly a cosmopolitan river. It flows from a foreign country, Canada, past the Glacier National Park, gathering water from the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wildernesses, passing through Flathead National Forest, many state lands, private lands, and the Kootenai Nation on its way to the Clark Fork.
Anglers talking about "the Flathead" may be referring either to the magnificent lake, the mighty river that feeds it, or to the big valleys and basin that surround these waters. (Flathead is also the name of a county that is one of the state's fastest growing, experiencing a flood of new residents.)
Together the lake and river make a complete system;
the lake supplies many of the fish while the river supplies the spawning
grounds and summer feed. The mighty bull trout used to be the focus of
a nationally renowned fishery, but today bull trout are illegal to target
or take. Quite a change occured in only a few years.
Key species: Cutthroat trout, whitefish, rainbow trout, bull trout, lake trout, and northern pike.
Use: Heavy. No section of the Flathead River ranks in the top 50 of state fishing pressure, but the Middle Fork receives very heavy rafting pressure from Moccasin Creek access to West Glacier on the Whitewater Section.
Key flies and lures: Flies-Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulators, Wulffs, Humpies, Hoppers, Ant patterns, and the Royal Trude. Lures-gold Daredevles or Mepps. Bait-nightcrawlers and hoppers in season.
Access: North Fork
To fish the North Fork, most anglers utilize the North Fork Road, which runs about 55 miles from the Canadian border to Columbia Falls. The Glacier Natural History Association publishes a map, Three Forks of the Flathead, which is invaluable for any Flathead River adventure.
The North Fork Road closely parallels the river, giving anglers considerable casual access, especially for the southern third of the river. Major points of access include Blankenship Bridge, Big Creek Campground, Camas Bridge, Coal Creek, Polebridge, and the Ford Station.
The North Fork can also be reached from Glacier National Park by two roads. One is the paved Camas Creek Road from Apgar to the Camas Bridge, where it joins with the North Fork Road. Aside from the Camas Bridge, this road gives no other access to the river.
The second road is a narrow, twisting dirt road that also departs from the Apgar area and forks at Polebridge to either Bowman or Kintla Lakes. From Logging Creek to Kintla Creek, this monster of a road stays close to the North Fork. Anglers who don't mind short hikes through timber can reach many otherwise inaccessible spots via this road but must count on very slow driving.
Access; Middle Fork [Click to view map]
Above Bear Creek, the Middle Fork flows through the Great Bear and Bob Marshall Wildernesses. To fish the upper Middle Fork, the angler faces an unusual choice-hike, ride a horse, or go by plane to the Schaefer Meadows airstrip. Those who do make the effort maintain that it is well worth the rewards. Fishing in a beautiful wilderness area is the peak experience of a lifetime for some, but reaching the river obviously requires more effort and planning than just pulling off the highway into a developed access area.
From Bear Creek down to the confluence with the North Fork, river and road stay close together. Several access points exist, including Bear Creek, Essex, Paola, Cascadilla, Moccasin, West Glacier, and Blankenship fishing access sites. Anglers need only cross the railroad tracks or negotiate some steep hillsides to reach the river.
Access: South Fork
Like the Middle Fork, the South Fork has wilderness beginnings. Anglers hike or pack in from Seeley Lake or Holland Lake to the headwaters in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Another route is to drive around Hungry Horse Reservoir to Spotted Bear Ranger Station or to Bunker Creek, and then hike along the river.
Access: The main Flathead
The main Flathead is accessible at the Blankenship Bridge, along a small park next to U.S. Highway 2, at Teakettle FAS and Pressentine Bar FAS, from the old Steel Bridge, and at the mouth of the Stillwater.
The lower Flathead flows through the Flathead Indian Reservation and has no formal, developed access sites. However, it can be reached right in Polson, at Buffalo Bridge, Sloan Bridge, and from Highway 200 most of the way from Dixon to the confluence with the Clark Fork. Within the Flathead Indian Reservation, anglers must have a tribal recreational use permit. Inquire at local sporting goods stores.
For information about floating anywhere on the Flathead River system, and especially on the forks, read Hank Fischer's Floater's Guide to Montana. The North and Middle Forks contain stretches of highly technical and dangerous whitewater that should be avoided by all but experienced rafters. The Middle Fork boasts several reaches of class IV rapids, notably from Schaefer Meadows to Bear Creek and just above West Glacier. Float maps are available from the Flathead National Forest and the Glacier Natural History Association.
The fishing: The Flathead River and its forks make up a unique fishery in Montana because many fish are nonresidents traveling from Flathead Lake.
River anglers have Flathead Lake to thank for providing quarry on a seasonal basis. The lake acts like a giant heart, pumping pulses of fish into its arteries. In spring, cutthroat and bull trout start their spawning runs; in fall, major pulses of lake whitefish follow.
For the bulls and cutthroats, the eventual destinations are the tiny headwater creeks that branch off the Middle and North Forks. Some travel up to 130 miles before stopping to make their redds and deposit their eggs. The lake whitefish generally run as far as Blankenship Bridge and above.
The South Fork of the Flathead
Hungry Horse Reservoir gobbled up much of the South Fork, and the dam cut off upstream migration from Flathead Lake. The short section of the South Fork below the dam holds few fish because of a lack of fish food and severe fluctuations in the volume of water released by the dam.
However, for the hardy angler who can solve the access problems, the upper 50 miles of the South Fork above the reservoir have much to offer. The river there not only has a spawning run of bull trout and resident cutthroat trout, but also a handsome setting in the pristine Bob Marshall Wilderness. As with most of the Flathead River system, the pleasure of being out in such beautiful country adds an extra dimension to fishing the South Fork.
Jim Vashro said "the South Fork is incredible. Cutthroat range from 400 to 1,000 fish per mile. At Big Prairie, 30 percent are over 12 inches." However, the South Fork, along with the entire Flathead River drainage, has gone catch-and-release for all cutthroat. Many anglers catch an average of ten cutthroats an hour; 10 to 30 percent of these fish range from 12 to 18 inches.
The best fishing on the South Fork is at Big Prairie, about 30 miles into the wilderness. Fishing is also good just below the Meadow Creek Gorge or 2 to 4 miles beyond the Meadow Creek wilderness portal. Don't expect to have the South Fork to yourself. Recent national publicity in fishing magazines has increased the number of outfitted and private anglers on the river. You may see up to twenty rafts float by you in a day of fishing in August.
The Middle Fork of the Flathead River
The Middle Fork originates deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Officially designated a "wild river" for the first half of its length, the Middle Fork plunges swiftly from the confluence of Strawberry and Bow Creeks to Bear Creek. From Bear Creek, U.S. Highway 2 parallels the river for the second half of its course to the mouth of the North Fork.
The upper section of the Middle Fork provides fishing, floating, and spectacular backcountry experiences.
The Middle Fork marked the epicenter of the infamous 1964 flood. On an annual basis, the Middle Fork averages a discharge of less than 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), but on June 9, 1964, the river gushed 140,000 cfs and scoured its streambed so badly that the results will be obvious for years to come. Fortunately, such a flood should occur only once in about 200 years.
Much of the upper Middle Fork runs through steep-walled canyons with big, deep pools. After a muddy runoff in May and June, the river drops and clears rapidly. Anglers who want to float from Schaefer Meadows to Bear Creek try to time their trip to include the brief period when the water has substantially cleared but still runs in sufficient volume to carry rafts over the rocks. Each year has its own weather patterns, but this period generally comes between June 20 and July 15.
Because of the area's remoteness, the upper Middle Fork receives little fishing pressure. In the earlier part of summer, anglers work primarily for westslope cutthroat.
The North Fork of the Flathead River
Former FWP director Pat Graham likes a description he heard of the North Fork: "a baby thrashing around in a cradle." He explains that, in the spring, the river runs high, throwing rocks and trees all over, while in the fall, the North Fork is a tiny river meandering through a big floodplain. The sides of the cradle include the Whitefish Range to the west and the awesome peaks of the Livingston Range to the east. Mid-Stream in the North Fork marks the western boundary of Glacier National Park.
One of the unusual features of the North Fork watershed is that five of the drainages out of Glacier are interrupted by large, deep, fjord-type lakes. Referred to geologically as "sinks," these lakes trap many biologically important chemicals and release water with very low nutrient levels.
The first quarter of the North Fork hails from Canada. The United States portion runs 59 miles to its confluence with the Middle Fork near the Blankenship Bridge. Although the two forks have some similarities such as size, wilderness watersheds, and low nutrient levels, the North Fork drains a larger area, has a more gradual gradient, and faces more serious environmental threats. The environmental concerns center on logging and residential development.
Threats of a Canadian Mine still loom but may be at least ten years away from actual mining. However, any extensive mine in the Flathead River Drainage may have a severe effect on bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout recovery efforts.
Yet anglers who know the North Fork will think that this kind of creel census misses the point. Bill Schneider, who liked to cool his heels in the North Fork after working trail crew in Glacier Park, thinks the experience has more to do with the beautiful scenery, exceptional water quality, and the wildness of the country rather than with the fish numbers.
Born of glaciers, running free and wild, the North Fork has lore about it. One angler recounts seeing a grizzly sow and cubs feeding on camas along a bank. A rafter enthuses about running Fool Hen Rapids. In a stroke of unbelievable luck, a biologist recaptures a tagged cutthroat that has just traveled 70 miles from British Columbia to below Columbia Falls in under 24 hours.
The Flathead River
At the meeting of the Middle Fork and the North Fork at Blankenship Bridge, the North and Middle Forks normally carry about the same amount of water. This confluence marks the beginning of the main Flathead. In about ten miles, the unpredictable flow of the South Fork joins in. At times the South Fork hardly moistens its streambed, but at peak discharges it may more than double the size of the main Flathead.
For its 55-mile journey to Flathead Lake, the big river meanders broadly through an increasingly populated floodplain. With a gradient of less than 4 feet per mile, the sluggish water languishes in sloughs and backwaters and braids around islands. In the marshy country near the outlet, the river and lake become almost indistinguishable; the exact division depends on the season and on releases from Kerr Dam at the south end of the lake.
The last few miles of river not only make a thoroughfare for the migrating fish; they also hold some good numbers of nonmigrating fish year-round. Many of the big cutthroats spend the winter in this section of the river. Because of this and the section's proximity to Kalispell, anglers pressure this stretch more than any other.
The main Flathead below the lake continues to hold its picturesque qualities but holds little promise for the trout-seeker. Poor spawning streams may be to blame for the dearth of trout. Most available streams either dry up due to diversions or silt over so badly that they become unsuitable for fishing.
The lower Flathead does have a few cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout, but in such a large river their small numbers make them few and far between. The northern pike provides most of the piscatorial excitement, especially in the backwaters and below Dixon. Larry Petersen, a fisheries biologist, found he could tag a pike, release it, and return to the exact same place in the river weeks later to find the pike again. The northerns often weigh in at over thirty pounds.
The Northwest Power Planning Council hopes to restore populations of cutthroat and bull trout in the main Flathead to offset losses incurred by the construction and operation of hydroelectric dams. The council's plans call for enhanced habitat, improved fish passage, regulated water temperatures, and stocking with hatchery fish.
Strategies: On most other rivers, anglers can usually approach their favorite holes anytime during the season confident that fish will be there. This, however, is not so on the Flathead.
When those fish aren't migrating past a particular hole, that hole may well be empty of fish. Thus, knowing the fish, and when they do what, is helpful-even critical-to the Flathead angler.
The westslope cutthroat move out of the lake first. Before completion of Hungry Horse Dam, the cutthroat apparently waited until April. Now, fooled by the relatively warm releases from the reservoir, the cutthroat sense spring has sprung as early as February 9. By the time runoff has reached full tilt, cutthroat are spawning in the tributaries, some as far as 136 miles from the lake. Also, a number of cutthroat appear to winter in the lower 30 miles of the river due to the relatively warm 39 degree water coming from Hungry Horse Dam. They can provide some good winter catch-and-release fishing.
While the slow journey upstream takes several months, the trip back may be accomplished overnight. Graham thinks most come back to the lake while the full tide of runoff still swells the river. He has tagged fish to back up his theory.
Yet anglers report catching some big cutthroat even into August. Bill Schneider proudly remembers a beautiful 19-inch cutthroat he caught in a backwater pool late in the summer. Graham notes that the upper Middle and South Forks produce more large fish during the summer than the North Fork.
Fishing season on the Flathead traditionally opens in the latter part of May, when the river runs pell-mell with snowmelt and dirt. Once the water clears, hungry cutthroat will take most mayfly and stonefly attractor patterns. In addition, fishing a trailing nymph can be quite effective.
Fish biologists rate the cutthroat as the least predacious of the trout family. Oddly enough, the Flathead cutthroat share the river with the highly predacious bull trout and increasingly non-native lake trout. Lake trout appear to be bad for bull trout and bad for cutthroat. Sections of river separated by dams, including the South Fork and the Swan River, appear to be maintaining their bull and cutthroat trout populations, while sections undammed and still linked to Flathead Lake's lake trout population appear to be doing poorly.
An addition to the Flathead fishery is a run of lake whitefish in the fall. Lake whitefish generally do not spawn in rivers, but the Flathead population apparently has not read the textbook. They crowd into the river by the hundreds of thousands from the mouth of the Stillwater to Blankenship Bridge. These fish are the alter egos of their cousins, mountain whitefish. They range from 1.5 to 3 pounds and prove as tasty as they are hard fighting.
Lake whitefish show up in late September and stay into January, but October and early November are the most popular and productive time to fish for them. About 40,000 whitefish are caught each fall. "Sometimes you have to bring your own rock to stand on," says Jim Vashro at FWP. Anglers jostle shoulder to shoulder around the popular holes near Kalispell to vie for a bucketful of whitefish. Contact FWP in Kalispell for a free flier on how to prepare and cook these tasty fish.
The standard set-up is a green or chartreuse jig fished on the bottom in calm eddies. The jig has to be skipped on the bottom, as the fish will hit the instant the jig hits the bottom and will spit it out just as quickly.
Historical Note: Until recently, the Flathead also produced a spectacular fall run of kokanee. Anglers lining the banks would snag more than 100,000 salmon, and another 100,000 fish would squeeze between the banks of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park to spawn. Their dying throes attracted hundreds of bald eagles, which in turn attracted thousands of tourists who came to watch the drama. Currently there are no salmon runs and stocking of salmon has been discontinued indefinitely.
All three forks of the Flathead derive their water not from one or two major tributaries, but from a myriad of small streams. An angler walking along the banks of these tiny streams would expect to find only pan-size fish. Imagine the surprise of seeing hefty 2-pound cutthroat and bull trout so big they may be mistaken for logs as they swim in water hardly deep enough to cover their backs.
Fish as far along in their spawning cycle as those found in the tributaries rarely feed until after spawning is completed.
Mortality rates for the spawning bulls may run as high as fifty percent. The exhausting run up the river, lack of food, predation, and the stress of spawning in tiny streams takes a heavy toll on the big fish. For this reason, FWP closes certain tributaries to fishing to protect the bulls from harassment. In addition, to protect cutthroat trout, the entire drainage is closed to the taking of any cutthroat trout, although catch-and-release fishing for cutthroat is still allowed. No taking or fishing for bull trout is allowed and is not likely to be allowed until the population recovers totally. Check current regulations closely before fishing.
Glacier Park feeds the North Fork through streams coming out of Kintla, Bowman, Quartz, and Logging Lakes. The fish in these streams are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, not FWP, but angling in the park is also closely regulated. Check park regulations before wetting a line.
The Whitefish and Stillwater Rivers combine and
flow into the main Flathead not far upstream from Flathead Lake.
The Whitefish River has a lively population of northern pike. 8 or 10 miles down from Whitefish Lake, the gradient picks up and so does the trout fishing. Where streambank alterations haven't disturbed habitat, pools and riffles harbor cutthroat and some dandy 1.5- to 3-pound rainbow. But the last stretch of the river flattens out again, and fishing is often disappointing here unless the angler hankers after trash fish.
Belying its name, the upper Stillwater River rolls out of the Whitefish Range on a steep gradient and slows down only after it hits the valley floor. Try the section around Stillwater Lake and down to the mouth of Logan Creek for rainbow, brookies, and cutthroat. Below this, the river becomes much too slow and heavily silted for trout; the challenge here is northern pike, some in the 20-pounds and up range. The last segment from U.S. Highway 93 to the Flathead provides a minor exception, offering a few pools and riffles that furnish acceptable trout habitat.
The Swan River empties into Flathead Lake right in the midst of the town of Bigfork, but it begins in some of the most rugged, wild, and strikingly beautiful country in Montana-the Mission Mountains Wilderness. Tumbling out of cold, pristine lakes such as High Park, Grey Wolf, and Crystal, the headwater streams drop rapidly until the Swan nears Montana Highway 83. Thereafter, it meanders with a riffle, pool, riffle pattern to Swan Lake.
Below the lake, the Swan River sprints 4 miles, then flattens out for a very slow 10 miles to the small impoundment near Bigfork. Below the dam, the Swan goes through one last frenzied rush-"the wild mile"-over a boulder-strewn streambed before calmly running into Flathead Lake.
Anglers catch a few rainbow and lake trout below the dam; some rainbow below Swan Lake; and cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout above Swan Lake and in the tributaries.
The tributaries of the lower Flathead suffer badly from irrigation diversions. Of the possible streams, Larry Petersen, a fisheries biologist, singles out only the Jocko River for passable fishing. Petersen reports that a run of rainbow comes up the Jocko during high water. Anglers also find a smattering of cutthroat and browns. However, the Jocko River is almost entirely under the jurisdiction of the Flathead Indian Reservation and governed by the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council. Fishing by non-tribal members is strictly regulated. A special reservation permit is required that can be purchased at some local sporting goods stores.