By Zach Lazzari
Montana’s Flathead River system is a special place. While many rivers can make the same claim, few combine the rarity of biological preservation with pure wilderness and a diverse set of fly fishing opportunities.
The South Fork of the Flathead River specifically is isolated by Hungry Horse Dam. While most of the dam related issues in the conservation are negative, Hungry Horse has actually blocked the migration of invasive species, creating an isolated fishery with genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout.
The Middle Fork, North Fork and mainstem are also loaded with pure westslope cutthroats but they also see a few rainbow trout and hybrids. Regardless, fishing this river on foot or from a boat is an experience you will not soon forget. I typically make a trip during the height of summer to beat the heat on other Montana rivers. The Flathead has cooler waters, plenty of shade and a ton of water to explore.
1. The Wilderness Runs
The South Fork is a serious wilderness trip that requires horses to pack in your gear and a good week of floating to find yourself at a takeout with 60 miles of dirt road waiting before you hit pavement again.
The remote, wilderness float requires some logistics or one of the few permitted outfitters to put everything together. You can also run a few short floats or wade fish from the very lower end before the river enters Hungry Horse Reservoir. That stretch of river is the only road access but the road itself is an adventure to navigate.
The South Fork is also the only place where you can legally target bull trout. Depending on your launch date, you can expect to fish for a few days with non-stop cutthroat action before you run into bull trout migrating through the river system.
The Middle Fork also offers multi-day wilderness floats. You can fly to Schafer Meadows and launch or pack horses to reach a launch. Like the South Fork, the river is remote, wild and full of big fish.
2. Road Access to Remote Floats
The North Fork has a unique element that provides a few access points by road but your floats will quickly lead into isolated country. The river defines the west boundary of Glacier National Park and you are basically experiencing the park ecosystem through a float trip. You can float right from the Canada Border to the confluence with the Middle Fork.
The Middle Fork after the wilderness sections is similar as it defines the East boundary of Glacier National Park and has road access but also winds away from the road. It has some great whitewater and fishing throughout the summer and fall. Wade and float access is abundant and you can hike a ways to escape pressure found at the access sites.
3. Wade Opportunities Abound
The Flathead is famous for float opportunities but wade fisherman do very well on every fork and the mainstem. Taking the time to really work through a single run can produce the large fish that sometimes hold below the smaller guys that are quick to grab your fly. The abundant eddies also make it possible to sit on a single spot and circulate your flies through a group of fish for hours.
4. Bull Trout!
I already mentioned the legal targeting on the South Fork but bull trout are present in the entire river system. While you can’t legally target them everywhere, just fishing around bull trout adds a major element of excitement to environment. It’s not uncommon to have a big bull trout attack a cutthroat on the end of your line. You aren’t likely to land the fish but they will hold on and fight you for that fish right up to the last second.
5. DIY and Guided Trips
The access means you can easily show up and just go fishing. The majority of the river system runs through public lands and you can float or wade fish just about anywhere. Bring your A-Game on the sticks however as the forks and mainstem pump some serious volume and they are known for dangerous strainers and obstacles.
The Flathead Valley has also attracted world class guides. The guides here are trained on whitewater and are some of the best rowers you will find in the state. I do most of my fishing with Wild Montana Anglers when I’m not rowing my own boat or hiking the river banks on my own.