High Water Forces Fly Fishers to be Creative

By Beacon Staff

The calendar slips steadily toward summer and you still haven’t gotten your boat on the river.

You watch the Internet river gauges like a stock ticker, anticipating their every move, or at least the day when they’ll finally drop low enough to allow you to enjoy your favorite summer activity: flyfishing.

With most northwest Montana rivers and streams at bank-full capacity, you’ll have to alter your traditional flyfishing habits if you want to wet a line the next few weeks. While it can be a challenge to find other places to fish, high water also presents flyfishing opportunities that you may have overlooked in the past, Kalispell angler Ted Berg says.

Berg’s latest outing was on Rogers Lake Monday, where a cloudy, rainy day quelled the surface action. But that’s not going to deter him from pursuing angling with flies, especially for the colorful, feisty grayling.

“When the rivers are this bad, you just have to try some things you’ve never tried before and have some adventure,” Berg said.

Just west of Kalispell, Rogers Lake is a productive place to fish for native Arctic grayling and cutthroat trout.

Larry LaRocque at Lakestream Fly Shop has been sending clients out to Rogers Lake also. He said mid-day fishing has been productive, as well as late afternoon. A baetis hatch has been coming off at different times, so a Parachute Adams or a size 14 gray mayfly can entice the grayling to strike. “Grayling aren’t too particular, but when in doubt, a beadhead wet fly with a collar is usual a pretty good bet,” LaRocque said. “You usually can’t go wrong with a prince nymph.” Look for fish rising and pursue them. “Wherever you see rising fish, you’ll be able to catch them,” LaRocque said.

If it’s grayling you’re after, Berg recommends another grayling hotspot: Sylvia and Handkerchief lakes, a pair of mountain lakes that are fairly easy to get to. Sylvia Lake is located five miles off of Griffin Creek road near Bitterroot Lake, and the window of opportunity to be able to drive to that lake will close Aug. 1, when the road becomes gated, Berg said.

Sylvia Lake offers good fishing for cutthroat trout and for grayling, and although the grayling are not as big as those found in Rogers Lake, Berg said, “there’s plenty of them.” Problem with Handkerchief is that it’s on the west side of Hungry Horse Reservoir south of Lost Johnny Point. That’s usually not a problem, but last week high water washed out the road near Lost Johnny Campground — so if you want to go to Handkerchief, you’ll have to drive the east side road and come north on the west side.

There are bright spots on the angling scene, however. The good news for northwest Montana anglers is that the big Clark Fork River near St. Regis has just recently cleared up and is fishing well, says Jim Cox, partner at Kingfisher Fly Shop in Missoula.

“It turned on big time two days ago,” Cox said. “It’s like they pulled the plug on it down there.” Cox recommends big attractor patterns to go entice the rainbows and brown trout in the sections of the river anywhere below Missoula, including those stretches closest to home, near St. Regis.

Cox said also that the upper Blackfoot River has cleared and is fishing well, and although the Bitterroot River is high and fast, it’s cleared up and is allowing anglers some quality time on the river.

Rock Creek, a perennial favorite for anglers looking to hit it big on dry flies, is beginning to wind down on its salmon fly hatch, but Cox said it’s still worth the drive.
During these high-water times, look to tailwater fisheries like the Missouri River below Holter Reservoir. The Mighty Mo fishes well with caddis flies, pale morning duns and streamers.

Another one of Berg’s choices would be to head to Little McGregor Lake, near its big sister, McGregor Lake west of Kalispell. Little McGregor offers up rainbow trout and brook trout, and although it’s not always a consistent bet, the fish can be trophy-sized, Berg said.

Also west of Kalispell, the Thompson River is always an alternative. With the Flathead River system running high all spring, the Thompson River has been hit hard by anglers this spring, according to LaRocque at Lakestream. But that’s not to say it isn’t fishing well.

Like Rock Creek, the Thompson is an early dry fly hotspot, and you might be able to be productive with caddis or salmon fly patterns, he said.

You don’t need a float tube, drift boat or raft for the Thompson River; it’s nearly entirely walkable, with roads paralleling the stream. “If you want moving water, that’s probably one of the few local areas that’s fishing well,” LaRocque said. “It’s high but clear.”

You can always count on big fish at the Blackfeet Reservation lakes near Browning. These lakes are at their spring best, and the standard stillwater patterns of leaches, scuds and damsels are the tickets for big rainbow trout. Be aware that a Blackfeet permit is needed: they cost $65 for the season; $20 for a single day or $30 for three days.

High water hasn’t just dented anglers’ aspirations. High water in the rivers has “definitely slowed us down,” LaRocque said of Lakestream’s guiding business.

When does he anticipate getting on the river?

“That’s a good question,” he said.

In the meantime, anglers like Berg will continue to fish, despite the longer-than-usual delay caused by high water. “It’s a pretty frustrating time, waiting for these rivers to go down and clear up,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. But you have to throw the float tube in the car and go.”