FISHING: The Rivers (and Lakes) Run Wild

By Beacon Staff

For anglers visiting Northwest Montana, one fact can’t be ignored: There’s water everywhere.

Turquoise rivers cut through the densely timbered valley floors and deep blue lakes carve into mountainsides with sprawling fingers. These many waters hold resident fish populations that serve as studies in diversity, with everything from Arctic grayling to northern pike to, of course, plenty of trout.

No angler will be bored here. This guide is geared toward the fly-fisherman, though a visitor with a spinning rod in hand could follow the same basic guidelines. Whether you want to hire a guide or set out on your own, the wooded lands of Northwest Montana won’t disappoint your fishing appetite.

The region’s centerpiece stream, the Flathead River, cuts southward from Canada, flowing into the massive lake of its namesake and eventually converging with the Clark Fork River. Along with its main stem, the Flathead has three productive forks: the north, south and middle. As local guide David Brown says: “It’s an insane, insane fishery.”

Large northern pike, which make for a wild fight, stalk this river’s waters, particularly in the slower sloughs. A northern will hunt down a large streamer pattern, but remember to be equipped with an eight-weight rod and wire leader.

For the trout purist, however, this river’s trademark is the westslope cutthroat. Like other cutthroats, the westslope is known more for its appetite than its selectiveness, though saying they’re easy to catch would be an overstatement. Throughout the summer, dry fly-fishermen should be fine sticking to the surface.

An angler can pull in a couple of dozen westslopes on a good day along with rainbows and the occasional big bull trout, which are illegal to fish for purposely but when they’re hooked accidentally, can take the angler for a wild ride. The predacious bull trout have been known to attack fish being reeled in by unsuspecting fishermen. Whitefish are also abundant in the Flathead.

Norman McLean put the Blackfoot River in literature and then Robert Redford put it in Hollywood with A River Runs Through It. But to put it in perspective, one has to fish it – it can be as fun and beautiful to fish as any river in the state. You can catch a “grand slam” here: a brook, brown, rainbow, cutthroat and (accidental) bull trout.

For those seeking large brown trout, along with some hefty rainbows, it’s hard to go wrong with the Clark Fork River or Missouri River, neither of which is located directly in Northwest Montana but are central destinations for local guides. The Missouri is a big, often challenging river that, when it’s not completely congested with fishermen, can be a very rewarding trout fishery. The Clark Fork, which flows along Interstate 90, can likewise offer spectacular days when it’s hot.

The Swan River, which empties into Flathead Lake at Bigfork southeast of Kalispell has healthy populations of cutthroats and rainbows, and is best fished above Swan Lake. Farther west, the Kootenai River has produced record-sized rainbow trout that can be dredged out of the depths with big woolly buggers, muddlers and sculpins.

Hopper season in July and August is one of the best times to be on almost any river. Local outfitter Steve Thompson likes big foam hoppers, living by the creed: “Throw foam or go home.”

Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the West. There’s an array of ways to fish this huge body of water, not the least of which are trolling or jigging with lures for big lake trout and other species. But fly-fishermen, if they choose not to hire a charter service or guide, can work along the banks, casting to gravel and sand bars for whitefish and looking for the occasional trout on the move. Also, a big streamer might stir up a hungry northern pike.

Lake Koocanusa, near Eureka north of Whitefish, is another large lake that can be fished similarly from the bank, though boats are always the best bet on these big waters.

One popular fishing excursion is to Rogers Lake for the rare Arctic grayling. Several other lakes, such as Handkerchief and Red Meadow, also hold grayling. On a good day, a lucky angler can haul in 40 or more grayling, which are protected and can’t be kept.

Lakes like Ashley and McGregor, while not renowned as world-class fisheries, can provide for a good fishing day. There are also dozens of good mountain lakes, some of which can be reached by car and others that can only be hiked to. The Jewel Basin Hiking Area at the north end of the Swan Mountain Range offers more than 20 productive mountain lakes.

On upper Swan Lake and Whitefish Lake, you’ll have a good chance at some big northerns with large streamers. Blanchard and Echo lakes hold good-sized largemouth bass. Though Glacier National Park isn’t known for fantastic fishing, it does have a number of decent trout lakes, including Two Medicine Lake, Trout Lake, Hidden Lake and Arrow Lake.

The lakes on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation provide windy, and occasionally frustrating, fishing experiences, but they hold some of the biggest rainbows in the lower 48. Ask about appropriate permits.

There are plenty of other lakes, rivers and tributaries and almost any body of water in the region holds fish, so contact local fly shops and sporting goods stores to learn more. But this guide can be used as a helpful reference point.

For information on everything from fishing accesses, licenses and regulations to good whitefish recipes, visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Web site at www.fwp.mt.gov. You can buy licenses at any local fly or sporting good shops. And if you’re in town, be sure to check out the 43rd Annual Fly-Fishing Show and Conclave held at Whitefish High School between July 22-26.

Basic Fly Box (as always, check the hatch first)
Royal Wulffs
Elk-hair Caddis
Parachute Adams
Hoppers (August)
Golden Stoneflies (June)
Salmonflies (June)
Bead-head Prince Nymphs
Bead-head Copper John Nymphs
Pheasantail Nymphs
Hare’s Ear Nymphs
Woolly Buggers
Assorted Streamers

Guides and Fly Shops
Lakestream Fly Shop: 334 Central Avenue, Whitefish (406) 862-1298
Stumptown Anglers: 5790 Highway South, Whitefish (877) 906-9949
Arends Fly Shop: 7356 US Highway 2 East, Columbia Falls (406) 892-2033
Northern Rockies Outfitters: 270 Bayou Road, Kalispell (406) 756-2544
Bigfork Anglers – 405 Bridge Street, Bigfork, (406) 837-3675
Wild Trout Adventures: Bigfork, (406) 837-3838
Glacier Anglers: PO Box 330, West Glacier (406) 387-5555
Kootenai Angler: 13546 North Highway 37, Libby (406) 293-7578

Flathead Lake Charters: PO Box 8074, Bigfork (406) 837-3632
A Able Fishing: 63 Twin Acres Drive, Kalispell (406) 844-0888
Glacier Fishing Charters: 375 Jensen Road, Columbia Falls (406) 892-2377
Mofisch: Lakeside, (406) 755-4414