On the Sticks

By Beacon Staff

Things seem to finally be rounding into shape on area rivers. I got out on the North Fork finally, and the float had all the sensations of summer.

There was the all-important feel of moving water beneath the boat. Lakes have their place – somewhere to fish when rivers are high – but that feel of the boat turning in the current is transcendent.

We used an inflatable for the trip. The water was still a little high and it’s a good idea to get a feel for things before launching the hard boat, with its greater maneuverability and fishing performance, but smaller margin for error in big water. I was fortunate to have Freddy Spaghetti along on this trip, fortunate for many reasons but what’s most pertinent here is that he likes to row. That desirable trait creates a near perfect equilibrium with one of his bad habits: drinking all my beer. Bring extra beer and the scales tip in the direction of the dude being the perfect fishing buddy.

Another friend from Arizona was along, and it was his first float on the North Fork, so he assumed the appropriate perch at the front of the boat. That meant I was fishing from the back seat, a position often derided as being inferior to up front. But I like fishing in back. In a raft you’re usually fishing from a rotating seat that allows you to swing around the back of the boat, dangle your feet in the water, and fish holding water with a thoroughness that the front angler – with the lure of the next great spot always advancing in their field of view – sometimes neglects.

All is not perfect, however. The rear end of a raft is a smorgasbord of D-rings, anchors and frame parts that mean you’ll spend a fair amount of time untangling your line before casting. But hey, you’re floating the North Fork Flathead River. If that’s the worst of your worries, your worries ain’t all that bad.

As we put in at Big Creek the river still carried enough suspended glacial till to make the water appear slightly milky. Visibility was a couple of feet and I wasn’t sure how that would play out as far as the fishing goes. The test comes less than a quarter mile downstream on a long, sweeping run where the river plunges west, hits the canyon wall, and heads in the opposite direction. From North Fork Road the river looks like a giant horseshoe.

When the North Fork is fishing well, that long run on river right at the apex of the horseshoe almost always produces a bunch of strikes and at least a couple of fish, albeit little guys. It’s the ideal spot for guiding newbies as it gives them a taste of what to expect right out of the gate.

Well, the run produced. That foreshadowed a day of pretty good fishing, at least by North Fork standards. Just about anywhere we posted up we caught fish. Most were in the 8- to 10-inch range, which is to be expected up there. We got a few larger cutthroat, but none of the gorgeous 16- to 20-inch fish that show up just often enough to keep things interesting.

Of course floating the North Fork has nothing to do with catching fish, which even when it’s on is really marginal at best. You’ll catch a lot of little guys, and a big bull trout will occasionally chase your terrified cuttie as you strip it in.

But if your idea of a good time is limited to targeting selective risers in the 20-inch range the North Fork isn’t your place. This is a social float on what is arguably the most magnificent river in the lower 48. The prolific pan-sized fish are there just to lend a sense of purpose to what is really just an excuse to drink beer with friends.

So budget accordingly when you’re packing the cooler. You’ve got to be able to throw a few cold ones the rower’s way if you want to keep fishing.

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