The Bones of Summer

By Beacon Staff

It looks like it may be a short whitewater season on the Middle Fork. That blast of record heat in early July turned the Flathead into a furnace, wiping away the last, thin schmear of snowpack.
August will be one boney month.

I got on the Middle Fork last week, and the flows were about right for a guy with my average skills. The river was running about 3,900 cubic feet per second, and if the storm the previous day hadn’t clouded up the water, I suspect the fishing would have been good. It was still a little high for great fishing, but summer doesn’t last long up John Stevens Canyon. The cutthroats have to get after it when they can. Still, the whitewater was plenty splashy, which is just as important in July.

I was reminded that the sensation when you’re running Bone Crusher rapid is that of falling off a cliff, or at least a steep staircase. That probably has something to do with the series of standing waves at the tail end of the rapid. Your boat climbs over each wave, then descends, crashing into the next wall of icy water.

After we wash out into the pool below, I usually spin around so we get a look back at Bone Crusher as there’s usually a raft right behind. The rapid seems small from that perspective. When you’re upstream in the tongue preparing to drop in, Bone Crusher can be intimidating. But from down below, once you’ve put it past you, it looks as though the river barely lost 10 feet of elevation in all the fuss.

Of course it’s easy to be blasé about a rapid you’ve already run.

Bone Crusher gets all the hype. It has the dramatic name, the fun wave train that soaks tourists on guided trips, and the drama of the photographers gathered to record the action for vacation keepsakes. But the guides that run the river on a daily basis will tell you that Bone Crusher is not the rapid they most dread. In my mind — and I think most guides will agree — the trickiest spot on the lower Middle Fork is a little downstream, at Screaming Right.

The rapid is so named because you have to position your boat just so on river right — not hard to the bank that is guarded by exposed rocks — but just outside. Once you’ve cleared the rocks, you have to make a hard right turn to hit the one big drop, a ledge, that washes out into a large pool. Get lazy on your turn and allow your boat to drift left and trouble awaits. As the river drops, large snaggletooth rocks poke out of the water. Drift over those rocks and bad things happen, such as upside-down rafts.

At 3,900 cfs, Screaming Right can be a piece of cake. It’s when the water drops and all those rocks start poking through that things get dicey. If you think you know how to handle a raft, try picking through that garden of exposed bedrock at 1,500 cfs in a fully loaded gear boat. You’ll know a little more about yourself once you’re downstream of Screaming Right, and this summer will probably give you that opportunity.

We saw one guided fishing boat the other day. Not all folks realize it, but the whitewater stretch can fish pretty well as the trout seem unfazed by all the boat traffic. John Holt joked about the fishing on the Middle Fork in his book “Reel Deep in Montana’s Rivers,” suggesting that folks will get a little bored up there after they’ve caught 400 9-inch cutthroats.

My best day was somewhere north of 30, but south of 40, mostly cutts and all on a single Chernobyl Ant I’d tied. I landed a nice rainbow on the same fly I’d tied on at Moccasin just before the take out at West Glacier, then retired it to the fly box.

I thought I might have the shredded chunk of foam bronzed. Instead, I lost it in my latest move to Wyoming. That’s OK. Thirty-plus 9-inch cutts isn’t something to brag about. But there are worse ways to spend a day.

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