Moving Water Prime Time

A float on the Middle or North fork is about more than just catching fish

By Rob Breeding

The season came slightly later this year, but floating conditions are pretty much ideal across much of Montana. It’s been hot, but that just might make swimming, rather than fishing, the preferred diversion as you drift downstream.

You can and should do both, actually, though probably not in the same hole. That’s not necessarily the case on the Middle Fork Flathead River, however, where the cutthroats are rarely shy. One of my favorite games on the Middle Fork is to sit in the big hole just below Screaming Right and fish dry flies between rafts when whitewater groups drift through.

There are rivers where a raft floating overhead will put trout down for hours, but not the Middle Fork. When I used to guide there I’d sometimes tell my clients to cast right behind the whitewater boats. They’d look at me like I was a loon but then seemed to share my delight when a trout rose in the shadow of a paddle boat.

Trout psychologists might have a different explanation as to what exactly is up with Flathead cutties when it comes to this behavior. My story is that the system is so food poor trout can’t afford to be shy or selective. Small fish have to feed aggressively, beating their rivermates to the limited groceries floating past. Selective trout starve in this system.

Some of my fellow guides swore there were times when trout on the forks grew selective. I’ve never been convinced, but most of those guys were better than me so maybe I should have paid closer attention. Some had favorite go-to flies for when things slowed down, but I tended to stick with attractor flies all season. I still do when I’m on the river for fun these days.

Orange is my color. My flies of choice for fishing the whitewater flotilla hatch are Stimulators and Chernobyl Ants. Stimis with dark rubber legs are preferable to the legless variety. The Chernobyl Ants were a pattern I tied myself, a little smaller than what’s readily available in fly shops. No. 12 and 14 are about right. Bigger patterns just might seem too much a challenge for the average 8-inch Middle Fork cuttie.

There are times when surface activity really slows down, such as sunny, hot days like what we’ve had for most of July. One could tie on a dropper to fish a nymph below a foam ant at such times, and if your focus is entirely on catching fish to the exclusion of other esthetic pursuits, go for it. You might catch as many whitefish as you do trout but that really isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

For me, the Middle and North forks are pretty much dry fly water. While I’ve moved on from the dry-fly-purist orthodoxy of my youth, when I’m on the Flathead I revert to my old form. A float here is about more than just catching fish. It’s about camaraderie on beautiful water and what is really a social event more than a Waldenesque escape from society. If you’re on the Middle Fork in July and get bent out of shape because strangers float past and start a water fight, you just might be a tad too tightly wound.

So come armed with proper water guns. Or put in at Moccasin late in the afternoon. By the time you slide under the old bridge in West Glacier you’ll have the water to yourself. This time of year, the fishing will be better late anyway.

And as always, be safe. Wear your PFD. Be careful with the hydration. Limit your beer intake while sipping plenty of water as you float. Drunk floaters are not safe floaters. And smear on the waterproof sunscreen like a greased pig before you put in. In this weather sunburn comes quickly to the unprotected.

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