Flathead River Beginning to Shape up for Fly Fishing

Following prolonged high water, main stem and forks are stabilizing more quickly than feared, though still a ways out from being ready

By Myers Reece
Anglers float down the Flathead River. Beacon File Photo

Anglers are water watchers. We can’t help ourselves.

We slow down while crossing bridges, ignoring the honking cars behind us, to gaze into streams, judging clarity and levels, looking for rises and holding water, deciphering access points and casting angles, and envisioning ourselves hauling in a substantially larger fish than we will actually catch if we ever fish there. It’s a lot to process in a few seconds from a moving car, even one crawling slowly enough to temporarily ruin the scenic drive of other motorists, but fly fishermen and women are up to the task: we’re masters of reverie, champions of analytical daydreaming.

This time of year, however, particularly with spring’s abnormally high river flows, most of our water watching takes place at the computer, studying stream flows and forecasts, with websites bookmarked that people with healthier habits can’t understand: namely, water-data sites full of numbers and graphs that anglers find positively titillating or, as has been the case over the past month, completely demoralizing.

But the end of despair is within sight, even if the major rivers are still a few weeks out from floatability and prime fishing.

The National Weather Service is cautiously optimistic that high water has peaked for the year. Stream-forecast graphs show steady declines across the board this coming week, from small creeks to big rivers, and bullish readings of snowpack, weather and historical trends suggest flows will continue to stabilize in the following weeks, with the occasional temporary weather-caused spike.

“Unless we get a big precipitation event that covers a big portion of the area, it’s unlikely the main stem rivers will be going back to the level they were previously,” said Dan Zumpfe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula.

The main stem of the Flathead was flowing at roughly 27,000 cubic feet per second on June 4, in line with its historical average for this time of year after cresting above 50,000 cfs in May, nearly double the current flow. The river was forecast this week to continue decreasing. The same goes for the three forks.

A fly fisherman searches for the right pattern. Beacon File Photo

Dax Kara of Lakestream Fly Shop is a cautious prophet, having witnessed the unpredictable ebbs and flows of weather and river levels over the years, and he’s not counting out the possibility that the main stem doesn’t start fishing until July.

“You could say the worst is behind us, but I think we still have a ways to go before we have a fishable river,” he said. “But I hope that prediction is wrong.”

Avery Wittman with Bigfork Anglers is hoping the Flathead shapes up by end of June, which wouldn’t be too much later than the typical start of post-runoff fishing. Considering the Flathead’s flood-watch high waters of May, and flows on other rivers such as the Clark Fork that remain nearly double historical averages, Wittman will take that timeline.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape and on track,” he said. “We got lucky.”

Lakestream and Bigfork Anglers both run blogs that keep anxious anglers updated. For more information, especially for the three forks, Lary’s and Arends fly shops in Columbia Falls are good resources, as are the raft and fly-fishing companies in West Glacier. Kalispell also has Mystique Fly Shop on Main Street.

With spring’s heavy waters, Wittman said the main stem, once it’s floatable, will have changed significantly from last year, with variations in channels, trees in new places and more.

“It will be fishing really well once it gets there, but the big thing is, it’s going to be a completely different river, he said. “It’s going to take some trial and error to see how the river’s changed.”

While waiting for the big rivers to shape up, unless you head to a tailwater or find a smaller stream that stabilizes early, you always have the option of fishing one of Northwest Montana’s many lakes, which Wittman and Kara said have been excellent this spring. Anglers can choose from a range of both cold-water and warm-water species: trout, bass, pike, grayling, and more.

“We’ve got a lot of great lakes here that we’ve been fishing on and guiding on that are doing really good,” Kara said.

The aforementioned fly shops are good places to start to get more information, whether you’re a visitor or a local just trying to get your bearings after a tough high-water season. They’ll set you up with a guide if you’d like, or they’ll provide tips, insights, gear and flies.

Fishable rivers brimming with eager trout are knocking at our door. We just might have to wait a few more weeks to answer them.

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