Some people claim there’s no such thing as “love at first sight.” I imagine those people probably aren’t anglers, because any angler knows that statement is false when it comes to seeing beautiful trout water for the first time. It was the first time my eyes met the North Fork of the Blackfoot River that I instantly fell in love with a mountain stream that would provide many future days of excellent fishing, and most importantly, solitude.
Tumbling down from the Scapegoat Wilderness, the North Fork slices its way through canyon-like features providing pool after gin-clear pool of big westslope cutthroat, more than willing to take dry flies throughout the summer and early fall.
Lurking behind large boulders and deep within the crevices of bedrock structure, bull trout are also present as they make their way up the North Fork to spawn in late summer. Though not as numerous and illegal to target, if you fish the North Fork enough, a bull trout is likely to get your blood pumping when it emerges from the depths to chase the cutthroat you just hooked.
The presence of these native species is a testament to having quality habitat and cold, clean water. Take a look at any of these strongholds for native trout in the Blackfoot River basin and you’ll find one common factor: protected headwaters. Fortunately these headwaters will remain protected through the passage of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.
Though the main-stem Blackfoot is beautiful in its own right, it suffered for decades as tributaries were degraded from grazing, mine pollution, and dewatering. Talk to anyone who was around in the 1970s or ‘80s, and they will tell you that the fishing was more than poor, it was sad. Fast-forward through more than 30 years of stream restoration and land conservation practices, and the Blackfoot’s fishing is back. The work, however, is not done.
Over the past 13 years, a coalition of Montanans and conservation groups have worked together to develop a landscape proposal called the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project. Within that timeframe, the project resulted in thousands of miles of stream and trail restoration, created and maintained over 130 jobs, and most importantly, set the stage for protecting some of the highest quality fish and wildlife habitat in Western Montana.
On June 7, Montana Sen. Jon Tester reintroduced legislation that would finally complete this long awaited project: the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. Balancing restoration, recreation, and conservation, the BCSA would permanently protect 80,000 acres of Wilderness and some of the most quality native trout factories in the Blackfoot basin, including the beloved North Fork. Along with increasing recreational opportunities for mountain bikers and snowmobilers, the legislation would also help forest restoration efforts.
Regardless of the fact that we live in a politically polarized world, local Seeley Lake and Ovando residents have found a way to find a balance that protects both the landscape and local economy. Luckily for anglers, it will be a huge win for fish and the long-term health of the Blackfoot.
For folks like myself who experienced “love at first sight” on the North Fork, it’s my hope that the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act will help other anglers do the same, now and well into the future. Whether you have experienced the fishing on the Blackfoot and its tributaries or you’ve only dreamt of doing so, the time is now to protect the legacy of this amazing river.
Alec Underwood is the federal conservation campaigns director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.