The first thing that hits you is the smell. Nothing
smells quite like a healthy freestone river in the
American west, and the Middle Fork of the Flathead
River is a perfect example of what a remote location
and a Wild and Scenic designation can do to preserve
what must be pretty close to a pristine fishing experience.
After flying into Kalispell, Montana and spending a
few days with family at Whitefish Lake, my trip started
one crisp August morning at the Glacier Raft Company's
outdoor center a half mile west of Glacier Park's west
gate on U.S. Highway 2. That's where I met guide Dan
Harrison for what would be a truly memorable day of
After picking five or six likely suspects out of the
center's substantial inventory of hand tied flies, we
were off for a half hour drive to the east on Highway
2 as it runs upstream along the Middle Fork, and the
western border of Glacier National Park.
We put our two-seat raft into the water at the Pinnacle
access point, less than 100 yards off the highway. As
Dan was loading gear, I peered into the crystal clear
water and instantly spotted a 2-inch long gray Stone
Fly skittering across the surface. I pointed this out
to Dan, who gave me a knowing nod and invited me to
take my place on the high seat up front.
Dan is a 25-year-old molecular biologist by training,
and a former fish-habitat biologist with the Maryland
Department of Fish and Game who isn't ready to get off
the river for a "real job" any time soon. When it came
to explaining the Middle Fork's unique feeding patterns,
biota, and fishing strategies, I knew that he knew;
if you know what I mean.
Nosing the pontoon downriver, we cruised the first
100 yards of what would be a 16 mile journey through
some of the most spectacular country, and pristine
river, I've had the pleasure of experiencing. Water
conditions from about mid-July through early August
are just about perfect: too low for the heaviest
rafting crowds, but high enough to make the river
entirely floatable for fishing trips.
The first thing you notice onboard is the stunning
clarity of the water. Gliding over 50-foot deep azure
pools, one could easily see straight to the bottom.
Deeply submerged boulders provide plenty of cover for
hungry Westslope Cutthroat and Bull Trout, which monitor
the surface for any promising ripple once temperatures
rise enough for insect activity to begin. This is
something that was hard to get used to. Fishing here
isn't early; it's late because of the extremely low
temperatures of the water overnight and into the early
Our setup was fairly straightforward: A two-piece
graphite 5-weight rod and reel combination, and a short,
7-foot mono leader with a 4-5x tippet. On the business
end of the rig was a "Fat Albert," which to the rest of
the world is a size six foam and rubber stonefly with a
small parachute. We fished a gray version most of the day,
but also toyed with an orange Fat Albert and a Red Wulff
when we thought we'd educated a big one a couple of times.
Mostly though, the foam stonefly was the meal ticket du jour.
Dan and I started working together well very early on.
He'd set me up right or left, suggest mends, and say,
"this is lookin' fishy" when he liked the water, and my
fly's float. On my third or fourth cast as he quietly
murmured, "great float, great float," we got the first
strike. It came in a choppy section of deep blue tail
water alongside a series of boulders. The surface roiled
as an eager Cutthroat took a swipe at my foam offering.
I did not hook him.
Fishing in gin clear water takes a little patience. I'm
not used to casting to sighted fish, and the tendency to
jump-the-strike is strong when you can actually see a
streaking silver bullet rushing your fly from ten or 20
feet down. After a while though, you get it right, and
you've lip-hooked your first Weststlope Cutthroat.
I have nothing but good things to say about Rainbow, Brook,
and Brown trout. They are friends of mine, and I value their
company. However, no trout I've ever caught comes anywhere
close to pulling as hard as the Westslope Cutthroat.
Inch-for-inch, they are the hardest fighting freshwater
fish I've ever come across. Even a 10-inch Westslope will
run line off your reel and make many valiant attempts for
the strong mid-river current, and deep lies he knows at
the bottom. This is a catch-and-release section of river
though, and in my mind, "horsing" the fish a little is
preferred to keep them from exhaustion.
The river is a geologist's dream with strange outcroppings,
shelves, sharply defined striations of layered rock,
undercut subsurface shelves, and precipitous drop-offs
that teem with hungry trout. The river's parent rock,
Argillite, isn't considered to be too fish-friendly when
it comes to producing nutrients, but the fish population
seemed very robust in most of the stretches we fished.
Bear in mind too that we fished in the "recreational"
section of this river, downstream from the fly-in sections
that run through the Great Bear Wilderness.
As we worked out way downstream, the action got hotter
as we moved toward midday, and the insect activity
increased. Dan helped me read the foam lines, and
encouraged me to cast into heavier water than I would
normally select. The aggressive cutthroat did not
disappoint, eagerly slapping the bobbing Fat Albert
with reckless abandon.
We actually raised quite a few fish dragging the bug
on the turn. Dan warned me that this breeds bad habits
among the novices who, once they see this, are reluctant
to go back to trying for that perfect dead float. In fact,
during our lunch break, I caught a 14-incher while stripping
line and dragging the bug upstream six inches from the
shoreline. I saw him follow all the way from mid-channel,
and figured I'd just "troll" until he hit: Which he did.
Hard. Most of our 20 or so fish were taken on a traditional
dead float though, especially the two big ones we landed.
It was just before noon that we had a nice 40 or 50-foot
float going. We were fishing the North bank of the river
right on the heavy current where the river turned from
robin's egg to navy blue. In a flash, a larger silver
slab curled over the top of my fly and started pulling
my tippet toward some nook in a subsurface boulder field.
I set the hook, and felt the heavy pull of something
out-of-the-ordinary. This fish meant business.
I had several yards of stripped line at my feet and
hand-played the fish on its initial blinding run into
the heavy current. But I knew I wanted this fish on
the reel, so after paddling-away at the little Orvis
to take up the slack, I got it done, after what seemed
like an hour.
By this time, our fish was not very happy. Yes, the
meaty beast was finally on the reel, but that didn't
stop him from immediately stripping my fly line with
abandon. This time though I wasn't relying on my marginally
reliable fingertip drag to keep him from breaking me off.
I had the reel palmed as he made a play for my backing.
The Westslope Cutthroat isn't a jumper. No, he's a head
shaker, a strong runner, and a cunning strategist. This
fish would rest until I tried to put a little pressure
on him. At that point he would shake his head. Then,
when sensed that I just about had the reel locked-down
with my palm, he'd make another sharp run in hopes, no
doubt, of breaking me off.
After 15 minutes of this, Dan finally netted what turned
out to be the first of two 16-inch fish we'd take that
fine summer day. Dan told me they were a couple of the
larger Westslopes that had been landed this season.
Actually, even after a couple of these 15 minute fights,
I bulled-the-fish-in a little more than one might usually
do, again, in hopes of not bringing them to exhaustion.
Dan tells me that hooking mortality is actually pretty
low since the Westslope is a hearty species. That's good
to hear, but they're a resource that's worth taking extra
measures to protect.
Despite all the new development around Kalispell,
Whitefish, and West Glacier, the Middle Fork of
the Flathead River is still a great fishing
experience. The presence of U.S. Highway 2 spooks
me a little, as does the heavy overnight rafting
trade. But if managers can at least maintain what
we have there now, it is a wonderful resource that
offers a unique dry fly fishing experience.
There is nothing like a surface strike, and with
the right conditions and the right knowledge, a
memorable experience is within fairly easy reach
on the middle fork of Montana's Flathead River.
~ Tom Layson
Glacier Raft Company: 1-800-235-6781, http://www.glacierraftco.com/
Horizon Airlines: http://www.alaskaair.com/
Montana Fish and Game: http://fwp.state.mt.us/
Tom Layson is a resident of Lopatcong Township,
New Jersey and works as the anchor at News 12 New
Jersey, a 24 hour cable TV news service. You can
visit his personal website at: