I recently drove 1,400 miles in four days searching for large trout on northern Montanaâ€™s Blackfeet Indian Reservation. I wanted nothing more than to catch a 10-pound rainbow, but when I walked away from the reservation and its twisted little town of Browning, my greatest revelation was the tragedy of history and how many years of food stamps and dividend checks does nothing to change one raceâ€™s perception of another.
Fortunately, I also discovered solid populations of large, stillwater rainbow trout that are keen on flies, and yet remain relatively unscathed by fly fishers. In fact, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, located on the east side of Glacier National Park, nestled against the cold, wind-ravaged foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front, offers stillwater trout fishing options that match, and possibly exceed, any in the West. If, like me, you canâ€™t afford a trip to big-trout bastions like Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand, the reservation offers salvation.
During a good day on any of its prairie and mountain lakes, anglers can land a half-dozen or more rainbows exceeding two or three pounds. On the best days an angler might catch 20 or more hogs, with the largest fish, perhaps a half-dozen of them, ranging between five and ten pounds.
The reservationâ€™s waters are not tiny private ponds where grotesque trout with pectoral fins rubbed raw by hatchery raceways have nowhere to hide. The reservationâ€™s trout (stocked when they were small) are attractive fish that have plenty of room to run and roam in lakes ranging from 70 to 1,500 acres. Finding fish can be a challenge on the lakes, but once you do, the action can be intense.
A Harsh Environment
To take advantage of the reservationâ€™s options, you must have a thick skin and an ability to endure the elements. Itâ€™s not uncommon for white people to be called â€śwhiteyâ€ť on the reservation, and the weather is cold and usually windy.
Once you enter the Blackfeet Reservation, you will quickly realize why the United States government chose the Rocky Mountain Front as the Blackfeetâ€™s eternal homeâ€”it is beautiful, yet stark, hard, weathered country, to say the least. The wind tears highway signs in half and has pushed trains off their tracks. Pickup trucks and their campers are blown over, and every inch of barbed-wire fence, it seems, is littered with plastic bags, cardboard beer boxes, and everything else that takes flight. Anglers lose tents to that fierce wind every year.
The reservation has many well-known, fertile lakes that produce good trout and dozens of lesser-known waters that hold smaller trout. The fishing begins in March when ice-out occurs on the lower-elevation lakes. Higher-elevation lakes experience ice-out later, and usually all of the lakes become ice-free by the end of April. Hatches follow a similar progression up the mountains. Most of the lakes are open to fishing year-round, but the fly fishing ends when severe weather arrives in late October.
Unfortunately a fishing trip to the reservation can be hit or miss. Some lakes freeze during winter, while others suffer overpopulation from rough fish. And some lakes, such as Mission Lake, may not receive adequate water due to irrigation on the reservation.
In lakes that lack water, trout die. Three years ago Mission yielded incredible numbers of 4- to 10-pound rainbows, but it has since declined due to water use and quality issues. Fortunately, the Blackfeet Tribal Fish and Game Department, headed by Ira Newbreast, has secured water for Mission Lake and replanted it with trout. This year, expect to catch 14- to 16-inch rainbows at Mission. Next year, those fish could measure 23 or 24 inches long. Some reservation fish grow an inch a month feeding on abundant scuds and freshwater shrimp.
On a recent mid-April visit (shortly after ice-out) to one of the reservationâ€™s small prairie lakes, my companions and I had high expectations because a friend had fished the lake a week earlier and said it had many 2- to 5-pound rainbows. When we arrived at 10:30 P.M., the wind was calm and we pitched the tent, giddy about the weather. Just after midnight, however, the wind arrived and it didnâ€™t let up for three days. It blew a constant 40 miles per hour (not gusts), and I couldnâ€™t cast more than a dozen yards, even with a stiff 5-weight rod. We quickly deemed our situation bleak and broke camp. When a companion helped remove the tentâ€™s rainfly I said, â€śDonâ€™t let go or weâ€™ll chase that thing to North Dakota.â€ť He held on tight.
Ice-out on Duck Lake
For a change of scenery and a chance to catch a 10-pound-plus trout, we left that little, windswept lake and drove 50 miles to the reservationâ€™s most famous water, Duck Lake. There we found the wind slightly more bearable. Iâ€™m glad I took that fateful drive, because in six hours of fishing I participated in some of the most outrageous large-trout action that any Rocky Mountain angler could imagine.
I was accompanied by Dan Summerfield of Missoula, Montana, and Mike Bordenkircher, of Ketchum, Idaho. Three other friends had declined an invitation to join us at Duck Lake, citing the 50-mile drive as â€śtoo far.â€ť They told us, â€śIf the wind is blowing hard here, it will blow 20 miles an hour faster at Duck and the temperature will be about 10 degrees colder.â€ť
Their prediction may have been accurate, but no amount of wind or cold could have ruined our foray, although it took a while to figure out Duck Lake and its giant â€™bows.
Upon arrival we planted our wading boots on a high knoll above the lakeâ€™s southeast side. A few moments later someone said, â€śLook at those fish in the shallows; they must weigh ten pounds.â€ť We raced for our rods. Unfortunately, after negotiating the steep bank, we found the pre-spawning fish to be uncooperative. They declined a variety of fly offerings and bolted away.
A half-hour later, I left my buddies and headed for the lakeâ€™s east end. They planned to wade-fish the shoreline and join me later. When they arrived, I was hooked to a good fish, following it around the edge of the lake, maneuvering the monster and my fly line between miniature icebergs. My friends laid on the bank and watched from 200 yards away. I figured they thought I had bumped into a random fish, but in fact, I was surrounded by hordes of big trout cruising the shallows in the early stages of their ineffective spawning ritual. (The fish do not spawn successfully in the lakes.)
â€śDan, hustle over here,â€ť I hollered. He came over and snapped a few photos of my fish, a 26-incher, then cast his own line and hooked a similar fish. In fact, in two successive casts he hooked and lost fish. The third cast brought a 27-inch rainbow to the bank.
By that time, Mike had gathered his rod and was engaged in that familiarâ€”and a little embarrassingâ€”mad dash that weâ€™ve all made when we encounter big fish.
The fishing was truly amazing; many times we enjoyed multiple hookupsâ€”triples of 5-pound-plus trout! Routinely we yelled â€śDouble!â€ť Several times, during battles with the big trout, we shared knowing grinsâ€”the smiles that say, â€śYes, I realize we are in the midst of something special.â€ť For several hours we enjoyed fly-fishing action that might never be encountered again in our lives. It was one of those times when the fishing could not have been better and we drank every ounce of it as if it might be our last.
Nearly six hours after I hooked that first fish, we estimated our tally: about 50 rainbow trout, give or take five fish; most weighed four pounds or more. The longest â€™bow, a 28-incher that I landed on a #16 Blood Midge, weighed perhaps eight pounds. Dan landed two trout that, in my mind, pushed nine or ten pounds. He said they werenâ€™t an ounce less than 12 pounds. He may be right; just a week earlier some lucky angler had caught an 18-pounder on a fly.
Duck Lake and the reservationâ€™s other quality stillwaters fish well just after ice-out. Typically the Blackfeet lakes lose their ice sheets around mid-March and the fish flood into the shallows to feed.
During spring, a variety of subsurface patterns draw strikes. Prime patterns that every angler should carry include Blood Midges, orange scuds, dark-orange and light-pink Glo-Bugs, and mohair leeches and Woolly Buggers in brown, olive, and black.
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