Western rivers are becoming so crowded that some anglers consider casing the long rods for good. Others are disappointed by the size of the fish they’re catching and blame increased pressure and catch-and-release mortality on the decline. Unfortunately, if you listen to those anglers, you could overlook opportunities that provide lifetime memories.
That’s what I’ve learned during my forays to northwest Montana’s South Fork of the Flathead River—a wild cutthroat fishery that flows through the largest chunk of designated wilderness in the Lower 48. If I listened to the pessimists about how angling pressure on that stream is unbearable and that the fish aren’t what they used to be, I would have missed one of the most quintessential camping and fly-fishing experiences an angler can find in Montana.
On the South Fork of the Flathead, I am pleased to report, enterprising anglers can find remote campsites, solitude, and scads of native westslope cutthroat. It’s a river offering a return to our fly-fishing infancies when camping and camaraderie, incredible scenery and seclusion, and catching naïve trout on bushy dry flies was more paramount than the opportunity for a 20-incher. You place worth on the experience in its entirety—from blistered feet on the hikes in and out of the wilderness, to passing a flask around the campfire, to the daily duties of filtering water and cleaning the camp dishes. The fishing is frosting on an already tasty cake.
The South Fork of the Flathead begins deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness at the confluence of Danaher Creek and Youngs Creek. It gains volume with the contributions of the White River, Big and Little Salmon creeks, Black Bear Creek, and other small tributaries. Overall, the South Fork flows more than 60 miles through designated wilderness and National Forest lands before emptying into Hungry Horse Reservoir.
Some anglers who have fished the South Fork for 30 years complain it isn’t as good today as it once was. They say anglers used to catch nearly 30 cutthroats a day between 15 and 20 inches. I believe those reports, but today fish average between 8 and 14 inches with an occasional 17- to 20-inch fish.
Most people credit the river’s decline to increased pressure, and they are probably correct. The South Fork of the Flathead is no different from other Western rivers, and you should expect to encounter other anglers and campers and be passed by pack trains—but it’s not the end of the world. Those willing to venture away from the beaten path will find refuge from people, especially in late June and early July when high water recedes and again during fall as visiting anglers head home.
To help boost the average size of fish, the portion of the South Fork inside the wilderness boundary is strictly regulated and anglers may keep up to three trout a day smaller than 12 inches. The stretch between the Meadow Creek footbridge and the Spotted Bear footbridge is catch-and-release only.
The trout in this river are eager to please, and on a good day, anglers with nothing more than a #12 Royal Wulff may raise 30 or more fish and bring at least half to the net. Though cutthroat are found throughout its length, the best fishing is between the Meadow Creek Trailhead and Black Bear Creek.
While you probably won’t catch a 22-inch trophy, you will catch some of the most perfectly configured trout in the world. Westslope cutthroats are blue-collar fish that work hard for their living. Unlike trout in fertile tailwater and meadow streams, they endure the nuances of high and low flows. The South Fork is marginal habitat—a stream that flows through mostly sterile, granite corridors. The fish pound attractor dry flies, not because they are stupid, but because they have to eat when food is available.
Fly Patterns and Hatches
When fishing for cutthroats try all the famous attractor dry flies like Black Humpies, Royal Wulffs, Renegades, and Trudes, as well as Elk-hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, Goddard Caddis, Caddis Variants, flying ants, and foam beetles. Westslope cutts prefer a big meal so use large hooks when you can (size 8-14). You will also catch fewer small fish because the large flies are difficult for small fish to inhale. Under the surface try Pheasant-Tails, Hare’s-ears, Prince Nymphs, golden stonefly nymphs, caddis pupae, and Brassies. Anglers should be stealthy when casting to native cutthroats, but finesse is rarely required.
Seldom does a particular hatch demand a specific imitation. However, if you want to match the South Fork’s hatches, expect to see a smattering of Pale Morning Duns, caddis, and stoneflies. Terrestrials include grasshoppers, flying ants, and beetles. In addition, fall brings spruce moths to the water. You won’t see masses of insects like on other Western rivers, but there are enough to trigger fish’s appetites.
The Bull Trout Option
The South Fork is one of the few places in Montana where anglers can legally target bull trout (char). The river is loaded with bulls in the early fall when they run upstream from Hungry Horse Reservoir, but anglers can’t intentionally fish for them between August 15 and the end of the season. Fortunately, bull trout are present throughout the system in the summer. South Fork bull trout weigh up to 15 pounds or more and smack streamers, as well as the occasional cutthroat dancing on the end of an angler’s line.
When fishing for bull trout use short 0X to 2X leaders and sinking-tip lines. If you’re using a floating line, tie on a 12- to 14-foot leader and apply plenty of weight. Bull trout hang near the bottom of deep pools, especially if there’s a tributary nearby depositing fresh, cold, clean water.
The best patterns for bull trout represent sculpins and cutthroat trout. Carry mottled sculpins, Muddler Minnows, woolhead sculpins, Double Bunnies, rubber-leg Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, and Clouser Minnows. Large, heavy stoneflies, such as ***** Creek Nymphs and golden stonefly imitations, also work.
By law, all bull trout must be immediately released. You must also possess a bull trout catch card if you intend to fish for them. Applications are free from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Kalispell or online at www.fwp.state.mt.us/.
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