September 11, 2008
I recently drove 1,400 miles in four days searching for large trout on northern Montana'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 race'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 can'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 reservation's waters are not tiny private ponds where grotesque trout with pectoral fins rubbed raw by hatchery raceways have nowhere to hide. The reservation'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 reservation's options, you must have a thick skin and an ability to endure the elements. It's not uncommon for white people to be called "whitey" 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 Blackfeet's eternal home — 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 reservation'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 didn't let up for three days. It blew a constant 40 miles per hour (not gusts), and I couldn'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 tent's rainfly I said, "Don't let go or we'll chase that thing to North Dakota." 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 reservation's most famous water, Duck Lake. There we found the wind slightly more bearable. I'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 "too far." They told us, "If 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."
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 'bows.
Upon arrival we planted our wading boots on a high knoll above the lake's southeast side. A few moments later someone said, "Look at those fish in the shallows; they must weigh ten pounds." 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 lake'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.)
"Dan, hustle over here," 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 familiar — and a little embarrassing — mad dash that we've all made when we encounter big fish.
The fishing was truly amazing; many times we enjoyed multiple hookups — triples of 5-pound-plus trout! Routinely we yelled "Double!" Several times, during battles with the big trout, we shared knowing grins — the smiles that say, "Yes, I realize we are in the midst of something special." 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 '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 weren'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 reservation'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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After ice-out and through May, the tactic is to walk the southeast, wind-scoured shores of the lakes and look for trout. Often you can find schools of large trout cruising the shallows, searching in vain for suitable spawning habitat. Polarized glasses make finding the fish easier. The fishes' spawning efforts are mostly futile, but that doesn't really matter. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service stocks the lakes regularly.
Although the reservation lakes can be fished from shore, it pays to have some sinking lines and a float tube or kick-boat ready. By midsummer you may need to venture away from the warm, shallow shoreline areas and probe the deeper water where trout seek relief from the heat. Kipp and Mitten lakes are two waters that fit that example.
The Ethical Fly Fisher
Because the trout in the Blackfeet Reservation lakes don't reproduce, it's acceptable to fish for spawning trout. Angling ethics, however, do apply. Anglers should never attempt to snag fish. Hook the fish fairly on barbless hooks, bring them in quickly, and release them carefully. The cold early-season water usually assures high survival if you handle the fish gently.
In the spring, the sight of a pod of large fish can cause some people to forget their manners. Anglers should remain a fair distance — at least 30 yards — from each other while fishing the lakes. While some areas do fish better than others, there are many trout in most of the lakes, and watchful anglers can usually find willing fish. During summer and fall, the reservation's trout are dispersed and crowding becomes less of an issue, especially during a hatch.
The lakes receive their first important aquatic insect emergences in May, beginning with Callibaetis mayflies, (speckled-wing spinners). Callibaetis are present on many of the lakes through summer, but they are most important in May and again in late July and August.
Excellent patterns to match Callibaetis include #16-#18 standard Parachute Adams, gray Sparkle Duns, Callibaetis Cripples, and a variety of nymphs, including #16-#18 Pheasant-tail, Hare's-ear, and Shellback Callibaetis nymphs.
Caddis also hatch in May. They hover around the banks through summer, and trout feed on emergers and adults. Effective caddis imitations include the LaFontaine Emergent Sparkle Pupa and Deep Sparkle Pupa, Prince Nymph, X-Caddis, and standard Elk-hair Caddis.
By mid-June the reservation's damselfly emergence starts, providing some absolutely insane action — big, 5-pound-plus rainbows cruising the weedbeds, hammering damselfly patterns with enough force to tear a fly rod from a lackadaisical fly fisher's hand. If there is one event that triggers tremendous, predictable fishing on the reservation, the damselfly emergence is it. Anglers who effectively match the emerging insects can register 30-fish days.
Damselflies hatch on many of the reservation lakes, but their emergence is most noted on Mission, Kipp, and Mitten lakes. Those lakes offer large trout that seem particularly eager to scarf up damselfly imitations, including marabou damsels, Six-packs, and even Carey Specials. Braided-butt damsels work when large trout terrorize adults near exposed reeds and cattails. Fish the braided-butt damsels near shore and among weeds that reach the surface. A few twitches can induce a strike.
When fishing damsel nymphs, concentrate your efforts near submerged weedbeds. A sinking-tip, intermediate, or full-sinking line can help you keep the fly down where the fish are. Slow, steady retrieves highlighted by occasional stops and quick strips often draw strikes.
Use the countdown method to find the depth (the thermocline) at which trout are feeding. Make your cast and let the fly and line sink for five seconds before retrieving line. If you do not encounter fish after several similar casts, allow your next few casts to sink for ten seconds before retrieving. Continue extending the countdown by five seconds until you find fish or reach bottom. Use this technique often, because the feeding level can change from day to day, or even hour to hour. Factors that influence where the fish feed include wind, weather, light level, and the presence or absence of a hatch.
By early July, Pale Morning Dun (PMD) mayflies hatch on the reservation lakes. While these occasionally draw trout to the surface, the best action is with PMD nymphs. Prime nymphs include the standard Hare's-ear, Pheasant-tail, and Epoxy nymphs, all #16.
During July, August, and September, be prepared to match a variety of terrestrial insects — grasshoppers, flying ants, beetles, and ladybugs. Often the predominantly west wind blows bugs to the east shore, where they gather in big numbers, and trout cruise the shoreline feeding on drowned bugs both in the surface and down below.
As the weather cools in September, the hatches fade, but the fishing can perk up. Rainbows and cutthroats cruise the lakes looking for meals. Also, large, aggressive brown trout enter the shallow gravelly areas of several lakes, including Duck and Four Horn. Like the spring rainbows, they seek suitable spawning areas. Blood Midges, medium-olive and orange scuds (don't leave home without them), Egg-sucking Leeches, Woolly Buggers, and Zug Bugs tempt the browns.
During fall, expect to hook large trout that are tough to land. At no other time of year are the trout so strong and robust — a 20-incher can weigh more than four pounds.
Throughout the year, even during the dog days of summer, reservation trout key on midges. Rainbows take adult midges off the surface, but most often they feed on midge larvae and pupae. Excellent midge patterns include the Bead-head Zebra Nymph, King's Chironomid Pupa, and the standard, thread-wrapped Blood Midge. I tie that pattern with a blue bead, partially concealed by the peacock thorax.
Leeches and scuds can bail you out of any hatch or nonhatch debacle. If in doubt, tie on a leech or scud and you should score.
Tackle for Trophy Trout
Blackfeet Reservation anglers can get away with 3X and 4X tippets during spring or when fishing leech and scud imitations. When matching a hatch, 4X can work, but 5X and perhaps 6X might be required.
Most anglers use 5- or 6-weight outfits. A stiff rod offers the power needed to push casts through the wind, except during the most miserable blows. Daring anglers might try a 4-weight rod.
Carry floating, intermediate, sinking-tip, and sinking lines so you can put the fly in front of fish holding at any level.
Contacts and Schedules
Mission Lake's story indicates the need to contact informed sources before going to the reservation. Joe Kipp, who runs Morning Star Outfitters, (406) 338-2785, is a good source, as is Ed Anderson at Northern High Plains Outfitters, (406) 338-7413, which maintains a fly shop and sells reservation licenses ($50/year or $15 a day) in Browning. The IGA grocery store and the Conoco gas station in Browning also sell licenses. You don't need a Montana license on the reservation.
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation Fishing Regulations booklet includes a crude map. For a more detailed map, use the Montana Atlas and Gazetteer from the Delorme Mapping Company. There are about 15 quality lakes. Note that some lakes are not identified and, depending on the time of year, some roads may not be passable.
When visiting the Blackfeet Reservation, keep a loose schedule — nothing is given, and the whole world there seems to run on a loose, fly-by-night schedule, which can be both refreshing and maddening.
For instance, during my trip with Dan and Mike, the 1999 fishing regulations were not available because the license vendors were all closed when we arrived. We accidentally camped on tribal land, which, of course, is off-limits to nontribal members. For our blunder, I apologize.
A tribal member who informed us of our mistake politely asked us to break down our tents after dark and move to a campground. He could have fined us $150 each for trespassing. It pays to be cooperative and respect tribal members and their reservation.
You can stay at any of several campgrounds on the reservation, or a motel in Browning, Cut Bank, and Babb. I recommend you do thorough research, which means visual inspection, before booking a room or campsite.
Visiting the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is like dropping into a third-world country, especially during spring and fall, when tourists are sparse. You may feel a set of eyes burning your back. That's OK; I can't imagine going through the rigors that the Blackfeet endured, and I don't blame them for their angst. Like any place, there are good and bad apples in the crowd. During my travels around the reservation I've mostly enjoyed my conversations with tribal members, many of whom are fly fishers. If you use common sense and courtesy, you can avoid confrontations.
Because the reservation can be an intimidating place to visit, its trout lakes receive far less pressure and hold trout as large as those you might find on Montana's other heralded stillwaters, and possibly as large as the trophies you can catch in New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina.
If you want trophy trout, and you aren't afraid to accept what's thrown your way — including that blistering wind — load up on stillwater patterns and drive to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation for a week or more. Trophy trout (I mean giants) are there for you.
Greg Thomas is the Western Field Editor for Fly Fisherman and the Virtual Flyshop and author of fly fishers' guides to Montana and Washington. He lives in Ketchum, Idaho.