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Fly Fishing Montana's Incomparable Flathead River System

Over 50 Years later, a new look at the birthplace of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Fly Fishing Montana's Incomparable Flathead River System

The Middle Fork of the Flathead in John Stevens Canyon has technical Class II-IV whitewater and is best fished with seasoned, professional guides. The North Fork has easier public access, better wading opportunities, and fantastic views of the mountains. (Ryan O'Connor photo)

This article was originally titled "The Flathead" in the June-July 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman

If the three forks of Montana’s Flathead River could be embodied, I imagine them as a striking trio of energetic, precocious women. These spirited dames are proportionately lusty and graceful, muscular and delicate, cruel and nurturing.

In the late 1980s, my grade school self showed up on their buxom banks with a leaky, inflatable kayak to ride piggyback as these leading ladies moved with purposeful spirit. They offered more adventure than I expected in even the longest life. I itched to mimic their mannerisms, noticing how they earned respect at every bend. I laughed when they laughed, and whispered when they whispered. They educated me through dangerous close calls and hands-on lessons in entomology, hydrology, wildlife biology, and botany.

I figured they prevailed as their own renewable fountains of youth sweeping toward the Columbia. They were innately strong, ageless, and immutable.

As I got older, textbook science eked its way into my magic-based relationship with the rivers, and I learned that since the last Ice Age, the Flathead River system has been a rare stronghold for native trout and is one of the most biodiverse freshwater aquatic landscapes in the United States.

“It really is the last of the best,” says fisheries program manager for the United States Geological Survey, Clint Muhlfeld, Ph.D. “It still has the full portfolio of intact, cold, clean habitats and is one of the last remaining places in the U.S. where people can catch a native trout that represents this evolutionary legacy of biodiversity.”

It’s not by simple fortune that the Flathead still has template-level interconnected habitats and a remarkably sound ecosystem. “I think it’s in large part because parts of the Flathead became a protected corridor,” Muhlfeld says.

Over the last five decades, industrial development blasted holes in the pristine nature of many rivers across the country. But on the Flathead, the bullets of degradation bounce off a flak jacket known as the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The 1968 act, innovated by John and Frank Craighead and Olaus Murie, led Congress to create the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to “preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Fly Fishing Montana's Incomparable Flathead River System
The Flathead River was the inspiration for the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, and was Montana’s first river designated as such. As a direct result of these protections, the Flathead today is Montana’s greatest intact coldwater ecosystem for native cutthroat and bull trout. (Lee Cohen photo)

River units are classified and administered as wild, scenic, or recreational rivers, based on the river’s condition, the amount of development in and around it, and the degree of accessibility. Today in the United States there are 208 river units with 12,708 miles in 40 states and Puerto Rico. This is less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers.

So, as the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, why have so few rivers been designated in the last half century?

“Establishing Wild & Scenic designation for a river takes about ten years of very hard work,” says American Rivers Northern Rockies Director Scott Bosse. “That work starts with getting people together to create a focused and broad-based campaign aimed at gaining this special protection. A bill must be introduced in Congress, and if it goes through, a river management plan has to be created, and that takes considerable time and effort.”

For the Flathead, that arduous effort was born when John and Frank Craighead began the dedicated push to prevent a large dam on what is now the most protected section of the Middle Fork. So, the Flathead River isn’t simply one of the few rivers in the country enjoying Wild & Scenic status, it’s the birthplace of the law. It’s our first Wild & Scenic River.


Bosse says: “The Middle Fork, and the Spruce Park section in particular, is where the creation story for the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act took place. It was in this boulder-choked canyon, where the roar of whitewater echoes off bedrock walls, where the Craighead brothers came up with the simple but powerful notion that some of our nation’s last untamed rivers should remain wild and free. To this day, we’re the only country on earth that has had the foresight to pass such a law.”

The protected reach on the Flathead was established in 1976 and includes the North Fork from the Canadian border downstream to its confluence with the Middle Fork, the Middle Fork from its headwaters to its confluence with the South Fork, and the South Fork from its origin to the Hungry Horse Reservoir. With just 2/10ths of 1% of Montana’s river miles established as Wild & Scenic, the three forks of the Flathead boast well over half of the entire state’s 368 protected mileage. Their waters touch Glacier National Park, The Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Great Bear Wilderness before joining near Hungry Horse to create the mainstem Flathead River, a major tributary to the Columbia River.

The 97.9-mile “wild” sections of the Flathead are primitive and unpolluted, dam-free, and accessible by trail. The 40.7-mile “scenic” river sections are dam-free, largely undeveloped, and accessible in places by roads. The 80.4-mile recreational sections are easily accessible by road and railroad, with various development, including some homes along the banks. Full-service municipalities, hospitals, tourist attractions, hotels, and Glacier Park International Airport are just minutes away.

“One of the great things for fly anglers is that Wild & Scenic Rivers foster recreation,” says Bosse. “That means any federally authorized activity that would undermine a designated river’s recreational values would be prohibited. That’s pretty cool when you think about it. None of our other major environmental laws protects recreational activities so explicitly.”

The activity of fly fishing here centers around native westslope cutthroat trout, greenish in color with black, non-rounded spots, and bright orange slashes at the lower jaw. Westslope cutthroat are Montana’s state fish and the primary targeted species in the Flathead, under catch-and-

release practices. However, they’re also listed by federal and state agencies as a sensitive fish of special concern, as hybridization with invasive rainbow trout and habitat degradation have reduced their range. Fluvial cutthroat higher up on the Middle Fork tend to get larger in size, sometimes filling up an 18" net, since their spawning trek to nearby tributaries is considerably shorter than the longer migration to Flathead Lake taken by their adfluvial brethren lower on the system and on the North Fork.

Native bull trout—the grizzly bears of the fish world because of their need for unaltered habitat—are found in all three forks, but are legal for targeting only during a short season on the South Fork with a special catch card under catch-and-release practices.

It’s not legal to target them at any time on the North Fork or Middle Fork. Bull trout are listed as a threatened species, meaning federal wildlife officials say it’s likely to become an endangered species (in danger of extinction) in the foreseeable future.

An incidental bull trout hookup is not uncommon, so anglers should be prepared to quickly release them with as little handling as possible.

Given that the two most celebrated species in the Flathead are at risk, it’s evident the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act can’t fully shield the Flathead from threats that reach beyond industrial development. Climate change, hybridization between native and nonnative species, and the risk of an oil spill from passing freight trains expose the river’s clear vulnerability. “As we degrade the environment, we reduce the ability for these native species to adapt to stressors as they have for thousands of years,” says Muhlfeld.

Hanging tough in a warming world is challenging for rivers whose flows are impacted by unseasonable and dramatic melting. USGS studies show that as outdoor temperatures are consistently getting warmer sooner in the spring, mountain snow runoff is happening two to three weeks earlier. The water that was provided to the streams from the snowpack is melting faster on average, which leads to reduced flows in summer months. That, scientists say, leads to elevated stream temperatures, which is particularly unhealthy for native cutthroat and bull trout.

And, USGS scientists say, precipitation that once fell as snow in the fall is now falling as rain, which can cause unseasonable flooding events that have the ability to scour bull trout redds and spoil reproduction.

Bull trout don’t tolerate high sediment levels in their spawning streams. Increased runoff stirs up sediment and can suffocate developing embryos before they hatch. “Bull trout are affected by changes in hydrology,” says Muhlfeld. “Flow is the master variable.”

Muhlfeld says another serious threat climate change poses to worldwide biodiversity is how it assists the viability of invasive species like rainbow trout, and the ensuing hybridization with cutthroat. “Hybridization proliferates in warmer water,” says Muhlfeld. “And disrupts the gene complexes that enable cutthroat to persist. Hybridization creates a less-fit cutthroat, and jumbles the patterns of genetic health that have allowed the species to evolve while keeping the ecosystem intact.”

Scenic & Endangered

Despite being recognized as one of the most pristine river systems in the country, last year the Flathead landed on the American Rivers list of Most Endangered Rivers. The nonprofit river advocacy group cited the strings of freight trains carrying volatile crude oil from fields in North Dakota on tracks running alongside the Middle Fork Flathead en route to refineries in the Pacific Northwest. Between 2000 and 2012, 37 train derailments happened in the Middle Fork corridor.

Fly Fishing Montana's Incomparable Flathead River System
After more than 37 train derailments in the Middle Fork corridor, the nonprofit American Rivers is urging the federal government to develop a safety compliance agreement with Burlington Northern Railroad. (Ryan O'Connor photo)

“Had any of these contained oil or other hazardous materials, it would have been a disaster for water quality, wildlife, fish, plants and humans, says Kascie Herron of American Rivers. “The economy would suffer greatly.”

Rather than the reactive reliance on a multi-agency response plan in the wake of an oil spill, American Rivers wants the Federal Railroad Administration to address the threat by developing a safety compliance agreement with Burlington Northern Railroad.

“We’d like to see the avalanche sheds installed at critical sites along the corridor, as well as more rail track inspections,” says Herron. “And anglers can help by voicing this to their elected leadership.”

While communication with legislators may be the most important thing anglers can do to help their fishery through voicing concern of an oil spill and dependency on fossil fuels that warm the planet, biologists suggest fly fishers also consider their own fishing habits when aiming for a healthier fishery.

Fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Leo Rosenthal, says the cutthroat population has held stable in the Flathead system since the agency instituted catch-and-release regulations in 1998. Rosenthal says the protected habitat has helped keep cutthroat numbers steady. However, it’s the condition of the fish he’s concerned about, citing evidence of overfishing. “We’re seeing an increase of hook scarring on fish,” says Rosenthal. “The same fish are being caught over and over, and being handled. We’re asking anglers to limit their catch and do their own conservation by truly thinking about their individual impact.”

Although state law doesn’t require it, Rosenthal suggests anglers use single, barbless hooks, handle fish sparingly, and keep their gills underwater during the catch-and-release. And, he says, fish benefit when anglers recognize they don’t need to catch every fish in the river to have a good day.

Whitewater & Wading

All three forks of the Flathead are wadable, but there’s an abundance of dynamic water to be found by boat. The upper Middle Fork of the Flathead in the wild section runs through wilderness areas and is widely known as a bucket-list adventure. It’s best fished with seasoned, professional guides, given the technical class II-IV whitewater and intricate backcountry nuances.

Outside of the wilderness area, the Middle Fork’s 10-mile whitewater stretch through John Stevens Canyon is one of my favorites to fish in the fall, since it’s cold, aerated, and offers all-time pocketwater for expert rowers. The North Fork from the Canadian border down offers fantastic mountain views, opportunities to see wildlife in open meadows, dynamic but not highly technical stretches with plenty of public access, and eager cutthroat in gin-clear water. Since the busiest time on the river is July and August, anglers should plan their trips on either side of prime tourism season to take an edge off pressured fish.

Floating in early fall, I sense my female river trio splashing high fives, slowing down, and sighing as the falling leaves ride piggyback all the way to the lake. It’s then that I most realize the importance of the Wild & Scenic River Act’s guardianship, and why an act can’t act alone . . . that it needs us to appreciate our role in the zone.

When I was a child, the three forks of the Flathead shaped my future. I believe that’s true in some way for anyone who has experienced the fun, adventure, peace, and connectivity found on free-flowing water all across the country. And it’s why we share in the desire to reciprocate by helping shape the future of the rivers we love.

Flies for the Flathead

The Flathead isn’t a fishery that requires complex, multi-element rigs or detailed match-the-hatch patterns. Fly fishers can have productive days on any Flathead stretch with a standard setup of a 9-foot 5-weight rod, floating line, 9-foot tapered leader, 4X or 5X tippet, and classic attractor dry flies. There are certainly more creative and thoughtful setups used by locals and guides with specific goals, but a basic rig isn’t wrong.

Fly Fishing Montana's Incomparable Flathead River System
Fly fishers can have productive days on any Flathead stretch with a standard setup of a 9-foot 5-weight rod, floating line, 9-foot tapered leader, 4X or 5X tippet, and classic attractor dry flies. (Ryan O'Connor photo)

Various seasonal strategies are fun to navigate, especially with a guide who is dialed on the subtle changes to flows, temperatures, and bug life. As the river starts to clear, post-runoff, a favorite but unconventional cutthroat-wooing tactic practiced by guides and locals is sinking large, untreated stonefly drys by letting them saturate in fast water, and stripping them back on the seam. This method is best with a shorter leader and tippet no thinner than 3X, as even smaller cutthroat hit hard and turn quickly.

Midsummer is the time to experiment with flash and color, including Krystal Stimulators, purple Chubbies, Carnage Attractors, and PMX patterns.

In late summer, cutthroat become wiser to the suspicious surface wakes, but not necessarily picky, so presentation becomes more important. This is when I throw smaller mayflies and midges.

In the fall, many anglers enjoy the matching game with Mahogany Duns and October Caddis, but I prefer using small Black Ants and Fire Beetles. In the colder months, the game isn’t as much about what they’re eating as it is about finding the fish. Fly fishers should look for places along the river where the snow has melted, signaling groundwater that’s a bit warmer in the wintertime.

Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips when she was a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. After a short career as a broadcast news anchor, she established the PR and marketing company Outside Media, and began hosting Trout TV. She owns the fly shop Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her family.

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