March 29, 2021
*This story was originally titled “Glacier's Borderlands: Do-it-yourself adventures on the North and Middle forks of the Flathead.” It appeared in the June-July 2010 issue of Fly Fisherman.
The nose-diving U.S. economy has persuaded many families in recent years to put costly and exotic vacation plans on hold, and travel a little closer to home. Visitors to Yellowstone National Park, for example, reached record-breaking levels in 2009.
The northwest corner of Big Sky Country is another one of these close-to-home, family-friendly destinations that has garnered much of my attention in recent years, and for good reason. Kalispell, Flathead Lake, and Glacier National Park are all nearby, and the area is also home to some of the most underrated and unpressured trout fishing in the state, mainly because fly fishers passing through with their families rarely give in to their impulses to wet a line.
The North and Middle forks of the Flathead make up the western and southern borders of Glacier National Park (making them incredibly scenic), are roadside accessible, and are the perfect getaway if you’re already in the area and need to satiate that need to work a dry fly along a seam in a river. The native cutthroat in these unspoiled rivers are eager to please—something to remember if you’re introducing the next generation of fly fishers to the sport.
The Middle Fork begins in the Great Bear Wilderness at the juncture of Strawberry and Bowl creeks, though few anglers venture this far since access is by foot or horse. Shafer Meadows is a popular starting point for kayakers and rafters riding the early season water downstream, camping along the way.
U.S. 2, Bear Creek, and the Middle Fork of the Flathead all converge at the Bear Creek Trailhead approximately five miles south of Essex, creating the uppermost point anglers can access the river by automobile. From here, the river worms northwest, paralleling U.S. 2 for most of the way. Conveniently, the gradient also relaxes in this area, making it suitable for fly fishing.
While regulations prohibit angling within a 100-yard radius of Bear Creek’s mouth, wading anglers can either work upstream toward the wilderness or meander downstream. Some floating anglers use the trailhead as a put-in, taking out at the Essex (Walton) Bridge. If you have a pontoon boat or small raft, this stretch has terrific scenery and floats past the Goat Lick—a popular natural landmark where salt minerals leach from the ground, attracting wildlife.
From the Essex Bridge to Paola, approximately 10 miles downstream, is a great stretch of river for anglers when flows drop around mid-July. It’s much safer to float and wade, and the fish are more eager to rise to dry flies in lower flows. Floating and wading anglers find easy access at both sites, and since most of the whitewater junkies prefer the runs closer to West Glacier, you’ll encounter slightly less rafting traffic, especially later in the summer.
There is a parking area, restroom, and unimproved beach for unloading or loading a boat on the west side of the Essex Bridge. The Paola access is a large, rocky bar on the west side of the river, and it’s a rough ride if you’re loading or unloading a boat so four-wheel-drive comes in handy.
One reason I enjoy this stretch is the abundance of structure and consecutive riffle-pool-riffle-pool runs. Look for fish near tributary mouths (the tributaries themselves are generally closed to angling) and at the heads of the pools where cooler, oxygenated water washes over the gravel and runs into the head of the pool. I’ve had my best success in these areas drifting dry flies over the transition from shallow to deep water.
The river downstream through the John F. Stevens Canyon to West Glacier intersects the Nyack, Cascadilla Flat, Moccasin, and Ousel access sites, but the whitewater rapids between sites make them more popular with thrill-seekers than fly fishers.
The area from Cascadilla Flat to Moccasin is easier to navigate by boat, but there are a few Class II rapids, so proceed with caution. From Moccasin downstream, the river grade drops an average of 35 feet per mile over five miles and there are some gnarly Class III chutes. It’s rough water, but fishing opportunities are available. Whitewater chutes and obstacles like boulders and uprooted trees make it unsafe for inexperienced oarsmen and hard-sided drift boats, so it’s not a bad idea to hire an outfitter, someone familiar with the character of the lower river, before attempting to fish it on your own.
The river slows considerably outside the canyon just before West Glacier, and floaters have the option of taking out near the West Glacier Golf Course, just downstream of the West Glacier entrance, or at Blankenship Bridge, where the North and Middle forks merge. Aside from the designated access points mentioned above and marked along the road, there are other foot-access areas along U.S. 2, and as long as you’re mindful of private property boundaries, it’s not tough to find pulloffs to access the river.
Another option is to cross the river using the old Glacier Park Bridge (follow Old Bridge Road east before entering the park). Decades ago the bridge was the main crossing for entering Glacier National Park, but now it’s a footbridge, and once on the north side of the river, you can follow a trail upstream for a few miles to find a bounty of solitude and eager cutthroat.
Despite its pristine, remote nature, the North Fork of the Flathead was at the forefront of an ecological dispute between the U.S. and Canada. The core of the debate centered on a proposal for a massive coal mine at the headwaters of the North Fork Flathead in British Columbia, Canada. The situation was so precarious that in 2009, American Rivers added the North Fork to its annual list of the ten most endangered rivers in North America. However, in early 2010, after years of negotiations with Montana officials, the British Columbia government signed the Flathead Watershed Area Order, effectively protecting the upper Flathead basin from any future mining activity.
Shortly after British Columbia officials signed the Flathead Watershed Area Order, Montana senators Max Baucus and John Tester declared their intent to reciprocate by introducing legislation banning mining and energy development in the North Fork drainage on the U.S. side of the border. After nearly 36 years of debate, it seems the upper Flathead drainage is finally receiving the protection it deserves.
The North Fork begins its journey in the Canadian Rockies, and once it crosses the international line, it forms the western boundary for Glacier National Park and becomes a designated Wild and Scenic River. It flows through high mountain meadows with scenic views of the park’s peaks looming in the background, and the opportunity to look up and see the peaks of Glacier National Park glowing at sunset is alone worth the trip.
As on the Middle Fork, few anglers venture into the upper reaches. It’s not because the river begins deep in the heart of wilderness, it’s because it requires the daunting task of driving the North Fork Road (MT 486), a dirt thoroughfare often regarded as the most rugged in northwest Montana.
In my opinion, the scenery and isolation are worth the drive, but bring a spare tire. From the U.S./Canadian border downstream to Polebridge, the river is an intimate piece of water with braids and channels where wading anglers have no problem finding likely fish-holding pools and structure, especially during the low flows of late summer.
While the road veers from the river at long intervals, look for access points at the border (U.S. agents mind the fences so think twice about working too far upstream), Ford, Round Prairie Access, Mud Creek Campground, Whale Creek, and the area just north of Polebridge near the Glacier National Park entrance of the same name. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can pack camping gear in a raft, put in at the international border, and float more than 70 miles downstream to Blankenship Bridge, overnighting on the riverbank along the way. Not many rivers can boast 70 miles of undammed trout water, one of many reasons why this river is so special.
Whatever distance you float, plan to do your own shuttle or pay through the nose. Rafting companies in West Glacier offer shuttle services but they are expensive.
On the other hand, if you prefer to leave the planning and preparation up to professionals, a few fly-fishing outfitters in the area have the proper Forest Service permits and offer overnight packages where they take care of the details, leaving you to simply enjoy the fishing and the backdrop.
If you’re traveling on the North Fork Road, the historic Polebridge area is an oasis of sorts. The Polebridge Mercantile (406-888-5105) offers cabins for rent, refreshments, and a bakery.
A few miles south is Home Ranch Bottoms (406-888-5572), another pit stop complete with accommodations, food, and even a small saloon. The Polebridge Bridge (near the Glacier National Park entrance) is a great place to access the river on foot or to unload rafts.
Farther downstream, the area around Cole Creek, Quartz Creek, Camas Creek Bridge (another park entrance), Big Creek Campground, Great Northern Flats, and Glacier Rim are other areas where reaching the river is unproblematic, though most of these sites are better suited for anglers on foot. The Big Creek Campground is the exception and includes a day-use area and boat ramp, and has sites for both tent and RV campers alike, complete with picnic tables, fire rings, and public outhouses.
If you camp at Big Creek, consider asking someone to drop you off at Camas Creek Bridge, then fish your way downstream back toward camp. Since the canyons of the lower river attract whitewater enthusiasts, the Big Creek Campground is a popular boat launch. Downstream from Glacier Rim the water isn’t as rough, and there are only a few Class I chutes before reaching Blankenship Bridge.
Seasons and Hatches
As on other freestone rivers, weather and the nuances of runoff make or break the fishing conditions on the North and Middle forks. Both systems are undammed and during years of heavy snowfall, spring runoff pushes a surge of muddy water downstream, altering channels and rearranging logjams. Look for runoff to recede between late June and mid-July, but keep in touch with area fly shops to avoid running into hazards.
On a side note, if you’re trekking through the standing, burned forests or along overgrown riverbanks, remember the wildlife that calls this area home doesn’t live by park boundaries or property lines. Be cautious when hiking through blind spots on the chance a moose or bear might be nearby. While it’s great to see nature up close, these creatures prefer a substantial buffer zone and you don’t want to find yourself eye-to-eye with an irritated, four-legged beast that outweighs you by several hundred pounds.
Both the North and Middle forks are notable for their surreal clarity. Almost wholly comprised of high-elevation snowmelt, both systems have a soft turquoise hue to them in the summer, like something from your imagination. In fact, if your imagination dreamed up a vision of a perfect-looking trout stream, it would likely look like one of the forks of the Flathead.
This is for me the main attraction of the Flathead system. If you’re looking to catch the biggest fish of your life, then it may not be for you. On the flip side, if you value solitude and scenery, and find as much beauty in a 12-inch native cutthroat as you do in a 20-inch tailwater rainbow, then the Middle and North forks may be up your alley.
Many of the cutthroat in the forks are migratory fish that make their way in the spring up from Flathead Lake to spawn. Afterward, some fish immediately travel back to the lake, while others reside in the system through the summer and find their way back to the lake before winter. Aside from the occasional, larger, postspawn fish, most resident North and Middle forks fish average 12 to 14 inches.
Despite their pristine condition, the forks are not bug factories. The glacial terrain surrounding these two drainages lacks the nutrients needed to foster massive aquatic insect life, so huge clouds of mayflies or caddis bouncing as far as the eye can see are infrequent incidents at best.
There are a wide variety of aquatic insects and you will encounter isolated emergences of mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies. Just don’t expect massive hatches akin to the Madison or Missouri. Most of the time, spotting a bug here and there is enough to clue you into what’s available, and on the North and Middle forks, a few morsels is all it takes to put the fish in a feeding mood.
Golden Stoneflies and Yellow Sallies make appearances on both rivers just after runoff and through the summer, while PMDs and Green Drakes are some of the most prevalent mayflies. Caddis emergences are sometimes spotty, but that doesn’t stop fish from attacking a simple pattern like an Elk-hair Caddis or small Stimulator.
The sparse bug activity contributes to the stereotype of cutthroat trout as opportunistic feeders. Few naturals on the water, combined with a condensed feeding season, make attractor and terrestrial patterns the bread and butter on these waters.
To that point, Guide Brendan Friel told me he stays away from attractors tied with dubbing or other absorbent materials because after a few runs through rough water, they don’t float, whereas foam flies don’t have that problem.
A #6-10 Taylor’s Fat Albert is a local favorite. Designed specifically for fast-water areas, this buggy foam fly rides on the surface even after dozens of dunks in the nastiest whitewater. Also bring Stimulators, hoppers, ants, beetles, parachute Adams, and small foam Chernobyl Ants and you’ll have your bases covered.
Nymph droppers also work, and there’s no need to use anything trickier than beadhead Prince Nymphs or Hare’s Ears. I rarely bother dunking a nymph because the trout rise so readily to dry flies.
Given the average size of the trout, and river terrain, fishing a weight-forward floating line on a 3- or 4-weight rod is a good starting point. However, if you’re battling wind or struggling to turn over foam flies, bump up to a fast-action 5-weight. I prefer to fish short leaders when the conditions allow and the fish aren’t particularly leader-shy, so 2X to 4X, 71/2-foot to 9-foot tapered leaders work just fine.
One often overlooked area on these two systems is the heavier, faster water. You shouldn’t have trouble finding fish around the soft-water seams, eddies, and riffle drop-offs, but sometimes the largest fish reside where the water is most turbulent.
The deep, slow pools of both the forks are enticing, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to strip streamers in the hopes of finding the river’s larger specimens. If streamer fishing is an itch you need to scratch, I recommend a stout 6-weight rod and sinking-tip line, as a weighted fly alone might not reach the bottom. Short 0X to 2X leaders will also serve you well. Woolly Buggers, small Muddler imitations (a #4-8 Marabou Muddler is one of my favorites), and anything else that looks like a small leech or baitfish works great.
Both watersheds hold native bull trout, a protected char species that’s off-limits to angling in most parts of Montana. If you’re not intentionally fishing for them and accidentally hook one, count yourself lucky and gently release it.
The North and Middle forks of the Flathead are terrific resources overshadowed by the grandiosity of Glacier National Park. If you’re in the area, take the time to explore the riffles and plunging pools of both systems. Moreover, take a child with you. I guarantee your fledgling angler will remember the experience as a vacation highlight.
U.S. 2 is a paved road following the Middle Fork Flathead from West Glacier to the Bear Creek Trailhead. It has plenty of roadside pulloffs providing easy public access.
The trip up the North Fork Flathead, along the North Fork Road from West Glacier, crosses Blankenship Bridge and is a little more involved and difficult than driving along U.S. 2, but the reward is fewer people between Polebridge and the international border.
Devil Creek Campground is just upstream from the Bear Creek Trailhead off U.S. 2. Cabins are available for rent from the USFS (check www.reserveusa.com or the Hungry Horse District Office at 406-387-3800 for availability). There are also primitive campgrounds on the east side of the river in Glacier National Park.
*Ben Romans lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife Heather and son Samuel. His first book is Montana’s Best Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, Sept. 2010)