May 30, 2019
By Oliver White
The creation of the Wilderness Act of 1964 led to the protection of more than 110 million acres of public land throughout the United States. Designated Wilderness Areas are protected to remain wild and free. Most are devoid of any structures or roads—they are wilderness in the truest sense of the word. That doesn’t make them off limits by any stretch—they are public lands for all of us to enjoy and use—but they come with restrictions to preserve them for future generations.
Access is the usually the biggest limiting factor in these wilderness areas. No motorized vehicles are permitted and that means no ATVs. Bicycles aren’t allowed, and even the trail crews can’t use chainsaws, so to get into the heart of one of America’s true wilderness areas you have to work a little harder.
Hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, rafters, foragers all take advantage of the more than 110 million acres in the United States that are designated as Wilderness Areas. This is roughly 5 percent of the entire country, about the size of California. I’m fascinated by this. I’m an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and of the vision and idea of protected and public wilderness. As an angler and an outdoorsman, I think we all have an obligation to appreciate wilderness and do our part to protect it. That starts with getting out there and using it.
People preserve what they love, and it’s hard not to fall in love with this wilderness once you are out in it. The Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwest Montana was one of the places created by the Wilderness Act, and there are few places left in the Lower 48 as wild and pristine as “The Bob.” It is the fifth-largest wilderness in the continental U.S. The Bob alone encompasses more than a million acres (1,500 square miles), and the only ways to explore its 1,856 miles of trails are with your own two feet or on horseback.
The Bob has been on my radar for years, because inside The Bob is one of the greatest multi-day float trips in America: the South Fork of the Flathead River. The river is a dry-fly mecca, and it’s one of the few places in America where you can legally target bull trout. The fishing experience is excellent but the appeal goes far beyond the fishing. It offers a true glimpse at what a pristine Western river looks like if you leave it alone.
We set up our trip with Joe Sowerby of Montana Flyfishing Connection—he is the preeminent outfitter for overnight float trips in Montana. A trip that starts with 30 miles of horse packing and ends with a four-day float out is a complicated endeavor. Our group included eight anglers, with four guides, several camp helpers, and a string 30 mules and horses to get our supplies in. Those are complicated logistics and Sowerby makes it easy for anglers to stay focused on their experience.
My logistical requirements were even more complicated. The first trips into the South Fork typically occur in mid-July, allowing time after spring runoff for the river to clear. Scheduling for eight folks is tough, and our availability window started in late June. That was a bit of a gamble from the outset, but when we were discussing dates with Sowerby, he said runoff had been much earlier the past few years. He was confident we would have good fishing in June, and we were almost guaranteed to be the first ones into The Bob for the season.
For weeks before the trip I was watching the flows drop steadily, and it looked promising. The week before, a late-season snow came through, and the flows spiked. Normal summer flows on the South Fork are somewhere near 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). High water is 2,000 cfs. The day before we entered the wilderness, the water was clear but flows were 6,400 cfs.
The trails weren’t clear of snow, and it was questionable whether we would be able to get in at all. It came down to the wire. The day before our scheduled departure, Sowerby did a check at the trailheads and called an audible to go for it. It would be a 30-mile two-day horse pack to the headwaters of the South Fork where Danaher and Youngs creeks join. We planned to float north for four days—roughly 40 miles of river—taking out at the Meadow Creek trailhead.
All South Fork trips start with an early morning in Missoula and a beautiful drive to the trailhead. After a brief education on horses and pack mules, you step into the forest and you know you are on an adventure. I think most fly fishers who sign up for this trip look forward to the adventure but they dread the ride in. Our group was no exception. Most were inexperienced on horses, and many had never ridden before, but it’s the price of admission. Hiking 30 miles with a raft and fishing gear isn’t an option.
It’s a beautiful ride. Wildflowers were popping everywhere, and from horseback we could spot morels under logs and in rocky corners. We felt like we were working for it—and we were. A couple of days on a horse takes a toll on everyone. Saddle sore and a little uncomfortable, you have to embrace it. It’s the price of admission.
By the second day, most guys were more comfortable on the horses, and starting to get into the proper state of mind. The last few miles into camp,
our ride paralleled the river, and we found ourselves scouting for rising fish in anticipation.
Even with high water, the South Fork is still a small river. If I close my eyes and try to imagine a perfect Western trout river, I always end up visualizing the South Fork. It’s really what it would have looked like 100 years ago—and it fishes like it would have then, too.
Loaded with native westslope cutthroat, the South Fork is as good as dry-fly fishing gets. A river that sees relatively few fly fishers—and with this type of trout population—means that the trout live exactly where you think they should. If it looks fishy, it is. Good casts and good drifts—and even some bad ones—are rewarded.
If you’re in a fly shop and randomly hear someone say they put 100 fish in the boat on drys they were probably exaggerating—unless they were on the South Fork of the Flathead. Westslopes are beautiful fish, but they aren’t giants. Most of the fish on the South Fork fall in the 12- to 16-inch range, 18 inches is a big boy, and you might get really lucky and pierce that glass ceiling of 20 inches—but there aren’t many of those.
The South Fork is also one of the few places in America to legally target bull trout—these beasts frequently top 30 inches. You can tempt them with streamers, and it’s common to see them chasing your cutthroat when you’re hooked up. It’s a short window for the bulls. They migrate upriver in early July, and the season closes July 31.
Our water was slightly off-color, and it was high. There was a concern the fish wouldn’t be looking up, and throwing a nymph rig on one of the country’s greatest dry-fly rivers was unconscionable. We started with smaller Chubby Chernobyls with a nymph dangling a couple of feet behind them. Despite the high water, it took just a few hours for us to cut off those droppers and stick to straight dry flies.
It was quickly evident that these fish were hungry and unpressured, and we were about to get the dry-fly fishing we had signed up for. In softer seams, inside corners, back eddies—anywhere the fish could duck out of the high current—they were stacked up there. We found spots where we caught 20 fish before moving on.
It’s hard not to go on and on about how good the fishing was. Still, it wasn’t a gimme. You still had to get the drift, and the high water pushed fish into the inside seams, tight to the banks, and into structure. The bigger fish in particular required some work, as they had found the best lies in structure and softer water. We picked up several beautiful fish in super-shallow runs at the tailouts, water that is really easy to pass over. Some of the best fish came out of places where we had just one opportunity to place the fly as the raft went barreling by. That classic slow cutthroat roll caused us to pull many flies away from eager fish, and there were even a few mayflies and caddis popping, forcing us to scale down our flies to fool some larger trout.
It was perfect. The Bob was beautiful, wild, and incredible, and quickly made us forget about our saddle sores. I can’t say enough about fishing in truly remote, wild, and pristine places. From the jungles of Guyana to Kamchatka, these are the places worth seeking out. There are fewer and fewer such places, and they require more and more effort to find and reach. Miles from civilization, you are on your own. It forces a level of detachment from the daily grind and encourages a connection with nature you can’t get until you’ve left the cell phones and Wi-Fi behind.
In The Bob, we had the river and the wilderness to ourselves during the day, and at night we entertained ourselves retelling the stories we created that day. Many memories, like rolling out of the sleeping bag on a crisp morning to enjoy some cowboy coffee, or cooking a meal over an open fire, were unexpected benefits of wilderness fishing.
While most of our party dreaded riding the horses—and at times probably hated it—upon reflection it was one of the most memorable parts of the journey. It also filtered out some other fly fishers who might not be willing to suffer the way we did. The experience wouldn’t be the same if you could drive right up to the river and step out of your truck. This one required paying your dues.
The more I travel the globe, the more amazed and impressed I am at the adventures that are relatively close to home. Spending a week in The Bob with good friends is on par with anything else in the world, and for some of us, it’s right in our backyard.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.