August 28, 2014
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 naÃ¯ve 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 Flathead River
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 for the South Fork Flathead
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 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 Bitch 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.
Accessing the South Fork
Anglers can access the lower South Fork by foot or horseback via the Meadow Creek Trailhead. The trail (TR 80) parallels the east bank of the river to Black Bear Creek. Several other trails that follow both sides of the river and connect to additional access points intersect at this location. The Meadow Creek Trail follows the rim of the Meadow Creek Gorge for the first three miles. The river in this area is dangerous to fish and most anglers begin fishing outside the gorge.
To reach the trailhead, take the East Side Road from Hungry Horse until it intersects with the West Side Road. Follow the West Side Road to the trailhead, approximately six miles from Hungry Horse Reservoir's southern shore.
Fill your gas tank before leaving the town of Hungry Horse. The hour-and-a-half-long drive should be taken at moderate speed. I once encountered someone who hit a pothole and broke an axle while driving late at night. If you park at the trailhead for an extended foray into the wilderness, pop your vehicle's hood and leave it up. With the hood down, the vehicle is a prime target for packrats.
Another access is near Holland Lake. Hikers and horse riders can follow a trail (TR 110) to Big Salmon Lake and its outlet into the South Fork. The distance to the South Fork is about 18 miles and requires a hard all-day horse ride or at least a two-day hike. To reach the trailhead, turn onto Holland Lake Road from Highway 83 and follow the signs. Trail 110 begins approximately two miles from Holland Lake (take TR 415 to TR 42 from the trailhead).
A third access begins on the North Fork of the Blackfoot drainage on the southern end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. However, this route requires you to ascend the North Fork of the Blackfoot (TR 31 to TR 32), cross Dry Fork Divide, and then follow Danaher Creek (TR 126) to the junction with Youngs Creek. It's a long haul with more time spent in the saddle or on your feet than on the water.
Lastly, the trail through Pyramid Pass (TR 416) connects to a trail that follows Youngs Creek (TR 283, 141, and 125) to the junction of Danaher Creek. The initial climb is moderately steep, making this route more suited for horses, but once through the pass, the trip to the river is scenic and enjoyable. Lower Youngs Creek also has some good fishing. To reach the trailhead, take FR 477 just north of Seeley Lake. Turn left onto FR 4353 and follow it for a few miles, then turn right on FR 136 and follow the signs to the trailhead.
While most anglers wade-fish the South Fork, floating is an option. However, a raft and gear must be packed in on horseback and only experienced oarsmen should float the South Fork—there is a lot of whitewater and yearly natural changes can make several rapids not navigable.
Unless you want to carry a raft out of the wilderness, make arrangements in advance to pick up your gear on a predetermined date. There is a take out just before the Meadow Creek Gorge with good access and plenty of room to load gear onto horses or mules. From this point it's approximately three miles to the Meadow Creek Trailhead. It seems like a lot of work and planning to make a float trip in the wilderness a reality, but it's a wonderful experience.
Timing a Trip
The South Fork of the Flathead is a freestone stream, vulnerable to the nuances of runoff, and typically unfishable until mid to late June. In years of heavy precipitation it may not fall into shape until after the July 4 holiday. A safe time frame to fish the river is between July 15 and October 15. If you fish after mid-October, carry appropriate winter clothing and survival gear.
On the other hand, braving this season has its advantages. During September, October, and even November, South Fork cutthroats eat everything that floats over their snouts as they gear up for a long winter. Fall is also the time aspens, tamaracks, and cottonwoods turn yellow and elk bugle from the surrounding slopes. The South Fork is open under Montana's general fishing season, which begins the third Saturday in May and closes November 30.
If you visit the South Fork of the Flathead, go prepared for the worst. A lack of preparedness can get you lost, injured, or killed. A quality tent, rain gear, current map, compass, GPS, first-aid kit, and water filtration system are crucial. Sleeping pads and heavily insulated sleeping bags make life easier. Matches and lighters—or any other fire-building tools—are potentially lifesaving. Moleskin, for patching up blistered feet, is definitely recommended.
Be aware of your black and grizzly bear neighbors when camping. Nothing ruins a trip as quickly as a visit from an aggressive bear, and a camp with scraps of food strewn about invites disaster. Carry bear spray and store food in airtight containers hung from trees away from camp. Burn all leftover food, fish carcasses, and garbage.
However you get there, the South Fork of the Flathead River is a place where good fishing and a wonderful experience go hand in hand. The South Fork is a place I'll take my daughter, Tate, to learn the ropes. I hope that years down the road, after she's chased rainbows and browns on the big-name streams, she'll take her family to the South Fork where they'll have the chance to fish for wild cutthroats and camp in a phenomenal wilderness.
Greg Thomas is the former Fly Fisherman western editor and the author of five books.