Timeless cliff walls and ponderosa pines tower over deep, clear runs and boulder strewn riffles -- the Big Blackfoot is trout water. Affording both wading and floating angler opportunity for nearly sixty miles, the Big Blackfoot River is as diverse as the Montana landscape it shapes. Harboring good populations of Montana's only two "native" salmonids, cutthroats and bull trout, the Big Blackfoot is also abundant with rainbow, cutbows, browns and mountain whitefish throughout its length.
The Big Blackfoot's optimum fishing starts at River Junction Campground, at its confluence with the North Fork, just south of Ovando. Although initially rumbling past rolling ranch land, the river soon takes on its' more characteristic bank side vegetation, winding around canyon walls and house size boulders only ending at its confluence with the Clark Fork River five miles east of Missoula. All but the final ten miles of the Big Blackfoot are tucked away from busy roadways and housing developments, astonishing seclusion in light of its proximity to Montana's third largest population center.
Over looking a few local "I-flyfish-every-week-of-the-year-and-in-any temperature" hard cores, the Big Blackfoot action starts picking up around the middle of March. Anglers dredging nymphs and steamers realize surprising catches on into May and the onset of runoff. The much anticipated salmon fly hatch usually kicks off when the river is swollen and colored in early to mid June and bank fishing quickly becomes all but impossible. As the water starts to subside, savvy boat antlers able to mirror bushy dry flies and weighted streamers with the bank are rewarded with the Big Blackfoot's trophy browns ranging from 18" - 24".
With the dropping and clearing water of July comes a number of lesser stone fly, caddis, and a few may fly hatches -- together with more obvious holding areas. Dead drifting most any classic western attractor of moderate size motivates strikes from eager 10" - 16" rainbows and cutthroats. Use similar patterns (with the noted additions of hoppers with beadhead nymph droppers and uncertain cyclical hatches of spruce moths) on through August for similar action. By virtue of the Big Blackfoot's rapid speed, pool drop configuration and powerful size (even at low flows), its fish are rarely "selective" as compared to those of the Clark Fork or the Bitterroot. They have to eat the bugs passing over them right now or get very skinny waiting for easier targets.
The Big Blackfoot browns start to show themselves again in September and October as the aggression of their upcoming spawning run becomes apparent. The river is gin clear and at minimum flow as significant hatches rebound, including the giant orange sedge (October caddis). Days shorten, morning frosts the boats, elk bugles echo down to rivers edge, as mountain mahogany turns brilliant shades of red and yellow. Autumn is a great time to fly fish the Big Blackfoot.
Thanks to an unprecedented cooperative effort between public and private interests and more stringent fishing regulations, the Big Blackfoot River is quickly returning to the quality fishery that inspired Norman McLean's novel A River Runs Through It, and Robert Redford's subsequent big screen hit. Scarcely seven years ago only sun soaked tubers and an occasional bait fisherman utilized the Big Blackfoot. Today Highway 200 hums with numerous, eager guide rigs wheeling up river from Missoula with boats in tow.
Unfortunately, the Big Blackfoot's future isn't as clear as its waters. Just when it appears that people understand a river of such splendor is an important resource, planning begins for one of North American's largest cyanide heap leach gold mines at its headwaters! More information on how you can help continue trout fishing on this spectacular river is available at the address below.
Fly Box for the Big Blackfoot: Here is the very minimum selection anglers should carry with them when fishing the "Foot".
Dries: Wulffs and humpies (#14-10); parachute adams (#16-12); Goddard's and elk hair caddis (#14-8); stimulators; madam-x and parachute hoppers (#12-6)
Nymphs: prince, hare's ear, zug bug and pheasant tail all of which work better with beadheads in #16-12; golden and black stones (#10-4)
Streamers: olive, brown and black woolly buggers (#8-4); olive and black zonkers (#8-4)
WORDS OF CAUTION TO FLOATERS AND WADE FISHERS: The Big Blackfoot is a powerful, challenging river at any level. Float fishing is undoubtedly the most efficient means of angling, but not just any oars person should attempt this challenge. While high water covers many obstacles, it, in turn, exponentially increases force and reduces reaction time. Although low flow slows the pace a great deal, the exposed boulder fields require expert boat handling to negotiate rapids. Wading during run off is not recommended as the river is bank full, often up into willows and shrubs, and the visibility is poor. During low summer flows bank angling can be a delight for sure footed individuals. Felt soled boots are recommended; careful wading is required while traversing the varying river bottom. When booking an outfitter to float fish the Big Blackfoot, be assured their guides have not only experience on this section but that they also have experience under similar conditions for that particular time of year.
The Blackfoot River has steadily improved as a fishery during the last decade thanks to the concerted efforts of environmentalists, ranchers and local members of Trout Unlimited. Popularized by Norman McLean's novel, A River Runs Through It, the Blackfoot's real legacy is that it is host to two of Montana's native salmonids, the westslope cutthroat and the bull trout. Although restrictions exist for purposely fishing for bulls, the river is rich in trophy-size browns and hefty rainbows and cutthroats in the 14- to 17-inch range. Although the river is approximately 130 miles long, the best fishing stretches start at Ovando down to the confluence with the Clark Fork River at Bonner. After spending years on this river, it is only fair to add a disclaimer. Blackfoot River trout sometimes skip a meal!
Spanning 26 miles, the Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor provides both picnicking and camping at 13 locations. Both improved and unimproved camping spots exist all up and down the Blackfoot River. For the camper who wants to fish with younger children, I would recommend the unimproved campground at River Junction on the North Fork of the Blackfoot. Regardless of which one you select, the beauty of the Blackfoot River overwhelms the first-time visitor. Carving its way through the canyon, the river flows by 100-foot cliffs. Ocher in color, the tinted shades and moss-lined shadows make the Blackfoot one of the most scenic rivers in Montana, as well as offering good fishing.
River description by John Herzer of Blackfoot River Outfitters
Float Trip 1: Harry Morgan to Russell Gates
Harry Morgan Campground is a couple of miles outside of the little town of Ovando, just off of Highway 200. From here floaters generally float down to the Russell Gates Campground (County Line), which is easily seen from the highway. One may float further down to the confluence with the Clearwater River. Floaters will have to carry their rafts about 20 yards up a gradual bank to the parking area. The section from Russell Gates to the Clearwater Bridge has numerous rapids. The canyon drops quickly in this section, and casters have to work the pockets and rocks diligently. From the Clearwater Bridge to Roundup, in my opinion, is extremely dangerous and should be avoided by all float fishers.
Float Trip 2: Roundup to River Bend Campground or Whitaker's Bridge
Only expert rowers should float this section, as it is extremely dangerous with all the boulder-strewn rapids. A short float would be to River Bend Campground, and a full day's float would be Whitaker's Bridge.
Float Trip 3: River Bend Campground or Whitaker's Bridge to Johnsrud Park
It only takes one nasty drop-off and a sluice of water with huge rocks to make for an unpleasant day. Standing on the water's edge, Thibodeau Rapid doesn't look all that impressive, especially during high water when half of the boulders are submerged and out of sight in the murky water. When the water drops, however, make no mistake. I always have my passengers exit from my boat just upstream on the right side. They can take a well-worn path just below the bottleneck.
Throughout my years of guiding in my raft, I enjoyed this small challenge. During my last year of guiding, I had to maneuver through Thibodeau in a low-profile pram that I had designed and built. Without the cushion of air and the forgiveness of a raft, I was scared. When my last client stepped out of the pram, he turned to me and said, "I'd really like to show off in front of my wife and run it with you."
I replied, "No, I am being very safe and prudent by allowing no passengers."
What I didn't say was that I had a knot in my stomach, and I wasn't sure how my pram would handle in the fast-water chute. As it turned out, the boat handled well, but I had to do some artful dodging in that short drop-off. Turning around, I marveled at how simple it looked, but I know tales and true stories of river carnage.
Note: MM=Mileage Marker. Look for the state mileage marker signs.
MM 0: Exxon Travel Plaza (Milltown) - Exit from Interstate 90 onto Highway 200.
MM 1: Access dirt pull-out.
MM 2: Marco Flats - Marco Flats is easy to miss. The access road takes a sharp turn and drops to the river.
MM 6: Angelvine Park. A nice rest stop if you are pulling a trailer.
MM 8: A narrow gravel pullout with no turn-around area for trailers or large rigs. Short trail to river. MM 8+ pull-over with a dropoff to the river.
MM 9: Gold Creek (Revise summer 2010)
MM 10: Blackfoot Recreation Corridor
Thanks to the cooperative efforts of landowners and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a 26-mile corridor has been made available to the public. Johnsrud Park offers camping, picnicking, swimming and an excellent take-out for floaters who launch at Roundup or at the Nine-Mile Prairie Road campground.
Floaters' warning: The section of the river from Johnsrud Park to Roundup is interspersed with dangerous rapids. Wade fishers may follow the Blackfoot River on an 18.2-mile dirt road that will swing around and rejoin Highway 200 at Roundup, which is the next highway crossing of the Blackfoot River above Johnsrud Park. The road is narrow at times and very bumpy, and as such it is not safe to pull a camping trailer. Throughout the course of this road, there are numerous day-use access points. The two campgrounds, Ninemile Prairie and River Bend, are best reached just short of mileage marker 27 as you cross the bridge at Roundup. Launching a raft or drift boat at Roundup requires use of a 30-foot ramp down to the water's edge.
MM 22: Garnet Ghost Town turn-off
The last remnants of this bustling ghost town have been preserved in its original state of natural decay. From the highway, take the Garnet Road 11 miles. For more information call (406) 329-3914.
MM 26.5: Roundup
just as you cross the bridge, you will note a 30-foot ramp for launching rafts on this popular stretch of the Blackfoot. Most rafters take out at River Bend campground or Whitaker Bridge, which is about 9.5 miles.
MM 31:Clearwater River
The Clearwater River access is a park-like setting and offers good access for anglers. Because of the river's clear water, fishing is excellent in the spring. From this crossing the Clearwater offers a short float trip or canoe trip to the Blackfoot. Floaters will drift under safety fence partitions. This is a popular run for summer tubers.
Highway 200 intersects with Highway 83 to Seeley Lake.
MM 35: Russell Gates Campground
The campground is off the highway on the river's edge and is a popular floating take-out.
MM 37.9: Upsata Lake & Cottonwood Creek
MM 39: River Junction Campground and Scotty Brown Bridge
Follow the access road a short distance to the Scotty Brown Bridge. The landowner forbids any launching of watercraft from his property; however, he has provided four parking spaces for wade fishers. Be sure to respect the rights of property owners and stay below the high water mark. River Junction Campground is one of the most beautiful unimproved campgrounds in the area and provides an opportunity to fish both the main stem of the Blackfoot River and the North Fork. The road to the campground is approximately nine miles, and I would not recommend it for trailers.
MM 40: Monture Creek Campground
A short distance up the highway from Monture Creek Campground, the small town of Ovando rests on the hillside overlooking the highway. A cluster of homes, Ovando offers a small store, an inn, a trading post, a brand museum and a post office. (On a knoll just off the highway above Ovando, stop in at Trixie's Bar and Grill for a great hamburger.) From Ovando follow the road 3.5 miles to the Harry Morgan Campground, which is a popular launching place for floaters. The campground offers only a few sites, but when the river clears, you will be hard-pressed to find a parking spot amongst the outfitter's rigs. Harry Morgan access is a great wading access for fishing the North Fork of the Blackfoot. Traveling another 5.5 miles up the road will take you to Brown's Lake, which is a good fishing lake, but don't expect much shade in summer. Popular with boat fishermen and belly-boaters, Brown's Lake is stocked with some whopper brood stock. Stocked trout grow fast and fat in this lake. Another 1.5 miles down the road will take you to the last floating access point, Cedar Meadows.
MM 51.1: North Fork of the Blackfoot Trailhead and Cooper's Lake
Highway 200 from Ovando to Lincoln
Slow winding water and lots of mud, brush and sediment characterize this section of the river. Although it can produce some hefty browns, it generally does not produce good habitat for rainbows and cutthroats.
Tributary Creeks and Lakes
MM 9: Gold Creek. Follow Gold Creek Road seven miles up the mountain to the first unimproved campsite. I do not recommend this road or the campsite for trailers, as the actual camping spots are off the main road, and they are rough and rutted. Surrounded by grassy meadows, the creek is ideal for families who want to rough it, but do check for tics in the late spring and early summer. Keep in mind that this is a "pack it in - pack it out!" area. The area is owned by Plum Creek, and it is sad to see how slovenly some campers have been. If you wish to access the creek lower down, make a right turn just short of the two-mile marker. Follow the road 2.8 miles until you reach a small bridge. Park by the bridge, as the road that follows the creek is blocked a mile up the canyon, and there is no turning around. The canyon is excellent fishing for small cutthroats.
MM 37.9 Upsata Lake and Cottonwood Creek: Exit on Woodsworth Road. Turn left 1.4 miles from the highway at the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range. Drive one mile to the bridge on Cottonwood Creek by the fish and game house and barn. Fish upstream or down, but be prepared to navigate through heavy brush. The creek hosts small cuts and surprisingly hefty browns that hide in those tough-to-fish willow overhangs.
Continuing on Highway 200 a couple of miles up from the Cottonwood Creek access, Woodworth Road leads to Upsata Lake. Upsata is a small, shallow lake bordered mostly by private property in pothole country. Periodically stocked, the lake produces fair fishing for smaller rainbows. If you have a canoe strapped on top of your rig, this would be a good choice for some evening casting and paddling. Woodsworth Road turns to the left towards Kozy Corner and then continues to Highway 83 near Salmon Lake.
MM 40: Monture Creek Campground is a small campground at the bottom of a ravine just off Highway 200. The campground is mowed, and the campsites sit on the water's edge surrounded by trees and wild roses. Monture Creek is usually fast and clear in the early summer and provides fair fishing down to the mouth of the Blackfoot River for spawning stragglers. By mid-summer the creek warms up and the trout look for small pools to hide in. Look for the access road further down the highway for the 12-mile drive to the headwaters. Although the creek fishes well for small fry, be prepared to scramble and climb through brush and downed timber in its upper reaches.
MM 51.1: North Fork of the Blackfoot and Cooper's Lake. Exit onto Kleinschmidt Road and follow the signs 11 miles to the trailhead. The North Fork of the Blackfoot is a popular trailhead for backcountry horsemen and fly fishers. For years I never found the time to actually hike back into the wilderness and fish the North Fork. On July 5, 1998, I finally hiked the trail. Following the wettest June on record, I looked down the canyon at the turquoise, silted river and inwardly prejudged the fishing I would have. Much to my surprise, in a 200-yard section in a steep canyon, I picked up six cutthroats, one of which was a fat 16-incher. Elderly fishers may want to pass up the North Fork, as it is a tough hike down the narrow canyon to the water. During high water, you have to scramble up the canyon wall to a bench every 100 yards when it becomes impassable. At age 53, I was huffing and puffing, and I was damn glad that I could still huff and puff for fat westslope cutthroats. The mountainsides look like the back of a porcupine. Gray, burnt-out lodgepole trees blanket the entire area from the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire that destroyed 247,600 acres before it was contained.
Cooper's Lake is a short distance from the trailhead. Follow Whitetail Ranch Road to the lake. The lake is a fairly large lake surrounded by cottages. Public access is limited to a few tent sites and a boat launch. Fishing is only fair.