Middle Fork Flathead River

General location: The Middle Fork of the Flathead River serves as Glacier National Park's southwestern boundary. The Middle Fork is south of the West Entrance on Highway 2.

Maps: USGS Glacier National Park; Montana Atlas and Gazetteer, p 83-84 
Fishing conditions and species: bull trout, cutthroat, lake trout, rainbow trout, and whitefish
Special restrictions: If you fish the Montana side, you will need a Montana license. Within the Park you must carry in your possession a copy of the regulations. Cutthroats are protected and must be released.

The only campground in the area is the non-fee camp-ground at Devil Creek. The campground is 38 miles from the entrance to the Park.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead River By Steve Smith
When was the last time you fished a river and a grizzly bear swam in front of your boat? Or you came away from the day amazed that fish would live in such fast water, let alone be able to see and rise to your fly as it sped by them? Or you wondered whether you had fished during a whitewater trip or shot some rapids while fishing? And maybe at the end of the day you exclaim, "Holy cow, it has been such a great day, it wouldn't have mattered if we didn't catch a fish at all" (even though you wouldn't re-ally mean that).

The Middle Fork of the Flathead River punches its way through the mountains of northwest Montana. From its beginnings in the Great Bear Wilderness area, the Middle Fork offers a unique blend of scenery, wildlife and fishing in uncrowded and pristine surroundings. From Bear Creek, where the river leaves the Great Bear 45 miles downstream, to Blankenship Bridge, the river separates Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (of which the Great Bear is a component). Highway 2 and the Burlington Northern Railway run through the canyon cut by the river, though they seldom impose on it.

The Middle Fork is a freestone stream. Freestone streams are not overly rich in nutrients, so the Middle Fork doesn't boast prolific insect hatches or even predictable ones. What it lacks in numbers of insects, it makes up for by supporting one of the most diverse arrays of aquatic insects in the lower 48 states. Understanding this is the key to success on the Middle Fork.

The fish on the Middle Fork, primarily native westslope cutthroat trout and a growing wild rainbow population, thrive in the cool, clear and fast water of the river. They are accustomed to seeing all sorts of insects shooting by them in the current at a high rate of speed.

Envision a native cut-throat lying on the bottom just downstream of a fast riffle waiting for the cur-rent to wash feed down to it. The trout snatches up a stonefly nymph, scrambling along the bottom. Next, an emerging mayfly suspended mid-depth floats by and is devoured. Then an adult caddis fly, bobbing along in the choppy water on top, goes flashing by, and the cutthroat goes for it. What the trout may not distinguish in its rush to swallow whatever feed the current delivers is that the caddis fly is a number 12 Elk Hair Caddis on the end of your tippet. The fish, forever famished, doesn't have the luxury of an in-depth analysis on the Middle Fork. Chuck out a high-riding dry fly into choppy water, mend like crazy and pay attention.

Westslope cutthroat trout are indigenous to the river. The higher up the river, the more you will find. The rainbow trout population is self-sustaining now and is considered wild. The rainbows and cutthroats can inter-breed, resulting in the "cuttbow"hybrid. Bull trout also are native to the river. Sadly, sediments from logging roads have destroyed spawning habitats and heavy fishing pressure has combined to dwindle the reserves of this fishery so that it is now illegal to even fish for bull trout. Care must be exercised to properly identify fish caught on the Middle Fork. Bull trout are often mistaken for brook and lake trout which also inhabit these waters.

The Middle Fork is included in the wild and scenic river system and so is looked after by the U.S. Forest Service. Remember that the north bank of the river is the boundary of Glacier National Park, which has a separate set of regulations concerning camping and other activities.

Access to the river is good, although a four-wheel drive vehicle is handy for some boat launches. Bear Creek is the highest access point along Highway 2. Below that is a rough, sandy access by the bridge at Walton. Paola Creek access is downstream, followed by Cascadilla Creek access, Moccasin Creek access (the beginning of the eight-mile Class III whitewater section and the most heavily used), then the West Glacier access and finally, Blankenship Bridge, where the Middle Fork joins the North Fork of the Flathead River. An excellent map of the entire Flathead River system is available at the Forest Service station in Hungry Horse.

Wade fishing the Middle Fork, while possible, is limited by fast water and deep pools between the runs. The best way to fish it is to cover some water, and for this there is no finer boat than the McKenzie River boat. Whatever craft you choose (don't even think about a canoe), be advised that even outside of the white-water section, the Middle Fork is a fast, powerful, cold and remote river. Blind bends, rock-choked chutes and numerous downed trees make the river pilot's job a demanding and serious one.

The river is frequented by a variety of big game animals, and some of them have fangs and claws. Be aware that this is bear country, and mountain lions have also been sighted along and in the river. Seeing them safely from a McKenzie boat (remember, rafts can pop) is a memorable addition to any fishing trip.

The Middle Fork is a great but relatively unknown river. The combination of the Middle Fork's scenery, wildlife, fishing opportunities and uncrowded conditions rarely is seen in one place all at once. Kindly give plenty of room to other people fishing; there is plenty of it on the Middle Fork.

Seasons: The Middle Fork can fish well in April and early May when spawning runs of cutthroat enter the river from Flathead Lake. High water generally occurs mid-May through late June. After July 1, the fishing continues on into October. Local inquiry of river conditions or hazards is recommended.

Fly selections: This is easy. Anything will catch fish on the Middle Fork as long as it is well presented. If you are un-able to make a good presentation, try dragging a nymph in front of the boat, or let your dry fly draw under the water at the end of your drift. While anathema to the purist, these techniques are godsends to the novice or flustered fishing guide. It ain't pretty, but it works.

River description by David Archer