Originating out of Lindbergh Lake, the Swan River rushes 35 miles to Swan Lake. Although not as fertile of a river as other rivers in western Montana, the Swan River, nonetheless, produces good numbers of westslope cutthroat, rainbow, bull trout and mountain whitefish. The great advantage of the Swan is that it is relatively isolated with less fishing pressure. The challenge is two-fold from Mother Nature. The mosquitoes and flies feast on fly fishers who defy the tangled, dense foliage along the shore. The greatest challenge, however, lies waiting for the rafters and canoeists. Good luck! (See map below.)
Rafting the Swan is similar to rafting on Rock Creek. The oarsman must be ever-vigilant, and their fly casters cannot be contemplative or inaccurate in their casting ability. The water is especially swift in the early summer and appears to be one long riffle, punctuated by occasional pools and eddies. The best cover for the trout is under the logjams and downed trees, and it is these obstacles which make the Swan River risky. After a record rainfall for June 1998, I launched my one-man drift boat at Piper Creek and floated down to my campsite at Cedar Creek Campground on the Fatty Creek Road. I had received information on a large logjam, but I didn't listen carefully. Left or right? I went right, and it was the wrong decision, as I came around a swift bend and encountered an incredible 20-yard logjam. If I had been floating in a raft, I would have been faced with an extremely difficult decision, as there was no going back upstream due to the fast current. Luckily I found a narrow opening to follow, and I only had to drag my little boat over two logs.
Normally, I am fairly adept at floating while I am tying on a new fly. Not so for the Swan. Because I wanted to fish Jim Lake that evening, I just fished without stopping. What a rush it was for speed, scenery and fishing. I started out with a size 12 Royal Humpy and went 100 yards without catching a fish. Oh, oh, I thought. But then they started coming up to my fly, one after another. I must have caught over 15 rainbows and cuts, all under 9 inches. Due to the speed of the water, I knew I was missing good pocket water and sheltered downfall. Rowing and casting without stopping is not the way to fish the Swan.
I switched to a girdle bug and didn't have another fish on for over an hour. I thought to myself, Okay, you've caught the river's dinks, now let's put on a Muddler and pull in some of those bigger guys. With about a mile to go to my campsite, I tossed out an unweighted Muddler. The deer-hair collar kept the large Muddler floating high and dry. One dink after another rose to hit it even before I had a chance to strip it under the water. When I got off the river, I walked up to Eric Bjorge, who is a river guide and owner of the Two River Gear store in Bigfork.
"Well, all I've caught is dinks today," I said.
"Pretty typical for the first day on the Swan," he replied. "If you want the big guys, you've got to work a nymph."
"What can I expect from this river?" I asked.
"Twenty-four to 30 inchers," he retorted.
"Bull," I said.
"Yeah, bull trout, but I've caught a lot of 18- to 20-inch rainbows in this river."
Swan River trout average between 8 and 12 inches. In talking to Eric further, he suggested that if you are going to fish the Swan, "go big or go home." The Swan has a long and steady hatch of Isoperla stoneflies so stimulators or large yellow Humpies will work well.
River description by David Archer
Via Highway 83
Note: Once you leave the Seeley Valley and cross over the summit, you will be in the Swan River drainage. I have picked up the access points along the highway after Summit Lake. MM=highway mileage marker signs.
Access on the Swan River is restricted from Lindbergh Lake crossing all the way down to Cold Creek. Many roads cross the river, but for the most part the property is posted and there is no place to park. The following information was excerpted from the pamphlet "Fishing Waters of the Swan Valley", a joint publication sponsored by the United States Forest Service for the Flathead National Forest and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Upper Section: "From Lindbergh Lake Road to Condon the upper river is relatively shallow and wadable, containing numerous riffles and runs. Water temperatures warm by mid-summer and smaller brook trout and rainbow trout favor the area. Floating is difficult due to low water, logjams and split channels on the lower end. General stream regulations apply (see fishing regs).
Middle Section: "The section from Condon to Piper Creek Road is characterized by smaller flows, a diversity of channel conditions and pools formed behind log jams and fallen trees. Good-sized rainbow trout are common along with bull, cutthroat and brook trout and abundant mountain whitefish. Logjams hamper floating above Cold Creek and skilled rafting is recommended below this point. General stream regulations apply upstream from Piper Creek Bridge (see fishing regs).
Lower Section: "From Piper Creek Road to Porcupine Creek Road this section contains the greatest diversity with respect to depth, cover and water volume. Stream banks are fairly open after spring high water and there is some channel splitting. Experienced canoeists and rafters navigate this section, but caution must be exercised due to fallen trees and log jams. Catch-and-release regulations for rainbow and cutthroat trout apply from Swan Lake up to Piper Creek Bridge." -USFS
MM 31: Summit Lake
Summit Lake is a small, brushy-lined lake that freezes. It is rarely fished. The few rises that you see are smaller cutthroats moving up or down from Bertha Creek. Bertha Creek is so overgrown it is not worth the effort to fish it. Summit Lake is the dividing line for the Clearwater that drains south to the Blackfoot River and the Swan River drainage that flows north to Flathead Lake.
MM 34.3: Lindbergh Lake, Bunyon Lake, Meadow Lake, Crystal Lake
725 acres with a maximum depth of 125 feet. Within a half-mile of exiting Highway 83, the road crosses the Swan River. The campground is 4.5 miles from the highway and offers a few camping sites, a picnic area and a boat launch. The lake is surrounded by summer homes. The campground only offers four sites suitable for camping trailers. Halfway up the road is a road to the right leading to Bunyon Lake, a distance of seven miles. Bunyon Lake is a high-elevation lake with no camping facilities, unless you are willing to pack your gear down to the lake, a distance of 200 yards. This is not a road for trailers!
Bunyon Lake fishes very well for small cutthroats. For every four 6-inch fish that you catch, you'll land a 10- or 12-incher. This is a beautiful little lake a bit short of 10 acres. It would be the perfect spot to launch a belly-boat and just cruise around catching hungry little cuts. Less than a mile away lies Meadow Lake. Meadow Lake is only slightly bigger. Somewhat swampy, the lake is blocked by a gate so you must walk a short distance to the lake for 8- to 12-inch cuts. Crystal Lake (186 acres) may be reached from a trail at Meadow Lake, the southern end of Lindbergh Lake, or a trailhead may be taken from Beaver Creek Road, which is just above Summit Lake. A relatively large lake, the lake seems to be declining in both the numbers of fish and the size of the fish.
MM 34.3:Glacier Lake
In my sojourn through this country, I didn't get a chance to hike in and fish Glacier Lake. However, when I hiked down to Bunyon Lake, I ran into a family who had just fished Glacier Lake. It was their first choice from all the lakes that they had fished. Although they never caught anything larger than 12 inches, they watched a lone fisherman pulling in some hefty 14-inch cuts, but by the time he headed out, it was time for them to leave as well. Follow the Glacier Creek Road. Plan on an hour's hike to reach the lake.
MM 35.6: Holland Lake
416 acres with a maximum depth of 150 at the east end of the lake. Holland Lake offers two large USFS fee campgrounds, a boat launch and a roped swimming area. Campsites line the shore with spectacular views of the waterfall at the east end of the lake. Fishing is generally good for cutthroats, rainbow trout, kokanee and a few bull trout. Be prepared for lots of boating activity and jet skis. The outlet creek is good fishing for small trout.
MM 43: Flathead National Forest Work Center
MM 46.7: Cold Creek Road Fishing Access for the Swan River plus access to high-elevation lakes
The Swan River access has good parking on both sides of the bridge. Peck Lake is six miles; the trailhead to Cold Lakes is seven miles; Jim Lake is 10 miles.
Peck Lake access is six miles from the highway. Watch for the sign, as you will need to make a right turn. Peck Lake can be accessed close to the road. The lake is a shallow, swampy lake with stocked trout.
Upper and Lower Cold Lakes
Nestled close to the Mission Mountains divide, both lakes are reached within 2.5 miles from the trailhead, and each have healthy populations of cutthroats from 12 to 16-inches. At 2.9 miles from the highway, the road to Cold Lakes and Jim Lakes turns to the right. At 5.9 miles the road forks to the left for the Cold Lakes trailhead. From the turn-off to Cold Lakes continue four miles to Jim Lake. The last four miles is a second-gear pull; the road is bumpy and should be attempted only by high-clearance vehicles. The Jim Lakes basin is a photographer's dream. Even in July there were slivers and patches of snow on the mountain rims over looking Jim Lakes. Be forewarned that the narrow and bumpy entrance to the lake is strictly for trucks. The primitive road jack-knifes down to three compact camping sites on the lake. To make the turn I had to back up a few times, and I was tempted to put my truck in four-wheel drive. The lake offers excellent scenery and good fishing. Just after you cross the bridge over the outlet creek, there is a turn-around and parking area for non-four-wheel-drive vehicles. From that point to the lake is only a half-mile.
MM 50.8: Salmon Prairie Road
Good river access less than a mile from the highway. Most floaters float to Fatty Creek.
MM 52: Lion Creek Road Lion Creek is closed to fishing.
MM 53.6: Piper Creek Road
Access is three-tenths of a mile from the highway, but has limited parking.
MM 54.5: Van Lake Road #9882. 58 acres with a maximum depth of 40 feet. Van Lake is a popular local fishing lake, but you will need a pick-up truck and a small boat, as the shoreline is difficult to fish. After two miles, stay left. The lake has primitive camping sites.
MM 58.5: Fatty Creek Road
Access to Metcalf Lake, Shay Lake, Fatty Lake and Cedar Lake, Cedar Creek and Fatty Creek. The bridge is three-tenths of a mile from the highway and offers a boat-launching access. Across the river is Cedar Creek Campground, which provides drinking water and toilets. On the far side of the bridge is a bumpy road which leads to a nice picnic area with tables right on the river, about 100 yards down from the bridge. Cedar Creek is crossed right after the campground, but it offers only very small cutthroats. From the highway six-tenths of a mile, you will note a fork to the left. This road will lead to Shay Lake. Caution: Shay Lake "road" should be driven to only in a 4X4 rig that has already received abuse through the years, as the road is overgrown in parts. If you have a new paint job, plan on scratches! After 1.4 miles, the main road forks to the left.
Metcalf Lake is 2.2 miles from the Cedar Creek Campground. Make the first right turn off of Fatty Creek Road, and then make another right turn to the lake. There are no signs for the second right turn except a "Pack it in - pack it out!" sign. The lake may be almost reached by a car with a three-tenths-of-a-mile hike. Only a truck should attempt the last section of the road. The lake is popular with local youth. They have built a high swinging rope above the lake. The lake is shallow except for the small portion by the swing. The lake is being managed for trophy trout.
Fatty Creek is crossed 3.6 miles from the highway. The Fatty Creek Road to the Cedar Lake trailhead is exactly nine miles from the highway. The road is an ear-popping second-gear climb high up in the Mission Mountains. It can be rutted and very bumpy in places. Check with the forest service prior to driving the road with a low-clearance vehicle.
Cedar Lake trailhead has a large turnaround. The lake is about a four-mile hike. Keep in mind that you are in grizzly country, so if you are traveling alone or in a group, pepper spray may be a prudent purchase. Camping at the lake is designated as no-impact camping. Fatty Lake is accessed by a hunter's trail about 1.5 miles before the trailhead. I could not find it. Although it reportedly fishes well, I would recommend the established trail to Cedar Lake, which has a healthy population of cutthroats.
Return to Highway 83
MM 63.5: Point Pleasant Campground
The campground offers a boat access, but it is very overgrown and easily missed. This is a beautiful non-fee campground right on the river.
MM 66.7: Road #10161
Easily missed, this site offers a great access to the river as well as a take-out for rafters. Camping is allowed on a "pack it in - pack it out" basis.
MM 68.2: Porcupine Creek Road
The Swan River is crossed one mile from the highway. Access is good for wade fishers, but you will have to drag your raft or canoe up a 15-foot bank to the road.
MM 71-72: Swan Lake, Montana.
MM 71.9: Swan Lake Campground
USFS. 36 campsites for trailers, RVs and tents. Fee area. Water available, vault-type toilets, swimming beach, boat ramp.
MM 82.5: Junction
Montana State Route 209 heads west five miles to the town of Bigfork and Highway 35, which is the westside route along Flathead Lake, beginning at Polson and ending at Kalispell.
MM 86: Echo Lake
The highway now turns due east. Follow the signs to Echo Lake. The lake is popular for water skiing and summer homes, but it does have fair fishing, nonetheless.