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Photo by Tom Layson 2005 ©

Dry Fly Dream:
Fishing the Middle Fork of the Flathead River
By Tom Layson

  The first thing that hits you is the smell. Nothing smells quite like a healthy freestone river in the American west, and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is a perfect example of what a remote location and a Wild and Scenic designation can do to preserve what must be pretty close to a pristine fishing experience.

  After flying into Kalispell, Montana and spending a few days with family at Whitefish Lake, my trip started one crisp August morning at the Glacier Raft Company's outdoor center a half mile west of Glacier Park's west gate on U.S. Highway 2. That's where I met guide Dan Harrison for what would be a truly memorable day of fly-fishing.

  After picking five or six likely suspects out of the center's substantial inventory of hand tied flies, we were off for a half hour drive to the east on Highway 2 as it runs upstream along the Middle Fork, and the western border of Glacier National Park.

  We put our two-seat raft into the water at the Paola access point, less than 100 yards off the highway. As Dan was loading gear, I peered into the crystal clear water and instantly spotted a 2-inch long gray Stone Fly skittering across the surface. I pointed this out to Dan, who gave me a knowing nod and invited me to take my place on the high seat up front.

Photo by Tom Layson 2005 ©

  Dan is a 25-year-old field biologist by training, and a former fish-habitat biologist with the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game who isn't ready to get off the river for a "real job" any time soon. When it came to explaining the Middle Fork's unique feeding patterns, biota, and fishing strategies, I knew that he knew; If you know what I mean.

  Nosing the raft downriver, we cruised the first 100 yards of what would be a 13 mile journey through some of the most spectacular country, and pristine river, I've had the pleasure of experiencing. Water conditions from about mid-July through early August are just about perfect: Too low for the heaviest rafting crowds, but high enough to make the river entirely floatable for fishing trips.

  The first thing you notice onboard is the stunning clarity of the water. Gliding over 50-foot deep azure pools, one could easily see straight to the bottom. Deeply submerged boulders provide plenty of cover for hungry Westslope Cutthroat and Bull Trout, which monitor the surface for any promising ripple once temperatures rise enough for insect activity to begin. This is something that was hard to get used to. Fishing here isn't early; it's late because of the extremely low temperatures of the water overnight and into the early morning.

Photo by Tom Layson 2005 ©

  Our setup was fairly straightforward: A two-piece graphite 5-weight rod and reel combination, and a short, 7-foot mono leader with a 4-5x tippet. On the business end of the rig was a "Fat Albert," which to the rest of the world is a size six foam and rubber stonefly with a small parachute. We fished a gray version most of the day, but also toyed with an orange Fat Albert and a Red Wulff when we thought we'd educated a big one a couple of times. Mostly though, the foam stonefly was the meal ticket du jour.

  Dan and I started working together well very early on. He'd set me up right or left, suggest mends, and say, "this is lookin' fishy" when he liked the water, and my fly's float. On my third or fourth cast as he quietly murmured, "great float, great float," we got the first strike. It came in a choppy section of deep blue tail water alongside a series of boulders. The surface roiled as an eager Cutthroat took a swipe at my foam offering. I did not hook him.

  Fishing in gin clear water takes a little patience. I'm not used to casting to sighted fish, and the tendency to jump-the-strike is strong when you can actually see a streaking silver bullet rushing your fly from ten or 20 feet down. After a while though, you get it right, and you've lip-hooked your first Weststlope Cutthroat.

Photo by Tom Layson 2005 ©

  I have nothing but good things to say about Rainbow, Brook, and Brown trout. They are friends of mine, and I value their company. However, no trout I've ever caught comes anywhere close to pulling as hard as the Westslope Cutthroat. Inch-for-inch, they are the hardest fighting freshwater fish I've ever come across. Even a 10-inch Westslope will run line off your reel and make many valiant attempts for the strong mid-river current, and deep lies he knows at the bottom. This is a catch-and-release section of river though, and in my mind, "horsing" the fish a little is preferred to keep them from exhaustion.

  The river is a geologist's dream with strange outcroppings, shelves, sharply defined striations of layered rock, undercut subsurface shelves, and precipitous drop-offs that teem with hungry trout. The river's parent rock, Argillite, isn't considered to be too fish-friendly when it comes to producing nutrients, but the fish population seemed very robust in most of the stretches we fished. Bear in mind too that we fished in the "recreational" section of this river, downstream from the fly-in sections that run through the Great Bear Wilderness.

  As we worked out way downstream, the action got hotter as we moved toward midday, and the insect activity increased. Dan helped me read the foam lines, and encouraged me to cast into heavier water than I would normally select. The aggressive cutthroat did not disappoint, eagerly slapping the bobbing Fat Albert with reckless abandon.

Photo by Tom Layson 2005 ©

  We actually raised quite a few fish dragging the bug on the turn. Dan warned me that this breeds bad habits among the novices who, once they see this, are reluctant to go back to trying for that perfect dead float. In fact, during our lunch break, I caught a 14-incher while stripping line and dragging the bug upstream six inches from the shoreline. I saw him follow all the way from mid-channel, and figured I'd just "troll" until he hit: Which he did. Hard. Most of our 20 or so fish were taken on a traditional dead float though, especially the two big ones we landed.

  It was just before noon that we had a nice 40 or 50-foot float going. We were fishing the North bank of the river right on the heavy current where the river turned from robin's egg to navy blue. In a flash, a larger silver slab curled over the top of my fly and started pulling my tippet toward some nook in a subsurface boulder field. I set the hook, and felt the heavy pull of something out-of-the-ordinary. This fish meant business.

  I had several yards of stripped line at my feet and hand-played the fish on its initial blinding run into the heavy current. But I knew I wanted this fish on the reel, so after paddling-away at the little Orvis to take up the slack, I got it done, after what seemed like an hour.

  By this time, our fish was not very happy. Yes, the meaty beast was finally on the reel, but that didn't stop him from immediately stripping my fly line with abandon. This time though I wasn't relying on my marginally reliable fingertip drag to keep him from breaking me off. I had the reel palmed as he made a play for my backing.

  The Westslope Cutthroat isn't a jumper. No, he's a head shaker, a strong runner, and a cunning strategist. This fish would rest until I tried to put a little pressure on him. At that point he would shake his head. Then, when sensed that I just about had the reel locked-down with my palm, he'd make another sharp run in hopes, no doubt, of breaking me off.

Photo by Tom Layson 2005 ©

  After 15 minutes of this, Dan finally netted what turned out to be the first of two 16-inch fish we'd take that fine summer day. Dan told me they were a couple of the larger Westslopes that had been landed this season. Actually, even after a couple of these 15 minute fights, I bulled-the-fish-in a little more than one might usually do, again, in hopes of not bringing them to exhaustion. Dan tells me that hooking mortality is actually pretty low since the Westslope is a hearty species. That's good to hear, but they're a resource that's worth taking extra measures to protect.

  Despite all the new development around Kalispell, Whitefish, and West Glacier, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is still a great fishing experience. The presence of U.S. Highway 2 spooks me a little, as does the heavy overnight rafting trade. But if managers can at least maintain what we have there now, it is a wonderful resource that offers a unique dry fly fishing experience.

  There is nothing like a surface strike, and with the right conditions and the right knowledge, a memorable experience is within fairly easy reach on the middle fork of Montana's Flathead River.


Glacier Raft Company:
Horizon Airlines:
Montana Fish and Game:

By Tom Layson 2005 ©


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