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 naïve 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 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.