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The Flathead River
the Flathead River
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OK. Let's start with the bad news first. The Flathead River is not the fishery it once was or has the potential to be in the future. A Blue-Ribbon rainbow trout stream, where 20 inch rainbows lurk waiting for your fly, the Flathead River is not. The health of the Flathead River is largely determined by two dams (Hungry Horse Dam and Kerr Dam) that regulate river flows and temperatures - not always to the benefit of the fisherman - and the ecosystem of Flathead Lake, which currently is in disarray. To top it off, the Flathead River itself is fed primarily by snowmelt, resulting in clear, cold water that has fewer nutrients than many other Montana rivers.
That said, all of this bad news has had one big upside: very low fishing pressure compared to many other Montana Rivers. Fly fishing the Flathead River does not require exact fly imitations nor does it require perfect technique. The fish in the Flathead River aren't especially picky about what is thrown at them. While you may not pull 20 inch rainbow trout out of the Flathead River, the river does offer decent rainbow and cutthroat trout fishing in the upper half of the river above Kerr Dam. Below Kerr Dam, the northern pike fishing is excellent, with some largemouth bass, brown trout and some rainbows thrown in to the mix as well.
Above Flathead Lake, the Flathead River flows quick and is quite wide by Montana standards. The river also has numerous braids and channels in between Columbia Falls and Kalispell. Due to the speed, depth and width of the river, wade fishing can pose problems, and can be downright dangerous at high river flows. While access is generally good along the river, the size of the Flathead River will pretty much prevent wade fisherman from reaching most of the better fishing holes. To get an idea of how wide the Flathead can be, the picture above shows the river after the river has forked into two branches near Pressentine Bar Fishing Access Site. Due to this, a fly fishing boat of some kind is really needed to fully fish this river.
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The Flathead River holds a decent population of medium sized rainbow and cutthroat trout. The trick to finding them is to cut the river down to size, fishing obvious holes and pools behind rocks, fishing around the numerous forks in the river, and along bank cover, such as downed trees. A caddis fly (size 12-14) floated over prime territory is always a good bet. A hopper during late summer also works well, especially around Kalispell where fields come right up to the river bank.
During the day, trout can also be found down in the river depths. To get at them, use a prince nymph with a sink-tip line and weights, bouncing it along the bottom.
Bull trout can also be found in the river during the summer as they migrate up from Flathead Lake to their spawning grounds well upstream (remember, no taking of Bull Trout).
South of Kalispell, the Flathead River slows considerably and branches off into numerous sloughs. This is northern pike country. The best time to fish for these beasts is during the spring and fall when they cruise the shallows. A large streamer for the fly fisherman or a spoon such as a daredevil for the spin fisherman work well.
Finally, mountain whitefish are common all along the Flathead River. The Old Steel Bridge FAS in Kalispell, MT offers an excellent place to catch whitefish for anglers who do not have a boat.
Below Kerr Dam, the flows of the Flathead River are completely regulated - for power production, and not for fishing. The result of this is spotty trout fishing. While some large rainbow and brown trout do exist, the river below Kerr Dam is considered trophy northern pike waters.
The best rainbow trout fishing can be found in the first few miles right below the dam. Farther down the Flathead River, larger brown trout can also be found.
But it's the pike that draws anglers. The area around Dixon offers the best pike fishing. Catching these monsters on a fly rod requires strong gear - no wimpy rods or tiny flies. Large streamers, strong tippets, heavy weight rods are the rule. Throw the streamers into the weeds and retrieve it quickly in an erratic motion, mimicing an injured fish swimming.
The best fly fishing on the lower Flathead River is all located on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Before heading out to fish, you will need to obtain a tribal fishing permit. Tribal permits are easily obtainable at all local fly fishing shops.
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