Montana Fly Fishing
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The Little Blackfoot River
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The Little Blackfoot River is a delightful river that anglers visiting Montana generally just drive right by on their way to the bigger and better-known waters nearby. Which is probably a good thing, since this river is aptly named - it is little compared to its bigger cousin to the west, the Blackfoot River.
The Little Blackfoot River begins its life in the Boulder Mountains south of the town of Elliston, Montana, and travels for 40 miles to its confluence with the Clark Fork in the town of Garrison. The river starts out more as a creek than a river, tumbling down through wooded terrain with much downfall in the river. Access on this section of the Little Blackfoot (between its origin and the town of Elliston) is excellent, as it primarily flows through public lands and is closely followed by a Forest Service Road.
Just outside of Elliston, the Little Blackfoot River enters a narrow and scenic valley where it remains for the remainder of its length down to the Clark Fork. It flows exclusively through private property, limiting access to the handful of county and highway road crossings that are found. Its banks are fairly heavily forested near Elliston with the forest thinning out a bit as the river loses elevation on its way to the Clark Fork. Extensive brush is found all along the Little Blackfoot River too.
The fly fishing on the Little Blackfoot River is excellent. Brown trout are found in good numbers and large sizes below Elliston. Brook and cutthroat trout are found above Elliston. Whitefish can be found throughout the length of the river.
Thankfully, its size and somewhat isolated location keeps fly fishing pressure on the Little Blackfoot relatively low. The river, while floatable in the lower sections in the right conditions and the right boat, is not a float-fishing river, thus keeping recreational floaters and most fishermen away. The Little Blackfoot River is generally too narrow to allow productive float fishing - large rafts would clog up almost the entire width of the river in some places.
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Since float fishing the Little Blackfoot River is out, wade fishing is the best way to get to the river. Happily, once spring run-off ends, the river is easy to wade as it is generally shallow, quite narrow and has only a moderate current. The river also twists and turns extensively, except where local ranchers have attempted to "straighten" the river for irrigation or flood control purposes.
The Little Blackfoot River, besides receiving flows from a number of small tributary streams, also has a number of year round springs. These springs do two things. First, in the summer, the cool water from these springs keep the Little Blackfoot temperatures productive for fly fishing on the hottest days in summer. Secondly, these pools also warm up the rivers temperature during the winter, allowing for productive fly fishing during the winter months.
The Little Blackfoot River, during the winter months, is open to catch and release fishing for trout. Small nymphs work best for winter angling. Popular nymph patterns include midges (sizes 18-22), Hare's Ear Nymph, Pheasant Tail Nymph and the Parachute Adams (sizes 16-20).
Beginning in April and lasting up until spring-run off, dry fly fishing on the Little Blackfoot River can be productive as the first caddis hatches of the season occur. Effective flies include the X-Caddis, the Tan Elk Hair Caddis and Dark Elk Hair Caddis all work well, in sizes 14-18.
The Little Blackfoot River can get really blown out by spring run-off, as it drains a sizeable drainage. If snowpack is high, the river can get swollen in a hurry and cause a lot of flooding. Depending on the vagaries of the weather and the amount of snowpack, run-off can begin anytime in April, but usually hits full force in late April and runs up until late-May. Fly fishing is blown out at this time, as the river turns into a mass of moving chocolate mud.
Once spring run-off ends and lasting through July, the Little Blackfoot River has excellent mayfly and caddisfly hatches, offering excellent dry fly fishing. Effective dry flies for this hatch include the Pale Morning Dun, Light Cahill, Elk Hair Caddis, the X-Caddis and the Parachute Adams, in sizes 12-16.
Beginning in late July and lasting until the first heavy frosts sometime in late September, grasshoppers, not surprisingly, become an excellent fly choice. Grasshoppers are found extensively along the river and the trout rise readily to hopper imitations.
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Fall offers the angler the best chance to catch the large brown trout that are found in the Little Blackfoot River. During most of the year, the largest brown trout are holed up among the brush and downed timber, making it extremely difficult to get at them. During the fall spawn, these fish move out of their hiding places. Large streamers, worked along undercut banks, downed timber and other cover offer the best places to catch these large trout. Light tippets and a careful presentation are a must as these large browns are skittish and the small size and relatively sedate nature of the river in the fall makes disturbances in the river quite noticeable.
As mentioned earlier, the Little Blackfoot River is not a float fishing river. However, for those who want to float the river for fun, the best time for floating occurs soon after spring-off subsides but before the low water periods of late summer begin - generally a period between late May and late July. It is also possible to float the Little Blackfoot in the fall due to the lessening demand of irrigation and the, hopefully, replenishment of the river by rain. Above Avon, floating the Little Blackfoot River is an iffy proposition due to lots of obstructions in the river, such as downed timber and fences. Below Avon, the river widens just a bit, doesn't have as many obstructions in the river, and obtains more depth, allowing for easier floating. Canoes and inflatable kayaks are the best vessels to use, as they don't draw much depth and are easily maneuverable around the downfalls and the twists and turns of the river.
As a sidenote, it should be noted that there is limiited access to the lower portion of the river. In its upper stretch, as it is in public lands, this is not a problem. However, below Elliston, there is only one fishing access site, the Little Blackfoot River FAS. It's located about twelve from upstream from Garrison. Visit this page for more information about this fishing access site.
The lower portion of the Little Blackfoot River flows through a very scenic valley and it is just a matter of time before this lovely river goes the way of the Ruby River, with "ranchettes" sprouting up along the river, further restricting access.