The Flathead River

The Flathead River begins at the confluence of the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River, at the Blakenship Bridge Fishing Access Site not far from West Glacier, Montana. Each of the three forks of the Flathead River (North, South, Middle) are discussed separately in their own sections, since each are distinct rivers.

The Flathead River flows through some of the most beautiful scenery Montana offers. The Flathead drains a sizable portion of Northwest Montana, including parts of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Due to the large drainage, the Flathead River is one of the larger rivers in Montana.

The Flathead River consists of two distinct sections which are separated by Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Western United States.

Above the lake, the Flathead River flows through the upper Flathead Valley, home to the popular towns of Whitefish and Kalispell. As the water in the Flathead River comes mainly from snowmelt and mountain lakes, the water is cold even well into the summer. For most of its journey above the lake, the Flathead River flows swiftly but gently, not slowing down until five miles downstream from the Old Steel Bridge Fishing Access Site near Kalispell.

Below Flathead Lake, Kerr Dam regulates the river flows and the level of Flathead Lake. Below the Dam, the flows of the Flathead River vary wildly and impact both fishing and floating. Many rapids also exist that can make floating a challenge.

The Flathead River ends at the confluence with the Clark Fork near Plains, Montana.

Fishing the Flathead River

Flathead River Near Tea Kettle Fishing Access Site
The Flathead River Near Tea Kettle

Let's start with the bad news first. The Flathead River is not the fishery it once was. A blue-ribbon rainbow trout stream, where thousands of 20-inch rainbows lurk waiting for unsuspecting fly imitations to drift by, the Flathead River is not. The health of the Flathead is determined by the two dams (Hungry Horse and Kerr Dam) which regulate river flows and temperatures, often which are detrimental to the trout angler. Further, the health of the river is also dependent on the Flathead Lake ecosystem, which is still unsettled and not helpful for trout fishing. Finally, the waters of the Flathead come mainly from snowmelt and cold, mountain lakes and contain less nutrients than other well-known Montana rivers.

That said, the bad news has one upside: low fishing pressure compared too many other Montana rivers. Fly fishing the Flathead River does not require exact fly imitations or perfect technique. Most trout in the Flathead River aren't especially finicky eaters. While pulling 20-inch rainbow trout from the river is a rarity, the Flathead does offer decent rainbow and cutthroat trout fishing in the upper half of the river above Kerr Dam. Also, the many sloughs of the river just upstream from Flathead Lake provide excellent pike fishing. Below Kerr Dam, the northern pike fishing is also excellent, with some largemouth bass, brown trout and some rainbows thrown in to the mix as well.

Fishing the Upper Flathead River

Above Flathead Lake, the Flathead River flows quickly and is wide, even by Montana standards. The river has many braids and channels between Columbia Falls and Kalispell.

Because of the speed, depth and width of the river, wade fishing is difficult and can be downright dangerous at high river flows. While access is good along the river, the size of the Flathead River prevents wade anglers from reaching most of the better fishing holes. Due of the rivers width, to fully fish and explore the Flathead requires a fly fishing boat of some kind (inflatable rafts, inflatable kayaks, ponton boats, drift boats and most anything else that float are all popular on the river).

Flathead River Near Columbia Falls, Montana
The Flathead River Near Columbia Falls

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 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 riverbank.

During summer afternoons, the larger trout haunt the deeper pools and depths of the river. To reach them, use a prince nymph with a sink-tip line and weights, bouncing it along the bottom.

Bull trout are also found in the river during the summer as they migrate up from Flathead Lake to their spawning grounds far upstream (remember, it is illegal to intentionally fish for or take a bull trout).

South of Kalispell, the Flathead River slows and branches off into several sloughs. This is northern pike country. A large streamer for the fly fisherman or a spoon such as a daredevil for the spin fisherman work well for pike fishing.

Finally, mountain whitefish are common all along the Flathead River. The Old Steel Bridge fishing access site in Kalispell offers an excellent place to catch whitefish for anglers who do not have a boat.

Fishing the Lower Flathead River

Below Kerr Dam, the flows of the Flathead River are completely regulated—for power production and not for trout fishing. The result is spotty trout fishing. While some large rainbow and brown trout do exist, the river below Kerr Dam is instead considered trophy northern pike waters.

The best rainbow trout fishing is the first few miles below the dam. Farther down the Flathead River, some scattered large brown trout can also be found.

But it's the pike that draws anglers to the Lower Flathead. 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 and heavy-weight rods are the rule. Throw the streamers into the weeds and retrieve it quickly in an erratic motion, mimicking 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, anglers need to obtain a tribal fishing permit which is available at all local fly fishing and sporting gear shops.

Floating the Flathead River

Whitefish Range Seen From the Flathead River
Whitefish Range Seen From the Flathead River

The Upper Flathead River above Flathead Lake provides a beautiful yet relatively easy float. The current is moderately fast, even during late summer, allowing for lazy floats that require little paddling. Below Blakenship Bridge are several small rapids. Depending on river flows, these rapids have small to moderate sized waves. Some of these small rapids can be bypassed, but often the fast current and lower flows of late summer make avoiding them impossible. While these small rapids pose no problems for rafts or inflatable kayaks, the waves might pose problems for canoeists. Beyond these rapids, other than a few small riffles and some whirpools that form where the various forks in the river converge, nothing should give a floater of any skill level problems on the Upper Flathead River.

Access for floating is excellent. Tea Kettle fishing access site in Columbia Falls is a popular put-in spot, complete with a nice boat launch (albeit with a very smelly outhouse). Other designated access sites on the Upper Flathead are Blakenship Bridge, Kokanee Bend (no boat ramp), Pressentine Bar, Old Steel Bridge in Kalispell, Foy's Bend and Sportsmans Bridge (used mainly for access to Flathead Lake).

One of the nicest floats on the Upper Flathead River is between Columbia Falls at Tea Kettle FAS and Old Steel Bridge FAS in Kalispell. The scenery is wonderful, the current flows quickly and there is little float traffic except on pleasant summer weekends. Float times are about three to four hours, depending on the number of stops and current flows.

About five miles downstream from Old Steel Bridge, current flows on the Upper Flathead drop to almost  nothing. Floaters venturing to Flathead Lake will have to paddle across a seventeen mile flatwater section, often in windy conditions, that also has no public access sites. Because of this, most people who float this stretch (instead of just using a motorized boat) use hard-shell kayaks or canoes.

The Wide & Swift Flathead River in Northwest Montana
The Flathead River is wide and swift

Below Kerr Dam, the Flathead River flows through a canyon. The first seven miles below the canyon are called Buffalo Rapids. Depending on current flows, several class IV rapids with sizeable waves and holes can exist. Before entering these rapids, floaters should scout them first. Due to the variable flows from the dam, what one day may be a rapid may the next be a big hole and the next completely washed over.

Beyond the rapids, the Lower Flathead slows down dramatically and becomes very wide. As the Flathead nears the Clark Fork confluence, the river resembles a slow moving lake more than a typical Montana river.

River Miles

Listed below are selected river miles on the Flathead River, from its origin to its end at the confluence with the Clark Fork near Plains.

  • Blakenship Bridge (confluence of North and Middle Forks) : 158.3
  • Confluence of the South Fork (Hungry Horse) : 148.7
  • Tea Kettle FAS in Columbia Falls : 143.6
  • Kokanee Bend FAS : 141.2
  • Pressentine Bend FAS : 136.2
  • Old Steel Bridge FAS : 128.5
  • Foys Bend Access Site : 122
  • Sportsman Bridge FAS just above Flathead Lake : 107.5
  • Kerr Dam : 72
  • Buffalo Bridge (end of Buffalo Rapids) : 65
  • Jocko River : 25
  • Perma Bridge : 11.3
  • Clark Fork : 0

Fly Fishing Books

  • The Orvis Guide to Small Stream Fly Fishing - The definitive and comprehensive guide to fishing small trout streams throughout North America. The Orvis Guide to Small Stream Fly Fishing provides all the information for finding and fishing unspoiled gems found everywhere from wilderness areas to suburban backyards. This beautifully illustrated and definitive resource explains the small stream environment, how to find these streams, how small-stream trout behave, how to read the water, special casts, fly selection, and how to present the fly in all types of small streams.
  • The Orvis Ultimate Book of Fly Fishing: Secrets from the Orvis Experts - Fly-fishing strategies and techniques, from Orvis's world-famous team of experts. Rich and helpful color photos and drawings.

The Flathead River

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