Middle Fork Flathead River

Salmon Forks Outfitters / Wilderness Fly Fishing  
Fly fish the South Fork Flathead. Horseback into our Wilderness fishing camp, five & seven day fishing trips, very remote, great fishing, no crowds. Outfitter #1990.

Salmon Fork Outfitters  
Horseback into our Wilderness Fishing Camp to fish the South Fork Flathead. Outfitter #1990.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead River begins just outside the Great Bear Wilderness, near Glacier National Park. It soon enters the wilderness area and begins a beautiful, frequently wild ride through the heart of the wilderness area.

Middle Fork Flathead River
Middle Fork Flathead River

Flowing past huge mountains and through deep canyons, the Middle Fork is one of Montana's premier wilderness rivers. The remote setting of the Middle Fork keeps the wilderness portion of this river relatively free of both fishermen and floaters. Except for during spring run-off, which can extend well into July some years, the waters of the Middle Fork Flathead River are exceptionally clear.

The Middle Fork emerges from the wilderness area near Essex, where it flows past a unique place called the "Goat Lick." Here, salt covers the ground along the rivers banks. Numerous mountain goats frequent the area, traveling down from the high country for the salt. Grizzly bears and other wildlife are also frequent the area as well.

Beginning in Essex, the Middle Fork Flathead River parallels Highway 2 to West Glacier, although the river is usually out of sight as it often lies hundreds of vertical feet below and well back from the road. Many designated and undesignated access points exist between Essex and West Glacier, allowing for easy access and countless potential camp sites. It is also a scenic section of the Middle Fork, with the towering mountains of Glacier National Park and the Great Bear Wilderness often visible. The middle portion of the river, between Essex and Moccasin Creek, only has moderate pressure from floaters and fishermen.

As the river approaches West Glacier, it becomes a popular place for individual and guide service float trips, as many rapids exist just above West Glacier. After West Glacier, the whitewater section ends and most of the floaters disappear, as the river itself slows down as the Middle Fork flows toward the junction with the North Fork of the Flathead River at Blakenship Bridge.

At Blakenship Bridge, both the North Fork and Middle Fork merge into one river and mark the beginning of the Flathead River.

Fishing the Middle Fork Flathead River

The Middle Fork of the Flathead River, like its cousins the North Fork and the South Fork, is fed mainly by snowmelt. This keeps the nutrients in the river low. The result is that the Middle Fork lacks the giant sized trout found elsewhere in Montana.

That said, the wilderness portion of the Middle Fork contains a healthy numbers of decent sized cutthroats up to 16 inches. And they aren't picky about what they eat. The fishing pressure in the wilderness section is very low compared with other Montana waters.

The result is that a fishing trip into the wilderness portion of the Middle Fork provides outstanding scenery, chance encounters with the local fauna (this area is prime Grizzly Bear habitat), and solid action for average sized fish.

For the angler, most dry flies, floated around the usual likely spots will produce consistent results. Another technique to try is to use a weighted sink tip line, dragging wet flies or streamers through the deeper pockets and pools located along the river.

Like the North Fork Flathead River, the Middle Fork is prime water for the bull trout. While fishing for cutthroat trout in pools, especially if using streamers, an angler has the opportunity to hook into one of these monster fish, which often reach twenty pounds. Just remember, it is illegal to keep or intentionally fish for bull trout.

Below Essex, the fishing on the Middle Fork tapers off. While numerous cutthroats still inhabit the river, their size falls to the 8-12 inch range, with the larger fish located down in the deep holes.

Read More How to Select a Fly Rod

Larger cutthroats do live in this section, but reaching them often requires a hefty hike along the river or a float trip. While fishing pressure is light below Essex, the best structure for larger fish often far from major access sites or on the Glacier National Park side of the river.

Floating the Middle Fork Flathead River

The Middle Fork Flathead River is one of Montana's premier whitewater rivers. It is also one of the wildest, beginning in the Great Bear Wilderness just south of Glacier National Park.

Most of the heavy-duty whitewater lies in the wilderness section, where the Middle Fork has a "wilderness" designation (no motors). Floating through the wilderness section of the river requires either a plane ride in or a long hike or horse pack. Either way, wilderness floats begin at Schaeffer Creek.

Glacier National Park Seen From Middle Fork Flathead River
Peaks of Glacier National Park Seen From Middle Fork Flathead River

For the 27 miles from Schaeffer Creek to Essex, where the Middle Fork Flathead River turns into a "recreational" river, the Middle Fork provides continual whitewater, mainly Class II rapids, with many Class III & IV rapids as well.

A float through the wilderness portion requires constant vigilance. Depending on river flows and boat used, floaters may need to make several portages . Since the river spends much time flowing through canyons, portages have the potential to be difficult.

Beginning in Essex, the river turns into a recreational class river and follows Highway 2, dwarfed by tall mountains on either side. The river from this point also forms the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. Many access points exist along Highway 2, allowing for a wide variety of day floats.

From Essex to Moccasin Creek (30 miles), there are only several small Class II-III rapids, depending on river levels. However, canoeists will have difficult running this section. On almost every curve between Essex and Moccasin Creek (and the river is basically one ending set of curves), large waves and small rapids threaten to swamp an inexperienced canoeist. Additionally, around Moccasin Creek, much timber lies along the rivers banks.

The Moccasin Creek access point, six miles upstream from West Glacier, is best used as a put-in spot only. Floaters shouldn’t plan to take boats out at Moccasin Creek since doing so requires a paddle up a swift flowing side channel of the Middle Fork for about a quarter mile (experience learned the hard way). Note, a guide contacted me and said there was a "hidden channel" that allows floaters to reach the take-out point. I'll have to take his word, since I have looked for it on float trips and never found it! Still, it's probably there someplace.

Below Moccasin Creek to West Glacier, a popular whitewater section begins, with several Class II, III and one Class IV rapid (Jaws). Because of the excellent whitewater, this segment of the Middle Fork receives the heaviest use.

Scenic Float on Middle Fork Flathead River
Scenic Float on the Middle Fork Flathead River

Below West Glacier, the Middle Fork runs swiftly with only a few small Class II rapids, and combines with the North Fork of the Flathead River at Blakenship Bridge, where the main-stem of the Flathead River begins.

For the wilderness portion, a heavy-duty inflatable kayak or inflatable raft is needed, since they are the easiest to pack into the Great Bear Wilderness. Below Essex, a raft, kayak or canoe (experienced canoeists only) work well until reaching the whitewater below Moccasin Creek. Below Moccasin Creek, a raft or kayak capable of Class IV whitewater is required.

River Miles

Listed below are selected river miles on the Middle Fork Flathead River, from its origin to its end at the confluence with the North Fork Flathead River, at Blakenship Bridge.

  • Schaeffer Meadows : 73
  • Schaeffer Creek : 72
  • Granite Park Ranger Station : 62
  • Great Bear Wilderness Boundary : 47
  • Bear Creek : 46
  • Essex Bridge : 41
  • Paola Creek Access : 33
  • Cascadilla Creek Access : 22
  • Moccasin Creek Access (put-in only) : 14
  • West Glacier Bridge : 6
  • Blakenship Bridge (confluence with the North Fork Flathead River and beginning of Flathead River) : 0