Montana Fly Fishing
South Fork Flathead River

North Fork Flathead River

South Fork Flathead River

Fishing Above Hungry Horse Reservoir

The fishing in the South Fork of the Flathead River is, quite simply, excellent above Hungry Horse Reservoir for cutthroat trout, especially the portion of the river that lies in the wilderness area. The reason for that is two fold. First, Montana Fish & Game imposed strict special wilderness limits years ago. The result is that anglers now sometimes struggle to catch fish that are small enough to keep. The second, and somewhat obvious, reason is that in order to reach the river in the wilderness area requires considerable time and energy, as it lies in a very remote setting by any standard.

Of course, this remote setting has its benefits. Fishing pressure is extremely low in the wilderness area compared to virtually any other Montana river. The trout are all wild - no hatchery grown fish will be found here. As the fishing pressure is low, the trout aren't horribly picky about what they will take. Pretty much any caddis fly or mayfly imitation in size 10-14 will work just fine. Terrestial patterns, particularly hoppers, also are excellent to use in July and August. Just be careful not to spook the fish - waters of the South Fork of the Flathead River are crystal clear.

Access to the South Fork is by two ways, by foot or by horseback. Either way, it's a long way in from any trailhead to reach the river. About the closest you can get to the river by vehicle is by using the long, curvy and very bumpy West Reservoir Road that crosses the Hungry Horse Dam and meanders around Hungry Horse Reservoir. The distance from the Dam to the trailhead at Meadow Creek Pack Bridge is about 50 miles, which takes about 4 hours. And not a single service will be found, so bring whatever you need, as you won't be able to buy something if you forget it. The road also has a reputation of being hard on tires, so make sure you have a good full size spare or two.

Upon reaching the Meadow Creek Pack Bridge, it is a short hike into the wilderness. From there, the South Fork trail more or less follows the river throughout its journey in the wilderness area. The catch is, of course, the best fishing is found well above the Meadow Creek Pack Bridge, as far fewer people fish upstream than at the much more accessible trailhead. Fly-fishing can also be quite difficult around Meadow Creek Pack Bridge and upstream for a number of miles as the river is cloaked in dense forest. The river also runs through a deep, nearly impassable gorge for several miles (called Meadow Creek Gorge) just upstream of the pack bridge, thus forcing anglers to go further upstream to fish.

Regardless of where you enter the Bob, the South Fork is a wade fisherman's dream. Other than the Meadow Creek Gorge area, a wade fisherman can access virtually any segment of this river, spending weeks if not months exploring every pool, run and riffle. While the river is deep in spots, the river should pose no challenges to the alert wade fisherman.

Wade fishing is also the most popular way to fish the South Fork of the Flathead River, simply because getting a raft into the wilderness area is no easy feat. Any rafts will need to be brought in either on your back or on horse. Several guide services located around the Bob provide packing services, and can pack in gear for the floaters without a horse.

Special regulations and limits apply when fishing in the wilderness portion of the South Fork. Only 3 fish of any type (cutthroats, rainbows and grayling all are found in the South Fork) may be taken, none of which may be over 12 inches. Additionally, from Meadow Creek Pack Bridge (near the wilderness area boundary) down to Spotted Bear footbridge, it is all catch and release and only artificial lures may be used.

Hopefully, the catch and release restrictions won't bother you since you catch and release all fish anyway! However, if you're not, here's something else to consider before putting that trout into the frying pan. Any fish you catch while in the wilderness area will have to be eaten there. And cooking fish, especially over an open fire, produces lots and lots of smells - smells that Grizzly Bears just love. So the moral of the story is this: If you cook any fish while camped out in the wilderness area, make sure you cook them WELL away from where you're camping (like hundreds of yards). Dispose of all entrails and uneaten portions far, far away from where you are camped. Also wash off all pans and utensils thoroughly, and leave them away from camp too. Failure to take these precautions is likely to lead to uninvited and probably unwanted guests with large claws and teeth sometime during the middle of the night.

S. Fork Flathead River : Below Hungry Horse Dam

The South Fork only flows for 5 miles below Hungry Horse Dam before the river ends at the confluence of the Flathead River. The fishing in this stretch, however, has a chance to become a much better fishery in the years ahead.

Hungry Horse Dam was modified in the mid 1990's to allow it to draw water from any depth of the reservoir. This has important implications. Prior to this modification, all water released came from the bottom of the dam - where the water was coldest. This cold water pretty much killed off the fishing in the South Fork below the dam during the summer, and greatly affected the aquatic hatches on the main stem of the Flathead as well. With this modificationt, the dam now releases water that has the same temperature as the Flathead River five miles downstream. With near freezing water no longer flowing through the river during the middle of the summer, insect hatches have improved significantly on both the South Fork and the main stem of the Flathead River. This should lead to significantly better fishing in both the South Fork below the dam and for the Flathead River in the years ahead.

Next Page : Floating the South Fork Flathead River

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