Why the South Fork of the Flathead is a Bucket List Trip

We are lucky in the west. Great floats like the Grand Canyon, Middle Fork of the Salmon and the Rogue are just a few on our list. The South Fork of the Flathead ranks up there with it’s remote nature and unique fishery. It’s not a beginners trip but not so advanced that an intermediate boater can’t handle the trip by being cautious and using river safety guidelines. There are rapids and obstacles so the more experience the better.

Getting There

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Difficulty reaching the South Fork is one of the reasons it’s so pristine. The river flows through the Bob Marshall wilderness on it’s way to Hungry Horse reservoir. You can get there by driving the 60 mile plus dirt road past Hungry Horse reservoir to the trailhead, from the Blackfoot Valley side near Ovando via Young’s Creek pass or from the Rocky Mountain Front over White’s Pass. 

None of the routes are easy and horse packing is the primary means of reaching the river. You can backpack in and packraft out but room for gear is very limited. The road does meet the river and you have access to a few miles of water between the confluence with the Spotted Bear river and the terminus at Hungry Horse. In the end, getting to the river is a journey in itself.

A Protected Fishery

Once you reach the river, you meet an isolated fishery with some of the purest strain westslope cutthroat trout remaining in the west. In most cases, dams are a major conservation issue with negative impacts on our fish and river ecosystems.

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Hungry Horse however is something of an exception. The reservoir has completely isolated the South Fork thus protecting it from the influence of introduced species in Flathead Lake. There are no rainbow trout breeding with the cutthroats and bull trout still have many miles of river, tributaries and all of Hungry Horse to migrate and grow in ice cold water. 

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It’s also one of the few places in the lower 48 where you can legally target bull trout. You need a catch card from the Montana FWP and knowledge of the current regulations. 

The Takeout

If you make the journey and run this float, the last thing to know is don’t miss the takeout. There is a sign and if you run past it, you’ll be in a gorge with class VI rapids. After you takeout, you’ll need to pack out the last three miles to the Spotted Bear where you can meet your vehicle. It’s not easy on logistics but well worth the trip.

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Lazy J Bar O Outfitters offers fully guided fly fishing and roving horseback expeditions into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the South Fork of the Flathead River. We also offer one-way drop float trips. For more information, please explore our Summer Trips pages. You may also contact us or call us at 406-932-5687 for details.