Fly Fishing the South Fork of the Flathead River


By Trapper Badovinac Most fly fishing trips and thus most fly fishing articles, begin with a borderline romantic mental image...

“Standing on the banks of the river we could hear the gentle call of a distant osprey as she scanned the river to feed her hatchlings. My partner and I took a moment to savor the clean moist air rising from the gently cascading riffles at our feet.”

Not this one.

South Fork of the Flathead
South Fork of the Flathead

Fly fishing the South Fork of the Flathead River and its tributaries begins with loading mules and saddling horses. This river isn’t for those easily frightened by a few obstacles as this sort of trip has some built-in challenges.

When you finally saddle up and get into the rhythm of your horse, magic happens. The world fades behind you. You’re now in the most pristine area of Montana and likely the entire lower 48 states; The Bob Marshall Wilderness. City sounds are absent and you’re left with the gentle creaking of saddle leather and horseshoes on rock or dirt.

Once you dismount at the Hahn Creek camp, the soreness of riding a horse for miles melts away. It’s replaced by a sense maybe long ago lost; that sense that is alert to the sounds of the wild like that familiar ‘bloop’ as a fish takes a fly from the surface, or the soothing sound of water flowing over rock.

Young’s Creek

A stone’s throw from camp is Young’s Creek. Five miles downstream this creek merges with the Danaher to form the South Fork of the Flathead. You are a firsthand witness to what 99% of other humans will only dream about from the comfort of their easy chair. With the exception of Alaskan rivers, the South Fork of the Flathead is likely the most inaccessible river in the United States. There are no roads within this 2400 square mile complex, which is roughly the size of Delaware.

The South Fork and Young’s Creek is largely Class I and Class II water and is easy to wade most years.

Fly Fishing Tactics

Fly Fishing the Bob Marshall
Fly Fishing the Bob Marshall

I once left my wife standing where the river was forced to pause as it flowed into a wood debris pile, turned, and then stalled again as the water deepened and spilled out into a pool. The foam line narrowed creating a perfect, slow moving run. The trout darkened the bottom of the river like one of the raceways you see in a fish hatchery. The cutts were fighting for anything that floated into their window including pieces of leaves.

“Stand right here and count how many fish you catch in an hour,” I directed. “Ok, that sounds fun,” she replied. Fifteen minutes later she was walking up the bank as I was unhooking yet another fish. “I’m bored,” she said. “This is too easy.” She was opening a bottle of water. “How many did you catch?” I asked. “I dunno.” She shrugged her shoulders and chugged the water. “A lot.”

Thanks to my very scientific data collection methods and my dutiful assistant, I’ve come to this conclusion—if you can’t catch a lot of fish on this river, you’re too damn drunk to be out there anyway. This is not technical fly fishing. Get your fly into the zone drag free and they’ll eat it.

Bull Trout

The South Fork of the Flathead is the only river in Montana where you can intentionally target bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), one of Montana’s few native trout. First, obtain an application from the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks department. While there is no fee, it may take a week or so before they return your amended license and catch card. Check the current regulations as bull trout are threatened and this opportunity could end without warning. Bull trout must still be returned immediately to the river.

Some of these descendants of artic char are highly migratory and move between still waters to tributaries while other remain as residents. Juveniles will feed on small aquatic insects but adults reach their large size preying on small fish. It is not unusual to hook up a smaller cutthroat and during the course of landing the fish you’ll see a large massive shape chasing the cutt. Bull trout often move out of their slow moving deep holes to pursue the stressed fish on the end off your tippet. Landing them is often problematic, as they will release the smaller prey if you are able to bring both of them to hand. It’s a remarkable sight not frequently seen by freshwater fly fishers.

If you are seriously targeting larger bull trout, you’ll need a fast action 8wt, sink tip, and streamers.

Cutthroat Trout

Bob Marshall Fly Fishing
Bob Marshall Fly Fishing

The Westslope cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki lewis) trout are another native Montana trout. These trout have interbred with other cutthroats and rainbow trout, leaving rivers and lakes within the Bob Marshall one of the few remaining areas where pure strains still exist. While positive identification can only be done with lab testing, these cutthroat trout generally have more of a greenish tint, as well as a more concentrated area of spots at the tail. Catching these fish in lengths over twelve inches is a rarity in most Montana streams but the average size on the South Fork drainage normally exceeds the state average where they enjoy the protection from farming, logging, and other environmental threats. Angling pressure is light and competing non-native fish species are virtually non-existent.

Fly Selection

Fly pattern choice is fairly simple and you could likely get by with three different flies. But if you’re like me, you’ll take many more—just in case. A #18 Deer Hair Caddis has become my “go-to” fly on most of the high country Montana streams. Various species of Caddis seem to dominate most of these streams and the fish are very used to seeing them. Often hatching concurrently are the smaller Stonefly species that are also down winged patterns of a similar size and silhouette.

For an upwing pattern either a Parachute Adams or a Cripple pattern in #16 and #18s will cover most of the basics. While I haven’t found the “big ugly” patterns like #2 Turk’s to be very productive, I have found situations where a small foam beetle will bring fish to the surface.

We are proud that Trapper Badovinac is a part of our team here at Lazy J Bar O Outfitters. An outstanding guide and and excellent cook, our fly fishing guests enjoy his wealth of knowledge and attention to client satisfaction. For more information on Fly Fishing the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Lazy J Bar O Outfitters, call us anytime at (406) 932-5687 or contact us online.

Trapper Badovinac received his degree in Journalism from California State University, Sacramento after spending four years in the United States Navy. Growing up in Canon City Colorado, he has spent an entire lifetime fishing and exploring the outdoors of the Rocky Mountain West. His articles have appeared in several fly fishing magazines and he has penned two books on the subject. Trapper has won numerous photography awards, including some from the Professional Photographers of America.

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