All About Fly Fishing!

Great Montana Rivers

Doc Knoll shoots straight from the hip in providing his experiences and judgements about some Montana rivers. This article covers the North Fork and the Bighorn.

By Doc Knoll

Montana. When I first heard the word it almost sent shivers down my spine (I really don't know why.) And, the first time I actually stepped on the Montana territory and began to explore this immense land it did send shivers through me. Each vista point, or even just a simple bend in the road brought new vistas to my senses. Then, on the day when I crossed back into Wyoming on my way home I knew I would return. I did and after twenty five years of visits and then ten years of actually living the Montana experience I've been asked to share some of my reflections and knowledge with you. I will, with each article, try to bring you two rivers that might temp you into getting into the your old beater and come out here for a summer ride (or, are you planning something better???)

I really don't know where to start. If I began to praise the Yellowstone (which is my home river) I'd probably get bashed for touting my local resouces... so I'm not going to tell you everything you are missing by not fishing this river... (Well, at least not yet.)

Actually, I'm going to start this series off with the North branch of the Flathead River (Polebridge, Montana) and then some other reputable waterway. There are ten major rivers in the state (depending on how you count them.) Since I'll be writing about two rivers for each article the rules will be simple: I'll tell you what I know through first hand experience and not because I read someone else's book. No punches will be pulled. Every river will get a fair representation of my angling logic (whether someone likes it or not.)

The North Fork of the Flathead River

The North Fork (Branch) of the Flathead River is geographically situated on the western border of Glacier National Park. High water extends through June. It's a fairly isolated river with plenty of holes and runs. The fishing is really good. The major fish is the west slope cuthroat and if you have a novice in your party you may want to experience this water way.

One word of caution... This river is in bear country. I've been there and I've seen them. An investment of a large can of bear spray might be worthwhile. While in Montana I don't leave home without something as a defense for bears (that's a grizzly if you're wondering.) So for some of you city people "from back East..." you can leave it in your car for personal defense from some of those "back East type grizzlies."

The first time I fished this clear, cold mountain waterway was well before the new bridge was put up at Polebridge, Montana. Amy (my better half) and I needed to stretch our legs so I parked near the old wooden bridge and walked down to the water. The trout (cutthroat) were taking ants off the surface. I couldn't resist the anticipated action so we broke out the rods. Amy who, at the time was a novice to fly fishing, was in a beginner's heaven. Nearly every cast yielded a fish or at lest a rise and a strike. She was able to learn more in those two or three hours then days at another location on some other river. As the day came to a close we felt that we were fortunate with our first forray on this river (and since Amy was ready and willing to continue her enjoyment into the next day) we decided to return. We would explore different areas of the same river.

As the morning light came to the North Flathead we were ready. Nymph patterns scored heavily. (HINT: remember these cutthroat trout are limited to a short "growing season" so they are quite willing to consume anything that flows into their feeding station.) While the sun arced higher over the water the various hatches began and a steady stream of fish fell to our different (and sometimes experimental) offerings.

By days end we had traveled and fished various random locations until we reached the US Customs station on the Canadian border and since that second day whenever we visit Glacier we make a point of throwing a line into the N Fork of the Flathead. The patterns for flies are simple... just throw something in the water. You can't catch fish unless your line is getting wet and the fish of the Flathead are willing to accomodate our need for numerous fish. (Fish with #16-#18 dries and #14 nymphs.) We actually use red and yellow humpy patterns with caddis patterns and smaller terrestrials doing well.

Felt soled shoes are essential for this Western freestone river. Neoprene waders are needed due to the very cold temperture of the water. (Sure... some of you can go in shorts.) Rod weight can be light but remember there are some monster fish in this river.... but you will be catching plenty of 12-14 inch cutthroat for the most part. Accomodations are easily found in Columbia Falls and Whitefish, Montana. Polebridge has cabins.

The Big Horn River

Located south of Billings on the Crow Indian Reservation this river is fed (today) by the Big Horn Reservoir and is fished (usually) from the Yellowtail Dam to the Thirteen Mile access. Guides are availiable in Hardin, Mt.. Fishing without the benefit of a driftboat or raft will slow down the serious angler. However, a major portion of the raft and driftboat anglers will float to a likely hole and fish by wading until they decide to drift to the next likely spot. There are only a few accesses on the river so you may keep this in mind.

The two major things which have to be brought to mind about this river is:

1. the fish population is probably the number one ranking fishery in the state (rainbows and browns.) Fish reaching twenty inches are not uncommon and on a "usual day" a proficient angler can see several fish of this size come before a camera's lens.

2. The second thing is that The Big Horn River is heavily fished (which has been known to raise some anglers tempers as they search for a "quiet spot." or when they feel invaded by someone, just like themselves, who just wanted to get a line wet.)

Naturally in the summer (particually June) when other boat floating rivers are still at high water the Big Horn is "sold" to many arriving anglers in a big way. Thus the traffic is increased and fishing pressure is turned on. Therefore, keep this in mind... I usually fish this river in the fall (Sept.- Oct.) when the pressure has been greatly reduced and when I don't have to look at what someone else is doing to agrivate me.

Many anglers will fish a fly and dropper on the Big Horn. But caddis small (#14-18) mayflies (tricos), midges and stoneflies are the choice topwater flies. The river also holds scuds (Western fresh water shrimp.) I, myself fish with nymphs almost the whole time that I'm on the river and nymphing is the "preferred" method by many of the more accomplished guides who haunt these waters.

Okay now for some of the realities of the river. Since this river is so heavily fished you may have to be creative with your presented flies. Don't expect that you will just show up and the fish will begin to jump on your line (although I have seen it happen.) Personally I believe this is not a river that can be fished in just one day and have that one day experience satisfy your cravings. Expect to spend a few days on the river therefore a room in Hardin, Mt. may be what you need to book (well in advance) before you think about showing up at the river. A guide also may be beneficial for your opening day on the Big Horn.

The river itself has small gravel on most of its bottom and plenty of green vegatation. Neoprene waders and boots with felt soles are the choice here (since the water from the resevior is cold.) Rod weight should be 4-5-6 and depending on the season be prepared to reduce your tippet material to 2 lb. (just in case.)

The Big Horn is just a few hours from my place so stop in and I'll tell you where the fish are active. Doc Knoll

I'll get around to telling you something of the other good rivers to fish while you enjoy the Montana landscape this summer. I'm sure Ian will keep the stories steadily.