The Flathead River’s South Fork: A Haven for Cutthroat Fly-Fishing Mavens

Montana’s Flathead River flows through the pristine, densely forested Bob Marshall Wilderness, the one-million acre chunk of protected turf that offers perhaps some of the best western fly-fishing in these United States. The South Fork, which is located east of Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, is one of three major forks of the mother-stream Flathead River.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness spawns the Flathead River deep in its folds and the river flows for some sixty miles, through designated wilderness and Forest Service lands before emptying itself into the Hungry Horse Reservoir,located southeast of Kalispell. The South Fork tributary is a clear water haven for native westslope cutthroat trout, which have grown wary in the clear water, but rest assured that on any given day, anglers often catch a couple of dozen fish on nothing more intricate than bushy attractor dry flies.

The trout range for the most part in the modest six to 14 inches, but 16-inchers are taken with regularity. The modest size is off-set with the number of fish that anglers can land. Last August I caught and released 43 cutthroats, ranging from 6 and 17 inches, at least 30 more that were lost via a thrown hook; and another half-dozen trout that jumped the fly and missed it on the way down, which only added to the amusement of recovering something I had lost on many of Montana’s big-name streams – the solitude. The South Fork also provides a bountiful supply of bull-trout, which up until 2004 had been a protected species in the area’s drainage and directed fishing for them was deemed illegal. Presently, between the third Saturday in May and August 15, fishing for bull trout is permitted along the South Fork. The “bulls”, are a gorgeous, pink-spotted, pale-sided, orange-finned deep-pooling fish. They can weigh in at 10 pounds or better and will aggressively seek out streamer lures, such as double-bunnies, muddler minnows and woolhead sculpins.

Overall, the South Fork Flathead is a stream where anglers can expect good fishing, some wonderful scenery and welcome solitude.

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