So the Firehole Rangers finally found ourselves in Columbia Falls, Montana, faced with the long-awaited opportunity to fish the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
It all began with an online auction to benefit Casting 4 a Cure. I wasn’t able to make it to their annual fundraising event in Victor, Idaho, this year, but I wanted to do my small part to help support this great organization. One particular auction item caught my eye: a one-day, guided trip with Glacier Anglers guide and TroutTV co-host Hilary Hutcheson. Before entering my bid I put out a group email to the Firehole Rangers and suggested we take a September trip to the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana. We had been pondering where to go for the last Ranger excursion of the year and since none of us had ever fished the area around Glacier National Park my suggestion earned collective approval.
With that I threw my hat into the ring and, for several days, enjoyed the peaceful confidence that accompanies a lack of bidding competition. Being that this was a fundraiser I was disappointed that there wasn’t more interest in the float trip. On the other hand I was pretty stoked that I might be able to pick this trip up for less than retail. With each passing day that the auction attracted no other bids I began to suffer from bidder’s remorse and wondered if perhaps others knew something I didn’t. Maybe Hilary was all smoke and mirrors—a hack guide—not worth the price of a bid? If that was true, how could I have missed that?
Social media is a strange and interesting facet of today’s society; a ‘place’ where we strike up ‘friendships’ with people whom we’ve never met and may never meet. We get a sense that we kinda know people without really knowing them and that’s pretty much how it was with Hilary. I’d had some limited professional correspondence with her going back a few years as she does some media work for Montana Fly Company, with whom I had an Olive the Woolly Bugger merchandising deal. I had also had a wee bit of personal interaction with her on Facebook and Instagram, but as one might imagine she has lots of Facebook friends and even more Instagram followers (Twitter, too, although I don’t do much on Twitter—in case you hadn’t noticed I tend to be a tad long-winded and Twitter only allows for 140 characters, including spaces, in which to state your message). But I digress. In short, in the fly fishing world, Hilary is a celebrity of sorts: she’s kind of a big deal. I, on the other hand, am just another average joe and a below-average, unaccomplished angler. I’ll certainly never grace the home page of Patagonia, that’s for sure.
From my social media standpoint Hilary seemed like a good person and I assumed she must be a good angler as well. After all, she does galavant about the West, fishing and filming, with the crew of TroutTV. And despite her busy media schedule she does still find time to guide on her home waters in Glacier country. So why wasn’t anyone else bidding on this trip? My wondering didn’t persist as another anonymous bidder had the nerve to enter into the game.
Mind you I am not an overly competitive person, I just prefer not to lose. Tension mounted as the auction went back and forth, $25 at a time, until there was only one day left. At that point I decided to put an end to the jousting and dealt a final blow to my anonymous competitor by upping the bid by $50. It was, after all, for a good cause.
After a victory like this I often give pause for reflection as I consider who my competition might have been. For half a second I surmised that it may have been Hilary herself, driving up the bid, trying to discourage me from winning so that she wouldn’t have to fish with me. Could she really be that type of person? I didn’t want to think so. She doesn’t come across that way in the virtual world and I’ve watched enough episodes of TroutTV to assess that she actually seems to be a rather
shy, reserved person engaging personality—some might almost say, fun.
I’ve subscribed to TroutTV for a year or so and I enjoy the episodes (yes, even the ones that feature co-host Rich Birdsell). On three different occasions the show has ventured to Washington to fish the Yakima River. In one episode Rich struggled early but did finally manage to catch some respectable fish. On the other hand, Hilary made it look easy, catching many and sizable trouts both times she was on the Yakima. In one particular episode (which you can watch for free, HERE) she proclaims, as her rod is doubled over, “So. Cool. I love this place! Washington state rules!”
Right out of the blocks, on another Yakima River episode, Hilary makes short work of a really nice fish (nicer than I’ve caught on the Yakima in many years). “That was kinda easy,” she says. “Can I sign up for the advanced course?”
The Yakima River never fishes like that for me, nor for most of the people I know who fish it. I’ve always resented Hilary for marching into Kittitas County, kicking ass and taking names and making it look so easy. I’ve oft wondered if I would ever get a chance to air my grievances in person and now it appeared as though I might finally get my chance.
When it was confirmed that I had won the auction I reached out to Hilary and inquired about possible dates that might be available for the trip.
She refused to return my attempts at contacting her She pretended to know who I was She was very accommodating and booked two more boats with Glacier Anglers. The Firehole Rangers would be floating the Middle Fork Flathead on September 13th.
And I began accepting bribes to determine who would share my boat with Hilary.
Stay tuned for Part 6 in this 6 Part series of Weekly Drivel®. And remember—every time you leave a comment on the blog, a puppy in a third world country escapes starvation.
Question to those of you reading this: Did you read the previous, related stories first? Because this is technically Part 4, meaning that there are 3 previous, related stories: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Armed with just enough information to be dangerous, the Firehole Rangers headed out of Columbia Falls on Saturday morning in search of a few spots from which to pursue some cooperative fish on the North Fork of the Flathead River. We were told not to expect big fish in the North Fork, but more fish perhaps than what we might expect in the Middle Fork Flathead (where we would be fishing on Sunday). The North Fork forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park so beauty was in no short supply as we proceeded north on a road that went from paved, to packed and dustless dirt, to very dusty gravel. Despite evidence all around of a large wildfire in the not-so-distant past, the mountains were coming back to life. There’s something particularly awesome about a new forest emerging from blackened devastation. We continued north on the North Fork road until we were 34 miles from the Canadian Border.
Our first stop was at Great Northern Flats, where we geared up and spread out up and down the river. That’s the one drawback to fishing with a group of 6 guys: it requires space to accommodate the entire Ranger brigade. It should be noted that we were also joined on this day by Young Bill, the eldest child of Sir Lancelot. Likely you won’t recall, but Lancelot wrote a guest blog HERE at the Unaccomplished Angler years ago, and joined the Rangers on a trip to Yellowstone in 2013. He wasn’t invited back after refusing to never again wear his
cantaloupe pink fishing shirt. Ever. Young Bill is not only far better looking than his father, but he’s also a much more agreeable chap and has a much more gender-appropriate sense of fashion. Our young charge was in the early stages of a multi-week trout bum trip, living out of the back of his truck and traveling where the roads took him in quest of new fly fishing waters, before returning to the real world where he will sit behind a desk in a cubicle for the next 40 years of his life (hopefully not).
Young Bill, Nash and myself headed upriver while Jimmy, Morris, Marck and Goose headed downstream. Here the river was broad and shallow with very little interesting-looking water. The streambed was rather uniform and devoid of significantly large rocks to provide likely haunts for fish but I found a current seam that looked better than anything else around. I put a Purple Haze through the run, a 12 inch rainbow came easily, and I was falsely lured into thinking this might be a pretty productive day. Above me, Young Bill also got into an early, small fish. Nash, not so much, despite crossing the river and putting forth an honest effort. In retrospect, by crossing the river, Nash may have actually been fishing within the boundaries of Glacier National Park. If he was, he was doing so without a National Park fishing permit, which is actually not required as it is in Yellowstone, so he was breaking no laws. Which was a good thing because Nash is not the rule breaking type.
I left Young Bill and Nash behind as I moved downstream, changing flies occasionally, and wondering where the rest of the fish were. To make a long story short, I fished a long ways and while the day was heating up the fishing was not. By the time I caught up with the others I was in full despair mode. They hadn’t been doing much better, although Marck had managed a few small fish out of a particular spot. Overall the catching was sparse. We all met back at the white vans and agreed to drive back down river to another couple of recommended spots.
Jimmy and I stopped along the way and surveyed the river from various vantage points. It remained broad and shallow, without many bends and very little to no woody debris structure. Runoff here is obviously a major scouring event and any logs that get caught up in the current must get washed far downstream. We passed up a few places and decided to make our last stop at Glacier Rim. We were not the only ones to stop at there—the launch access was busy with non-anglers frolicking on the riverbank. we waded upstream a ways to get away from the crowds and fished for about an hour without so much as a bump from fish. Jimmy vanished—I had no idea where he went off to—so I kept fishing, trying to make something happen. I fished a small streamer and various dry patterns. I finally managed a rather unimpressive 10 inch fish before deciding that it was too damn hot to be walking around in waders. I headed back to the Man Van and that’s where I encountered Jimmy, sprawled on the gravel taking a nap in the shade. He
had caught so many fish that he was spent, had called it quits earlier. We groused over the lack of fish and decided to head back to the porch at the Glacier Inn, where cold beer awaited.
Within an hour or so the Rangers rolled up. They had found a spot where the fishing had improved a bit, particularly for Marck. Young Bill had not caught another fish after his first of the day. He remained rather quiet, his traumatic experience on the North Fork evidenced by his 100-yard stare that persisted well into the evening and even through dinner at the Glacier Grill and Pizza.
Young Bill would be departing early the next morning for Canada where he planned to fish the Elk River and a small tributary where we assured him he would catch nice fish. Based on Instagram photos he posted, Canada welcomed Young Bill with open arms and fish that are as agreeable as its citizens. I’m sure he got over this North Fork Flathead rogering rather quickly.
The Rangers would be finally fishing the Middle Fork of the Flathead the next morning. It was the reason we were here, and our expectations were high. The Middle Fork had to be more welcoming than its little brother to the northwest had been. It just had to be. If not, we were close enough to Canada that we might catch up with Young Bill.
Although not labeled Part 3, this really is a continuation of the previous 2 stories. And while Part 1 and Part 2 require that each be read (in proper succession) in order to gain a full appreciation for the whole story, one could theoretically read Part 3 without having read parts 1 and 2.
After our slight error in judgment on what should have been the Thompson River Road, Jimmy and I arrived in Columbia Falls at around 3:30 PM and checked into our lavish suite at the Glacier Inn Motel. Not long after our arrival the remainder of the Firehole Ranger detachment stormed into town. There were now two white vans marking our positions. Marck, Morris, Nash, Goose, Jimmy and I were all gathered here on this day to ultimately fish the Middle Fork of the Flathead on Sunday. Between now and then we had a day to kill on the North Fork of the Flathead River.
The first order of business was to stop by
Larry’s Lary’s Fly & Supply for some river information and flies. Per instructions by the shop’s owner (with whom we would be fishing on Sunday) we found Lary’s in the corner of an old brick building in the heart of downtown Columbia Falls. We were a bit surprised to discover the shop locked up and dark but we reasoned that it was late on a Friday afternoon and the shop had probably closed early for a staff meeting or something like that. With our noses pressed against the window we peered inside: Lary’s appeared to be well-stocked despite its diminutive size and, aside from what you’d expect to find in a fly shop, one could also purchase Salomon trail running shoes if one were so inclined. I won’t say whether or not we would have been so inclined as to purchase said trail running shoes, but had the shop been open who knows what we may have bought?
Right next door, astonishingly, was the office of Outside Media, which also appeared to be closed for the week. Outside Media is co-owned by Shane and Hilary Hutcheson. Outside Media sponsors TroutTV, of which Hilary is a co-host. Hilary is also the proprietor of Lary’s Fly and Supply. It was all becoming very clear now: the Hutchesons are like the First Family of Columbia Falls. If not that they are at the very least a pretty big deal on this block of Nucleus Avenue.
Despite the lack of new trail running shoes the next order of business was to run around town in search of a place for Goose to get his Montana fishing license (the rest of us had previously purchased annual licenses earlier in the year). We stopped by the next closest fly shop in town and although we were unable to purchase a license at Arend’s Fly Shop, we were able to gather some intel on the North Fork of the Flathead River, which we would be fishing the next day. We also dropped some coin and picked up a few flies while in the shop (it’s the right thing to do when requesting free information on where to fish). While perusing the selection of different flies and discussing what weight tippet to fish with, Goose may have mentioned that he couldn’t cast worth a shit. The result of that comment was a 5 minute lesson on the parking lot casting pond.
We were finally able to track down a fishing license for our newly-certified master caster at the local grocery store. Since the grocery store also sold beer it seemed a prudent thing to pick up more. Content with out supplies we headed back to the Glacier Inn for happy hour on the front porch. We were happy to be in Montana again.
Dinner followed at The Back Room of the Night Owl restaurant (tasty food, by the way), after which, like moths drawn to porch lights, we returned to the porch of the motel. It was a beautiful, warm evening in Glacier country as we sat around pondering Goose’s curious lack of leg hair.
It’s always a good time Nobody is safe from ridicule at a Ranger rendezvous.
Later that evening we were graciously joined by Shane Hutcheson and a half gallon of R&R whiskey. Having not previously met Shane, it was a pleasure to shoot the bull with him and learn about the area we’d be fishing the next two days. He’s quite the likeable fellow and we wondered if perhaps we might swap him for one of our guides in particular on Sunday. Unfortunately Shane had weekend commitments that prevented him from doing so, but he cautiously wished us well with regard to one guide in particular. The porch session could have gone on all night but we had fish to catch the next morning and Shane had a roof to replace. We bade Shane farewell as he walked off toward his nearby home, under the cloak of darkness, cradling an empty bottle of R&R.
Actually I’m kidding about the empty whiskey bottle: it wasn’t anywhere near empty. The same may not have been said about the bottle of Pendleton. I may be kidding about that, too.
Next up, a day on the North Fork of the Flathead.
As is often the case here, at the long-winded Unaccomplished Angler, this is a continuation of Part 1. It is always recommended that readers indulge themselves in the first story first. Ultimately, however, that is your choice.
We awoke moderately early the next day, dressed in shorts and puffy jackets, and cooked breakfast in the chill of the morning. Cold? No, but Fall was definitely in the air. We made short work of our meal, stowed gear in the Man Van, and bade farewell to the longest picnic table we’d ever had the pleasure of sharing camp with.
We once again hit what we assumed to be the Thompson River Road and headed upstream in quest of some fishy looking water. The road had turned to gravel shortly after leaving camp so we were confident that we were on the right path. On the opposite side of the river, which was no more than 20 feet wide in most spots, was another road. In our pre-trip planning we had read that there are two roads that parallel the Thompson so our confidence, that we were where we were supposed to be, soared.
We saw plenty of decent looking water but continued a few miles until we came to a bend in the river where the sunlight was just beginning to hit the river. We donned our waders, strung up our rods (I’d opted for my 3 weight) and hopped down the bank to the edge of the river. The water temp hovered just below 60 degrees and it took a good while before the fish would move to a dry fly. Jimmy and I each managed a single fish from this first run: mine was a healthy rainbow in the 12 inch range; Jimmy’s a bit smaller. We decided that we wouldn’t spend too much time in any one spot because we had another 40+ miles of river and road ahead of us: we could milk that much water all day long. And since we knew we were on the right road we had nothing to do but drive, stop, fish, and repeat.
We were the only ones on the Thompson River Road aside from the occasional log truck that kicked up thick plumes of white Montana dust. The road on the opposite side of the river carried a few more vehicles, but nobody seemed to be stopping to fish despite that the other road seemed to more closely follow the river and offer perhaps more ready access. We kept driving and passed by a lot of shallow riffles in quest of some deeper runs. As the mile markers increased, eventually we came to a junction where we found the first indication that we had, indeed, been on the correct road. We stayed our course.
At a point further on we came upon a major fork where the main road appeared to continue mostly straight but slightly to the left; a smaller road veering slightly to the right. Again there were no signs and all research had suggested that once we were on the Thompson River Road that’s where we would remain until we arrived at Highway 2. We hesitated only briefly before determining that the obvious choice was to stay leftish, on the larger of the two roads. The road now began to climb a bit, leaving the river for several miles. The trees grew smaller and the land became more arid, trading a variety of conifers for pines. It didn’t feel quite right, but again, we had to be on the right road. Right?
Internet maps that we’d consulted hadn’t indicated any forks or major junctions, nor was there cell coverage such that we might pull up a map on our phones (note to self: pick up a Montana Gazeteer before the next trip). Onward we proceeded, debating with each passing mile whether or not we should have taken the right fork in the road miles earlier. About the time I began to consider a U-turn, the road dropped into a broad meadow. The river came into view once again, but it had completely changed personalities since last we’d laid eyes on it: instead of a gently tumbling freestoner, here it resembled a meandering spring creek, lined by tall grassy banks with nary a gradient. We pulled off the road to survey the water’s glassy surface and immediately spied the rise forms from a nice fish on the opposite bank. That was all we needed to give it a shot.
Jimmy hopped into the water and slowly waded downstream. He kicked up clouds of silty mud and spooked several large fish in the 15 inch range that darted from beneath a sunken branch. I walked along the bank until I came to a spot where it looked as though I might have a decent perch from which to cast toward where we’d seen the rising fish. Just one. More. Step. It was a bad decision that would have been disastrous had the water been another foot deeper. Fortunately the water was only 4 feet deep where my foot broke through the matted grass that had given the false impression of solid ground. I didn’t go over the top of my waders and climbed back out on the bank with only a minor blow to my ego. It didn’t take an intelligent person to know that any fish within close proximity were now on high alert: the Unaccomplished Angler was in town.
We’d each done a pretty respectable job of blowing our chances on this particular hole, so we surveyed the area and realized it was it was going to be very difficult to fish this section of the Thompson River, if it were in fact the Thompson River. I’d read prior to the trip that the Thompson resembles a spring creek in the upper section but had hoped access would be a bit easier. I don’t mind working for a fish, but overhanging grass banks make not only casting very difficult, but landing a fish even more so.
By now it was getting pretty warm—too warm to be slogging around in waders—so we made the decision get out of our Gortex and to continue down the road in hopes of finding water that was just a bit more access-friendly.
In a few miles we approached a major crossroad that turned out to be Highway 2. We had expected to reach this point on the Thompson River Road. However, according to the sign alongside the gravel road upon which we’d been traveling, we reached this point via the Lang Creek Road. The river had been on our right for the last 10 or so miles. Had we a hard copy map we’d have realized that the river should have been on our left. So it may or may not have been the Thompson River that we molested in the grassy meadow. Was it Lang Creek? I’ve since been able to locate Lang Creek on a map. Indeed we should have taken the slightly right fork in the road miles earlier. A simple sign would have been nice, but then again a better job in planning on our part would have resolved this matter. Then again, in viewing the Google map of the area, Lang Creek Road instersects the Plum Creek Timber County Road, which is intermittently labeled as the Thompson River ACM Road, which is not to be mistaken for the Thompson River Road. Confused yet?
At any rate, we turned right, onto Highway 2, and headed east toward Kalispell. After a mile or 2 we came to a gravel road on our right that was marked: “Thompson River Road”.
I considered taking a right onto the gravel road but we still had a ways to go before arriving in Columbia Falls. The other Rangers would be arriving about the same time so we decided we were done with the Thompson River. Until we go back next time, armed with a Montana Gazeteer.
You may now proceed to Part 3, though it’s not labeled as Part 3, if you wish.
On Thursday Jimmy and I set out in the Man Van, ultimately en route to Columbia Falls, Montana, where we had a date with the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on Sunday. But first we wanted to visit a lesser-known river along the way: the Thompson. To get there we travelled east via I-90 to Cour de A’lane (I never get the spelling right). Before we could get that far we were forced to enjoy an hour+ delay just west of Spokane where the interstate was shut down for an accident. Not to make light of the accident, as it looked like a bad one, but we had a good ways yet to go on previously untraveled roads and I preferred to not travel in the dark if it could be avoided (first world problems are hard).
As we sat in traffic, going nowhere fast, we kept noticing large puddles of dark red fluid on the roadway in front of us, connected by thin dribbling lines of the same fluid (imagine a drop and pool river—it was just like that). Either someone ahead of us was dragging a bleeding animal carcass or someone had a badly leaking transmission. Inching forward we pondered from which vehicle in the long line ahead of us it might be. By the time we realized it was the emanating from the truck in front of us it was too late to warn the old guy behind the wheel—he took a right and we took a left after we were forced to exit the interstate. Poor old codger wasn’t likely going to get much further down the road before his tranny seized up. Hope he got to where he was going before that happened.
After the detour we resumed a faster rate of travel on the freeway for another 75 or so miles. Twenty miles east of Coreau d’ Lane we once again exited I-90, this time by choice, and proceeded north along the Corda’ Lane River for several miles. The river was not-surprisingly very low, and while it looked as though it would be a decent trout fishery with a good bit more water, it wasn’t on our radar for this trip. The road was narrow and winding, but paved, as we proceeded onward toward Thompson Falls. Beautiful country; again no big surprise here as Idaho’s panhandle is a place of abundant beauty. The leaves on deciduous species of flora were beginning to turn the colors of Fall, as well they should in this country in mid September. Somewhere along the way we crossed the Idaho/Montana state line without much fanfare.
After a couple hours we reached highway 200 where we turned right toward the town of Thompson Falls. This was game-abundant country, as evidenced by several blood splatters alongside the highway (definitely not transmission fluid). This was the main reason I didn’t want to travel at or after dusk. Despite new brakes and a Buckstop front bumper designed to withstand animal impact, I didn’t necessarily want to test either out. It was fully light as we drove through town and still we had to stop to allow 3 Bighorn Sheep to run across the road in front of us. The other reason I didn’t want to drive at night is because
my damn eyes are getting old we would be searching for a campsite along another road we’d never before traveled.
We passed through Thompson Falls without seeing the road we sought. Perhaps I should rephrase: we may have seen the road, but it was unmarked. After crossing over the Thompson River we turned around and doubled back, taking a right onto what we assumed was the Thompson River Road. It had to be. The sun was behind the canyon walls as we proceeded up the road, following the Thompson River. From what we’d read, the Thompson River Road was a gravel surface. This road was paved, or at least it was paved for the first 5 or so miles. We found a nice campground less than five miles up the road: it was small, with only two vehicle sites and 3 tent sites. Fortunately for us only there was only one other rig in camp which left the remaining site to us. It was right alongside the river and a perfect place for the night’s lodging. In fact the only thing that could have made our campsite better would have been the ability to have a campfire. The burn ban was not unexpected, though, so after a couple grilled ribeyes and a beer or 3, Jimmy and I sat around the lantern before retiring for the night. We had 40 or more miles of Thompson River Road to travel the next day, much of it following the river. We would need our beauty rest if we hoped to look our best for the many trout we intended to meet in the morning.
You may now proceed to Part 2.