But first, the North Fork of the Flathead
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.