I had a chance to go West with my best fishing buddy in mid-August to the Glacier National Park area and later the Bob Marshall Wilderness, home to the South Fork of the Flathead and some awesome Westslope Cutthroats.
We fished for a day around GNP and north of Columbia Falls. For starters, this area isn't truly destination fly fishing: it's destination national park and scenery.
Our first stop took us to the North Fork of the Flathead on miles and miles of gravel roads to Polebridge Mercantile (realize that one is closer to Canada than going back to a city in the United States at this point). We crossed into GNP and fished all late afternoon on the Flathead. A few rafts went through, but we saw no one the entire day. Fishing was OK at best. Small fish that gave us more refusal rises than actual takes. The weather was fantastic - high sun, no clouds, and warm.
We fished downstream on our afternoon drive away from Polebridge and back towards town.
Day Two: That afternoon the three of us packed up shop out of Whitefish and began the interesting drive up past the Hungry Horse Reservoir on the West Side Road up into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the fabled South Fork of the Flathead. The West Side Road was a bit washboarded in places; however, the logging trucks taking up two thirds of the road on the drive is what made it a bit harrowing in places.
Day Three: After a nice breakfast, we loaded up for a walk and wade day. Keep in mind that walk and wade in this part of the world isn't walk in and walk/wade for miles. We hiked down into our locales and fished very specific holes over cutthroats in uber clear water. Fishing a pool over and over again was the norm for the trip, something that I certainly hadn't expected, nor is it the style I prefer, but the guides made it work.
We fished a pretty simple style all day - dry flies on top, or two dry flies on top, drift well-presented casts over feeding or interested fish in fantastically clear water, and catch them. Well, that was the plan anyway. Fishing was tough in the morning for us, but after lunch things started to pick up and the trout were more willing to take a dry.
This is a spot where we entered and exited the river where a bear had torn up the log looking for termites to chow on.
Day Three: There was a threat of rain that day, but thankfully, it never materialized, so we continued on that day with a float trip in rafts down the river. This was easily the most spectacular part of the trip. It was remote, wild, scenic, and completely mind numbing as to the sheer beauty of that day. And, the fishing was pretty decent most of the day.
Floating the South Fork of the Flathead with a great guide made for one of the most memorable days on the water in my twenty-five years of fly angling. Throwing very visible flies to willing fish was an absolute joy, and the scenery was the finest ever. I caught myself looking around and missing the set a few times, but that is to be expected.
Our Last Day: We awoke to a cool and sunny morning after dodging some weather the prior day. The trout were slow to start, but things got going later once the sun could warm the water and the fish could get moving. Throughout our trip, we were on the lookout for big bull trout (bullies) who are not in season and are ready to spawn. They ignored all of our methods of presentation (dries) and didn't seem interested in attacking hooked up cutties. They were very obvious is you had the sun at your back and could peer into the crystal clear, low water with polaroid lenses. Awesome predators, to say the least.
We left our spot, hiked back up the hill, and ate lunch before settling on our final destination. The fish were just starting to get going as the waters warmed after a cool night. We changed dries often, especially if we caught a cuttie. We changed, and changed often, but the strategy worked. Fish were certainly more interested to rise up out of a pool to check out a new fly.
The biggest fish I caught on the trip was a beautiful 18" westslope cutthroat just off the drop of a riffle. He wasn't easy as he swam toward me, then decided to go upstream and peeled off plenty of line before coming to hand. I was a little worried about the 5x tippet, but it held, and the gorgeous fish came to hand.
It was a memorable experience, as are all fishing excursions, but coming from the Midwest and getting into untamed, roadless, people-free, Internet free, silent, and certainly scenery rich backdrop was extraordinary. The Westlope Cutthroat is not the big, bad bruiser of the West, but it is an awesome fish, willing to rise and pick up dries...and other times very good at rising and ignoring all of your presentations. To survive in the same water as the ultra-predator, the bull trout, is a testament to nature of these trout. This is a bucket list type trip that I'd recommend to anyone who can hike, walk, wade, and make semi-accurate casts. It's a destiantion fishery that will not dissapoint.