Flathead River Fly Fishing

Guide to Fly Fishing on the Flathead River MT (Maps, Flies and Technique)

The once-secret Flathead River has exploded in popularity.  Fly fishers have spread the word a little too much, luckily the Flathead River basin is divided into 4 sections.  North Fork, Middle Fork, South Fork, and the main branch. As an added bonus the Whitefish River also has some access points.  Giving anglers a chance to spread out and enjoy this watershed.

Draining the west side of the Whitefish and Flathead Mountain range, the mid to late summer provides a great opportunity to fling a fly.  The snow melt has stabilized and is consistently below a “fishable” 10000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

This river is best fished with a drift boat or raft water.  I’d highly recommend working with the folks at Bigfork Anglers – https://bigforkanglers.com/

for the most part a float trip river, but I’ve got some spots that are wadable in some remote areas.

Cutthroat Trout Fly Fishing
Cutthroat Trout Fly Fishing is great in the northern reaches of the Flathead River Drainage

A Little Bit About the Flathead River – Especially for Fly Fishers

Flathead River trout are all wild, the last time fish were stocked was in 1996.   After the collapse of the Kokanee Salmon in the 1990s the state, in my opinion, is managing the watershed with a philosophy that “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. Source

Kokanee Salmon
Kokanee Salmon

The main fishing is north of Flathead Lake (the outflow of the river system), three branches drain the Whitefish and Flathead Mountains, with the main melt occurring in May and June.  By July the northern watershed has settled into an amazing watershed with great access points located within the

The Kerr Dam is located on the south end of the lake near Polson, MT.  The dam is regulated for power generation and flood control with a “full pool” of 2890 feet in June

Guide Recommended: Check out the article here 👉 Flathead Lake Facts by the University of Montana

Glacier National Park is about 15 miles northwest of Columbia Falls, which is a great jumping-off for fishing the area.  Columbia Falls has lodging and Lary’s Fly Shop with guides, flies and gear.

Columbia Falls has great river access with a popular spot at Teakettle at the base of Highway 2 Bridge.  An easy float is from the South Fork https://goo.gl/maps/GEMULXwyt2HLML63A at Highway 2 down to Teakettle https://goo.gl/maps/MoFBJoDHb1zzzsMY6  in Columbia Falls.

Guide Pro Tip: I’ve got a complete guide to tossing a fly in Glacier. Check it out 👉 Where to Fly Fish in Glacier National Park

When to Fish on the Flathead?

Plan for two times.  Pre-melt can be amazing from Mid-March to Late April.  Water temperatures are rising on sunny days and the fish are getting “re-energized” and putting on weight. 

In my opinion, the best time is from July into mid-October with around the last week of August into the first week of September being perfect. During this time, you can have epic hatches of terrestrials.  Don’t ignore nymph fishing and a great setup is a Chubby Chernobyl with a tungsten bead zebra midge nymph. Read about other places to fly fish in late summer 👉 Where to Fly Fish in August and September

Fishing Access on the Flathead River

North Fork Near the Canadian Border

Within spitting distance of the Canadian border is a boat access on the North Fork of the Flathead River that is just upriver from the confluence with another arm of the North Fork.  Some rafting trip are launched with Glacier Raft Company  which will navigate you through the spectacular views and provide transportation. 

Big Creek Campground on the North Fork

This is big water, but you can get to wadable runs and riffles.  I usually wade and fish up river to the Upper Campground.  If the bite is on, I’ll continue and make this section and full day.   I’m often fishing alone, but I’ll put my canoe in at Camas Rd Bridge.  (hint the island at the bridge has a couple of great runs)

Nice Rainbow on a small Zebra Midge

Bear Creek Access on the Middle Fork

https://www.google.com/maps/place/48%C2%B014’00.9%22N+113%C2%B034’01.5%22W/@48.2335965,-113.5715613,718m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m6!3m5!1s0x0:0xa8d5eb68a2c37236!7e2!8m2!3d48.2335927!4d-113.5670816

A couple of miles south of Essex along U.S. Highway 2 in the confluence of the Middle Fork and Bear Creek.  What makes this spot special is the diversity you’ll get.  The Middle Fork is drift boat water with some spots I’ll call “hop in, cast, and go” along Highway 2.  Lots of spots where you can pull over and walk to the river and cast a fly into some fishy water. 

View of Bear Creek in the fall perfect for fly fishing
View of Bear Creek in the fall perfect for fly fishing – image – Google Maps

Bear Creek

Highway 2 continues along Bear Creek and is the definition of a wadable, freestone creek.  Pocket-water and deep runs and broken up with the perfect size boulders to break the current.  My favorite spot is a mile or so east of the confluence. Check out THIS SPOT 

Dixon River Access

The little town of Dixon has a smaller creek that runs into the Flathead.  You can get access at 212 and fish down to the mouth.  Lots of structure and overhanging trees.  This is area is known for trophy pike fishing.  Gear up appropriately, heck check out this guide What Size Fly Rod for Pike.

Braids in Kalispell

https://goo.gl/maps/U24Da8j9pYHB4gyA8

Another Pike water area the deep channels and braids necessitates a boat.  The combination of wind, grassy fields, and deep holding water make this area perfect for hoppers and ants.

Position yourself with the wind at your back and cast upstream of perfect holding water.  Learn more about reading moving water in this article How to Read Moving Water for More Fish.

If you have a boat, put in at Old Steel Bridge (Google Map HERE) and float through the section, don’t be shy about trying the smaller channels a takeout is at Leisure Island Park. If you have a motor this area can be explored for hours.

Why the Flathead River is Perfect for Fly Fishing

I want to say the Flathead isn’t the river it once was.  Folks trying to help by introducing Lake Trout and Mysis Shrimp with the hope of improving the habitat have hurt it.  Check out this PDF from 1985 talking about the amazing Kokanee Salmon (which are gone now)

The combination of the river being less crowded and the proximity to Glacier National Park, which draws enough people to have fly shops and lodging is what I love most about this area.

Guide Pro Tip: Wondering about the fly fishing opportunities in Glacier National Park?  Let me help with this article 👉 Where to Fly Fish in Glacier National Park

What Kind of Fish Can You Catch?

The Flathead watershed north of Flathead Lake is the best place to find Cutthroat and Rainbow trout.  As you get closer to the lake Pike start to dominate the river system.

Directly below Kerr dam is great trophy rainbow trout water but access is limited to around the dam area.  Then the river transitions to a pike fishery 4 miles below the dam

Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing
Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing – I’ve got a great article 👉 How to Fly Fish for Rainbow Trout

Favorite Flies for the Flathead River

I remember saying, “this river is full of bugs” The noteworthy hatches are the mid-summer PMD’s and Caddis, later in the summer terrestrial’s rule.  (Ants and Hoppers)

Pale Morning Dun Fly Pattern
Bionic Ant
Bionic Ant
Chubby Chernobyl Terrestrial Fly Pattern
Chubby Chernobyl Terrestrial Fly Pattern

Pale Morning Dun

You need to think small dries when casting PMDs.  I prefer size 18, but I’ll bring size 20 as well.  A parachute yellow sally is a great option.

Ants

After a rain, seriously consider tying on an ant pattern.  I’ve got a complete guide to fishing with ant patterns that you can read HERE LINK Ant.  Size 18 is good, I like foam body ants to like a Bionic ant.  They’re a little easier to see.

Chubby Chernobyl

Rubber legs on a fly must be a trigger.  Stimulators like the Chubby are great late in the summer especially fish with a dropper (learn more about rigging droppers HERE) I like size 6 to 10, with yellows, greens and red being my favorite colors.  Oh – don’t forget the rubber legs….. Want a fun VIDEO on Stimulators? Check out 👉 Stimulator Dry Fly Fishing

Ventures Fly Co 40 fly assortment - a perfect gift for dad
Here’s an Amazon shortcut link 👉 Ventures Fly Co Assortment

Ventures Fly Co. 40 Fly Assortment Has a Great Selection of Flies

This assortment has most of the flies needed lay the foundation for an effective fly box. the most common dries, nymphs and streamers. Check out the on water video review on YouTube – HERE

Hatch Chart for the Clark Fork

Fly NameSizeStart DateEnd Date
Midge18-20All YearAll Year
Caddis16April 15August 15
BWO18March to MayOctober
SalmonFly6June 15July 15
Mahogany Duns14September 15October 15
PMD16June 15August 1
Terrestrials6July 15September 15
Ants18-20July 15October 1

What’s the Best Streamflow for Fishing on the Flathead River

It’s always best to check the average stream flows against the current flow.  Obviously, you want to avoid extremes whether high of low.  Click on the Image below for a REAL TIME FLOW DATA.

The best flows happen after June when the Cubic Feet per Second (CFS) is below 10000.  Watch for heavy rains that can nearly triple the volume to unsafe conditions for folks wading.

Flathead River Streamflow Columbia Falls MT
Flathead River Streamflow Columbia Falls MT – image USGS – link

Best Fly Rod Setup for the Flathead River

Montana winds and big water mean using a slightly heavier fly rod setup.  You should be thinking about a 6 to 7 weight fly rod.  This size is going to allow you to cast some bigger flies and a heavier fly line to combat the wind.

You can also nymph fish effectively with this setup.  With the varying depths and current speeds don’t forget to vary your depths and weight.  If I’m being asked get the Sage Foundation Combo.  It’s a combo that just works.

Guides and Fly Shops Supporting the Flathead and Area

In Columbia Falls you’ve got Lary’s Fly and Supply.  This is a full-service shop with flies, gear and guides.  The folks are knowledgeable and won’t lead you astray.  Like any fly shop still open, buy something, rivers like the Flathead are slowly losing support and fly shops along with lodges will slowly decline.

Bigfork Anglers in Bigfork is the headquarters for river intel on the Flathead.  Knowledgeable staff, a solid group of guides and flies matching what actually hatching make this a “must-stop fly shop”  Here’s a MAP and Say hi to the owner Jason Lanier.

Lodges and Things to Do in this Watershed

Because this area is supported completely by tourism and the season is so short finding a bed can be a little bit expensive.  I’ve been using Airbnb quite a bit lately and have had good results.  My search of the area yielded over 15 places to stay.  Plan early though.

  • Cedar Creek Lodge is a pretty good spot to stay in the area.  Prices are in the $350/night range.  Located in Columbia Falls, about 35 miles from Glacier NPS.   Link – HERE
  • Kalispell has a couple of big chain hotels including a Hampton and a Hilton Garden rates are a little more reasonable in the $290 dollar range.

Things to Do (along with fly fishing)

  • Rafting is a popular activity on all branches of the Flathead.  Check out the good folks at Glacier Raft Co. They have whitewater trips and also have guided fly fishing trips.
  • You can’t visit this valley without a trip into Glacier NP.  Be sure to check the rules for visiting at the Park Service website.  HERE. The super popular Going to the Sun Road requires reservations during high traffic times.  This is to limit traffic and protect the environment.  Read more HERE.

One Last Cast on the Flathead

The Flathead River offers high mountain gradient streams and slow deep sections.  Pike in the warmer waters and cutthroat, bull and rainbow trout in the cold water in the areas north of Flathead Lake.

With some many things to see and do, plan for a week of fishing and exploring.  Hone your rainbow trout fishing skills beforehand by reading this article 👉 How to Fly Fish for Rainbow Trout and learn to read moving water with THIS ARTICLE.


Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:


Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How 2 Fly Fish

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