Fishing the Flathead with Justin Lawrence

By Scott Richmond

It was the end of April and the weather was heating up all over Montana. I'd already been to the Clark Fork (high and dark brown), Rock Creek (high and light brown), and the West Fork of the Bitterroot (high and cold).

Now I was in Whitefish and the big question was: would a fishing trip on the Flathead be a complete waste of time?

I posed this question to a local fly shop and they said, "The rivers are all blown out. Go to a lake."

I posed the question to myself and the answer was "All I'll get is a boat ride and casting practice."

But when I asked the guide we'd lined up, he said, "It might be a waste, but I was out four days ago and we did pretty well. On dry flies."

Who You Gonna Believe?

Whom to believe? My wife, Barbara, and I were in Whitefish, Montana, for a conference and I really wanted to fish the Flathead for cutthroat. But rivers throughout Montana were on the verge of runoff after a wet spring. I checked the weather forecast--dry with nights near freezing, but warming up over the next few days.

In the end, I decided to chance it and told the guide we'd like to go for an afternoon the next day--get on the river before it has a chance to get any higher.

Taking the Chance

So Wednesday at noon we met Justin Lawrence, our guide for the day, and launched his boat at the Presentin ramp upstream from Kalispell. David Brown, of Stumptown Anglers in Whitefish, had set up the trip for us. The day was mild--mid50s--but the clouds threatened rain and the wind was gusty. The Flathead was huge, flowing over 22,000 cfs, but visibility was around two feet and the color was green, not brown.

"We'll drift nine miles today," said Justin, "but we'll only make three or four stops. I have a good idea where the best places to find fish are."

"The cloud cover should help," I said hopefully.

"Actually, I prefer sunny weather on this river," said Justin. "It's a glacial stream, and fish respond well to sunny conditions."

"Are most of the fish cutthroat?" I asked.

"Yes. Westslope cutts and a few rainbows. There are bull trout, too. The fish population's improved a lot over the last few years. The regs call for catch-and-release of the cutts, bulls, and whitefish--the native fish. You can keep rainbows; they're not native. Of course, until about 15 years ago they were trying to kill off the bull trout. Then the bulls became an endangered species so they had to protect them." Justin shrugged. Fish managers; what could you do?

I turned up my collar against the raw wind. The clouds started to spit rain. Glacial silt rasped against the bottom of Justin's fiberglass Hyde driftboat. Trees along the riverbank showed a faint promise of spring, but mostly they had the sere look of winter.

After a two or three mile drift, Justin anchored the boat below an island. The river flowed over a shallow tailout and poured into a deep water, then into a backeddy. There were several current seams as well as slow water.

"I saw a splash," Barbara said. I looked downstream. There was another spray of water from a feeding trout.

Bugs were in the air. "Egg-laying Nemoura stoneflies," said Justin. "And midges , with an occasional march brown." He looked some more. "I think they're taking the midges, but we'll try several flies."

Barb cast a small Adams and let it drift downstream from the boat. "I don't really care if I catch any fish," she said. "I just like to be outdoors on the river."

"Don't tell your guide that," I said, soto voce. "He's working hard to find you some fish." But I knew what she meant. Sometimes low expectations are the best route to a satisfying fishing trip. And I had very low expectations for today, considering the condition of Montana's rivers. But here we were, in a fishy spot with active bugs and some rising trout.

Shifting Expectations

My expectations took a giant leap forward about two minutes later when Barb's fly disappeared in a swirl. She soon had her fish near the boat, and Justin dipped his rubber catch-and-release net under a silvery westslope cutt of about 15 inches.

Soon, there were lots of trout working the water. "These fish really pod-up at this time of year," Justin said. "The Flathead system's trout move into the mainstem and the lake for winter, then migrate into the three forks for the summer. They seem to travel in large pods that have the same size fish."

"So it's a good thing you know the right spots to stop." I swept an arm around the riverscape, with its high water and many braids. "A stranger would have a tough time figuring out where to fish here. How long have your been guiding on the Flathead?"

"Nine years. Before that I guided in Colorado and Alaska. I guide all over--the Flathead system, the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Missouri, Blackfoot, Clark Fork near St. Regis. It varies with time of year. Sometimes, you know, you're just out begging for work," he said with a laugh.

Justin is representative of a new breed of fishing guides: 30-ish, educated, knowledgeable, personable, good teachers. And above all, high energy; you have to be to make a living and support a family in this business. His home is in the Whitefish area.

"Do you take your two girls fly fishing?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah. Maggie's three, so she's just starting. But Mason, my nine-year-old, loves to fly fish. She's had six trout over 20 inches so far."

Justin moved the boat several times at this stop, as the trout kept shifting around. In general, the best fishing was in faster seams near slow water; the seams concentrated the drifting insects.

Fly preferences seemed to change, as well as the feeding positions, and we changed flies often. After about an hour, Barb and I had landed and released about ten nice cutts in the 12-16 inch range. All but one had taken a dry fly. We probably could have stayed in this one spot the rest of the day, but Justin asked if we wanted to move on. "Sure," I said. "Let's see what the rest of the river has to offer."

Will Cutts Take Anything?

Our next stop was a riffle below another pour-off. A few fish were rising, although they were smaller than those at our previous stop. As before, we changed flies often, trying to find what worked best.

"Some folks say westslope cutts will take anything," I said. "But I don't believe it."

"Sometimes they take anything you throw at them," Justin said. "but these Flathead fish get bigger and smarter every year, thanks to the catch-and-release regs. Sometimes they only want ants . Four days ago, terrestrial beetle patterns did the job. The Flathead and its forks are turning into an outstanding dry fly fishery. People are starting to discover how good the fishing is up here."

"It's a beautiful place to fish," I said. "Are those the Mission Mountains." I was pointing east.

"That's the Columbia Range. The Swan Range is the next one south, then the Missions. It looks like one range, but it's really three."

"Then there's the peaks of Glacier National Park," I said, pointing farther north. "No wonder so many people are buying property here."

"Population has more than doubled since we moved here nine years ago."

"And the tourist traffic is big, too," I said. "There are so many services for visitors in Whitefish and Kalispell. You can see why. How many of your clients on the Flathead are new to fly fishing?"

"About 70 percent are beginners. It's the reverse on the Missouri. This is a great river for beginners, though, because it's such a great dry fly stream. These trout just want to feed on a dry fly."

"What are the big hatches?"

"After runoff, the river is red hot for about three weeks. It's epic. We pound the banks with salmonflies , golden stoneflies , and green drakes . There aren't a lot of salmonflies, but the golden hatch is decent. The caddis are active all summer, and the pale morning duns are strong in July, Then come the ants , terrestrial beetles , and grasshoppers . There's October caddis in the fall, and blue winged olives when it's cloudy. The river stays cool through August. There's superb wilderness fishing in the forks. I do a trip on the South Fork where we go in by horseback for two days, then float out for four days."

"My kind of trip," I said, shaking my head.

"Mine, too," said Barb. "Oooh." Her fly went down again and she brought another cutt to the boat. "You know," she said, "fishing really is more fun when you catch fish, isn't it?"

Justin and I just looked at each other and smiled a quiet "uh-yup!"

Perfect Timing

We moved on to one more spot and picked up more trout there, too., before hauling out at the old bridge just above Kalispell. In all, Barb and I landed over 20 trout, all but one on dry flies, and lost a number of others. Not bad for a half-day's fishing when I almost cancelled the trip.

The next day the river started to swell with runoff, and by Saturday it was two-and-a-half feet higher than when we'd fished on Wednesday. It was runoff and the Flathead was a goner until probably late June or even early July. Sometimes you just hit things right.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).