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Montana Rivers: North Fork of Flathead River
Fishing Montana's Flathead River - North Fork
Information provided by National Forest Service
The North Fork Flathead River originates 50 miles across the border in British Columbia, Canada. The river brings with it the rugged remoteness that one would expect from the Canadian Rockies. The remoteness is what brings people to this part of Montana and itís the scenic beauty that keeps bringing them back. The North Fork Flathead River divides the Flathead National Forest from Glacier National Park.

The upper 41 miles above the Camas Creek Bridge are classified as Scenic under the 1976 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The lower 17 mile section to Blankenship Bridge and the confluence of the Middle Fork is classified as Recreational.  Awe inspiring views into Glacier National Park are common from the river. Less inspiring is the fishing this is one river where a die-hard angler can spend more time looking up at the scenery than watching his fly. Just when you begin drifting into the harmony of the water and the views, one of those slashing little westslope cutthroat trout will be sure to bring your interest back to the water.

Fish in the North Fork run on the small size (8-12Ē) because when the parent rock, argillite, breaks down it doesnít contain much of the big fish producing nutrients that can be found in the productive limestone waters elsewhere in Montana. Secondly, these waters are cold, being fed by groundwater and glacier fed streams. However, if you time your trip right, before spring runoff, you can catch larger westslope cutthroat trout that migrate from Flathead Lake on their spring spawning runs. Westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout in the Flathead River basin are adfluvial, that is they spend time in Flathead Lake rearing to adulthood until its time to spawn. Once they are sexually mature (4-6 years) they migrate into tributary streams, some migrations are over 100 miles, to spawn (cutthroat in the spring and bull trout in the fall). Once the fry emerge from the gravels, juveniles will rear in these tributaries for 1-3 years until they migrate back to Flathead Lake.

Adfluvial bull trout and westslope cutthroat from Flathead Lake have declined due to changes in the lakes food web. Opossum shrimp, mysis relicta, were planted in upstream lakes in 1967 and 1968. They drifted down rivers into Flathead Lake becoming established in the late 1970ís and peaking in the mid 1980ís. Mysis consumed the majority of zooplankton, thereby causing non-native kokanee salmon populations to crash due to starvation. Other fish, such as non-native lake trout and lake whitefish thrived in these conditions to the detriment of native fish. The food web in Flathead Lake is most likely still changing and it is difficult to predict what the outcome may be.

Species Present: Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Bull Trout, and Mountain Whitefish. Non-native Rainbow Trout are becoming increasingly common in the lower section of the river.

Seasons: Opening is the third Saturday in May through November 30, however, there is an extended catch and release season for trout and a 50 daily limit for whitefish for the rest of the year.  The river is catch and release for cutthroat trout and a daily limit of 2 for rainbow trout. An angler needs to check the regulations as many tributary streams are closed to fishing to protect spawning bull trout and cutthroat trout. Note: It is illegal to take or intentionally fish for bull trout.

Access: Excellent access is provided by the North Fork Road which can be accessed just north of Columbia Falls. This county maintained road parallels the river along itís entire length. Be prepared for dusty conditions! Blankenship Bridge is your first access at the confluence of the Middle Fork Flathead River, followed upriver by: Glacier Rim, Big Creek, Coal Creek, Polebridge, Ford, and Border river access at the Canada-USA border. The North Fork is an excellent river to float in rafts and canoes but it is recommended that the novice canoeist wait until flows recede in July. Dangerous sweeper logs can be common and the braided channels just below Coal Creek suggest that you check in advance with the Ranger Station for the latest conditions.

Camping: Big Creek Campground is an excellent choice for camping as are the numerous dispersed sites along the river. Campgrounds can also be found in Glacier National Park. Lastly, Ford, Shnaus and Ben Rover are 3 rental cabins that provide great accommodations. Please check with the Hungry Horse Ranger Station on the availability of these cabins. 


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