By MATT DEVLIN
It is uncanny really, the incredible influence that Brad Pitt has had on our fishing scene. Local old-timers refer to the fishing industry around these parts as pre “The Movie” and post “The Movie.” I am referring, of course, to A River Runs Through It. This movie really put Missoula on the map, and filled many heads with dreams of casting a fly rod to trout in a pristine setting.
Lucky for us, this is more than just a dream…it is in fact a reality fulfilled again and again all summer long. And what better place for that fulfillment than the Big Blackfoot River of Norman McLean’s youth? It seems a tad redundant to refer to the river as the “Big” Blackfoot, as the Little Blackfoot is miles away and a tributary of the Clark Fork and not the Blackfoot, but it also feels right for some reason. Do it for Norman. If you have not seen the movie and you are reading this blog, shut your laptop and go rent it. Seriously. The cinematography is stunning and it will deepen your love for this town and this sport of standing in the ole’ river, waving a stick.
Fishing the Upper Blackfoot
For these purposes, I consider the upper river to be between the lowermost access on the North Fork, which is called Harry Morgan, downstream to the Sperry Grade access. The float between Harry Morgan, through the Box Canyon on the upper river, to Scotty Brown Bridge is quite popular, and for good reason. The rowing is fairly easy and the fishing can be very consistent.
If you do choose to do this section, be on your game while in the gin clear, deceptively swift North Fork of the Blackfoot. The stunning Box Canyon section may also be accessed via river junction road, but the drive in is one divot and dust filled nightmare.
The upper section of river clear to Sperry Grade access offers the best fishing during the dog days of summer, as the larger fish from the lower river tend to move upstream, seeking more consistently cold water. This stretch of the Blackfoot offers lots of good stonefly habitat, an amazing Spruce Moth hatch in august, and plenty of infinitely deep plunge pools where large Rapalas and spinner baits just may get hammered by the biggest trout of your life.
Fishing the Middle Blackfoot
Between the Sperry Grade access and Whitaker Bridge on the recreation corridor, the middle river meanders through a mix of rocky outcroppings and open pebble-filled banks. The river drops the most rapidly in vertical gradient during this stretch of water, making floating and rafting a much more technical endeavor.
There are many rock gardens and rapids amongst which just one wrong move on the oars can mean a flipped boat and some unhappy campers. The fishing, if you can safely access it, is quite good, and likely the least pressured.
During the end of runoff the Salmonfly hatch can be hot and heavy, and amidst the dog days of summer, some nice fish will come out of the smallest pockets behind boulders to eat a well-presented terrestrial. This section is also a bit more difficult to properly fish; due to the structure of the river it is difficult to get anything but a very short drift with your flies, and deadly accurate casts are a must.
Fishing the Lower Blackfoot
The lower river is a unique fishery in its own right. Besides Thibodeau Rapids, (try saying that fast ten times) directly downstream from Whitaker, the lower reaches from Whitaker Bridge to Weigh Station access are fairly easily navigated by boat. The river flattens out a bit, and also widens, as it flows through a wider valley.
The scenery is still beautiful; you know you are on the Big Blackfoot River, as deep green pools disappear seductively under boulders the size of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Bald Eagles keep watch from old growth pines, and somehow, every day you spend in this place is better than the last.
The accessibility and proximity to the town of Missoula makes the lower section a bit crowded in the summer, and you can get a double dose of humanity on a weekend day during peak season. However, the river will fish fine even through a heavy “Tube Hatch.” I like to fish something big and foamy as a top fly and a Pat’s Rubber Legs dropped beneath it on 4x tippet.
The lower river is most prolific though early and late in the year. That is to say: pre-runoff in mid-Spring as well as early Fall when the crowds have thinned and the water has been influenced by the cooler nights. No matter where you choose to recreate on the Big Blackfoot River here in Western Montana, I can promise you a good day, it’s just so gosh dern pretty.
*As you may have noticed, the Blackfoot is not the “Hatchiest” of rivers because the water remains so cold throughout the year, but there are good numbers of terrestrial insects to keep the trout fat and the Salmonfly hatch is very vital as well.
Cliff Notes Hatch Chart
Cliff Notes Fishing Regulations
***In the Blackfoot drainage, as well as all of our local rivers, Bull Trout must be released immediately
*Catch-and-release for Cutthroat Trout
*Three Trout may be kept, with no Rainbow Trout over twelve inches, and no restriction on Brown Trout size
*No bait may be fished within one hundred yards of all major tributaries
*Closed to fishing and floating from about 1.5 miles upstream of the confluence with the Clark Fork
*All Brook Trout must also be released immediately, as folks were mistaking Bull Trout for Brook Trout under previous regulations, and inadvertently keeping the protected Bull Trout (so the story goes anyway)