The first of many South Fork of the Flathead bull trout. Having caught enough cutthroat to last a lifetime, we shifted our focus to bull trout. We looked for the massive fish since day one, which typically begin migrating upstream from Hungry Horse Reservoir in late July, but had yet to identify one by its trademark white-tipped fins. Though at the Big Prairie station, Eric Kroeger said a biologist conducting a snorkel study sighted only one fish upstream in water we'd already covered, and the majority of fish were in water we had yet to see.
The South Fork of the Flathead in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwest Montana is one of those rare places where people can truly experience the outdoors in its purest form and encounter nature on its own terms. Inside its perimeter, a variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears, roam without modern intrusions, and hundreds of miles of clean, cold creeks and rivers–home to one of the strongest wild cutthroat populations in the state–snake between mountain crevices and through sweeping valleys. After years of dreaming about packing a boat over the mountains and plying the Bob Marshall’s waters, a friend and I decided to finally scratch it off our bucket list. Here’s a brief look at what went into the planning and execution of our adventure, our up-close-and personal encounters with the native fish (including endangered species), and why sugar cookies are as good as gold in the backcountry. Ben Romans
An average sized native, wild westslope cutthroat in the South Fork of the Flathead. For weeks, colleague Jay Nichols of Headwater Books and I poured over USGS topo maps, scoured the internet, and phoned outfitters and cowboys with any experience inside The Bob, gathering insight into the logistics, dangers, and practicality of a DIY fishing trip on one of the premier wild Rocky Mountain cutthroat sanctuaries–the South Fork of the Flathead River. Despite our best educated guesses on the when and how, our success or failure rested on the whims of Mother Nature. So given snowpack levels and runoff predictions, weather forecasts, and the availability of pack outfitters, we departed in late July. Ben Romans
Duke White wrapping the oars, frame, and other boat necessities in a mantie. Pack weight was an important consideration. Mules are amazingly strong animals, but like humans, it’s tough for them to carry more than 20% of their weight in additional cargo. Our goal was limiting personal packs to 75 pounds. That might sound easy, but that included the weight of camping gear, food, fishing equipment, clothing, and all the peripheral items that go with spending eight days without modern conveniences or medicine. We used waterproof duffel bags to keep our gear dry and make it easy for Duke White, the cowboy that packed us in, to mantie up. A mantie is a cargo load swathed inside a large, thick cut of canvas cinched with rope using a series of wraps and knots. Equally weighted manties hang from a pack saddle on opposing sides of an animal and are easy to adjust if freight shifts on the trail. Ben Romans
Once wrapped in canvas manties, Duke White fixes the loads to pack saddles. “You’re going to do what?” was most people’s reaction after learning our intention to pack boating equipment over the mountains via mule. But after some research, we organized a simple, successful combination without sacrificing functionality on the water. For a boat, we used an AIRE Super Puma–a resilient 13-foot raft, ideal for two anglers with gear, that weighs 100 pounds deflated. The rowing frame was a modest, stripped down tubular skeleton from NRS. Disassembled, the pieces are just under four-feet long, and a ½-inch wrench and cam straps was all I needed to construct and tether it to the boat. To negotiate the water, we opted for Carlisle Breakdown Oars. Together, the shafts are nine-feet long, but apart, the two pieces and blades are short enough to pack on the mules with the rowing frame. Strapping the deflated boat to one side of a mule and our oars, pumps, frame and other hardware to the other side, Duke created a good balance and the load hinged evenly during the trek in. Later, with a hand pump and some sweat, I had the boat inflated and seaworthy in 30 minutes. Ben Romans
_The view from the saddle packing over Youngs Pass.
Our excursion started from the Lodgepole Trailhead, a few miles north of the small town of Ovando, Montana, and it was a slow, gentle, six-mile ascent to Youngs Pass and the wilderness border, then a descent into the Youngs Creek drainage. In recent years, wildfire transformed many Bob Marshall mountainsides from dark, dense forests into swaths of standing black toothpicks. The landscape remains incredibly scenic, but because the standing, dead timber is weak, falling hazards and blocked trails are a genuine concern for hikers and packers, especially when rolling summer thunderstorms generate strong winds. Ben Romans
Our boat, frame and gear moving downhill into the Youngs Creek drainage. I recommend riding a horse 15 miles instead of walking, but expect a certain level of pain. At the mid-way point, my groin muscles ached and my knees throbbed. What can I say, I’m not a cowboy. After six hours of saddle time, we found at a suitable riverside campsite and both Jay and I reached for the extra-strength Tylenol. Riding a horse revealed muscles in my hind parts I didn’t know existed and it took the better part of two days to work out the kinks. Ben Romans
We walked the boat through the skinny sections of Youngs Creek and fished the deeper waters. The floating leg of our journey commenced on upper Youngs Creek, which together with Danaher Creek create the South Fork of the Flathead. With a string of waterfalls behind us, Duke assured us we could negotiate the boat through the water’s intimate sections, and since most anglers set their sights on the mainstem, we had a shot at fish yet to see a fly this season. We assembled our rods before Duke steered the animals homeward and disappeared through the burned timber. With daylight fading, Jay and I couldn’t wait to see the fish we’d worked so hard to reach. A 12-inch orange-bellied westslope quickly found Jay’s hopper imitation–the first of many cutties to come. Ben Romans
A nice westslope cutthroat that fell for a Circus Peanut streamer. The fishing for Young’s Creek cutthroat was some of the best I’ve ever had. While no fish stretched over 20 inches, locating football-shaped, feisty fish in the 12- to 19-inch range was incredibly easy. During the first 36 hours of our voyage, we caught fish on dry flies, nymphs, and streamers in a variety of conditions and environs. But the nearby spring creeks and tributary mouths offered something we didn’t’ expect to find–incredible sight-fishing opportunities.
Making another pit stop on one of Youngs Creek’s many runs. The best practice was using the boat as a shuttle between good wade-fishing areas, passing over the wide and featureless areas and focusing on the pools, pockets, and runs that held fish. What’s more, sporadic hatches of green drakes, PMDs, yellow sallies, and even a few golden stones made some fish selective and upped the challenge factor–well, as selective and challenging as unpressured cutthroat can be, anyway. VIDEO:
A look at westslope cutthroat under water followed by a spot-and-stalk cast in a spring-creek tributary. We explored every cold, clear tributary and long, deep pool we encountered–nearly all of them contained healthy, hungry fish, and provided perfect opportunities to record small moments. Fixing an underwater camera on a stick, I shoved the lens into a small school of fish sheltered by a logjam, then later watched a spring creek fish move from behind a log and pounce on Jay’s fly without hesitation. Watch closely in the underwater scene–Jay continues to fish while I filmed and one or two fish go berserk when he sets the hook.
Jay with a cuttie and the Hole in the Wall Cave looming over his shoulder. Every trip into the backcountry seems to have at least one hair-raising moment. Youngs Creek canyon proved to be ours. After passing Hole in the Wall Cave, a popular geographical landmark, the water coursed through a series of tight whitewater chutes flanked by towering rock walls. Too colossal to portage and too rough and obstructed to float through, we elected to walk and hand-line the boat along the shoreline. Conditions forced me into the water with the boat at times and the swift water continually swept my legs from under me. I tripped several times, bruising and slicing my arms, knees and shins on rocks, but adrenaline and the concern to get to open spaces by nightfall overpowered any pain.
A tired, silent camp after a day of bruised muscles. Through our planning stages, we wondered why so many floaters elect to forgo Youngs Creek. The tributary looked fantastic on paper, and up until the canyon, the fishing was outstanding. But after exiting the canyon, reaching the South Fork of the Flathead mainstem, finding a campsite, assessing our wounds, and reconciling the day, we debated if we would do the same again. Had the water been any higher–or lower, for that matter–our Youngs Creek canyon encounter could have been worse.
A streamer-chomping cutthroat coming to hand. With the benefit of hindsight, we agreed later that camping an additional night on Youngs, coupled with a few wade-fishing excursions before moving on to the mainstem, would have satiated our angling appetite, kept us safer, and allowed us to avoid some of the cuts and bruises we had to bear throught the rest of the trip. But, the fishing on Youngs Creek was simply too good to ignore.
Reaching the Big Prairie Pack Bridge. The Big Prairie pack bridge, one of the few passages allowing hikers and packers from trails on the western side to the eastern, was a welcome sight. It confirmed our location on the topo map, and because we knew a guard station was just over the hill, it gave us some relief knowing we weren’t alone. We beached the boat and decided to check in, if for no other reason than to get the scoop on what was happening in The Bob.
_A geographical oddity–miles from everywhere.
Ten days on and four days off: that’s the rotation federal employees working out of the Big Prairie station follow. Eric Kroeger, one of two people working the station during our visit, insists he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s worked inside The Bob’s borders every season since 2004. It’s an easy 20 miles from Big Prairie to Meadow Creek, the nearest trailhead, and with only four days to get out and back, there’s not much time in between, so most employees simply rest around the complex, go fishing, or explore the unfrequented corners of The Bob.
Eric Kroeger making notes in his journal at the Big Prairie Ranger Station. Kroeger sees a fair share of emergencies, though some are worse than others. He recounted a recent situation where an elderly, epileptic man separated from his party. His crew shuttled downstream, filed a report, and watched a distant plane circle the man’s last known coordinates. Searchers located and rescued the man who was a little hungry and dehydrated, but otherwise no worse for the wear. The story was an instructive reminder of the perils one small, seemingly innocuous decision can set in motion. Other anecdotes of hikers having heart attacks and clients kicked by horses weren’t as upbeat. Inside the station, satellite phones and long-range radios keep the base connected with outlying fire towers, aircraft, and regional headquarters in Kalispell. When technology fails, staffers do things the old-fashioned way with an antique phone, complete with brass bells and a hand crank. Every fire tower, distant station, and even the Kalispell headquarters are hard-lined to one another via miles of wire draped through the forest canopy. Some cowboy even has the sole responsibility of riding out to make sure those miles of line remain connected and free from falling hazards. In the golden age of cell phones, it’s amazing to think a fire tower miles away, on the highest peak in the wilderness, can field an emergency call from an antique wood box.
A few of the forest service cabins at Big Prairie. The Big Prairie ranger station is an impressive complex. Most buildings sprung up in the early 1900s before the region received it’s wilderness designation (1964) but are maintained to accommodate trail and fire crews, pack stock, and food supplies–there’s even a cabin for the head ranger, who at the time of our visit, resided there with his wife and seven-month old child. How they packed the infant into the wilderness (safely) remains a mystery to me.
The view downstream of the Big Prairie Pack Bridge. After receiving the three-day weather report, an ice-cold glass of Tang, and a few notes on what to expect downstream, we continued our journey. From Big Prairie Bridge, we gazed south at the fading, distant ridges of the headwaters, then looked to the north (downstream) in anticipation of what we’d find on the second leg of our journey.
The first of many South Fork of the Flathead bull trout. Having caught enough cutthroat to last a lifetime, we shifted our focus to bull trout. We looked for the massive fish since day one, which typically begin migrating upstream from Hungry Horse Reservoir in late July, but had yet to identify one by its trademark white-tipped fins. Though at the Big Prairie station, Eric Kroeger said a biologist conducting a snorkel study sighted only one fish upstream in water we’d already covered, and the majority of fish were in water we had yet to see.
Bull trout frequently eat fish off other angler’s lines. Bull trout are amazing predators. Capable of growing to more than 40 inches in length, big mouths and big appetites stereotype these native char. Stories of bulls pursuing and eating cutthroat off the ends of fly lines are frequent and true. Years ago, while fishing the Blackfoot River, I watched a 32-inch bull inhale a 16-inch cutthroat on my father’s line. The bull was tenacious, but we astonishingly netted and released both fish.
_Because they are endangered, we took special care in the handling and release of bull tr_out. Once considered a “trash fish,” anglers in the early 1900s condemned bull trout to the bushes along the riverbanks, unlocking habitat to introduced species like rainbow and brown trout. Now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, bull trout are off-limits to purposeful angling in all of Montana’s rivers except the South Fork of the Flathead where populations remain strong enough to allow catch-and-release fishing until July 31. The only caveat is anglers must carry, complete, and submit a free bull trout catch card to help the state monitor the success or failure of what it calls an “experimental season.”
Bull trout prefer the coldest, cleanest water and are a good indicator of the health of a system. Coercing a bull trout to strike isn’t tough. They’ll swat at any number of streamer patterns, though the most effective are large and lifelike–tied with materials like marabou feathers and rabbit strips that seemingly breathe underwater.
Big bull trout stretch to 40 inches, but most of the ones we encountered were a few inches shy. Initially, we experimented with an assortment of tandem-hooked flies and Double Bunny patterns, but eventually realized they simply didn’t represent the big meals needed to motivate bulls. We swapped to the heaviest, largest streamers in our boxes–big, conehead-weighted flies with subtle flash, flailing rabbit strips, and short, wide stinger hooks. Soon after, a 30-inch fish propelled itself completely out of the water, striking a fly with the energy of a shark blitzing a seal. Other fish circled for another take after missing the first hookset. It was streamer fishing at its finest. VIDEO: Though we found bull trout in all water types, we had the most success in the slow, tailout portions of pools in water 4 to 5 feet deep, or near the mouths of some of the river’s larger tributaries. Casting slightly upstream allowed the fly to sink just a few inches before we stripped it across and slightly downstream of the current. The idea was to make it look like injured food without the strength to swim upstream–an easy target for any predatory fish. What’s more, because the water was so incredibly clear, we had a front-row seat to most strikes.
Instant food and instant coffee make camp life easy and reduce overall pack weight. Water and food supply was one of the most important considerations we tackled in our planning phase. With packable filtration pumps, water was easy to come by and we processed enough to fill a collapsible eight-liter jug daily, then added some flavor with powdered drink mixes. Freeze-dried meals allowed us to keep our overall pack weight down without resorting to eating fish or any other streamside nutrition. They also helped us stave off dehydration. Meals typically required an average of 16 ounces of water, which we either boiled or filtered from the river. We ate one breakfast and one dinner entree per day, and though our caloric intake didn’t meet the amounts we burned daily, we didn’t feel hungry. By the end of the trip, we both tightened our waistlines, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Most of the cutthroat we caught were too large to keep for a meal. Fishing regulations allowed us to keep up to three cutthroat under 12-inches long per person, and though we had spices and utensils to grill a few for supper, we refrained. Long days, short nights, and a list of daily tasks left energy levels low, and come suppertime, the last thing either of us wanted to do was prepare a 5-star trout meal. It’s simply easier to pour 16-ounces of hot water into a pouch, set aside for 15 minutes, and eat.
_We didn’t encounter any bruins, but bears are a genuine concern in every corner of The Bob.
Ten feet high and four feet out. That’s the standard gauge for hanging a food cache in bear country. Wilderness regulations require all visitors to use some type of bear-proof method whether it be hanging food in a tree or carrying approved bear-proof containers. We simply contained all our food supplies in small, zippered bags to keep it separated from the rest of our gear, and to make it easy to hang each night. On the ride in, Duke mentioned he’d already seen 27 grizzlies this year alone, so the presence is very real, and while we didn’t see any tracks or sign in the eight days we spent in their backyard, we never neglected taking the necessary precautions, including carrying bear spray at all times.
Campside runs full of fish helped passed the time between dinner and dark. Most nights we found previously-used campsites along the shoreline, complete with fire rings, and aside from the occasional deer or cow elk that wandered by, the only sound at night was the rush of the river. After dinner, we’d burn the remains of the day casting dry flies to plucky cutthroats. Lightweight pack tents, compressible sleeping bags and pads, and warm clothes made life pretty comfortable at night. Our main concern was avoiding the area’s bears, but the relative lack of any sign–tracks, scat or anything else–gave us some peace of mind. Nonetheless, one night, while exploring what appeared to be a terrific campsite, a shifting wind carried a foul stench. Nearby, a dead bull moose lay sprawled and picked apart. Given a grizzly’s custom of guarding its meal, we backed off and floated away as fast as we could.
Ma Romans’ sugar cookies never tasted so good. According to the map, our course ran through the heart of the wilderness; as far from civilization as we could get without getting closer in another direction–so otherwise inconsequential items took on new value. On day two, Jay’s craving for a cold brew manifested itself like manna from heaven. Rounding a bend on Youngs Creek, lodged just under the river’s surface in the corner of a small logjam, a cold can of suds that presumably took a leap of faith from some poor schlep’s cooler, bobbed up and down in the current. We netted the trophy, but refused to pop the top. Instead, it became bartering leverage and through the week, the unopened can exchanged owners several times over. Rather than wait for barley-and-hops miracles, I garnered my own currency days before departing, and the hidden tin of homemade sugar-cookies, complete with rainbow sprinkles, certainly proved to be backcountry gold. Sparingly portioned through the week, I silently commandeered the last treat, on the last day, while my cohort slipped in an afternoon nap.
The Mid Creek takeout before the canyon, three miles upstream of the Meadow Creek Trailhead. A big mystery on our float was where to take out. Such an important landmark should be worthy of notation on a USGS topographical map, especially since missing it means rowing through a reputedly dangerous canyon, barely wide enough for a raft in some slots, but our only directive was to watch for signs near the inflow of Mid Creek.
Cowboys wrapping our boat and gear in manties for the pack out. The other logistical hurdle for any DIY trip on the South Fork of the Flathead is arranging packers to meet at the take out. The trailhead is three miles from the river’s designated pull off point–too far to transport a raft, oars, frame, and the rest of our cargo under human power. Jay and I elected to walk out of the wilderness while the rest of our belongings finished the homestretch in manties.
Mission accomplished. Back at the truck, we unloaded and unwrapped our gear and started the long drive around the length of Hungry Horse Reservoir, south along Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains, finally arriving in Missoula in the early evening. Tired, dirty and hungry, we elected to skip much needed showers (after building up 8 days of filth, what’s one more day?) and instead found the nearest pizza restaurant we could find. A hot slice and cold draft never tasted so good.
Several area ranches and resorts offer South Fork of the Flathead trips with camps, menus, and other glamping extras that allow clients to experience the wilderness and focus on the fishing–but such a catered venture carries a hefty price tag. Most don’t travel as far, or for as long, as Jay and I did. But for Jay and I, traveling DIY style according to our own itinerary gave us a deeper appreciate for the gravity of our location, and granted us an up-close-and-personal experience with the wilderness and its native fishes. It was the type of package that lured us in the first place, and we hope to revisit in the years to come.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwest Montana is one of those rare places where people can truly experience the outdoors in its purest form and encounter nature on its own terms. Inside its perimeter, a variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears, roam without modern intrusions, and hundreds of miles of clean, cold creeks and rivers–home to one of the strongest wild cutthroat populations in the state–snake between mountain crevices and through sweeping valleys.
After years of dreaming about packing a boat over the mountains and plying the Bob Marshall’s waters, Ben Romans decided to finally scratch it off his bucket list.