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Blackfoot River Fly Fishing

Montana’s Blackfoot River gained instant popularity among fishing enthusiasts after it was featured as the “home water” of the Maclean family in the famous movie “A River Runs Through It.” Beginning in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the North Fork of the Blackfoot meanders through the pure wilderness before connecting with the main stem near Ovando, Montana. The river then flows for sixty miles until it meets the Clark Fork River outside of Missoula. From its humble beginnings as an intimate stream deep in the Bob Marshall to when it finally connects with the Clark Fork, the river drops over an astounding 3,000 feet in elevation.

The Blackfoot is a beautiful stream that features cold, clear water teeming with native Westslope cutthroat trout. It is also home to the currently endangered bull trout. As of this writing, anglers cannot target bull trout on the fly. Both the Westslope cutthroat and bull trout called the Blackfoot River home well before browns and rainbows were introduced in the river system in the early 20th century.

When floating or wading the Blackfoot River, you’ll find massive boulders, deep navy pools, gravel bars, eddies, long runs, and more river features that provide prime habitat for trout. It is arguably one of Montana’s most fascinating and wild freestone trout streams, offering many great hatches and willing fish.

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Sections of the Blackfoot River

North Fork of the Blackfoot
The North Fork makes its humble beginnings deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness as a small and intimate stream. The river cuts through a valley section, molded by ancient glacial activity, where lodgepole pines line the bank. This is a great section to take a 2-4 weight rod, some stimulator dries, and target Westslope cutts. Cutthroat will hide behind the many boulders and downed lodgepole that creates feeding lanes.

The North Fork is also the prime spawning habitat for the bull trout in the main stem. Again, anglers cannot target the bull trout! At times, as with other sections of the Blackfoot, when you’re hooked up on a cutthroat, a bull trout may decide to make an easy meal out of your fish. Bull trout slamming a struggling cutthroat is not rare and can happen around deep pools.

Anglers can access the North Fork by following the North Fork Trail via Cooper Blackfoot Road. Once the river exits the mountains and meets the open valley, there are also several access points below HWY 200, such as the Harry Morgan Campground and River Junction campground. After a day of fishing, head over to Trixi’s Antler Saloon for a burger and a few drinks in Ovando.

Lincoln, Montana to River Junction Campground
This section of the river is east of the confluence of the North Fork and the main stem of the Blackfoot. It is characterized by smaller water that twists in and out of the surrounding countryside. The water here is slightly warmer than below the North Fork, but the pressure is relatively low because it is further away from Missoula.

Brown trout command this part of the river. It is best fished with streamers cast to undercut banks, deep holes, and overhanging brush. While this section can sometimes offer exceptional streamer fishing for brown trout, it is not considered as good of a fishery as further downstream.

But if you’re hoping to tangle with a trophy-sized brown trout on the Blackfoot River, then this is the section you should focus your effort on. The further you move away from the river’s origin to the east of the town of Lincoln, the more likely you are to have success. Some stretches of this part of the river have adequate river access, and others do not. In the late summer during low water, floating parts of this section of the river can be challenging. It is best to go with a guide or angler that knows this area well.

River Junction Campground to Sunset Hill Fishing Access
Once the river leaves brown trout country and meets the North Fork, it opens up and provides colder water. Coupled with a higher gradient that creates numerous riffles, anglers can begin to target rainbow trout that are absent on the upper sections.

The river flows for several miles west of Ovando through a valley before entering what is known as the “Box Canyon” section of the Blackfoot River. The Box Canyon is a five-mile section of river that features numerous riffles, boulders, long runs, rock gardens, and a section of whitewater just before the canyon exit. This is a beautiful piece of clear, clean water that runs through mountains and large rock faces that tower of the river. The water can move pretty fast through the canyon section relative to just before and after the canyon.

This is an excellent option for pre-run off fishing during March and April. Numerous hatches of blue-winged olives can occur during periods of cloudy and warm weather. Just be sure always to bring a jacket, as the spring months can be spotty when it comes to weather.

Run-off on the Blackfoot usually occurs in late April or early May. During years where Montana experiences low snowpack or a warmer than usual spring, the Blackfoot can come into shape by late May. The famous salmon fly hatch occurs on the Blackfoot during early June and gets the fish looking up for the rest of the summer. Large salmon fly imitations such as the Water Walker or Henry’s Fork Stone cast behind and in front of boulders and undercut banks can produce some powerful strikes.

Throughout the rest of the summer, anglers can target fish with a variety of different patterns. Unlike the Missouri River, the Blackfoot doesn’t demand technical dry fly patterns such as cripples or floating nymphs. Have a variety of sizes and colors in Parachute Adams, X Caddis, Chubby Chernobyls, and hoppers – you’ll most likely be able to cover all of your dry fly needs.

Sunset Hill to Johnsrud Park
Below the canyon exit, the river moves through high gradients and begins to pick up a little speed. Unlike the upper Blackfoot above the River Junction Campground, this part of the river is characterized by rock gardens, some whitewater sections, deep pools, and a long riffle fishery. In turn, the amount of pocket water for anglers to target is quite extensive. Casting Royal Wullfs, stimulators, large Parachute Adams, and hoppers can be a great way to pick up fish throughout the day. Dropping a beadhead nymph such as a Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail below your dry is also a good idea, especially while running your flies through the pocket water.

Because you are fishing in faster water, trout don’t have time to inspect your fly pattern before deciding to eat it. Attractors dries work well, and some sloppy casts may still be rewarded.

Because it is outside of Missoula and produces some of the best fishing opportunities in the river, it is the most popular section with both anglers and recreational floaters. So during the summer months, you’ll most likely be joined with others on the river!

There is excellent access throughout this stretch with several fishing access sites (FAS). Anglers can also access parts of the river via a dirt road named Ninemile Prairie Road. Although there is ample access, take caution when wading the river. The slippery boulders can challenge even the most experienced wade anglers. In addition, it pays to go with a good guide or outfitter who knows how to navigate a boat through the rock gardens. A float through this section of the Blackfoot is breathtaking and features beautiful tree-covered mountains, clean air that smells of pine, and of course, cold, clean trout water.

Johnsrud Park to Clark Fork Confluence
Downstream from Johnsrud Park is perhaps one of the best sections of the river to target trophy-sized rainbow and brown trout using large nymphs and/or streamers. The only downside is that it runs next to HWY 200, which, unlike the upper sections, can take away from the seclusion and serenity. It is characterized by numerous deep pockets, pools, and riffles. By the middle of July, this section of the river can become overcrowded with recreational float tubers.

Seasons on the Blackfoot River

Spring
The early spring can be a great time to fish the Blackfoot. Hatches of skwala stoneflies, BWOs, and March Browns cater to exceptional dry fly fishing opportunities before the run-off. During long winters, the fish can remain somewhat sluggish and not as active versus a warmer spring. Streamer fishing can also be incredible before the fish begin looking up. But if you’re planning a spring trip to fish the Blackfoot, be aware of the fact that water temperatures can dictate the fishing. If you arrive and the weather is freezing, focus your efforts on the lower sections that warm up first.

Summer
After the run-off, the Blackfoot jumps into shape, and the dry fly fishing can be phenomenal. Salmon flies and golden stones cast in the pocket water can get some jaw-dropping takes throughout July. These big stoneflies get the fish looking up throughout the rest of the summer. Following the salmon fly hatch are hatches of green drakes, PMDs, and tan caddis. Nymphing the pocket water or casting streamers in and around the rocks can also pick up fish during mid-day lulls.

By later summer, recreational floaters take over the lower sections, especially from Johnsrud Park to Missoula. Unless you want to make casts between Intertubes, the lower part of the Blackfoot should be avoided. The upper sections below River Junction Campground are void of floaters and still offer exceptional fly fishing.

If you’re looking for areas to wade, wait for the water to drop to wade-friendly flows. Keep in mind that because there are so many rock gardens and riffles, that wading can be tricky – even in lower water. Take caution! More wade-friendly areas exist the closer you get to the town of Lincoln.

Rowing on the Blackfoot can also be tricky. Many guides and outfitters opt for rafts versus drift boats due to the number of rocks and boulders in the river. During the dead heat of the summer, certain sections of the Blackfoot can become too warm to fish. It is best to move up to areas where cold water is delivered to the Blackfoot, such as the North Fork.

Fall
When anglers put their rods up to venture into the mountains for hunting, this provides less pressure right when the water temperatures begin to fall. Hatches of mahogany duns, October Caddis, and BWOs can produce great dry fly fishing throughout October and November. Lower water flows also concentrate fish into runs and defined pocket water. And, of course, the streamer fishing, especially for the brown trout, can be excellent.

Popular Blackfoot River Flies

Dry Flies:

  • Parachute Adams (size 10-18)
  • X Caddis (size 10-18)
  • Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Stone (size 4-12)
  • Chubby Chernobyl (size 4-14)
  • Royal Wulff (size 10-16)
  • Pink/Black Morrish Hopper (size 8-12)
  • Sweetgrass Hopper (size 8-12)
  • Royal Stimulator (size 10-20)
  • Renegade (size 10-18)

Nymphs

  • Two Bit Hooker (size 12-18)
  • Hare’s Ear(size 12-18)
  • Pheasant Tail (size 12-20)
  • Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-14)
  • Red Copper John (size 12-18)
  • Zebra Midge (size 14-18)

Streamers

  • Galloup’s Barely Legal – olive/white (size 4)
  • Galloup’s Dungeon – olive, black, white, yellow (size 4-6)
  • Home Invader – black, white, olive, yellow (size 6)
  • Bow River Bugger (size 4-6)
  • Sparkle Minnow Sculpin (size 4-8)

Lodging Options

Missoula River LodgeWhen it comes to pure dry fly fishing, the rivers in Missoula’s vicinity provide some of the best opportunities! Former NFL linebacker Joe Cummings is the owner of A Classic Journey Outfitters, the outfitter for the Missoula River Lodge. Throughout the season, his team of guides pursues trout on famed rivers, including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Rock Creek, and the Missouri River. Accommodations for packages are at the Missoula River Lodge with three different fully-furnished locations, all on the centrally-located Clark Fork River. A Classic Journey Outfitters is our first pick in the Missoula area and is the total package when it comes to lodging and world-class fishing.   The Missoula River Lodge has rightly earned a reputation of putting guests into fish on a dry fly, making for a great Montana fly fishing experience.

North Fork Crossing LodgeThe North Fork Crossing Lodge, which is owned and operated by PRO Outfitters, sits on the bank of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. They are the only full-service fishing lodge in the famed Blackfoot Valley. Their unique tent cabins are designed for the ultimate comforts of a full-service lodge without losing the intimate connection to nature that camping can provide. Each canvas tent cabin comes equipped with heat, electricity, wood floors, and a private bathhouse with all the amenities of home. The Blackfoot River boasts large populations of native West Slope Cutthroat Trout through years of collaborative efforts toward restoration of the Blackfoot River as a fishery that keeps getting better and better. From the lodge, you have access to several other rivers and unlimited walk and wade access to both private and public waters. If you want to test your skill on the mighty Missouri, it is only an hour and a half away.

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