ooking for a place
where you can fish for genuinely large trout in the shadow of rugged alpine peaks? Well,
who isnt, for crying out loud! Talk about inane questions! Montana has arguably one
of the best on the relatively short list of such places; the lakes and streams of the
Blackfeet Reservation, just east of Glacier Park and the adjacent Badger/Two Medicine area
of the Rocky Mountain Front. Here you have the opportunity to tie into a genuine trophy
trout, and even if the fish arent biting, the scenery is exceptional. The
Reservation has developed a long-standing reputation in the fishing world, sort of one of
those exotic locales, visited by only a lucky few, that not a whole lot of information is
available about. Those who do fish there regularly tend to be closemouthed and rapidly
change the subject when it comes up, at least once the point has been made that they often
tie into lunker fish, unlike the pathetic minnows you are used to catching. Deflecting
such one-upsmanship is a useful fishing, as well as life skill, and after reading this
article and perhaps fishing the Rez yourself, youll be better equipped to do so.
Worth the price of admission by itself, wouldnt you say?
Well look at the lakes first, since that is where the big fish are (excepting the
St. Mary River, which well get to later). Its really kind of amazing
that the fish thrive as they do in the Blackfeet country. It is an exceptionally harsh
environment, and generally speaking most life forms, including humans, cant honestly
be said to flourish there. The trout wouldnt either, but the tribal fish management
policies are one of their somewhat rare success stories. The fish populations are not
self-sustaining, but the tribe has an active stocking program. Once in the lakes, the fish
have an exceptionally productive environment, and respond with truly phenomenal growth
rates, said to be approximately one inch per month for the first four years of their life.
Even the most mathematically challenged among us can quickly see that we are talking big
Of course, anyone who has fished or otherwise lived very long is likely to exhibit
varying degrees of cynicism and skepticism, and are likely right now saying
"theres got to be a catch (so to speak) to this". There is. Not
surprisingly, its a four-letter word, and its WIND. Thats
right; bold faced, capitalized, underlined, and any other sort of emphasis that you could
possibly place on a word. The Blackfeet Reservation lies along the east slope of the Rocky
Mountain Front, an area where diverse weather systems collide, most often violently.
Its an area of extremes, and I dont think fishing in the wind is one extreme
activity thats ever going to catch on. When the wind kicks up on the Rez, which is
often, fishing as well as most other outdoor activities become downright unpleasant, if
not impossible. Unless youve experienced this firsthand, its difficult to
convey the power of the wind in this area. If you live in a coastal area subject to
hurricanes, or in Tornado Alley, youve had a taste of it. Breezes of up to forty
miles per hour dont even bear mention, fifty to sixty is commonplace, seventy to
eighty will merit a mention on the weather forecast, and gusts over a hundred are not
exactly rare. For example, the winds in this area have blown freight trains off the
tracks. As you might guess, these sorts of breezes can make fly-casting problematic! So,
when someone regales you with tales of all the big fish theyve caught in this area
they are most likely one of three things:
- Lying like a rug.
- A local who has spent a lot of time at it.
- Exceptionally lucky, and should buy lottery tickets as a career.
That brings us back to the subtitle of this article. Fishing for big trout on the Rez
is most aptly compared to trophy hunting. You may not be successful all that often, but
when you are; oh, man, youre into the kind of thing that legends or at least
lifetime memories are made of. Of course, I dont want or need to be too discouraging
about your prospects. Like other types of trophy hunting (fair chase, at
least, where you dont just write a big check and have your trophy head handed to you
on a platter, as it were), besides being in a spot where a trophy is realistically
possible, perhaps the most important ingredient is time. If youre only going to
spend a day or two fishing the Rez, which I realize is the mostly likely scenario for most
visitors, I highly recommend incorporating a high degree of flexibility in timing. Most
often, there will be a day or two of calm between gales. Predicting this much in advance
is sketchy at best, but if you have several days to work with your odds of at least one of
them being fishable are greatly improved. You neednt just sit around, brooding and
twiddling your thumbs on the windy days, though. Glacier Park is right next door, and its
world-class scenery will help take your mind off the meteorological violence occurring
over your proposed fishin hole.
So, lets get to where those fishin holes are (but first, a bit more
preliminary digression). This necessarily will be a somewhat brief overview, but
itll tell you what you need to know, for starters at least. As previously mentioned,
unlike the blue-ribbon streams of Southwest Montana which have had enough written about
them to cause a worldwide timber shortage, information about the Rez is scarce at best. To
my knowledge, there is only one book available about the subject, a brief tome of 125
pages; Fly Fishing the Blackfeet Country, by Bob Fairchild. The only place I have
personally seen this book available is from Wolvertons Fly Shop in Great Falls, MT,
406-454-0254. If you plan on fishing the area or are just curious, I highly recommend
getting a copy. If youre in the area, stop by and pick up a copy firsthand. Besides
the handful of local guides who operate on the Rez, Wolvertons know as much or more
than anyone about fishing there. Not only that, their shop is refreshingly short on the
pretentiousness that seems to afflict so many fly shops these days.
The lakes of the Blackfeet Reservation are clustered in a relatively compact area, at
least by Montana standards, measuring about forty milesacross.
To find them, use the ever-useful DeLorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer, available at http://www.delorme.com. You will also receive a map
when you purchase your Reservation fishing permit, an essential prerequisite.
Incidentally, you need not possess a state fishing license to fish on the Rez. Reservation
permits are available in two configurations; a daily ($20.00), and season ($50.00).
A three-day permit previously available has been cancelled. If applicable,
you will also need additional permits for a boat ($10.00), float tube ($5.00), or ice
house($10.00). These permits are available from any area sporting goods store, as well as
a host of grocery and convenience stores, etc. Generally speaking, they are available
anywhere that sells MT state licenses within about a hundred mile radius of the
OK, enough preliminaries, here ya go. From north to south;
v Duck Lake
If youve ever heard the
faintest rumor about fishing the Blackfeet Reservation, youve no doubt heard of Duck
Lake. It has produced vast numbers of seriously large trout over a long period. Most fly
fishermen have heard of Dan Baileys Fly Shop in Livingston, MT, one of the shrines
of the flyfishing world. Their wall of fame; wooden plaques with the outline of trophy
fish, date of catch, and fisherman, contains a disproportionate number of Duck Lake trout.
Many of these date back to the fifties and sixties, but rest assured Duck Lake is still
producing lunkers. It is one of the biggest Reservation lakes, nearly 1500 acres, and
deeper than most at about eighty feet. As such, it lends itself to boat use more than
some, but good fishing is also available from shore at times, and of course the
ever-popular float tubes. Just dont get too far from shore in a float tube in case
the wind kicks up!
Not to be confused with Geese Lake,
another well hidden hotspot a few miles south, Goose Lake lies a few rough miles north of
Duck Lake. Don't try to take your high-end RV on this road (defined loosely), it's
best suited to a four-wheel drive with some ground clearance.
vMission and Kipp Lakes
I am putting these lakes together since they
share many characteristics. Unlike the other lakes mentioned which lie in fairly close
proximity to the mountains, Mission and Kipp are prairie lakes situated about fifteen to
twenty miles east of the others. As such, they are somewhat lacking in scenic value,
particularly Mission which lies in a coulee with quite restricted views. Of course, if the
fish are biting you might think these are the most beautiful lakes you have ever seen.
Kipp Lake in particular seems to produce some really big fish. Mission hasnt been
producing as well the last couple of years, so if you have limited time Id probably
steer you toward some of the others on the list.
vDog Gun Lake
I doubt anyone could complain about the scenery
at Dog Gun Lake. It sits right against the mountains of the Badger/Two Medicine area. It
covers about 120 acres and runs up to about nine feet deep (most of the reservation lakes
are fairly shallow). There are some brook trout in Dog Gun, as well as the rainbows that
predominate in most of the other lakes. At the risk of sounding redundant, these fish can
run to trophy proportions. I havent personally tied into a real big one here, or
rather I should say I havent landed one. I once lost five fish in rapid succession
here that I would guess to run upwards of five pounds. It was enough to make me think the
luck of the Irish had left me, but it was probably just one of those humility lessons that
big fish are so apt at handing out.
vMinnie White Horse Lake
Also known as Cooper Lake, this lake sits in a
mountain basin that is arguably the prettiest spot you can wet a line on the Rez. Good
thing, because the road into it is an absolute fright that barely qualifies as a jeep
trail. I have to advise against taking your high-end sport utility vehicle into here
unless you dont mind having the paint on the sides scratched by brush, or the
possibility of sliding it off into a canyon where it could become a permanent part of the
landscape. But, if youve got a beater fishing rig or otherwise dont care
heres a tip that I learned at the expense of some serious wear & tear on my
truck. Any maps I have seen are vague about how to get to this lake. From the highway
between Browning and Heart Butte, turn west onto a trail just north of Badger Creek. Avoid
the seductive trails that branch off to the north, and veer down through the brushy, boggy
area more to the south. If you make it through there, continue west until you climb a
rough, rocky hill and then watch for a faint track branching off to the north. Thats
the one you want to take, and rest assured, it doesnt improve any as you proceed.
Assuming you make it to the lake, your odds of catching a trophy fish are not as great as
some of the other choices, but 12-14" fish are abundant and usually cooperative, and
once again, the scenery is unmatched.
Situated right along the mountain front a few
miles south of Minnie White Horse, but infinitely more accessible is Mitten Lake.
Considering the combination of scenery, accessibility, and fishing potential Mitten has to
be at or near the top of the list of possibilities. It covers about a square mile, roughly
shaped like its namesake, and runs about nine or ten feet deep. With abundant food
production, the fish grow at an astounding rate, and youll have no question that
there is a strong, healthy fish on the end of your line.
vFour Horn Lake
Like Mission and Kipp, Four Horn sits somewhat
out in the prairie, although in slightly closer proximity to the mountains. It lies a few
miles northeast of Heart Butte and is a fairly large lake, about 750 acres. Gotta confess,
I havent fished it personally. But, I know it has kicked out some trophy fish over
the years, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. I have an affinity for scenery, though,
and have spent plenty of time in the prairies during my farming years, and so gravitate
toward the others mentioned.
There are a number of other productive lakes on the reservation that Bob
Fairchilds book goes into detail about, but I think these are the best choice for
As in so many other things, if you are after a trophy fish, timing is everything. Your
odds are vastly better in the early spring, shortly after ice-out. As previously
mentioned, the fish are unable to spawn in these lakes, but still obey their instincts and
will be cruising the shallows looking for spawning beds. As you would be under the same
circumstances, they are a bit short-tempered and will aggressively hit a streamer or other
lure stripped in from of them. The downside of this scenario is that the weather is at its
most capricious during this same time period, and conditions calm enough for fishing can
be rare. Such is trophy hunting.
So, what are these pugnacious piscatorials likely to hit on? Probably not your
companions of the opposite sex, although Id keep a close eye on them if you stop in
any of the area liquor emporiums. As usual, I digress, but as an aside I recommend staying
out of any bars on the reservation. Racial tensions can run high, and while I dont
expect sympathy from any minorities on this issue, the Rez is one place where the
oft-reviled Caucasian male is likely to encounter discrimination and racial hostility.
With that said, lets get back to fishing. While in the summer it is not uncommon to
find fish feeding on surface insects, the vast bulk of your fishing is likely to involve a
sinking line and some sort of streamer. Personally, I have primarily used and had the most
luck with the ever-productive Wooly Bugger, but Fairchild advocates the use of leech
patterns. Leeches are a primary food source, especially for the big fish you are after,
and Id certainly recommend having some along, but I also certainly wouldnt
discount the old standby Buggers, either. Dragon and Damsel fly nymphs also have their
adherents. The most abundant food source in the Reservation lakes is freshwater shrimp,
and so scud patterns can also be used to advantage. Personally, I am a fan of using a big
fly when fishing for big fish, though, and thus far at least seem to usually wind up with
a Wooly Bugger attached to my terminal tackle. If the fish are feeding on or near the
surface, I trust you will be able to determine what they are feeding on and respond
appropriately. Im not going to go into further detail on this because the odds of
catching a lunker on a dry fly are somewhat slim, and totally nonexistent in the early
In my evolution as a fly fisherman the vast bulk of my time has been spent on streams
and rivers. Lakes used to intimidate me, or rather I was somewhat clueless about how to go
about fishing them and consequently didnt find it particularly enjoyable . It seemed
so random, whereas in a stream I could read the water and at least narrow my search down
to a likely spot with ease. Motivated by tales of giant trout, though, I have learned a
bit about fishing the lakes, and like many other mysteries found it to be a less vexing
problem than previously thought. In most lakes, the first spots I try are likely to be
near the inlet and outlet. On the Rez, though, most of the lakes are fed primarily from
springs, and many are landlocked with no outlet, except for perhaps a headgate into an
irrigation ditch. The thing to look for is weed beds; thats where the fish find
cover and food, and thats where youll find the fish. As with all generalities,
there are exceptions, and one of import is during the early spring, when youll see
large fish cruising the shallows. Get a Bugger or other large attractive streamer out
there in front of them, strip it erratically, and hope, bro, hope
While the lakes get the vast bulk of the attention on the Reservation, there is also
some very good stream fishing. Your odds of tying into a trophy are less, most fish are
likely to be of the more normal 12"-14" range, but reportedly the Two Medicine
and Cut Bank Creek occasionally produce fish over 20". As previously alluded to, an
exception and case in itself is the St. Mary River. Flowing roughly north out of Lower St.
Mary Lake on its eventual course to Hudsons Bay, it is a good-sized stream. If for
nothing else, it should be noteworthy that this is the only place in MT where you can fish
for bull trout, which are protected in the other drainages of the state. Besides the
bulls, there are the usual cutthroats and whitefish, plus the odd rainbow. There are
reportedly also some lunker northern pike here. Strip a streamer through one of the St.
Marys deep holes and you just dont know what you might tie into. The downside
is that it is somewhat difficult to fish. As previously mentioned, it is a fair-sized
river, at least in comparison to most of the other Reservation streams. It is generally
deep and swift, and doesnt lend itself to wading. It also lacks put-in and take-out
spots for floating, but as the saying goes; if it was easy everyone would do it.
Personally, I think the Two Medicine River and Cut Bank Creek are better options. They
are much more accessible, wadeable, and offer very good fishing. Their lower reaches flow
through private property where permission is required, but the upper reaches tend to be on
public land (if you have a reservation fishing permit, of course) and/or you can use road
bridges as access points. Another very good option is Badger Creek. It is a smaller
stream, and as such your odds of nailing a big one are slim, but 10"-14" fish
are abundant and usually cooperative.
For the truly adventurous stream fisherman, there are also the forks of the Milk River
lying north of Cut Bank Creek. These are quite small, willow choked and beaver dammed
streams that undoubtedly are fabulous fishing. I cant say, personally, and
dont know anyone else who can either, though. I know some pretty hardcore guys, the
type not afraid of the dark or much of anything else, and may border on that category
myself. The general consensus, though, is that fishing the Milk River forks is just too
dangerous. They flow through prime, and I do mean PRIME, grizzly bear habitat. As
mentioned, they are brushy, and the odds of a close-range grizzly encounter are very (read
that suicidally) high. If you go in there, you may have the best fishing of your life, but
dont say you werent warned! Of course, particularly the upper reaches of the
other streams mentioned are grizzly country also, and I recommend taking the usual
precautions of making noise, calling out or singing at least periodically, especially when
moving. Carrying a can of bear repellant pepper spray and knowing how to use it is
undoubtedly also a good idea. No fishermen that I am aware of have been mauled, and that
is the sort of thing that tends to make the news, so your odds of having bear problems are
remote (except for the Milk River exception). Still, absolute guarantees are hard to come
by when it comes to grizzly bears.
So, there you have it. A possible near doubling of the written information
available about fishing the Blackfeet Reservation. If you want
to catch a really big trout in Montana, it is arguably your
best alternative. However, as with other such trophy endeavors
involving the vagaries of weather, and pursuit of species with
their own minds (lets not get into whether fish can think
or not), it comes with no guarantees, other than regardless
of whether you catch the trophy of a lifetime, you will have
a truly memorable experience in a remarkable setting.
See you on the Rez.