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Fishing the Blackfeet Reservation

Piscatorial Trophy Hunting

 

L.gif (904 bytes)ooking for a place where you can fish for genuinely large trout in the shadow of rugged alpine peaks? Well, who isn’t, for crying out loud! Talk about inane questions! Montana has arguably one of the best on theDogGun.jpg (24676 bytes) 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 aren’t 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, you’ll be better equipped to do so. Worth the price of admission by itself, wouldn’t you say?

We’ll look at the lakes first, since that is where the big fish are (excepting the St. Mary River, which we’ll get to later). It’s really kind of amazingReservationRainbow.jpg (20962 bytes) 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, can’t honestly be said to flourish there. The trout wouldn’t 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 fish here.

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 "there’s got to be a catch (so to speak) to this". There is. Not surprisingly, it’s a four-letter word, and it’s WIND. That’s 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. It’s an area of extremes, and I don’t think fishing in the wind is one extreme activity that’s 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 you’ve experienced this firsthand, it’s 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, you’ve had a taste of it. Breezes of up to forty miles per hour don’t 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 they’ve 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, you’re into the kind of thing that legends or at least lifetime memories are made of. Of course, I don’t want or need to be too discouraging about your prospects. Like other types ofMinnieWhiteHorse.jpg (26419 bytes) trophy hunting (fair chase, at least, where you don’t 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 you’re 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 needn’t 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, let’s get to where those fishin’ holes are (but first, a bit more preliminary digression). This necessarily will be a somewhat brief overview, but it’ll 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 Wolverton’s 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 you’re in the area, stop by and pick up a copy firsthand. Besides the handful of local guides who operate on the Rez, Wolverton’s 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 milesBadgerCanyon.jpg (24712 bytes)across. 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 Reservation.

OK, enough preliminaries, here ya’ go. From north to south;

v Duck Lake

If you’ve ever heard the faintest rumor about fishing the Blackfeet Reservation, you’ve 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 Bailey’s 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 don’t get too far from shore in a float tube in case the wind kicks up!

vGoose Lake

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 hasn’t been producing as well the last couple of years, so if you have limited time I’d 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 haven’t personally tied into a real big one here, or rather I should say I haven’t 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 don’t 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 you’ve got a beater fishing rig or otherwise don’t care here’s 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. That’s the one you want to take, and rest assured, it doesn’t 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.

vMitten Lake

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 you’ll 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 haven’t 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 Fairchild’s book goes into detail about, but I think these are the best choice for trophy potential.

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 I’d 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 don’t 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.Goose Lake, with a good rainbow on the line With that said, let’s 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 I’d certainly recommend having some along, but I also certainly wouldn’t 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. I’m 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 spring.

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 didn’t 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; that’s where the fish find cover and food, and that’s where you’ll find the fish. As with all generalities, there are exceptions, and one of import is during the early spring, when you’ll 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 Hudson’s 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. Mary’s deep holes and you just don’t 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 doesn’t 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 can’t say, personally, and don’t 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 don’t say you weren’t 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 (let’s 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.

 

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