“On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.”
Norman McClean brought attention to the Big Blackfoot with his memoir "A River Runs Through It." But the river was special long before the book. The trout, cut banks, boulders and fast water make this a world-class, blue-ribbon fly-fishing river. It’s no walk in the park, fishing this river, but being well prepared on how to read the water and the hatches will keep you from feeling overwhelmed when you see this deep, fast water.
Reading the Water
You’ll encounter a variety of water types on this river, but you might have the best luck by fishing boulders. Here, highly oxygenated pools form where fish can stay out of faster water. The problem: Those pools don’t allow your dry fly to stay on the water long at all. At the most, you’ll have two or three seconds before the water swallows up your fly or the current drives your line in unnatural patterns.
The fast water—along with the sun—will make seeing hard, so buy fly fishing flies with high-vis indicators and use polarized sunglasses.
The banks along straight-aways are also likely to produce, so if you don’t feel comfortable wading some of that bigger water, you can still catch fish.
Where the Big Fish Hide
Depth is key to landing the monsters of the Blackfoot. Large pools form along enormous boulders and cut banks, and the water clarity is intense. So even at 12, 15 feet, trout can see fishers atop boulders. Don’t hesitate to crouch, kneel, find cover.
Even with this clarity, it’s rare that trout of 18+ inches will rise on a dry fly. For these fish, you want to think streamers and nymph rigs. With the fast water, you’ll want to sink these quickly before the line catches the current, so strap on extra weight—lead or triple bead nymphs—and use sinking fishiing line to get down quickly.
Reading the Fishing Season
Of the four big fly-fishing rivers in Missoula, the Blackfoot is generally the last to drop water levels into possible fishing conditions. This river is more likely to produce in late season, after the run-off is finished. And, because of this, it’s also a good option when many of the other rivers have warmed up beyond good fishing conditions.
A word of warning: As soon as those high temperatures hit, you’re going to be dodging flocks of college kids on inner tubes floating the river. The trick to avoiding them is to go further up the river, far past where they’ll think to go. But, as always, keep your eyes out for them, as they disrupt your water and run the risk of snagging a fly—not to mention a pretty loud clamor. Don’t fret; this river’s big enough for the both of you.