Wild At Heart

Wild At Heart

Catching wild trout in the rugged country of Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness

  • By: Norm Zeigler
The North Fork of the Blackfoot flows through a valley of death and rebirth. It is a place where most days a high wind whistles through the numberless spires of 50-foot silver-gray skeletons, whole mountainsides of them. But when a visitor lowers his gaze he soon spots the green of a new forest sprouting and, far below, a gleaming silver ribbon of water twisting through it all. The allure of unspoiled waters and landscapes is, of course, what our sport is all about. For most of us the appeal extends from the pastoral to the raw and the wild.On the rough outer edge--where I prefer to be--flow streams like the North Fork. On a July afternoon last summer, the view from horseback for my buddy Steve Dawson and me was everything we had hoped for. Twisting down through the Scapegoat Wilderness Area's western drainage for 34 miles, the North Fork of the Blackfoot traverses some of the wildest country in the Lower 48. This is grizzly, mountain lion and mule deer country. It is also trout country. This is harsh, wild countryside to break your heart; a million and a half acres of it. The centerpiece, the legacy of a remarkable outdoorsman, conservationist and author, is the 950,000-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, first conceived as several "primitive" protected areas established by Marshall's activism in the 1930's. The area received its official wilderness designation and its name in 1964. In 1972 the combined half-million acres of the Scapegoat Wilderness to the south and the Big Bear Wilderness Area to the north were added to "the Bob's" protected zone, completing a remarkable and timeless bequest: thousands of square miles of roadless virgin forest, rivers and lakes, abundant game, lofty peaks and geological wonders. The North Fork and the valley it continues to carve through ancient rocks is eye candy for lovers of the mountain West: canyons and flats and forested slopes and treacherous talus and broken ledge and far-gone vistas. For Dawson and me, bringing up the rear of a pack train led by Mark and Jeri Friede of WTR Outfitters, the views inspired mainly reverent silence and rapt attention, especially on those stretches of the narrow trail where steep slopes plunged to the valley floor. At first the scarified but inexorably recovering landscape was visually jarring. But it did not take long for the millions of charred and flame-scorched trees--relics of the infamous 1988 Canyon Creek Fire--to seem like just another natural part of the area. During the fire, which roared through 247,000 acres, half of the Scapegoat's quarter-million acres of forest went up in smoke, including huge swaths of the North Fork Valley. These days, an Interior Department information sign in Ovando consolingly refers to the holocaust as "part of a forest cycle that has repeated itself for tens of thousands of years," commenting that, "as time passes, the effects of the fire will fade." It is a truism we were to see proved during our interlude. We had met the Friedes at noon on a Wednesday at WTR's ranch headquarters a few miles outside Ovando. After the introductions we followed their truck and stock trailer on a Forest Service road to the Scapegoat's major southern access. Soon the Friedes had saddled the four horses and loaded our gear onto two mules, and around 1:30 we headed up the river valley following Hobnail Tom Trail. As we rode the swaying horses farther into the backcountry, some of the mountaintops resembled porcupines' backs--huge humps sprouting numberless needles. But soon we were focusing on the re-growth, a verdant explosion of 3- to 10-foot-tall lodgepole pines, aspens and tamaracks; nature's healing process amid the fading devastation. A thick undergrowth--Indian paintbrush, purple aster, wild roses, raspberries--flourished in the still-slight shadows of the seedlings and saplings. Dawson and I had traveled to the North Fork not only for the area's natural beauty, but also to pursue the river's storied Westslope cutthroats. I had heard tales of these ur-wild, gleaming fish from another fly-fishing pal, Chris Coile, who owned a ranch on the river in the 1980's. By the time Mark Friede led the pack train into a flat clearing at 4:15 I was in a state of pleasant anxiety--that keen urge to fish that comes from passing mile after mile of alluring water. Twenty minutes later we had piled our gear in the clearing and the Friedes were headed back with the animals down the eight miles to the trailhead. Suddenly, Dawson and I were alone and marooned in the wilderness--and that meant it was time to go fishing. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a trout stream I did not like. Like the sizing of eggs (large, extra large and jumbo), there are only good, better and best. But most affecting are the waters that flow into the heart and mind. The North Fork of the Blackfoot is one. This is a complex, varied system, at times a down-splashing freestone torrent of steep-sided canyons, waterfalls and plunge pools, at other times a broad, snaky flow of flat riffles, bank channels and boulder pockets. Though it is not a big water--in most places 30- to 50-feet wide with non-runoff flows of several hundred cubic feet per second--the North Fork is in some sections a crashing, tearing mustang of a stream. For long stretches it is one of the most treacherous streams I have ever fished. By the time we'd caught a handful of small fish apiece, it was already dusk, and time for us to leave the stream and set up camp: Erect the tent, get out the camp stove and secure our food and gear. To minimize bear problems, regulations in the wilderness require that all food be stored at least 12 feet above the ground (generally by a rope thrown over a branch) or in a steel "bear box." Fortunately, the outfitter had provided us with two of the 39-pound, clamp-lid containers. One we carried down to the edge of the river for cool storage. Because it is a high-mountain stream, the North Fork never gets so warm that the fishing turns off. During our late-July trip, on some of the warmest days of the year, water temperatures remained consistently in the mid- to high-50's. And the cutts appreciated it, remaining active and feeding reliably. Nothing starts off a chilly mountain morning quite so well as cowboy coffee, grounds and all. When you can see your breath in the air, it is as rich and heartening as any latte. And because we'd had the luxury of mule transport, we were able to supplement dried foods with relative extravagances such as bacon, beer and evaporated milk, items that would have remained behind if we had been limited to backpacks. Our first morning produced another couple of handfuls of fish. The North Fork's cutts, like trout everywhere, are most catchable in low-light periods and locations: early morning, evening and in the shade of structure. Each day we made it a point to get on the water while the canyon shadows were still on the river. In my opinion, cutthroats in general have an undeserved reputation for gullibility. Wherever I have found them--the Ruby, the Kootenai, the Yellowstone, and other rivers--they have proved wily and challenging. These North Fork fish are among the most challenging; though they often readily take a fly, they can also be selective and even downright picky, coming up to bump dries with their noses in maddening refusals. Most of the trout we caught were not large--between 8 and 13 inches--but the combination of cold water and swift current seems to give these fish some extra oomph. Time and time again Dawson and I hooked fish that fought bigger than their size, so that we often were surprised to bring to hand a 12-incher when we had been expecting one a couple of inches bigger. More than a few of these fish also jumped. "I can't believe how hard these fish fight for their size," Dawson said after releasing one foot-long scrapper. Dry flies that worked well for us included the Adams, Renegades, Royal Wulffs and the Elkhair Caddis in size 14 to 18. Hoppers, Humpies and other bulky flies were not effective. We saw no major hatches, only scattered mayflies, caddis and terrestrials. In certain spots, especially deep sluice tailouts, nymphs fished with indicators produced fish after fish. Dawson caught five in one 15-foot stretch a mile below our camp. And he caught them under the high midday sun. Pheasant Tails, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns and Flashback Hare's Ears produced the best. One early morning, fishing a quarter mile above our campsite, I found out just how treacherous the North Fork can be. This section of the river, from a Forest Service cabin upriver about a mile to a massive waterfall below, has many fish. But with the river tumbling down a steep gradient through a narrow canyon, it presents major challenges to safe angling. I was wearing studded wading boots, ideal for slick, rounded rocks. But here the river and its edges are cliffs, talus, jagged boulders and mossy slabs of broken ledge canted at sharp angles. I have waded many a treacherous river--the upper Hudson and Poland's Dunajec come to mind--and I could see that this one required an extra measure of caution. Moving slowly and stepping deliberately, I edged my way upstream, casting a Wulff into plunge pools and behind boulders. But, crouching to duck a branch, I found myself suddenly underwater, right side first and head downstream, rod in hand and jammed against the bottom, cold currents swirling. Scrambling instinctively, I twisted around and felt bottom with my feet, then pushed myself off to shoot to the surface. Another few seconds and I was hauling myself up onto a slab of ledge. The rod was headed down current but the line was looped around my hand and I pulled it up over the rocks until I could grasp the tip. The rest, as they say, was anticlimatic. After I had removed my daypack, vest, waders, shirts and pants, Dawson came around a bend and hurried over. In assessing the aftermath, I found that I had a badly jammed wrist, and my painfully throbbing quadriceps would soon sport a saucer-size purple-and-green bruise. I'd also broken my 5-weight rod and dunked my camera. All except the rod would eventually recover. In the case of the camera the solution was as simple as disassembly and a few hours of Montana sunshine. Fortunately, I had brought a spare rod. When I told my friend Chris Coile about it a few weeks later he related the tale of a client who had broken both ankles and ruptured a kidney on the same stretch. Despite the dicey stretches, at least a third of the North Fork is comfortably fishable. This includes the three-mile section below the Forest Service cabin. Here the valley broadens and the stream gradient flattens out. As might be expected, areas of long, flat runs are only minimally productive when the sun is high. This is the time of day for working bank edges, structure pockets and channels on the outer edge of curves. Periodic log jams and boulder dams also create pools and sluice outflows where fish concentrate. The (remote) possibility of crossing paths with bears and mountain lions makes a weapon or bear spray a prudent precaution. Dawson carried a holstered .44 Magnum, while I opted for the spray. But like the vast majority of visitors, the only animal encounters we experienced were with the plethora of pesky mule deer that have become inured to hikers and campers. We learned the first night through the loss of sunglasses, T-shirts and a couple of smaller items that they will eat or destroy anything impregnated with food residue or a trace of human body salt. Throwing rocks, banging pots and pans and even discharging a handgun had no deterrent effect. The only solution was to keep all the gear and supplies in the tent, heavily covered or out of reach in the trees. For three days we reveled in lots of wild fish and in the solitude of our North Fork "home." When Mark Friede showed up with the horses and mules to pack us back out, it prompted no celebration, and it was with a feeling of wistfulness and a longing to return that I rode back, swaying with the horses down the valley. The North Fork has excellent populations of cutthroats along most of its length, all the way down to the big Blackfoot, but the upper portion, above the trailhead, is by far the most fun to fish. Without an outfitter, this means long day hikes in and out, or backpacking and camping. But it is not necessary to go in as far as we did to find good fishing. The approximately three and a half miles from the trailhead to the first trail bridge is also first-rate trout habitat. Like the headwaters, it is powerful, fast-plunging water that mandates caution. And there is another safety concern: The canyon walls are either cliffs or precipitous gravel--sand-and-rock slopes with only a few places to climb down to the river and back out safely. A week after our pack-in trip, Dawson and I returned, this time spending one night in the trailhead campground. On the afternoon we arrived and the following morning we caught several handfuls of fish, including the two largest of both trips. Dawson's was a 15-incher on a caddis and mine a fat 17-incher that hammered a dumbbell-eye Schminnow swung down and across an eight-foot-deep pool. The defining appeal of the North Fork is not huge cutthroats, but one word-- wild--that denotes both the countryside and the fish. Can any of us ever get too much of either? Bob Marshall himself had an appropriate answer to the query, how much wilderness is enough? He said, "How many Brahms symphonies do we need?" What to Bring Because it was the height of summer, we found wet wading convenient and comfortable, except for early mornings and one overcast and drizzly forenoon. Still, I would recommend packing breathable waders and a rain jacket for fail-safe comfort in case of bad weather. Another de rigueur piece of gear for overnighters is a water bottle with built-in filtration; it saves a heap of boiling and/or heavy hauling. A single-burner camp stove is always a good idea. Dry conditions had prompted a prohibition on open campfires during our stay. WTR Outfitters runs pack trips throughout the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wilderness, including fishing in many mountain lakes. Contact WTR Outfitters at 800-987-5666; www.wtroutfitters.com.