The Blackfoot River is a well know “Blue Ribbon” fishery in Montana, so I perked up when Sonia said she booked a cabin with VRBO near Ovando, Montana.
The Blackfoot River is where Normal MacLean’s classic “A River Runs Through It” was based.
Both the book and the movie were set near Missoula and MacLean grew up fishing the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork Rivers.
August is not the best time to fish many Western streams and I didn’t have much time, but how could I not take a look at the river if I was going to be in the area?
I could at least scout the area and now that I’ve done that, I plan to go back to fish it properly at a better time of year.
August is not the best time for fish that need cold water because the air temperature is hot and water flow is usually low. “Hoot Owl” fishing restrictions had been put in place before I arrived (since July 29).
Montana’s Hoot Owl Restrictions
The Hoot Owl restrictions are imposed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) when water temperatures are high (exceed 73°F for three consecutive days) and/or water flows are low to reduce stress on fish during the hottest parts of the day. It simply means you can’t fish from 2:00 p.m. until midnight.
As of Friday morning, I had 24 hours to scout the area and fish. I drove into Ovando to the fly shop (Blackfoot Angler) to buy a fishing license and to pick the staff’s brains about the water, the access, the fish and the hatch.
They were fairly busy, so I didn’t hang around long. I did learn the Hoot Owl restrictions had been lifted the day before (Aug. 10). That was good news, but I still didn’t plan on fishing during the hottest part of the day.
I had done my research about the area. MFWP has a good map of the Blackfoot River (see page 8 of Montana’s Western District Fishing Access Field Guide) that includes locations and directions to the public Fishing Access Sites (page 9), but the map doesn’t show any of the small roads that access the sites.
I tried using Google Maps while riding around, but it was very hard to match the right roads to the Fishing Access Sites, so I put together my own maps for next time (free for your personal use).
Map 1 shows the Blackfoot River, Nevada Creek, Monture Creek, Chamberlain Creek, Cottonwood Creek and the North Fork of the Blackfoot in Powell County and includes all the fishing access sites and the county and forest roads.
Click on each map to see the full sized image. The shaded areas are public lands and the areas in white are private lands.
Map 2 shows the Blackfoot River, the Clearwater River and Belmont Creek in Missoula County (also includes fishing access sites and county and forest roads).
Map 3 is a blowup of Map 2 of the same area shown in the MFWP Western District Fishing Access map between Johnsrud Park and Roundup; 13 – 29 miles upstream of the confluence with the Clark Fork River.
VRBO is the Way to Go
While in the Ovando area, we stayed at the cabin at The Montana Mountain View Ranch.
Our hosts at the ranch (Karen and Jack Hooker) have been in the outfitting business for over 40 years. Jack recommended I fish the North Fork of the Blackfoot River near the ranch.
The North Fork of the Blackfoot is easy to access just inside the Lolo National Forest boundary and the canyon can be seen from the Ranch about 8 miles North from the ranch by road. That is where I went to fish first.
The Ranch is only five or six miles from Hwy 200, with basically parallels the Blackfoot River through Powell County and is less than 10 miles from Ovando.
Blackfoot River Fishing Access Sites – Powell County
There are three MFWP Fishing Access Sites on Blackfoot River in Powell County; Cedar Meadow (day use only), River Junction (6 campsites) and Scotty Brown Bridge (day use only). There are two other Fishing Access sites on tributaries to the Blackfoot River; Monture Creek (3 campsites) and Harry Morgan (4 campsites) on the North Fork of the Blackfoot.
In addition, the River Junction site (junction of North Fork and Blackfoot rivers) also has float-in campsites for rafters (Details and permit information for float-in camping on the Blackfoot River).
There are also two additional Fishing Access sites in the area; Upsata Lake (6 campsites) and Brown’s Lake (12 campsites). For those keeping track, that totals 31 drive-in campsites in the area; 13 on streams and 18 on lakes. Chances are good that you will always find a campsite.
Aunt Molly’s Wildlife Management Area is primarily for hunting access, but it also offers parking and access to the Blackfoot River and Nevada Creek (see Map 1) for fishing.
Blackfoot River – A Wild and Scenic River?
I also found maps (Bureau of Land Management – BLM) that show areas of the Blackfoot River proposed for listing as a Wild and Scenic River (WSR). Whether or not these areas will ever be designated as WSRs, they definitely offer walk-in access to beautiful areas on the river.
A WSR area can be seen on Map 1 in the area where highway 141 goes south of highway 200 east of Ovando. This area is referred to as the Mineral Hills Fishing Access Site, but it is a BLM area not a MFWP area. Another can bee seen on Maps 2 & 3 between Johnsrud Park and the Corricks River Bend Fishing Access Sites.
In addition to the North Fork of the Blackfoot and Monture Creek, there is also the Clearwater River and nine other creeks; Alice, Beaver, Belmont, Chamberlain, Copper, Cottonwood, Gold, Landers Fork and Nevada Creek that flow into the Blackfoot River that are important enough to be mentioned in the fishing regulations.
The Montana Stream Access Law
In Montana, all natural streams are available to the public for recreational use without landowner permission. That doesn’t mean you can walk around, drive on or camp on private property, but you can float or fish any stream as long as you are in the stream channel or within the ordinary high water marks of the stream. So any where a county or state road crosses a stream, you can walk in to the stream.
In addition, there is also a Bridge Access Law that allows public access to surface waters by public bridge or county road right-of-way. That means the State, the county and/or the landowner must provide public passage around, through or over fences.
Read more about the stream access law and make sure you understand the fishing regulations (see fishing regulations and stream access laws here). For example, barbless hooks are required on the North Fork of the Blackfoot, so remember to flatten the barbs on your flies before fishing there.
Blackfoot River Fishing Access Sites – Missoula County
There are 18 Fishing Access Sites listed by MFWP on the Blackfoot River in Missoula Country (mile 2 at Weigh Station to mile 40 at Russell Gates). Four of these sites have campgrounds; eight campsites at Thibodeau, nine campsites at Corricks River Bend, four campsites at Ninemile Prairie and 11 campsites at Russell Gates.
There is another Fishing Access Site on the Clearwater River (Clearwater Crossing) with six campsites and another 14 campsites at the Harpers Lake Fishing Access Site.
That totals 32 campsites between miles 18 and 40 on the Blackfoot River and another 20 campsites on or near the Clearwater River confluence with the Blackfoot.
Enough Scouting, I did get to Fish
So far, this post has been about the logistics (cabin rental, fishing regulations, maps and campsites) of fishing in the Blackfoot River Valley. But yes, I actually got to fish.
North Fork of the Blackfoot River
Earlier, I mentioned I fished at the North Fork of the Blackfoot just inside the Lolo National Forest. I passed by the first easy access at a bridge simply because the access was too easy. I drove farther upstream into the mountains, but there the stream was deep down in the canyon. This would be a fun place to fish if we had more time. I turned around at the North Fork trail head and returned to the easy access area at the bridge.
It was a promising looking little stream, with a deep pool under the bridge. I met some locals that were looking in the pool when we arrived and they assured me it was a decent place to fish despite the easy access. I saw lots of mayflies I would call PMDs coming off the water, but at first, I didn’t see any fish activity.
I fished the deep pool under the bridge for a while with no luck and then moved downstream until I found a small trout that was rising in a pocket behind a rock.
I tried to entice a bite using several of the big ole gaudy flies they sold me at the fly shop; a spruce moth, a purple haze and a big leggy black ant with a white parachute, but no luck. I switched to one of our Provo River PMDs, but still no luck. I feel like I should have gotten a bite, but the gods don’t always smile on us. I am sure I could have caught fish if I changed to a nymph rig, but I simply wanted to fish on top.
We didn’t pack lunch and Sonia was getting hungry even after eating all the thimbleberries along the stream, so we went back to the ranch to make lunch.
Detour to Huckleberry Pass
After lunch, the plan was to drive the Huckleberry Pass Road around Black Mountain and to possibly fish Reservoir Lake or Beaver Creek if they looked promising. But I mainly wanted to fish a few places starting on the upper part of the Blackfoot River below Lincoln and work downstream toward Ovando before it got too dark.
The reservoir was low and muddy, so we continued towards Lincoln. Later I learned the reservoir is not stocked anyway. It was interesting country, very steep with a very dense conifer forest. It would be a hard place to hunt, except for the Ponderosa Pine habitats on the lower elevation BLM land to the south.
The trip over Huckleberry Pass took much longer than anticipated, so I really didn’t leave myself much time to fish before dark. After we got back on hwy 200 near Lincoln, I passed up all the easy fishing access sites on the BLM land next to the road (the proposed Wild and Scenic River areas) and drove farther downstream so I could see as much of the area as possible before it got dark. I stopped at the Cedar Meadows fishing access site on the Blackfoot River which is on the east side of the Helmsville – Ovondo Road.
Honestly, the Blackfoot river at the Cedar Meadows fishing access that time of the year didn’t look very good. The water was low and mossy and on top of that, we had to listen to an irrigation pump across the river. We did get to watch a white-tail doe and her fawn cross the river while I was rigging up.
I made a few casts into the few deep holes that could have held fish, but quickly decided to go farther downstream where the North Fork dumped some fresh water into the Blackfoot.
Back to the North Fork
We drove a few miles north to the Harry Morgan Fishing Access Site, which is actually on the North Fork of the Blackfoot again and not the on Blackfoot River.
I walked upstream from the access area about 100 yards. The North Fork here was much colder and though it also had some moss, it looked much better than the Blackfoot River did at Cedar Meadows. I even had a strike on my first cast using the Spruce Moth and soon caught my first West-slope cutthroat.
It was a little guy, but who cares? It was a trout on a dry fly in a new stream. Luckily it was still light enough to take the photo to prove it.
It soon got dark and we headed back to the Ranch. We were off to Glacier National Park the next few days.
We had planned to visit Yellowstone on the way home from Glacier, but I convinced Sonia we should swing back through the Blackfoot River Valley so I could fish it again. We would have stayed at the Montana Mountain View Ranch again, but they were already booked, so we camped.
Fished and Camped at Harry Morgan Fishing Access Site
We returned to the Harry Morgan site and arrived just before dark. Sonia let me fished while she set up camp. I caught a couple more small cutthroats.
Camping at the Fishing Access Site was very convenient. The Harry Morgan Site has four campsites with picnic tables, a vault latrine, a bear proof food box and a gravel boat launch. The camping fee was only $7 ($12 if you don’t have a fishing license). Currently, there is no fee to park and fish at any of the Montana Fishing Access Sites.
While we camped at the Harry Morgan Fishing Access site, there was only one other group there. Three college students from Rhode Island had driven all the way to Montana to fish before school started. They didn’t know Hoot Owl restrictions had been imposed or removed.
The next morning, we talked to a fishing guide that came to the Harry Morgan site to launch his raft. He confirmed the restrictions had been removed and gave us some fishing advice for the area during the early morning hours.
I only had a few hours to fish and scout that morning and the guide recommended I just hit as many of the fishing access sites going downstream as I could time. I fished the North Fork at Harry Morgan again that morning, but I didn’t catch anything on top. I did watched the college students catch a few on nymphs. Sonia came to find me after she had packed all she could without my help. What a gal!
The next Fishing Access site downstream by boat or raft would have been the River Junction site, but the closest by road on our side of the River was the Monture Creek Fishing Access. We drove to Monture Creek and saw only one other fisherman. He can be seen upstream in the photo of Monture Creek. I walked downstream and fished for about 30 minutes. Again, I only fished on top, but didn’t see any fish rising yet that morning.
I decided to call it quits since we still had a 10 hour drive in front of us. But now that I know how to access the streams and where to stay, you better believe I will be back and fish the area properly.
The Best Time of Year to Fish the Blackfoot River
My fishing buddy recommends we fish the Blackfoot in the spring before the snow runoff begins.
Normal flow in the upper Blackfoot River (measured above the confluence with Nevada Creek) runs just under 200 cubic feet per sec (cfs) between mid August until the end of March. The flow climbs above 400 cfs around April 23rd, then climbs above 600 cfs around May 4th and peaks at over 1,300 cfs around May 28. The Average flow doesn’t drop back below 600 cfs until July 5 and drops below 400 cfs about July 17th (Figure 1).
So for wading the river, it’s probably best to fish the river before the flow reaches 600 cfs or after the runoff dies down after mid July. But in July, the water temperature starts to climb.
Average temperature of the Upper Blackfoot River is above 60° F between July 9 and Aug. 20 (Figure 2). That is a time to avoid if possible. After Sept 9, the average water temperature drops below 55° F.
In the spring, the average temperature doesn’t get above 40° F until the end of March, doesn’t get above 45° F until about April 10 and doesn’t get above 50° F until mid May.
So for wading, the best combination of warming water temperature in the Spring and with flows still under 600 cfs should be between April 10 and May 3rd.
My old friend Barry fished Rock Creek, the Bitterroot River (guided float trip) and the Firehole River in Yellowstone in late September this year. He says that was a perfect time to be there because the crowds were low and the weather was nice… “Was hot and bright sun all day, weather actually too nice“.
My deer and elk hunting seasons start at the end of Sept. and go through the end of October, so mid September would be a possibility for me, but not late Sept..
Either way, mid April or mid September will find me returning to the Blackfoot River area to attempt to fish it properly. We can catch big rainbows, big browns and big whitefish at home, but I, but would love to catch a Bull Trout and some nice West-slope cutthroats.
We might even hire a guide for a day and float the river as well. Maybe we can find a guide that will trade a float trip on the Blackfoot for a couple of days guided fishing on the Provo River (our home waters). If so, I might have a guide I can recommend in the future.
I hope this post has inspired you to consider a DIY fishing trip to one of Montana’s historic trout streams. Leave comments about your Blackfoot River fishing experiences below.