Call of the Wild Cutthroats

Call of the Wild Cutthroats

Chasing cutthroat trout in Montana's Glacier National Park

  • By: R. C. Hooker
  • Photography by: Darrel Coverdell
  • and Clint Walker

One pair of socks, two, three pairs, four. I was afraid to ask why my fishing buddy, Neech, kept stuffing his pack with socks. A new foot fetish? "It's like this," he said, noticing my psychoanalytical gaze. "It's 10 miles to Camas Lake on a good trail. And after that," his voice dropped an octave, "we kinda make our own trail. For another three miles."

"That's 26 miles roundtrip," I said. "With a three-mile bushwhack? In prime bear country!"

"Come on, she's world class. You'll fall in love with her."

The "her," in this case, was Lake Evangeline, a den of iniquitous beauty and home to trophy cutthroat trout. Adding to the allure was the fact that we weren't in Yogi and Boo Boo's crowded backyard, Yellowstone; we were about to enter Montana's overlooked and under-fished paradise, Glacier National Park.

With more than 60 fishable lakes in Glacier, 100 miles of big-river float fishing and another 100 miles of smaller streams and creeks, the park's greatest challenge may be trying to figure out which lake, river or stream to fish first. Fortunately, not all of them require a death-march undertaking. Those long overnighters merely grant us the rare opportunity to cast over fish unaffected by effete pedigrees, like the snobby trout we find in places like the Henry's Fork or the Bighorn.

By the way, the difference between an over-nighter and a day-hike depends on what I call the "beer-to-doughnut ratio:" The bigger your gut, the less likely you are to engage in marathon daytrips. But how far can you go, and how fast? Remember, not all miles are created equal. What matters is the overall gain in elevation and the pitch of the ascent. As for distance, use 3 mph if you are an experienced hiker and 2 mph for the egregiously pear-shaped. It is paramount to know exactly how long the hike in and out will take. You do not want to be caught out on a trail in the middle of the night. With visions of fish porn dancing in our heads, Neech and I began the trek up and over Howe Ridge's 2,000 vertical feet. As soon as we crested the ridgeline, I noticed some nasty-looking clouds scudding in from the west. Extreme weather changes are a common occurrence in Glacier, particularly during the summer, where you can go from shorts to needing snowpants in minutes. "It's not going to snow," Neech intoned with confidence, something he is prone to do when he has no clue as to what's happening.

"I'm not worried about snow."

"Well, you look worried."

Truth be told, it wasn't the weather that was on my mind; huge hairy phantoms were turning my brave heart into cowardly mush. On the same August night in 1967, two people were attacked and killed in separate incidents by grizzlies and one of them was at Trout Lake. To make matters worse, Camas Creek is known as "bear valley."

By the time we reached Trout Lake an hour later, I had forgotten all about the gnashing of ursine teeth on human bone upon seeing the lake up close for the first time. Standing on the pebbled shore, I looked down the long, narrow defile. The jade-green water appeared mystical, in a Loch Nessian sort of way. But all mysticism vanished when I spotted a rise near the outlet. And then another. Neech, who was changing his socks, wasn't impressed. "We still have a 7-mile hike to the campground. We'll fish after we set up camp." "Go ahead without me. I'll just be a few minutes." I quickly shed my 500-pound pack and began to assemble my 9-foot, 6-weight travel rod. "I have a trout to catch." Neech then saw a nice swirl, about 40 feet out. "On second thought, we have plenty of time to set up camp," he said.

While Neech rigged up, I examined the water more closely. Because lakes in the park are fed by glacial runoff, nutrient levels are not sufficient to sustain large insect populations. The ubiquitous insect order, Diptera (to which mosquitoes belong), is an exception. In order to thrive on such slim pickings, the trout have evolved into opportunistic feeders, cruising in search of organic vittles, mostly terrestrials. Since I didn't see a discernible hatch or any land bugs, I decided to play the odds and go with an attractor pattern. After tying a size 16 Renegade onto a 12-foot leader tapered to 5X, I hunkered down to wait for another cruiser. I like to think that my approach to fly-fishing backcountry lakes is more science than art. I credit this to experiments done by the late Gary LaFontaine, a grand master of fly-fishing innovation. Gary postulated that the profusion of terrestrials in alpine lakes is due to anabatic (upslope) winds. These thermal drafts arise when sunlight falls unequally on the mountain tops and the valley floors. The energy created by the disparate currents literally sweeps insects from the ground into the air and, as the warm air cools, deposits them on the lake. In effect, it amounts to a "hatch" of terrestrials. Impatient, I stripped out some line and dropped the Renegade 10 feet from where I saw the first rise. The take was so subtle I nearly missed it. The tug of war lasted a respectable three or four minutes, pretty standard for the 12 inches of westslope radiance at my feet. After the requisite moment of admiration, I reached down and slid my fingers along the leader, trying to release the fish without touching it; I didn't want to wear Eau de Trout and smell like a bear's dinner all day. In the meantime, Neech had put on a foam beetle and in a half-dozen casts was on to a cutthroat. We took turns casting to cookie-cutter trout in the log-strewn outlet. They weren't big, but they were cooperative.

Both of us were so engrossed in our rapturous reveries that we failed to notice that the clouds had changed from dark gray to a threatening charcoal. Nor did we notice the two rangers coming down the trail, one of whom was carrying a large gun.

"Area's closed," said the one with the gun.

"The campground too?" Neech asked.

The other ranger nodded. "Female griz with cubs…"

"Is in the area," said the one with the gun, Dragnet style.

Neech and I looked at each other. I shrugged philosophically. It could have been worse.

If lakes aren't your gig, or the mere thought of hiking tires your spirit, there are two large rivers to check out in Glacier. The North Fork of the Flathead River flows south out of Canada and forms the 48-mile western boundary of the park. The Middle Fork of the Flathead River originates deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, flows through the Great Bear Wilderness and then exits, forming the 42-mile southern boundary of the park. Both corridors are officially recognized as part of the National Wild& Scenic Rivers System. (The Blackfeet Indian Reservation defines the eastern boundary.)

The North and Middle forks of the Flathead are home to a rich population of westslope cutthroat that are consummate risers all season. The fly-fishing has gotten even better since catch-and-release regulations were instituted for the entire Flathead system. The average size cutt has gone from 9 inches to a healthy 12, and they come in quantity. Local guides are seeing more trout in the 20-inch range, as well.

The North Fork is the colder drainage and has a later runoff, ending generally in the first week of June. Even though the cutthroat are a bit smaller, a leisurely half-day float can still put 20 to 30 nice fish in your memory bank. There is also a smattering of rainbows and oodles of whitefish.

For some odd reason Neech tells me that he hears the theme from the movie Deliverance every time he fishes the North Fork. It's not that the locals are banjo-strumming inbreeds, but they can be standoffish, which is why the 38-mile road remains a rutted, potholed, dusty cattle path. But it does keep the riffraff out (Neech excluded), and the pressure down.

When I moved to the area 25 years ago, I landed a job with the Glacier Natural History Association. It was a horrible job, having to work in the park every day. Naturally, I carried a fly rod along with my lunch box. One of my favorite noontime escapes was Moccasin Creek, where the river narrows after meandering through Nyack Flats. The small cutts were always easy to please. Once in a while I would hook a 12-incher among the small fry. Over time I learned that if you want to catch pounders on the Middle Fork, go with big flies. What kind? The usual suspects work wonders: Woolly Buggers, large attractors, Stimulators, any soft-hackled nymph of the olive persuasion. Be careful, however. Parts of the river contain Class III and IV rapids and wading can be treacherous. I know because I lost four of my nine lives one day when I panicked trying to defy gravity, but that's another story. (Never trust information from someone at the Moose Drool Saloon.)

If there's a caveat to this million-acre Eden, it comes in the form of seductive ladies named Evangeline who tempt us to undertake grueling hikes with promises of once-in-a-lifetime fly-fishing in a wild setting. Although we may cling to those fish-filled dreams forever, the vagaries of nature remind us of our small place in the cosmos. Whether it's a trail-closing wildlife event, a wildfire or an unexpected snowstorm, you have to prepare for the worst. But with its numerous lakes and rivers, in the front-country or back, Glacier National Park has something to suit every angler's fancy. And if what Emerson said is true, that life is an ecstasy, there is no better way to experience that ecstasy than to immerse yourself in the vastness of Glacier's landscape. The sheer grandeur will stir within you an atavistic yearning to appreciate those hidden meanings of life, in profound solitude. (Enjoy the harmony now, though, for in today's rapidly changing world Glacier's magic may not last forever.) Eloquent polemics aside, I plan to heed the call of the wild trout again this season. In fact, I've got a hot date with a cool chick named Evangeline. I told Neech that my socks are already packed.

R.C. Hooker is a freelance writer who lives in Montana.