I’ve been thinking about writing a trip summary of the South Fork of the Flathead for a couple years now, but avoided doing so for fear that I would increase the number of people floating it. Ultimately, this might reduce the “remote” feel, lower the fishing quality and likely make it Montana’s second permit-only-river. However, lots of people have published magazine articles on the topic so this piece will just be a drop in the bucket. Unfortunately most of those articles are more on the inspiring side and less on the practical. I also own a packraft rental company, Backcountry Packrafts, so my business benefits greatly from the popularity of this river. There is definitely the possibility of the river becoming permitted in the near future, but if pack rafters continue to act as low impact backpackers, there is a chance that the river will continue to be open to anyone who wants to raft it.
This summary might be more than you want to know, but hopefully it will be informative if you are actually planning on doing the trip. If you have specific questions please feel free to contact me.
|Confluence of the White and South Fork|
The South Fork of the Flathead in Montana is perhaps the most popular packraft rivers in the lower-48. There are 3 main reasons for this as I see it:
- 1. It is very scenic. Especially toward the end of the trip, going into Meadow Creek Gorge. The deep green water and the canyons make for some great pictures.
- 2. It is also very remote. It is located in one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower-48. For much of the trip you are 30 miles from the nearest road. So you can really get away from it all!
- 3. The fishing is good. Not as good as the first time I fished it 5+ years ago, in my pre-packraft days, but still good. It is also one of the only places you can legally target bull trout in Montana and maybe the Northwest. According to 2016 regulations it is open the 3rd Saturday in May through July for Bull Trout catch and release. Keep in mind that is only on the South Fork and not any tributaries, you also can’t keep them and technically you are supposed to get a free bull trout targeting “stamp” on your license (as of 2016 regs).
I have done it three times now, the first and third times via Young’s Creek and the second time via the White River. The first and third time we entered the Bob (Bob Marshall Wilderness) via the Young’s Creek Pass off of Monture Creek(just north of Ovando, MT) and the second we started from Bench Mark (West of Augusta, MT) and went in on the South Fork of the Sun then up and over White River Pass. The White River trip was supposed to involve floating the White River but the water was so low (July 20th on a dry year) that we ended up just hiking to the confluence with the Flathead.
|Getting ready to float in 2014|
- 1. I have done all my trips in July and only been rained on for one-half day. None of our trips were bad for mosquitoes and we have only seen one bear (black) in all of those days out, but prepare for all these things! Rain jacket, bear spray and bug spray! Time of year matters for water levels, the later you go the more you’ll have to portage. Early-mid July is probably best for flows and fishing but it depends on the year. Fires are also a consideration...they can happen at any time, but are likely at the end of July and throughout August- smokey air and trail closures being the main problems resulting from them.
- 2. If you want to have a more relaxing trip, do one long day of hiking your first day and then float the rest of the trip (its 16-18 miles of hiking over Young’s Creek Pass to the first float-able stretches of Young’s Creek). If you go in over Young’s Creek Pass start as early as possible because it gets hot on the south side of the pass and there isn’t water until you get over the top. Look for huckberries on the way down. The White River trip was prettier but demoralizing because we floated (on the Sun River) and then hiked almost two days and then floated two more.
- 3. The gorge section of Young’s Creek can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never packrafted before. If the water is low, it isn’t too high consequence (meaning there aren’t any hydros that will kill you) but there are lots of rocks and you will probably scrape your boat a lot and possibly tip (which would be a bummer because you’d have several days of wet gear). All that said, my friends and I did it and made it through having minimal prior packraft experience. Not sure how it would be in high water though. You can easily hike around it on the trail if it is intimidating.
- 4. The first floatable stretch on Young’s and the first few miles of the South Fork of the Flathead often have log jams. Be prepared to portage….but that is one plus of a packraft – easy portages (attach your packraft with the backpack straps up and you can just walk with the raft on your back and carry your rod and paddle).
- 5. The ranger station at Big Prairie is worth the stop. Drink some tang and have an Oreo. Talk to the rangers and get a tour. You’re pretty much walking into a small 1870s settlement due to the restrictions on technology in wilderness areas. You can also see a plane wreck just inside the fence which is pretty cool. Big Prairie is located at the first pack-bridge that goes over the South Fork.
- 6. Sweet side-trips that we have done include: Mud Lake Lookout and Salmon Lake. On the third trip we went up to Haystack mountain and from it you can see the famed Chinese Wall. It is about a 20 mile round trip so start early and bring lots of water. It is worth the view! I’ve heard of people doing the whole trip in 4 days, but I would recommend at least 6 because you won’t feel rushed.
- 7. There is one rapid that has tipped at least one person in our group every year on the last day. It is hard to see coming up but if you pay attention to the elevation drop of the river, you can see it. If you don’t see til you’re almost there you can probably skirt it to the right if you paddle hard. Otherwise, lean forward and paddle hard through the rapid. It isn’t a bone crusher, but you might lose your sunglasses and anything else that isn’t attached.
- 8. The last day of the trip you will see a sign that says something like “take-out ¼ mile”. Get on the “river right” at this point. There will be another sign shortly, but the river increases in speed and splashy rapids right at the take-out point so you might miss it if you aren’t ready. If you do miss it….once again thank God you are a packrafter, because you can easily get out of the pool after the take-out and climb over the small rocky embankment with your packraft in hand or on your back. If you don't get out here, you need to have a helmet and be ready for class VI rapids.
- 9. You will hike out 3 miles from the take-out to the Spotted Bear Trail Head parking lot. From Spotted Bear it is an hour at least, on a dusty road back to Hungry Horse, MT (keep your eyes peeled for huckleberries on the way). There is no restaurant in Hungry Horse that has all three of the magic trifecta (burgers, fries and shakes), but you can mix and match with the Huckleberry Patch and the Elk Horn Grill. Or you can go East to Coram and the Glacier Grill. You will be hungry at this point!
- 10. Regarding shuttling- after publishing this blog, I found out that there is indeed a shuttle service that runs vehicles around the Bob although no-one advertises for it. Four Rivers Shuttle and Boat Rental, based out of Missoula, can shuttle your vehicle pretty much anywhere around the Bob.
- 11. Don't forget forest rangers are the law back there and they (one in particular) follow it to the letter! On a different trip into the Bob we had to turn around and go back because my friend's fishing license had disappeared out of his pack. The ranger wouldn't budge, or call in to verify his license. I also had 3 renters get fined $80/person in the Bob because they didn't have life jackets in their boats.
|Day 3 log jam portage|
|From Big Prairie|
If you are hoping to delay this river becoming a permit river, I would suggest:
1. Having your fires below the high water mark.
2. Picking up other people's trash if you see it.
3. Not cutting other boats off or paddling through fishing holes that people are fishing
4. Fly fishing instead of spin fishing
5. Pulling your barbs down
6. Limiting how many holes you fish
7. Fishing more for bull trout, because you won't catch as many cut-throuts and the ones you catch will be bigger
8. Pulling your fish in quickly and taking the hook out in the water
It might be inevitable that it will be a permitted river just because of the sheer number of vessels packrafting brings but this will slow it.