The Big Blackfoot River

The dry fly drifted along the quiet current. A splashy rise interrupted the drift, and the sound that’s music to most anglers’ ears—the screech of a reel as a good fish tears out line—sang out. The trout, most likely a westslope cutthroat trout, made several more runs before it slipped the hook. I couldn’t help laughing as I checked to make sure the trout didn’t break off the fly. It hadn’t, so I blew on the fly to help it dry and then resumed casting.

While catching fish was my immediate goal, another sound, a low-pitched roar, started to assert a different priority.

I was fishing the Blackfoot River, the river of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” A number of times my wife and I have driven through the beautiful Blackfoot valley and we keep thinking that we really should spend a little time there and do some fishing and camping on the river. We finally looked at the calendar and decided that if we were going to do it, this weekend was the time.
We set up camp at a Fishing Access Site on the river’s banks, just inside the Missoula County line, and in the evening I caught several cutthroat trout as the sun dipped below the western mountains.

The next day we drove to a fishing access site upstream from our campground, where I launched my pontoon boat for a float trip back to camp. As it happened, I caught my best fish of the day, a 16-inch or so cutthroat trout, in a quiet pool just out from the launch site. While the fishing for the rest of the float wasn’t as exciting, it was still a pleasant float through a scenic area.

After getting back to camp, we did some touring, taking a trip to the top of the mountains and the old ghost town of Garnet, where we marveled at the hardy miners and their families who somehow followed the colors of gold dust all the way to the mountain tops and established a community up there, with some 1000 people living there with just 13 saloons to keep them happy, during the camp’s heyday. Garnet is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is doing important work to keep the ghost town’s buildings stable and preventing their further decay into the mountainside.

Leaving the mountains, we checked out another takeout site on the Blackfoot, where the Clearwater River flows into the Blackfoot. My wife encouraged me to float that section the next day.

It’s just about the prettiest float you’d imagine, following the river through one scenic spot after another, and fishing likely looking spots.

But then there’s that stretch of water where there’s this roaring sound coming from downstream.

As I approached the end of the run I could see what was coming. The canyon narrows and squeezes the river from about 50 yards wide to about 10 yards wide, with the water plunging through a series of boulder-studded rapids. I pulled the boat over to the side to take a look at where I should go and it looked like straight down the middle was the route to follow. Reminding myself that a bunch of teenagers with inner tubes had gone ahead of me an hour earlier I headed into the current.

It’s a wild ride through the rapids, without much time to plan on a route through the whitewater. All those floats I’ve taken down the Big Hole were gently placid compared to this canyon. I could only guess at what these rapids are like during high water, though the sight of a green canoe, bent inside out and wrapped around one of those big boulders, was a pretty good hint at the power of the river early in the season.

It’s good to know that these little pontoon boats are stable and maneuverable in fast water, though I couldn’t help thinking as I approached the takeout site that at my advancing age it’s a shame to have wasted all that adrenalin on boating.