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"In our family, fly fishing was like religion." So begins Norman Maclean’s great story of two western Montana brothers in the 1930s, A River Runs Through It, made famous by a Robert Redford movie of the same name. If so, then the cathedral where they worshipped was the Big Blackfoot.
From its rugged headwaters on the Divide to its confluence with the Clark Fork of the Columbia near Missoula, the Blackfoot is arguably Montana’s prettiest river and, historically at least, one of its greatest fisheries. To all who love fly fishing, it remains a holy shrine.
The Blackfoot today is a wild, free flowing river with everything a fisherman’s heart could desire – classic pools, riffles and runs; big wild rainbows and browns; big wild cutthroats and bull trout – all in a picture-postcard setting rich with wildlife and miles of public access.
But the Blackfoot is also rich in resources like timber, minerals and hay meadows. Damage from poor management practices extracting these resources devastated the fishery in the years after WWII. Timber cutting brought erosion and siltation from clearcuts and road building, scouring the river of downed-tree habitat so log rafts could float to sawmills more easily. Mining added heavy-metal pollution to more erosion and siltation. Ranching abuses such as overgrazing and misplaced feed plots took a still harsher toll. It’s only fair to add that fishermen caused their share of the damage too, from abusive (though legal) overharvest and illegal poaching.
From all of these impacts combined, the river was in desperate shape by the time Maclean died in 1990 (some say of a broken heart). Spawning beds were suffocated, migrations blocked, adult trout poisoned, survivors stunted, the big fish gone. On my first visit to Missoula about then, local fishing guides and even tourism officials were steering people away from the Blackfoot as a ruined river.
The story of this fabled river’s comeback is an object lesson for our times in how government biologists and private landowners can work wonders when working together. It began in 1976, when a group of local Blackfoot Valley ranchers and landowners approached Montana Fish, Game and Parks officials with a novel proposition. Disturbed by overfishing and trespass, landowners offered a controlled measure of public access to the river’s private sections if the state would bring its police powers to bear and control illegal fishing. Fortunately, some smart people were sitting in state management chairs at the time, and saw this as an unprecedented opportunity to restore the river.
The result became the 30-plus mile "Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor." In effect, this arrangement offers access to the entire river, from its Clearwater tributary downstream to Johnsrud Park a few miles above the Clark Fork, limited only by restricted parking spaces at key public access points. Under Montana’s enlightened "high water mark" policy of trespass rights, once you’re on the river you can walk up or down as far as you want, or step out of a boat to fish the bank. This system, though not perfect, has proven a great success and a model for the New West.
The next big breakthrough came in 1987, when landowners came back with the Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) and asked the government to fix the river’s depleted fishery – another unprecedented request. State biologists spent two years assessing the Blackfoot’s problems, concluding that 17 of 19 headwater tributaries were severely degraded, and that restoration efforts should begin in these critical spawning habitats. With TU raising funds for seasonal help, restoration work began in 1990 and continues today.
In 1992, fly fishing in general and the Blackfoot in particular got a boost from "The Movie," Redford’s acclaimed film of Maclean’s story. This brought a surge of both money and political will to do the job. The US Fish and Wildlife Service joined the partnership, bringing a toolbox of their own with special conservation, prairielands and wetlands easements.
The results have been little short of spectacular. Basinwide, fish numbers of all species tripled or quadrupled from 1989 to 1996. In the middle section where I fished, from 1992 to 1996:
Westslope cutthroats increased 720 percent, largely displacing rainbows by a superior ability to reproduce and survive in cold, high-gradient streams (once they’re cleaned up), with many specimens over 20 inches now caught;
Rainbows declined in numbers, but increased in size, with those over 14 inches increasing 266 percent, often in the five-pound class;
Browns also declined in numbers but increased in size, with those over 12 inches increasing 94 percent and holding steady;
Bull trout, considered an endangered species in Montana, increased 57 percent, despite recruitment losses now understood to be caused by unscreened irrigation ditches.
When I was there earlier this season, guided by Matt Potter of the Kingfisher in Missoula, our day sparkled with two dozen rainbows, cutthroats and cuttbows as large as 15 inches, missing a couple of cutts (fastest of all trout to spit a hook) from 18 to 20 inches.
Throwing streamers on our way back to the car, I hooked and landed a bull trout of about 29 inches and eight pounds. This experience was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, because you can’t legally fish for bull trout here and it’s a crime to kill them. It was a great thrill to see this powerful predator up close, but it was a relief when it recovered and swam away.
Technically a char, like brook trout, bull trout (mistakenly called "Dolly Vardens") look more like a riverine version of lake trout, also a char. Bull trout have gray-green coloration, light peach-orange spots, white belly and big teeth. They can grow to 30 pounds and were once common and easy to catch. They often terrify unsuspecting fly fishers by mangling little cutthroats as they’re brought to hand. In fact, this happened to Potter that day. He swears he once witnessed a bull trout landed this way, not because it was hooked, but because it just refused to let go.
Blackfoot bull trout are hard not to hook inadvertently once in a while when fishing Buggers, Muddlers, Abel Anchovies or other minnow-like flies. This was a point that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt underscored when he chose the Blackfoot this June as a location to announce that bulls are now officially listed as a federally threatened species. He emphasized that this listing is not an "Oh my God, shut down the landscape" kind of step, and should not interfere with an angler’s fishing plans or secret hopes to catch and release one accidentally. In other locations, in fact, it remains legal to keep one a day (Oregon’s Lake Billy Chinook, for example).
Altogether, Norman Maclean would be pleased with what’s happened to repair his beloved Big Blackfoot. But according to Dan Peters, a state biologist with the Blackfoot River restoration effort, the story has only begun. "It will take us a full generation to get across the idea that there’s nothing wrong with ranching, mining, timbering or fishing," Peters says, "just poor management practices that can be improved. The best thing to happen here is that ranchers are now teaching each other, and their children, about improved methods."
The Blackfoot partnership broke the mold of hostility between sportsmen and ranchers, and has shown a new way. With the recent end of Forest Service road-building subsidies for timber companies, its worst enemy now is the McDonald Meadows Gold Mine Project. The archaic 1872 Mining Act may permit this corporate pirate to build the largest cyanide heap-leach field in the world on the Blackfoot headwaters, with a pit a mile wide and 800 feet deep.
Let’s hope recent reforms in federal land management policy can hold the line. For the Blackfoot experience proves that if clean, healthy fish habitat is protected and improved by sensitive land management practices, everything gets better, and the fish will take care of themselves.
First-timers on the Blackfoot are advised to hire a guide. There are three quality shops in Missoula – The Kingfisher (*); Grizzly Hackle (*); and Missoulian Angler (*). Of these, Jim Cox and Matt Potter of the Kingfisher are most highly recommended for their expertise on the Blackfoot. They list the following flies as the keys to success over its seasons: Skwala and nemoura stoneflies and Gray Drake mayflies, pre-runoff; Pteronarcys stoneflies (Salmonflies), Green Drakes and PMDs, June to mid-July; "Yellow Sally" stoneflies, "Orange October" caddis and terrestrials between frosts; Zonkers and Sculpins for big browns in the fall. Once you’ve been initiated, there are 30 gorgeous miles of it you can do on your own. – Hugh Gardner.