The Blackfeet Reservation boasts some of the finest lake fishing for monster trout anywhere in the world - at a fraction of the cost
BLACKFEET INDIAN RESERVATION - "This is crazy," I thought, as lightning lambasted the prairie all around me.
I tried unsuccessfully to block out the unsettling realization that I was the highest point in a 1,500-acre body of water. And if that weren't crazy enough, I was waving a 9-foot graphite lightning rod over my head.
Once or twice I glanced nervously back toward shore and the beckoning shelter of the pickup 50 yards away. But I kept wading slowly in the opposite direction, toward the craggy visage of Chief Mountain far in the distance.
Duck Lake had mesmerized me. I couldn't resist staring into the ever-changing pattern of light and shadow that played across its shallow bottom, searching for shadows that moved - arm-long torpedoes with black-spotted green backs and broad red flanks.
Every once in awhile, one of those torpedoes would home in on the tiny, size 16 orange scud or fish-egg pattern flies that I cast to them, and the surface of the frigid water would explode, my reel would zing, and another wild dance with a Duck Lake rainbow would commence.
"Hold that rod tip a little higher," Joe Spotted Eagle jokingly instructed me, as the lightning crackled ominously nearby.
Spotted Eagle was the personable and knowledgeable guide assigned to me by Dave Parsons, owner of Cut Bank Creek Outfitters in Browning, for two days of fly-fishing the lakes of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation a couple of weeks ago.
In terms of spectacular mountain scenery and trophy trout, the Montana reservation bordering Glacier National Park on the west and Alberta on the north offers angling opportunities rivaling some of the world's most famous trout-fishing destinations, including Argentina, Alaska and New Zealand.
For western Montana fly-fishers seeking an exotic adventure, the Blackfeet Reservation is a close-to-home bargain. Non-tribal members can fish the reservation's 27 lakes and 1,500 miles of streams with the purchase of a tribal fishing permit. A one-day permit costs $20; a three-day permit is $30; and a season permit is $65.
Only members of the Blackfeet Tribe are permitted to guide or outfit on the reservation. Parsons has been guiding on the reservation for 18 years and operating his own fishing and hunting outfitters business for 15. One of two fishing outfitters on the reservation (the other is Joe Kipp), Parsons has eight guides working for him.
Right now - from ice-out in April until about the first of June - is prime time to fish for big trout on the reservation, according to Parsons. And while all the reservation's lakes have a reputation of producing giant trout, Duck Lake, he says, is the No. 1 location on the reservation to catch them.
Five-pound to 10-pound rainbows are frequently caught by fly-casters during Duck's spring fling.
At this time of year, the rainbows cruise the gravely shallows along the shoreline of Duck Lake, futilely following their spawning urges.
"If you want to catch real big rainbows," says Parsons, "this is the best time, because the big ones, after they finish spawning, leave the shoreline and go out in the weeds. There's plenty to eat out there in these lakes. If you get a big one then, you can't get 'em out of the weeds."
Choice of effective fly patterns in the spring can vary from large streamers or leech patterns to tiny orange, yellow and pink scud (freshwater shrimp) and egg patterns.
"It'll change every day," says Parsons. "But the scuds and eggs are pretty basic. Some days you have to completely change. As a matter of fact, it can change in the middle of the day. You might catch some fish on a prince nymph in the morning, and later in the day, the fish won't touch it.
"They're not really feeding this time of year, anyway, when they're spawning. Certain colors make 'em grab it a lot better than others. In the spring, it's usually olive, chartreuse and orange. Leeches in brown, olive and black usually work pretty good everywhere here. Normally, that's what you start with. You just put it in front of 'em and they hit it out of habit."
Duck and the other lakes of the Blackfeet Reservation are stocked annually with fingerling trout by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those fish grow like mad - up to an inch a month during their first four years - in the incredibly fertile, shallow prairie pothole lakes.
"There's so much feed in some of these lakes," says Spotted Eagle, who's been guiding for 10 years, "that it's hard to catch a fish. They're just teeming with all kinds of things - scuds, damsels, dragonflies, leeches, water boatmen, mayflies, caddis, and of course (grass) hoppers."
Spotted Eagle started me out fishing on a chilly April morning with a combination of a red San Juan worm, and a yellow egg pattern as a dropper fly, below a floating strike indicator. Later, he set me up with an orange scud and an egg dropper, which proved to be deadly when I stripped it slowly across the path of the cruisers.
"It's early in the spawn now, so we don't see a lot of trout paired up," Spotted Eagle told me. "They're trying to pod up before they pair up and make their spawning beds. This part of the spawn, if you're lucky, you can locate a pod of 50 to 200 trout. When you find a pod like that, you can catch fish until your arm gets tired. It'll look like a big dark shadow, like a weed bed. And then the weed bed starts moving. That's kind of what we're hoping for today and tomorrow."
Word of the trophy trout fishing on the Blackfeet Reservation has spread throughout the country and around the world, Parsons says. And the popularity that's followed has been good and bad, he says.
"It's changed quite a bit," says Parsons. "When I first started fishing the lakes, hardly anybody was doing it. You could go out and catch 10-pound fish anytime. Now they're mostly four or five pounds because there's so many people fishing for 'em."
Anglers are allowed to keep one trout per day over 20 inches in the reservation lakes. Too many anglers abuse the regulations, according to Parsons.
"But there are still some big ones," he says. "I saw one rainbow that was caught last year that must have been 20 pounds."
Spotted Eagle says his largest rainbow was a 14-pounder that he caught in Duck Lake in the fall on a size 14 scud. Parsons has landed a 16-pound Duck Lake rainbow.
"It's getting so much more popular," says Parsons, "People come from all over. It's probably the best place in the country to catch really big rainbows. A lot of my clients used to go to Alaska. But they say they catch more big ones here now. And it's half the price."
The Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department sold 970 daily fishing permits and 2,700 season permits to non-tribal members last year. The three-day permit wasn't available.
Providing jobs for tribal guides and tourist dollars, the fabulous trout fishery is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak Blackfeet Reservation economy, according to Parsons.
The majority of lakes on the reservation are very shallow prairie potholes, which makes them susceptible to winter kill. So, from year to year, says Spotted Eagle, it's important for an angler to know which ones are producing fish and which have been wiped out. Several lakes that have been popular fisheries in the past have been hard-hit by recent drought conditions, he says.
"Some of the lakes are marginal and go through cycles," he adds. "Most don't have inlet streams. They're just spring-fed. In the late summer, they get real low and we have a lot of winter kill. Goose Lake, back in the '70s, was tremendous for cutthroats. Then it died out and didn't come back until the '90s. Of course, Duck is so big and so deep, it never freezes out. It's real consistent."
A couple of other large lakes on the reservation - Kipp and Mission - also have stable fish populations and consistently produce large trout, according to Spotted Eagle.
"Some of the lakes are now coming back from drought," he says. "They have a lot of 12-to-16-inch fish. To a lot of people, a 16-inch fish is very nice, especially people from the East. We hear that a lot - 'That's the biggest rainbow I ever caught.' All the lakes are in good shape now. The trout just have to grow now. It doesn't take 'em long to get big."
For many years, trophy brook trout were one of the major attractions of the Blackfeet Reservation lakes. But no longer. The lakes that held the big brookies, including Goose, have frozen out, according to Parsons.
"I get people calling me from all over the world looking for the big brook trout," he says. "It's just something I don't think we'll ever get again. We can't get them from the hatcheries any more."
Parsons and Spotted Eagle recommend 6-weight or 7-weight fly rods for most of the lake fishing. The relatively stout rods have the backbone to handle large fish and also to punch casts into the notorious wind that frequently whistles down from the glacier-decked peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front that flank the western edge of the reservation.
Proximity to the front makes weather on the reservation problematic, especially in the spring, Parsons says.
"I tell my clients to be ready for 17-below zero to 77 above," he says.
The prairie foothills can be blanketed with purple crocuses and bathed in sunshine one minute, as it was two weeks ago, and buried with hail or snow the next.
The guides prefer intermediate sinking lines to present nymphs and leech patterns at proper depths in the shallows and over weedbeds. Later in the summer, Parsons says, anglers drop down to lighter 5-weight rods and floating lines for dry-fly fishing during the lakes' prolific hatches of caddis, mayflies and damselflies.
Leader tippets of 3X for nymphs and 4X for dries are the rule.
During the summer, fishing the lakes from a float tube or kick boat helps a fly-caster reach the submerged weedbeds where the trout feed, Parsons says.
"June can be one of the best times, during the damselfly hatch," he says. "Any time I can take the nymphs off and use dries, I love it. You can go to the small lakes where you can catch 70 15-to-20-inch fish on dries. It's a lot of fun."
While having a licensed guide isn't necessary to fish the Blackfeet Reservation waters, there are definite advantages to hiring one, at least for a newcomer or novice angler.
For one thing, except for a few of the larger, well-known lakes, a guide would be a big help in just finding some of the better ones. The Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department provides a map of the lakes with the fishing regulations when you purchase a fishing permit. But the map shows only very general details and major roads.
Another advantage of hiring a guide through either Parsons or Kipp is transportation. Driving to some of the lakes, on often rough, muddy tracks through the prairie can be hard on your shiny SUV - if it can make it at all.
Yet another benefit is a guide's local knowledge of which lakes are currently good fishing, and which may have frozen out in the past year, and even which parts of a particular lake are best to fish at different times.
With time for a little exploring, and basic lake fishing techniques, however, visitors can enjoy discovering some fine angling on their own on the reservation.
A popular reference book, "Fly Fishing the Blackfeet Country" by Robert F. Fairchild, available in many area fly shops and sporting goods stores, provides some good, basic information about fishing the reservation lakes and streams. The book also has detailed maps and descriptions of how to get to the lakes, as well as valuable tips on equipment, technique, fly patterns, an insect hatch chart, and information about area towns and accommodations.
One problem with the book is that it was published in 1993. Some of the information about the lakes is out of date, according to Parsons.
"Some of the lakes in the book don't even have fish in them now," he says, although he adds that the book is generally helpful.
Besides the early spring, Spotted Eagle says, his favorite time for fishing the Blackfeet lakes is in the fall, especially Duck.
"We don't fish Duck much later in the summer," he says, "The fish are hard to locate because it's such a big lake. They spread out. But then in the fall, we start fishing Duck again, when the browns start running. And we fish hoppers. That's really fun to fish for eight-to-10-pound fish with dry flies. They're so strong in the fall, too. A lot of people can't land 'em."
The gauntlet's been thrown down.
Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org