100 Best: Blackfoot River
Location: Western Montana
Type of stream: Freestone
Angling methods: Fly, Spin
Species: Browns, Rainbows, Cutthroat, Bull Trout
Season: Varies. If catch and release—All year
Supporting Services: Missoula
Short take: Great access, thanks to Lindberg’s son Land and his friends
Handicapped Access: None
Closest TU Chapter: Big Blackfoot
In 1976, Land Lindbergh and a group of neighboring landholders along the lower Blackfoot River signed an agreement providing a 50-foot wide public access easement to 26 miles of this blue ribbon trout stream, from Russell Gates Campground down to the Johnsrud access, ensuring that anglers could fish and rafters could float it forever. Downriver from the campground, the river drops about 10 feet per mile as it flows along the southern edge of Nine-mile Prairie. Exiting the flat near Clearwater Campground, the Blackfoot’s gradient doubles.
This was Norman McLean’s favorite run of river. Hear him describe it in his novella A River Runs Through It:
On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek, the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon, the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.
From where he stood, the river sweeps toward him from the west. It foams around big boulders and glides into pools that turn from brownish beryl at their heads to deep loden in their depths. Below is a run of pocket water which vanishes as the river rounds another bend. This is the way of the Blackfoot to its mouth at Bonner.
Throughout its 132 mile length, the personality of the river changes. Near Lincoln, the uppermost reaches flow though a boggy plain and at the height of summer it seeps underground. Resurfacing, it flows for a few miles before entering a short canyon and breaking free at Coughlin to cross the bed of an ancient glacial lake.
Until 2011, the mouth of the Blackfoot was barred by a dam. Its removal opened the river to west-slope cutthroat coming up from the Clark Fork. This the latest victory achieved by The Blackfoot Challenge, the lineal descendant of a group of 40 watershed residents who banded together in 1976 to form the Blackfoot Chapter of TU to fight mining in the upper watershed. The Blackfoot Challenge is a model of stakeholder collaboration for watershed protection. McLean would have been pleased.