Flathead Lake in Montana seen from the south.

What to Know Before You Go Fishing in Flathead Lake

If you love to fish, then Flathead Lake is one of the places to go when you’re in western Montana.

Located just 40 miles south of Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake is another beautiful natural landmark under the Big Sky that was born out of the glacial waters of the ancient Lake Missoula of the ice age.

The depth, clarity, and chilly waters of Flathead Lake makes it a prime place for fishing. Here’s an intro guide for what you need to know for fishing on Flathead Lake.

What Fish Can You Catch in Flathead Lake? 

Flathead Lake is home to a variety of fish, some of which can regularly grow to be over three feet in length (looking at you, lake trout)! In addition to lake trout, you’ll find pike, whitefish, rainbow trout, yellow perch, kokanee salmon, and bull trout swimming around Flathead Lake.

There are also rumors of white sturgeons in the lake, but those have rarely been caught and when they are, it’s often been shrouded in controversy — with people saying the fish didn’t originate in the lake and were moved there for fishing contests. So, you probably aren’t going to catch a 7-foot long white sturgeon whose ancestors lived in the Prehistoric Age…but you never know! 

After all, Flathead Lake has a maximum depth of over 370 feet so who knows what type of monstrous fish are hanging out down there. Just don’t catch the Flathead Monster. 

Wait, the what?

Curious about the Flathead Monster? Read about it in this green box, otherwise skip past it to find out what equipment you need for Flathead lake fishing. 

The Flathead Monster: a Montana Tale

Sightings of a monstrously large, undefined creature skimming across the surface of the water in Flathead Lake go back to 1889. Numerous sightings (over 75 have been documented since 1889!) have been reported and they all talk about a massive creature that looks like a large eel making its way through the water. 

If there is a creature, it’s likely to be one of those aforementioned elusive white sturgeons. The Polson Flathead Historical Museum in Polson even claims to have the “Nessie of Flathead Lake” mounted in its museum; it’s a 7.5-foot, 181-pound sturgeon caught in the lake in 1955. Back at the time, there was controversy if it was actually a native fish of the lake or if someone had planted some white sturgeon. Regardless, it was definitely caught in the lake! And maybe there are still some other sturgeons waiting to be caught…or other monsters lurking in the depths… 😉 

If you’re interested in learning more about the Flathead Monster during your time fishing in Flathead Lake, make a side trip to the museum, where you can learn more about the sightings and even thumb through a book detailing each reported account of seeing the Flathead Monster. 

Are there Catch and Release Restrictions for Flathead Lake Fishing

Short answer: Yes, and make sure you brush up on it before going fishing in Flathead Lake. 

The catch and release restrictions are important to comply with. The fishing on Flathead Lake is jointly controlled by the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (the Flathead Reservation is located just northeast of Flathead Lake) under the Flathead Lake and Fisheries Co-Management Plan. 

Protecting the various trout populations is a key aspect of the cooperative agreement, particularly for the bull trout and cutthroat trout to make sure they stay at sustainable levels. If a bull trout doesn’t yet have a black dorsal fin, it must be released. For cutthroat trout, you can catch it as long as it has some black on it, with the motto to remember being “no black put it back.” Fish you don’t have to worry about whether or not you can keep it? The nonnative species like yellow perch and lake whitefish that the coop is trying to eradicate from the lake so native fish can flourish better. 

What Equipment Do I Need for Flathead Lake Fishing? 

To catch the really big lake trout, you’ll want to head to the deep waters of the lake and have long lines since lake trout like to hang out close to the bottom where it’s cold. Downriggers and steel lines are typically needed for this type of ambitious Flathead Lake fishing since depth can reach up to 100 feet. 

If you’re more of a leisurely fisherman, looking for a lazy day of fishing off the back of a boat or a dock, then you just need a line and a reel, plus some bait that will attract the fish of Flathead Lake. 

If you’re not sure about the exact equipment you need, this doc from Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks has excellent information plus detailed diagrams and protocol for what fish you’re allowed to keep and what must be immediately released. 

Flathead Lake Fish Shops 

Don’t want to travel with your own fishing pole…or don’t have one ideal for Flathead Lake? No problem! There are many places to rent fishing equipment, from fishing poles to fishing boats around Flathead Lake. Bait shops are also around if you need to replenish your bait supply or try some new lures. 

A couple to check out are Bigfork Anglers Fly Shop and Howe’s Fishing-A Able & Mo Fisch Charters, both of which are located in Bigfork.

Can I Fly Fish in Flathead Lake? 

Well, you could I guess, but the lake is really not the place to do fly fishing in Montana; the rivers are. Luckily, though, you’re close to some of the best fly fishing in Montana when you’re visiting Flathead Lake: Swan River and Yellowstone River, where you have the chance to catch some rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, and northern pike. 

Read More: Activities Guide for Flathead Lake

Do You Need a License to Fish in Flathead Lake?

Yes, you will need a government-issued Montana fishing license, and you will also need a tribal license from the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes. You can find out more about the specific license you need depending on your age and the way you’ll be fishing here. This also include fishing from the shores of Flathead Lake State Parks that border the reservation.

Now you’re all ready for some fun Flathead Lake fishing! Just watch out for that Flathead Monster. 😉

Read More: The Best Lakes in Glacier National Park

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