mcdonald creek montana cutthroat trout

Fishing Lower McDonald Creek in Montana

Lower McDonald Creek is a deep and clear stream contained within Glacier National Park in Montana. Formed by the outflow of Lake McDonald at Apgar, this short stream is home to several species of fish and rather good fishing. Catch-and-release regulations help preserve fishing quality here.

The Upper McDonald Creek feeds Lake McDonald. Despite its natural beauty, that large and easily accessible creek does not hold many fish. So most of fishing in the area is done in the lake or the creek or down in the Lower McDonald.

mcdonald creek rainbow troutA decent McDonald Creek rainbow

The Lower McDonald flows for near two-and-a-half miles before emptying into the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The water is deep yet swift with plenty of bends, holes, and big undercut banks. Access is easy along both sides of the stream. Crossing the stream is only possible in a few spots.

Lake McDonald is the most visited area in all of Glacier National Park. Lower McDonald Creek gets a good amount of fishing pressure around the campground at Apgar, but it is nothing like the combat fishing around the Great Lakes. There are a lot of fish in McDonald Creek and it’s normally possible to catch a few of them with the right approach.

Fish species in McDonald Creek

The Lower McDonald is less than three miles long. Yet it holds a lot of fish. I mean that in terms of absolute numbers and variety of species. Lower McDonald Creek is home to cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, mountain whitefish, cutbows and even the occasional lake trout. Bull trout are supposedly present in limited numbers. I’ve heard they were common years ago. I haven’t seen any here in recent years. In any case they are protected and must be immediately returned to the water.

Although they are not mentioned anywhere that I’ve seen, brook trout can also show up in this stream. I don’t know where they originated. But I’ve caught enough brook trout here to confirm that personally. I’ve watched others catch brookies here too.

mcdonald creek montana brook trout One of many brook trout caught in McDonald Creek

The fish are spread out pretty evenly in this creek. I can’t point to any particular area where you would find one fish over another. I’ve caught whitefish, rainbow trout, and cutthroats out of the same run in a matter of minutes. You may be more likely to get a lake trout near the outlet of the lake. Otherwise the entire stream offers good fishing for all the species present.

Lower McDonald Creek is not stocked with fish. So any fish you catch here either bred in the stream or migrated from somewhere else. In fact, fish are not stocked in Glacier National Park at all. The native and introduced species are fully capable of reproducing themselves.

Fishing McDonald Creek

People commonly fish Lower McDonald Creek with an assortment of attractor flies and spinning lures. Attractor flies are usually fished on 6 weight fly rods or with spinning rods using casting bubbles. I think there are better ways to fish here, and my experience bears that out.

cutthroat trout from mcdonald creekAn average McDonald Creek cutthroat

I have fished Lower McDonald Creek many times. I have always caught fish. I use flies like the San Juan Worm and squirmy worm and soft plastic lures like the Custom Stonefly Nymph. These can all be fished with either fly or spinning gear using light line. The key is to get the fly or lure down near the bottom then drift it naturally with the current. The fish in the Lower McDonald are opportunist feeders. They will normally attack a realistic insect replica that comes their way as long as its presented in the right way. I’ve caught rainbows, cutthroats, whitefish, and brook trout here with these flies and lures.

If you want to fish a worm fly or soft plastic insect on spinning gear use clear fishing line in the 2 to 4 pound range. This is a fairly big stream but there isn’t much cover so you have plenty of room to fight fish. As long as you use a light rod with a decent reel and set your drag you can get away with light line. If you’re using fly gear use a long clear leader with a 3-5x tippet. Fluorocarbon is less visible to fish and sinks to help your fly get down near the bottom.

Attaching a float like a Rogue River Strike Indicator several feet up from your fly or lure will let you know how your rig is drifting and indicate takes from fish. If the indicator hesitates or goes under water, set the hook. If the float drags behind the current or jets downstream leaving a wake, something is wrong. You want a natural dead drift that matches the flow.

mcdonald creek mountain whitefishThis whitefish hit a pink squirmy worm

Lead tackle is not allowed in Glacier Park. I use soft tungsten putty instead. You can kneed a ball of it onto your line in the shape of a split shot. Once it hits the cold water it hardens. You can also slide a tungsten bead on a hook then run it through a soft plastic nymph or trout worm. I stick with hooks in the size 10 to 14 range here. Pink and purple are great colors for worm flies and soft plastics on this creek, but black works too.

McDonald Creek fishing regulations

No fishing license is required to fish in Glacier National Park. You do need to pay to access the park itself however. Payment for park access can be made at any of the gates stationed along park access points. In off times when no park employees are present, you can drop off a payment in the provided envelopes. Or you can get an annual pass.

Lake fishing is open all year in Glacier Park. Streams and rivers are open from the third Saturday in May until November 30. Native fish caught in the Flathead River Drainage, which would include the Lower McDonald, must be released. The native species in the watershed are bull trout, mountain whitefish, suckers, northern pikeminnow and westslope cutthroat trout. There is no limit on non-native species in the watershed. Non-native species here include brook trout, lake trout, lake whitefish and rainbow trout.

You can only use flies and artificial lures on a single pole when fishing the Lower McDonald or the lake above. You cannot use felt soled waders or lead fishing products anywhere in the park. Under previous rules, fishing in the Lower McDonald was restricted to catch-and-release fishing using artificial lures with a single hook. But I don’t see anything in the current regulations that even mentions McDonald Creek or Lake.

From my reading of the current regulations, lures with treble hooks would be permitted and so would the taking of non-native fish. While I am not a national park ranger, but I do know how to read. To the best of my knowledge, this is accurate as of the time of writing. Of course regulations are subject to change. For current regulations be sure to check the Glacier National Park website.

McDonald Creek fishing at a glance

Fish species present: brook trout, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, cutbow trout, mountain whitefish, lake trout, bull trout
Closest tackle shops: Glacier Outfitters, Lary's Fly and Supply
Recommend line: 2-4 lb monofilament / 3-5x leader
Recommended bait / lures: Custom Stonefly Nymph, Custom Mayfly Nymph, Trout Magnet Mayfly Nymph
Recommended flies: San Juan Worm, squirmy worm
Nearby hotels: Apgar campground, West Glacier Motel, Reclusive Moose Cabins

Leave a Reply