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Bigfork, Montana Area Chamber of Commerce

Where Great Fishing Begins

It is quiet here.  A path winds its way through a grove of trees. At one point it crosses a bubbling creek. In some places, it follows the age-old trail created by generations of deer as they move from field to creek foraging for food and water.  Overhead, the eagles and osprey are a common sight. In the spring, the route is bright with wildflowers.  In the fall, the reds, oranges and yellows take over. Less than a mile from one of the Flathead Valley’s major highways, you’ll find the Creston National Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Center.

Before there was a fish hatchery, there was a mill and a small town surrounded by some of the valley’s prime agricultural land.  Today the area is known as Creston.  In the late 1800’s, it acquired the name of Jessup.  It was Herbert Jessup who built a timber and earthen dam at the site.  This new dam created Jessup Mill Pond, providing a source of power for a sawmill and a grist mill. At its peak, the sawmill produced up to 30,000 board feet of lumber per day, providing wood for homes, barns and other buildings.

At one point, this prosperous little town even boasted a brewery, attracted by the abundance of grain and clear, fresh water.  But the Great Depression brought hardship and the mills ceased operation.

In the mid-1930’s the National Park Service purchased the site and created the Glacier Park Fish Hatchery to provide fish for the lakes and rivers of Glacier National Park. That mission has expanded from the Park to all of Montana. Today the Creston National Fish Hatchery provides trout for fishery management activities on Montana’s seven Tribal Reservations and as stock fish for mitigation purposes under the Hungry Horse Dam program. It also provides trout for cooperative programs with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, including supplementing the populations of area lakes such as Echo Lake and Whitefish Lake. It’s all part of reaching a goal— to increase recreational fishing opportunities in Montana.

Creston is one of three hatcheries in the Flathead Watershed and the closest to Bigfork.  The Flathead Lake State Fish Hatchery on the west shore of Flathead Lake specializes in kokanee salmon while the Jocko River State Fish Hatchery near Arlee produces the Arlee Rainbow.  Here in Creston, the hatchery raises two strains of rainbow trout (Eagle Lake and Arlee) and one strain of westslope cutthroat trout. And they raise a lot of fish.  The hatchery averages 750,000 rainbow and 150,000 westslope cutthroat a year.  And all end up in Montana waters.

More than 3000 people make their way through the hatchery every year.  Many are part of school or youth group tours.  But families are encouraged to visit and learn more about hatchery operations and to enjoy the nature trail and other facilities.

The process begins when “eyed” eggs from other Montana hatcheries are delivered to Creston. After a short incubation period, the fish hatch and are placed in tanks in the “Nursery” building.  When they are about 3 inches long, they are taken from the tanks and moved to the outside raceways.

Why raise fish when there seem to be plenty of fish in Montana’s lakes and streams?  Well, sometimes, conditions are not suitable for fish to reproduce in the wild.  The hatchery fish will replenish and encourage sustainable fish trout populations in lakes and reservoirs throughout Montana.

The water for the hatchery comes from springs that bubble up into Jessup Mill Pond. The water flows into Mill Creek and the pond and creek provide the water for the Hatchery. A new water treatment system eliminates most of the fish waste from the Hatchery water before it is returned to Mill Creek.

Be sure to bring your binoculars and cameras when heading to the hatchery. And pack a picnic if you want to enjoy the day. The Nature Trail was built in 2007 with the help of two Eagle Scout candidates, Connor Tice and Brandon Karschnik along with other members of Whitefish Boy Scout Troop 17.  It follows some of the deer trails that have been here for years.

Brochures are available at the start of the trail.  Take one and make sure you stop at all 13 of the photo stations along the way. Each station represents another aspect of nature or hatchery operations.

Visitors are encouraged to take their time. Walk slowly and quietly to observe the wildlife and listen for the various birds warbling overhead.  Patient observers might spot a red fox, white tailed deer, black bear or maybe even a raccoon or coyote. In addition to smaller birds such as robins and nuthatches, the fish attract osprey, bald eagles, great blue herons and kingfishers.  And the ponds attract a number of migrating waterfowl every year. You never know what might stop for a day or two.  A couple of years ago, birders were thrilled to spot red headed ducks that had never been seen in the area before.

One stop along the trail is the Classroom by the Creek, a creek-side amphitheatre used as an outdoor classroom by local schools and other groups. The Hatchery hosts a Fish Fun Fair for third graders every May.  And they provide fish for programs such as “Hooked on Fishing”, school science classes and local children’s fishing ponds at special events.

There’s a picnic table overlooking Jessup Mill Pond and a new Picnic Pavilion perfect for schools, families and larger groups. Groups are asked to call the office to make a reservation for the pavilion. And plans are well underway for new “Nature Explore” outdoor classrooms to be added this coming summer.

The Creston National Fish Hatchery is one of those wonderful surprises visitors discover when they come to the Bigfork area.  This attraction never closes. The Hatchery is open 365 days a year from 8 am until 4 pm.  Group tours can be arranged for Monday through Thursday.  Just call the office.

This is the perfect spot for a picnic, a short hike, bird watching, a wildlife photo opportunity, or just a short respite.  But remember, if you bring that picnic lunch, bring a trash bag and “pack it in and pack it out”. As one of the nature trail stations reminds us, this is an area where we should “Leave only footprints and take only pictures.  Or we might add “Capture family memories for a lifetime”.

To learn more about Bigfork and the surrounding area, visit  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at 406-837-2061.

Listed in Outdoor Recreation

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