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Flathead Lake

Coordinates: 47°54′6″N 114°6′15″W / 47.90167°N 114.10417°W / 47.90167; -114.10417
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Flathead Lake
člq̓etkʷ (Kalispel-Pend d'Oreille)
yawuʔnik̓ ʔa·kuq̓nuk (Kutenai)
Location of Flathead Lake in Montana, USA.
Location of Flathead Lake in Montana, USA.
Flathead Lake
Location of Flathead Lake in Montana, USA.
Location of Flathead Lake in Montana, USA.
Flathead Lake
LocationLake / Flathead counties, Montana, US
Coordinates47°54′6″N 114°6′15″W / 47.90167°N 114.10417°W / 47.90167; -114.10417
TypeMoraine-dammed lake
Primary inflows
Primary outflowsFlathead River
Catchment area8,587 sq mi (22,240 km2)
Basin countriesUnited States
Max. length27.3 mi (43.9 km)[1]
Max. width15.5 mi (24.9 km)[1]
Surface area197 sq mi (510 km2)[2]
Average depth164.7 ft (50.2 m)
Max. depth370.7 ft (113.0 m)[1]
Water volume5.56 cu mi (23.2 km3)[1]
Residence time3.4 years
Shore length1161.4 mi (259.7 km)[1]
Surface elevation2,894 ft (882 m)
IslandsWild Horse Island; Cromwell, Bird, Bull, Little Bull, Melita, Shelter, Cedar, Mother-in-Law, Dream, Goose, Mary B, Rock Island; Douglas Islands
Settlements7 miles (11 km) south of Kalispell, Montana; Polson, Montana
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

Flathead Lake (Salish: člq̓etkʷ, Kutenai: yawuʔnik̓ ʔa·kuq̓nuk)[3] is a large natural lake in northwest Montana, United States.

The lake is a remnant of the ancient, massive glacial dammed lake, Lake Missoula of the era of the last interglacial.[4] Flathead Lake is a natural lake along the mainline of the Flathead River. It was dammed in 1930 by Kerr Dam at its outlet on Polson Bay, slightly raising the lake level; the dam generates electricity.[5] The hydroelectric has been owned and operated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes since 2015. It is one of the cleanest lakes in the populated world for its size and type.[6]


Located in the northwest corner of the state of Montana, 7 miles (11 km) south of Kalispell, it is approximately 30 miles (48 km) long and 16 miles (26 km) wide, covering 197 square miles (510 km2). It is a similar size as Minnesota's Mille Lacs Lake, but smaller than Red Lake. It is about half the area of San Francisco Bay (main bay). It is larger in surface area than Lake Tahoe, but it is much smaller in volume due to Tahoe's depth.[2] Flathead Lake has a maximum depth of 370.7 ft (113.0 m),[1] and an average of 164.7 ft (50.2 m). This makes Flathead Lake deeper than the average depths of the Yellow Sea or the Persian Gulf. Flathead Lake is in a scenic part of Montana, 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Glacier National Park and is flanked by two scenic highways, which wind along its curving shoreline. On the west side is U.S. Route 93, and on the east, is Route 35.

Flathead Lake from space, Aug 2018

The lake is bordered on its eastern shore by the Mission Mountains and on the west by the Salish Mountains. The Flathead valley was formed by the glacial damming of the Flathead River and sustains a remarkably mild climate for a region located this far north and inland; the Pacific Ocean is almost 400 miles (640 km) to the west. The mild climate allows for cherry orchards on the east shore and vineyards for wine production on the west shore. There are also apple, pear and plum orchards around the lake as well as vegetables, hay, honey, nursery tree, Christmas tree, sod/turf, and wheat production bordering or near the lake.

The lake has an irregularly shaped shoreline and a dozen small islands cover 5.5 square miles (14 km2). Wild Horse Island is the largest at 2,164 acres (876 ha). Melita Island is a 64-acre (260,000 m2) island on Flathead Lake, located about one-half mile off the west lakeshore. At its highest point Melita is 80 feet (24 m) above water level. The closest access is from Walstad Landing (one and a half miles), a state-maintained landing off Highway 93, approximately 15 minutes north of Polson. The island is owned by the Montana Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and is home to Camp Melita Island, and is used and for other activities; there is a project for woodland rehabilitation run by the Montana Council.[7] There is also a bald eagle reserve which is protected by the Native Americans. Boy Scouts began using the island in the 1940s.[8]


Flathead Lake lies at the southern end of a geological feature called the Rocky Mountain Trench. The trench, which formed with the Rocky Mountains, extends north into the southern Yukon as a straight, steep valley, which also holds the headwaters of the Columbia River. During the last ice age this trench was filled by an enormous glacier. As the glacier moved southward it carved out the trench. The Polson Moraine, near present-day Polson, Montana, marks the southernmost extent of the glacier during the last ice age and thus is the site of the glacier's terminal moraine.[9]

Clouds over Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana, as the sun sets

The large size of the Polson Moraine indicates that the glacier stalled here for many years before retreating. As the climate warmed, a portion of the glacier in the Mission Valley receded more slowly than the main body, which kept the lake basin from being filled with sediment. Eventually this ice also melted, forming a lake behind the moraine. Once the water reached the top of this moraine dam, it began to cut a channel through it. Most moraine dammed lakes drain quickly because water cuts entirely through the moraine. Flathead Lake remained because a bedrock hill buried underneath the Polson Moraine prevented the moraine from being completely cut through so the meltwater never completely drained.[9]

At one time, probably when the valley was partially filled by a glacier, the level of Flathead Lake was about 500 feet (150 m) higher and drained through the valley west of Elmo, Montana, which is at the end of Big Arm Bay, bottom center in the aerial photo above. Water carved out a wide, flat-bottomed pass with a deeper, narrow channel at the south edge of the pass. The deeper channel and traces of the dry riverbed are still visible from Route 28.[citation needed]


The Flathead River and the Swan River (known also as the Bigfork River where it enters the lake) are the major tributaries of the five tributaries that are within the Flathead Watershed. Numerous small streams flow into the lake, particularly on the wetter east shore.[1] The Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam, formerly known as Kerr Dam and built near Polson, controls the top 10-foot of the lake (3.0 m), generates hydroelectric power, and provides water for irrigation to support a federal irrigation project in the area.[10] Minimum outflow levels from Flathead Lake are designated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and are based on flood risk management, power generation requirements, and biological needs to support aquatic life in river systems.[11]

The lake is downstream of Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork Flathead River.[12] The Hungry Horse Dam is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation to provide beneficial flow conditions and to provide safe passage for migrating juvenile fish to reach the Columbia River Estuary and the Pacific Ocean.[13] The Columbia River Technical Management Team makes operational recommendations to the agencies that control federal dams. Made up of representatives from four states, five federal agencies and six tribal nations, it prioritizes fish and wildlife above other system benefits.[14] The Columbia River system has 14 projects that must be operated to meet congressionally authorized purposes.[15]


Once known as "Salish Lake", this body of water was named for the Salish Indians. Early European explorers, like David Thompson, called them the Flathead Indians because of a misinterpretation of early Native American sign language.[16] In 1855 the United States (US) made the Treaty of Hellgate, by which it set aside the Flathead Reservation solely for use of the Flathead, encompassing an area including much of Flathead Lake.

The summer of 2023 saw abnormally low water levels.[17] Variations to the Flood Risk Management Plan were approved by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in 2024 in response to the continuing dry conditions.[18]


Flathead Lake is home to a number of native and non-native fishes, and is managed cooperatively by both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The lake is inhabited by the native bull trout and cutthroat trout, as well as the non-native lake trout, yellow perch, and lake whitefish. Local residents have reported sighting other aquatic fauna in the lake as well, such as sturgeon and the Flathead Lake Monster.[19]

The non-native opossum shrimp, (Mysis diluviana), were introduced by Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the Flathead drainage basin to encourage production of larger kokanee salmon; they migrated into Flathead Lake and have altered the ecosystem.[20]

Fishermen had introduced lake trout 80 years prior[when?] but remained at low densities until the non-native Mysis became established. The bottom-dwelling mysids eliminated a recruitment bottleneck for lake trout by providing a deep water source of food where little was available previously. Lake trout subsequently flourished on mysids; this voracious piscivore now dominates the lake fishery. The formerly abundant kokanee were extirpated, and native bull and westslope cutthroat trout are imperiled. Predation by Mysis has shifted zooplankton and phytoplankton community size structure. Bayesian change point analysis of primary productivity (27-y time series) showed a significant step increase of 55 mg C m−2 d−1 (i.e., 21% rise) concurrent with the mysid invasion, but little trend before or after despite increasing nutrient loading. Mysis facilitated predation by lake trout and indirectly caused the collapse of kokanee, redirecting energy flow through the ecosystem that would otherwise have been available to other top predators (bald eagles).[21]

Like the majority of other nonnative species, the lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) became established in the lake from the late 1800s-early 1900s. The introduction of lake trout has placed increased pressure on the ecologically similar threatened native bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus).[22] The semi-annual "Mack Days" Lake Trout fishing contest aims to reduce the non-native "Mackinaw trout" or lake trout populations, as well as educate people about the Flathead Lake Fisheries Management Plan.[23][24] Since the inception of this event in 2002, over 402,000 lake trout have been harvested.[25]

  • Native
  1. Cutthroat Trout
  2. Northern Pikeminnow
  3. Bull Trout
  4. Mountain Whitefish
  5. Westslope Cutthroat Trout
  • Nonnative
  1. Brown Trout
  2. Lake Trout
  3. Golden Trout
  4. Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout
  5. Brook Trout
  6. Rainbow Trout
  7. Kokanee Salmon
  8. Northern Pike
  9. Yellow Perch
  10. Largemouth Bass
  11. Smallmouth Bass
  12. Sturgeon (sp)

In addition to these commonly-pursued game fish, the lake is also home to other native species that currently[when?] are not actively managed by government fish and wildlife agencies, including the longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus), redside shiner (Richardsonius balteatus), and slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus).


Flathead Lake at Lakeside with Swan and Mission Range in the background


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Flathead Lake Facts". Flathead Lake Biological Station. University of Montana. Retrieved July 18, 2023.
  2. ^ a b Van der Leeden, Frits; Fred Louis Troise; David Keith Todd (1990). The Water Encyclopedia. CRC Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-87371-120-3.
  3. ^ Johnson, Adam N.; Sievert, Regina; Durglo, Michael; et al. (2014). "Indigenous Knowledge and Geoscience on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Northwest Montana: Implications for Place-Based and Culturally Congruent Education" (PDF). Journal of Geoscience Education. 62 (2): 187–202. Bibcode:2014JGeEd..62..187J. doi:10.5408/12-393.1. S2CID 129648399. Retrieved July 27, 2022.
  4. ^ "The Cordilleran Ice Sheet and Missoula Floods". USGS: Glacial Lake Missoula. Retrieved July 27, 2022.
  5. ^ Kerr Dam, PPL Montana Archived 2016-10-16 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Flathead Lake & Watershed Overview, Flathead Lakers Archived 2015-03-22 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "MELITA ISLAND WOODLAND REHABILITATION PROJECT". Montana Council, Boy Scouts of America. n.d. Retrieved July 27, 2022.
  8. ^ "About Melita Island". Archived from the original on May 12, 2008. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  9. ^ a b Alt, David D. (2001). Glacial Lake Missoula: And Its Humongous Floods. Mountain Press Publishing. p. 49. ISBN 9780878424153.
  10. ^ Drew, Micah (April 3, 2024). "Energy Keepers Receives Approval for Flathead Lake Level Variation". Flathead Beacon. Retrieved April 5, 2024.
  11. ^ Mepham, Andy (July 13, 2023). "Dam operators: Beginning of pattern of ever-decreasing levels in Flathead River Basin". KPAX News. Retrieved July 15, 2023.
  12. ^ "Reclamation's operation of Hungry Horse Dam" (Press release). Bureau of Reclamation. July 7, 2023. Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  13. ^ "Federal Columbia River Power System Water Management". NOAA Fisheries. May 10, 2022. Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  14. ^ Drew, Micah (July 15, 2023). "Technical Team Rejects Request to Raise Flathead Lake Levels with Hungry Horse Release". Flathead Beacon. Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  15. ^ Baldwin, Matt (March 16, 2024). "Flathead Basin dam operators defend management decisions". Daily Inter Lake. Retrieved March 17, 2024.
  16. ^ Partoll, Albert (1951). "The Flathead-Salish Indian Name in Montana Nomenclature". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 1 (1): 37–47.
  17. ^ Heston, Kate (November 15, 2023). "Zinke introduces legislation to regulate Flathead Lake water levels". Daily Inter Lake. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  18. ^ "Corps removes Flathead Lake level restrictions". KECI NBC Montana. May 24, 2024. Retrieved May 25, 2024.
  19. ^ Fugleberg, Paul (April 5, 2015). "Flathead Lake sturgeon catch still controversial". Missoulian. Retrieved April 10, 2015.
  20. ^ Bosworth, Brendan. "How Non-Native Shrimp Transformed The Ecosystem at Montana's Flathead Lake". Retrieved December 15, 2016.
  21. ^ Ellis, B. K.; Stanford, J. A.; Goodman, D.; Stafford, C. P.; Gustafson, D. L.; Beauchamp, D. A.; Chess, D. W.; Craft, J. A.; Deleray, M. A.; Hansen, B. S. (January 3, 2011). "Long-term effects of a trophic cascade in a large lake ecosystem". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108 (3): 1070–1075. Bibcode:2011PNAS..108.1070E. doi:10.1073/pnas.1013006108. PMC 3024674. PMID 21199944.
  22. ^ Ferguson, Jake M.; Taper, Mark L.; Guy, Christopher S.; Syslo, John M. (2012). "Mechanisms of coexistence between native bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) and non-native lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush): Inferences from pattern-oriented modeling". Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 69 (4): 755–769. doi:10.1139/f2011-177.
  23. ^ Backus, Perry (September 23, 2017). "Fall Mack Days starts this weekend at Flathead Lake". Missoulian. Retrieved September 24, 2017.
  24. ^ "Lake Trout Fishing". Mack Days. Retrieved September 24, 2017.
  25. ^ "Lake Trout Biology". Mack Daysm. Retrieved September 24, 2017.


  • Alt, David. "The Making of Flathead Lake" in Profiles of Montana Geology: A layman's guide to the Treasure State. Butte, MT: Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, 1984.

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