Clark Fork, Montana


The Clark Fork, which begins at the confluence of Warm Spring and Silver Bow creeks near Butte and ends nearly 300 miles west at Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille, provides the avid fly fisher excellent opportunities for big rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout, which is a testament to the determination of our quarry and the resiliency a river can display. The Clark Fork is no sissy.

Despite its opportunities, the Clark Fork receives little ink from the outdoors writers and little merit from fly fishers who compare it to those noted Big Sky neighbors, like the Bighorn, Yellowstone, Missouri, Beaverhead and Big Hole. Likely, the Clark Fork's tainted past, those existing scars on its banks, like piles of mine tailings between Butte and Anaconda, and a sketchy future steer anglers away. For a MAP of the Clark Fork, click here.

Upper Clark Fork

The neglect is unfortunate for those to refuse to sample its goods, so to speak. But, that cold-shoulder is a blessing for those who appreciate the Clark Fork's easy access, excellent scenery, varied currents, uncrowded conditions and large trout. Oh, it's true, you can bump into a few rafts during the summer float season, especially on the lower river between Missoula and St. Regis, but pressure on the Clark Fork is definitely not like that on the Big Hole during the salmonfly hatch, for instance.

While the Clark Fork may look weathered in some sections, most noted near Butte, Anaconda and Warm Springs, other areas are extremely gorgeous, nearly pristine, and they can be very productive in a fly fishing and scenic sense.

Most people refer to the Clark Fork in two sections: the upper and lower reaches. The upper stretch takes in about 125 miles of water from Warm Springs to Milltown Dam. The lower river extends from Milltown, just a few miles east of Missoula, downstream for nearly 200 miles to Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho. Below Paradise and the mouth of the Flathead River, the Clark Fork ceases as a quality trout stream. Big smallmouth bass and some scary northern pike are available in this section.

Below Rock Creek

At its headwaters, the Clark Fork flows through the vast Deer Lodge Valley. To the southwest, the rugged, jagged, often snowcapped Pintler and Deer Lodge mountains reign. To the east, rolling, timbered foothills race away from the river. The valley bottom itself is willow-lined where it is not divided into massive green fields of alfalfa. Whitetail deer, a few elk, mule deer and various birds call the valley home.

The river rates about 10 to 15 yards wide near the headwaters and it twists and turns religiously. It is classic brown trout water with brushy banks, deep undercuts and dark holes. To float the river in a boat or raft is overdoing it. The upper section is best waded by fly fishers.

Near Clinton, just downstreat from the mouth of Rock Creek, the river winds through narrow canyons with densely timbered slopes, when it is not slicing through the modest valley bottom. Cottonwoods and willows follow the banks. Mule deer and elk frequent the steep, rocky slopes above the river. Whitetails claim the valley bottom.

The river rates about 20 to 30 yards wide in most places, although it can narrow to almost nothing in places. Braids and side channels abound. A drift boat or raft allows anglers to cover lots of water during spring and early summer when flows are up, but by late summer and during fall, the river is best waded.

The mix of fish between the mouth of Rock Creek and Milltown Reservoir, which lies about 16 miles downstream from Clinton, is about equal: 50 percent rainbow/browns.

A small to medium size stream above Milltown Dam, the Clark Fork changes its face by broadening out considerably, just as it enters the Missoula Valley. From there, it banks up against the Bitterroot Mountains to the south and follows their line downstream to the west. The river provides massive riffles, mile-long, flat-surfaced glides, and questionably deep holes. It boils around massive stone rock outcroppings, winds through open hayfields, braids occasionally, curls under 30-foot-tall dirt banks, and penetrates violently through narrow fissures.

Lower Clark Fork

All of the lower river can be intimidating water, but there is one stretch that takes the cake. Just downstream from Petty Creek, the river raises its hackles as it cuts through Alberton Gorge and Cyr Canyon. Floaters who offer themselves to the water will encounter 20 miles of Class IV waves. Rapid names such as Tumbleweed, Boateater and Fang scare off most fly fishers. However, some of the river's biggest rainbow trout and most prolific populations persist in that stretch.

Mike Nave with typical Clark Fork brown

Probably the most effective way to fish the river is by chasing hatches - and there are a number of good ones.

The upper river receives heathy does of Baetis and caddis early in the year. After runoff, the caddis hatch is immense and fishing can be awesome. Fly fishers should also watch for the big salmonflies below the mouth of Rock Creek in mid-to late June. Later, in July and August, pale morning duns can be found on the water and pods of trout will pluck them under the surface. Trico mayflies may appear, forcing fly fishers to work size 20 or smaller dry flies off minuscule 6X or 7X tippet.

Then, in Ausut and September, the upper river's brown trout turn their daytime attention - and I mean all of it - to grasshoppers. Throw a Daves Hopper along an undercut bank; cast it next to a grassy hay bank, drift it over a deep hole; drown it and swing it through a shallow riffle; a brown trout will find it and quickly eat it. Darrel Gadbow, a writer for the Missoulian, and an avid Clark Fork fly fisher, nailed a 28-inch brown on the upper river on a hopper pattern in August 1996.

Big browns live in the upper Clark Fork, but they are difficult to land on such small water - it rates 10 to 15 yards wide in most places with lots of downed snags, undercut banks and various debris offering those big trout plenty of options when attempting to part your leader.

Hoppers offer the only consistent surface action for the big boys. During other seasons, anglers must drag the big, ugly stuff, like Woolly Buggers and sculpins, through brush jams and the deep holes to draw strikes.

The lower river enjoys its fair share of excellent hatches, too. Baetis mayflies, also called blue-wing olives, may provide the most productive fishing of the year. Watch for their presence throughout the lower section in late April and May, and again in late September through mid-November.

Skwala Stonefly

Often coinciding with the Baetis is an early hatch of caddis along with the emergence of Skwala stoneflies. The stonefiles will taper off sometime in May, but caddis persist through summer. In July, after runoff, pale morning duns, green drakes and grasshoppers take over. As fall nears, Tricos litter the river's surface each morning and pods of big rainbows slurp them down in the backeddies and foam lines. In September, mahogany duns kick in as the Tricos taper off. Then, the Baetis extravaganza returns. For the FLIES for the Clark Fork, click here.

The Upper River

At its headwater, the Clark Fork River isn't really a river. Instread, it's a series of ponds, spillways, sloughs, toxic ditches and bypasses. However, it is also one of the best places in the state to hook a trophy rainbow or brown trout.

When you first glace at the Anaconda Settling Pond System, it might resemble a war-torn landscape. A burm rises here, a pile of rocks sits there. The entire landscape show signs of relocation. Vegetation grows in some places, in other the earth is bare.

This may be your first empression: I am as close to hell as I ever want to get. However, the ponds hold some appealing aspects, not the least being lunker rainbow and brown trout in the four - to 14-pound range! Plus, the ponds attract all variety of waterfowl and shorebirds. And, when the sun sets over the western mountains, the sky lighting up in crimson slashes, this color reflected onto a tranquil surface, you may even call the ponds beautiful. It helps if a huge trout is bending your rod like a green twig.

Hog Hole

The first time I visited the ponds, there are six in all, I launched my float tube on the most famous one - the Hog Hole. I didn't catch a fish that evening, but I witnessed a rise like I had never seen. Just as the sun dropped, a huge trout exited from the water in wild cartwheels, lengthy jumps and even sedate rises. The scene reminded me of southeast Alaska and a fresh batch of silver salmon moving into freshwater on the incoming tide. The size of the fish was comparable to silver salmon, too! I did not doubt why the pond received its name.

Interlude: Little Blackfoot

Just downstream from Deer Lodge at Garrison Junction, the Clark Fork receives a need infusion of water from the Little Blackfoot River.

It would be easy to cordially thank the Little B for its contribution and move downstream. But, the smaller tributary offers excellent fly fishing options.

Less recognized than its big brother, the Blackfoot, the Little Blackfoot fishes quite well during all seasons and some of its brown trout run to impressive size - 16 - 20 inches are not rare.

The successful fly fisher must seek productive water on the Little Blackfoot - some sections have been sabotaged by ranchers. Those sections hold skimpy trout populations and poor habitat. Other sections, however, will be noted as some of the finest looking small water habitat in the state.

Rock Creek to Milltown

Brown Drake The Clark Fork between the mouth of Rock Creek and Milltown Dam is possibly the river's most diverse section and I have held it in high regard since the first time I fished it; a modest brown rose up from a rock bank and pounded my Yuk Bug on the third cast of the day. Now that is the way to start!

The Clark Fork immediately becomes a better trout stream just below the mouth of Rock Creek where its flows are generous, insect diversity grows and the population of rainbows rises markedly. It is all good water.

Extending to Milltown Dam, fly fishers find an equal mix of browns amd rainbows along with some of the best looking trout water on earth. There are narrow braids, long, deep backwaters, cut banks, rocky rip-rap banks, downed logs, and very deep holes. Unfortunately, trout that live there can be extremely picky, deciding to bite or not based on a set of factors unbeknownst to me. Is it the barometer? An influx of toxins rushing downstream from Anaconda? Could it be slight variations in flows? Or is it just the fish gods being finicky?

Floating, no mater where the hatch is coming off (excluding the headwaters), is the ideal way to fish the Clark Fork during spring and early summer. Rock Creek to Schwartz Creek Bridge and Schwartz Creek to Turah are excellent floats in the Rock Creek to Milltown section. You do not need to be a master at the oars to float this stretch, but it does harbor some narrow slots and tricky turns. Those downed logs can wreak havoc, too. Just pay attention to the river and keep a sharp eye out when rounding every bend.

Lower Clark Fork Tributaries

Blanket Caddis Hatch Rattlesnake Creek: There is a common misconception about Rattlesnake Creek - most fly fishers believe the river is closed to fishing from Beeskove Creek in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, all the way downstream to the creek's confluence with Clark Fork in Missoula.

Actually, Rattlesnake Creek is open from its mouth, which pours into the Clark Fork just east of the Red Lion Inn, upstream to the Missoula water supply dam, which is about six or seven miles of water . . .

Fishing can be quite good in the open sections above and below the dam. Look for seasonal runs of rainbows, cutthroats, and bull trout in the lower river.

Nine Mile Creek: An inportant spawning stream with decent populations of resident trout, flows into the lower Clark Fork River just east of Alberton.

On its lower end, the creek is bordered by much private property while its upper end offers access via the Lolo National Forest.

Throughout, the creek offers good fly fishing and some meaty specimens, rainbows, cutthroats and a few bull trout, for such a small creek - in most places it's a medium cast wide, which makes it unapproachable to those who would prefer to float.

Fish Creek: One of the lower Clark Fork's most important spawning tributaries, offers excellent fly fishing for some nice rainbows and cutthroats and scenery galore. Just don't try to sneak on this creek before the opener (third Saturday in May). As they should, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks patrols the creek hard and they are eager to hand out citations.

St. Regis to Lake Pend Oreille

The last quality trout water on the Clark Fork begins at St. Regis where the river breaks away from the drone of Interstate 90 and takes an astute north bend. Fly fishers refer to the area as "the cutoff."

Interestingly, the cuttoff area, which extends from St. Regis downstream to Paradise and the confluence of the Flathead River, contains quality trout population with some monster rainbows thrown in on the side. Despite that offereing, it recieves somewhat less pressure than the upper river. The chief factor for this light pressure is its distance from a city . . . Regardless of distance traveled to reach it, those who fish the cutoff will find many willing rainbows and an awfully broad river.

While the average lower Clark Fork rainbow runs between 13 and 17 inches, there are some monster fish to be found near the cutoff. Two unverified reports of 30-inch-plus rainbows have surfaced in the last two years.

Clark Fork

The next time you vist Montana, your truck pointed toward some big-name stream, allow yourself a day on the Clark Fork. Consider the river's past and its muddled future - you favorite stream could be next. While you consider that sick notion, get your fly on the water, the Clark's Fork dry-fly smashing rainbows and Bugger-eating browns should not disappoint. ~ Greg Thomas

For a MAP of the Clark Fork, click here.
For the FLIES for the Clark Fork, click here.
To ORDER Clark Fork direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Clark Fork, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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