Fishing Rock Creek

By MATT DEVLIN

Rock Creek is, above all else, a trout stream. Its blue ribbon designation is well-deserved.

From the beginning of the easily accessed stream at Gilley’s Bridge up near the town of Philipsburg, to its eventual confluence with the upper Clark Fork River, Rock Creek flows for forty-one miles through a quaint valley full of bighorn sheep, moose, cottonwoods, and generally eager trout.

All of the major trout species as well as Bull Trout and Mountain Whitefish are present in Rock Creek. Access to the creek is at once spectacular and treacherous. That is to say, the road that parallels Rock Creek follows the footprint of the creek nearly turn for turn, offering the wading angler unbelievable access, but the downside is that said road is unimproved, muddy, full of dips and divots, and tire-popping rocks. It is certainly best to take on the bulk of Rock Creek Road with some sort of sport utility vehicle with decent ground clearance. The bottom ten or so miles, however, are paved and can be fished from any car.

If you go, you ought to know a thing or two about what to expect in the different sections of river.

 

Fishing Upper Rock Creek

I refer to the river between Gilley’s Bridge…the first time one would cross the river when approaching from the Philipsburg area, and the Morgan Case homestead, at around mile-marker thirty-one, as the Upper River.

The upper reaches of Rock Creek has the highest density of native Cutthroat Trout. This section takes the longest to get to from Missoula, but offers the most “classic” Rock Creek experience – smaller water and “cutties” on dry flies all summer long.

Large stonefly nymphs and the red san juan worm are a great way to get into lots of fish, especially early and late season. Rock Creek is home to one of the most prolific Salmonfly hatches in all the land, and as such, they are present as nymphs every day of the year. A misconception about these nymphs is that they are only useful near or during an actual hatch, but large stoneflies such as the salmon fly, mature to adulthood in three-year cycles, so there are always big juicy nymphs for Rock Creek’s residents to chow.

I will also add here that Rock Creek is VERY DANGEROUS to row or float, and should be generally avoided. The floating season for the creek coincides with the runoff and high, rushing water. The fact that such a high volume of water gets funneled down the relatively narrow valley creates myriad hazardous conditions, including whitewater, logjams, sweepers, and did I mention whitewater?

Even wading anglers should exercise caution during runoff, limiting wading to the soft edges and current breaks, but worry not – the fish will be in those same places during high water.

 

Fishing Middle Rock Creek

The river from the Morgan Case area downstream to the Dalles is what we consider the middle river. This section likely sees the least amount of pressure, as it is smack in the middle of the road I was lamenting earlier.

There is a lot more pocket water (small flat pools created by boulders) in the middle section, and therefore, the sure-footed angler can have a lot of success fishing dry flies or nymphs in these specific areas. The general character of this section is marked by the drop in elevation in the creek. There are many small chutes, plunge pools, and deep, flat trenches.

This is also a very good section for the spin angler to try his hand fishing large buck tails or silver spoons through the deeper, slower water for some trophy-sized fish.

The microburst area of Rock Creek is very productive. A microburst, or a very concentrated volume of sinking air, flattened the adjacent hillside. The effect is much like the path of a tornado, and is quite the site to see. If you fish there, and as a general rule of thumb for Rock Creek, the more you are willing to walk between vehicle pull-offs, the more success you will have, as the creek does tend to see a good bit of pressure from visiting anglers all summer long.

 

Fishing Lower Rock Creek

The lower river is considered to be the stretch from Dalles to Rock Creek’s confluence with the upper Clark Fork.

In this section, one can expect a wider river corridor, as a higher volume of water passes through this section, due in large part to the multiple secondary flows that influence Rock Creek.

A sparkle stimulator, sure to get a rise out of Rock Creek's trout

The lowest eleven or so miles of the creek are the easiest to access from Missoula and do not require traveling on the dirt road. Therefore, pressure in that stretch can be severe, but certain times of the year the fishing can be quite spectacular.

Far and away, the highest density of Brown Trout are found in lower Rock Creek. Fall is one of the best times to ply these waters, as some very large Brown Trout (which spawn in autumn) move into the lower reaches of the creek. These fish are residents of the Clark Fork River, but use lower Rock Creek as a very vital spawning tributary. These fish are best targeted by using large, flashy streamer flies like yellow Zonkers or lures such as the Blue Fox.

*Note-when fishing during the fall be sure not to target actively spawning fish, distinguishable by their holding in shallow tail-outs and around redds, or dinner plate-sized impressions in the gravel bottom of the creek.

 

Cliff Notes Hatch Chart

 

Period Stoneflies/Terrestrials Mayflies/Caddisflies
March-April Skwalla, Small Nemoura March Browns, Grey Drake, Blue-Winged Olive
June-July Salmonflies Mother’s Day Caddis, Green Drakes
July-August Golden Stoneflies, Little Yellow Sallies, Grasshoppers, Cinnamon Ants Pale Morning Duns, Pale Evening Duns, Tricos, Small Caddis
September-October Grasshoppers Mahogany Dun, Blue-Winged Olives, October Caddis (large orange sedge)

 

 

Cliff Notes Fishing Regulations

  • Closed to boat traffic starting July 1
  • Catch-and-release for Rainbow Trout and Cutthroat Trout over the entire watershed
  • Three Brown Trout permitted to keep, none exceeding 12 inches
  • Artificial flies and lures only, except anglers under 14 years of age

 

 

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