Fishing the Clark Fork River


The Clark Fork River here in western Montana is the river that truly “runs through it.”

It being our collective backyard, of course. We are so lucky to have such a diverse and productive fishery zero minutes from town.

I have stood on the Higgins Street Bridge on many a summer evening, returning from downtown Missoula, and watched big Rainbow Trout rising in the flat water. You do not have to travel very far to find amazing fly fishing, however, solitude will perhaps be greater on the Clark Fork the farther East or West you venture on Interstate 90.

The Clark Fork (of the Columbia) River begins around Warm Springs, below a series of settling ponds, a reminder of our state’s mining past. The river flows through pasture land, playing peekaboo with the highway for some ninety miles, picking up the vital tributaries of Rock Creek, and then further downstream, the Big Blackfoot, before flowing directly through the heart of Missoula.

The Clark Fork, which was already a great fishery, got some much-needed help from the powers that be when the Milltown Dam, which impeded the Blackfoot from the Clark Fork, was dismantled between Spring of 2008 and Spring of 2009.

The first few years were hard on the river, as the Milltown site is one of the largest superfund sites in the country. But as the river has regained her channel and the sediment has settled, the river seems to get more and more vital by the day. I have observed the healthiest population of fish and insects that I have seen in years.

It is safe to say that the Clark Fork is back!


Fishing the Upper Clark Fork

The extreme upper river near Warm Springs (East of town) is home to some very large fish and the river up there behaves much like a tailwater, as scuds and midges are present in large numbers.

Tan Hoppers are a great choice for flyfishing the Upper Clark Fork

Floating this upper river is not recommended as access is limited and ranchers tend to string fences across the river without much warning.

There are urban legends of thirty-inch freak fish, fed by some biological phenomenon contained within toxins from abandoned mines, but it is a much more likely tale that large lake-dwelling Brown and Rainbow Trout are washed over the small dam during Spring runoff and take up residence in the section of river below.

Below the Warm Springs section, the upper river is a small oxbow river, with predominately Brown Trout, and good numbers of them too. It is suspected that the Little Blackfoot river is a large reason for the amount of Browns in the upper river.

Warm Springs to about the town of Drummond is best fished with Streamer flies, small spoon spinners, and large terrestrials such as beetles and hoppers. It is easily waded and can be very good late Summer and into the Fall.


Fishing the Middle Clark Fork

The range of the middle river encomposes below Drummond all the way past the Rock Creek and Blackfoot confluences, down to the town of Missoula, at the Sha’ron Fishing Access.

This stretch of the river is floatable by experienced oarsmen. There are many switchbacks and logjams, with dangerous sweepers that seem to come out of nowhere. The extreme runoff event of 2011 washed plenty of trees into the river, providing lots of trout habitat, but a real headache for the boating angler.

This stretch of river receives a spotty but productive early-season Skwalla Hatch, and below Rock Creek, Salmonflies provide lots of protein for the trout through runoff.

Access is fairly good by driving the various frontage roads, being careful to stay away from posted land. There are few Cutthroats in this stretch, but a nice mix of Rainbows and Browns.


Fishing the Upper Lower River

From Sha’ron Access a few miles above town, to the Alberton Gorge below the town of Alberton on 90 west, is really the heart of the Clark Fork, and provides the quintessential Clark Fork experience. Boating and rafting in this stretch is relatively easy, and large pods of trout feed greedily on the different dry fly hatches of the year.

In this section, the maxim “foam is home” is good to live by. As struggling and spent mayflies become concentrated in these areas. The river gains the flow of the Bitterroot below town at the Kelley Island braids, and the upper lower river is our largest local river by far. Thusly, it can be frustrating to the wading angler, but there are productive areas, many of them below the many tributaries that periodically augment the river’s flow.

Summer and early Fall provide exceptional hopper fishing with large foam flies, and the Trico, Mahogany, and Baetis (Blue-winged-olive) hatches can at times blanket the water. There are also plenty of rocky and deep pools for the spin angler to try large baitfish lures and Rapalas.

Note that the Alberton Gorge has limited fishing opportunities and is very dangerous to float, containing legitimate class-four whitewater.


Fishing the Lower Lower River

From below the Alberton Gorge to the confluence with the Flathead River, the Clark Fork is a bigger river still, marked by deep slow banks and large foam-filled back eddies. The productive water down low is few and far between, but the areas that hold fish will hold many fish. Large, feisty Rainbow Trout dominate the landscape down here, and large foam creations reign supreme, sometimes even during intense hatches of insects.

The floating is easy, but the fishing is quite spotty and unpredictable. Below the confluence with the large Flathead River, the Clark Fork becomes mostly a warm water fishery, but the fishing opportunities remain very good for Smallmouth Bass and large Northern Pike which can be caught on tube jigs and large top-water lures.


Cliff Notes Hatch Chart


Period Stoneflies/Terrestrials Mayflies/Caddisflies
March-April Skwalla, Nemoura Grey Drake, Blue-Winged-Olive
June-July Salmonfly (Upper River), Golden Stoneflies Pale Morning Duns, Pale Evening Duns, Green Drakes
July-August Golden Stoneflies, Grasshoppers, Ants Tricos, Large Tan Caddis
September-October Grasshoppers, Beetles, Ants Mahogany, Late Pale Morning Duns, Blue-Winged-Olives


Cliff Notes Fishing Regulations

  • From dam at Warm Springs to Perkins Lane Bridge: Open all year, artificial fly/lure, all catch-and-release, no fishing from boats
  • From Perkins Lane Bridge to the Flathead confluence (effectively the entire river except extreme upper) the regulations are as follows:
    • Catch-and-release for all Cutthroat and Bull Trout
    • Combined Trout: Three daily, none of them over fifteen inches in length
    • Closed to fishing/floating from about 2.5 miles upstream of Big Blackfoot confluence to about .5 miles downstream of confluence (old Milltown dam site)
    • No limit on keeping the invasive Northern Pike
    • No Bait may be fished within a hundred yards of all of the river’s major tributaries