Beginning at the confluence of Silver Bow Creek and Warm Springs Creek, the Clark Fork River is located just west of the historic mining town of Butte, Montana. Not the most common information is that Silver Bow Creek originates from the largest Superfund site in the U.S. Extensive cleanup and years of hard work have transformed the Clark Fork into a river that’s not only excellent for fishing but safe recreational floating as well.
As one of the longest rivers in Montana, the Clark Fork stretches for over 280 miles – going all the way to the Idaho border. It should be noted that the last 60 or so miles consist of three dams and reservoirs. With the length of fishable water, it’s no surprise that the Clark Fork offers unparalleled variety for anglers of all skill levels.
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Sections of the Clark Fork River
Headwater to Galen
The Clark Forks headwaters are in the Warm Spring Wildlife Management Area. Resembling a classic spring creek, it’s an incredibly narrow, brush-choked creek that makes sharp twists and turns. The fly angler will find difficulty here with fly presentations as the brush choked stream makes it difficult for anything to resemble a cast.
Once leaving the WMA, some feeder springs and small creeks flow in – allowing the river to be a bit more suitable for fishing. In this section, your patience is required, and spring creek tactics are needed. The brown trout don’t allow for many mistakes, and if you make the perfect drift, you can be rewarded with fish averaging 14 inches, and now and then, you’ll find a brown over 20″.
Given how the river originates out of a Superfund Site, it can’t be overlooked how nature has beaten an unnatural disaster. This is evident in trout-per-mile estimates, which are believed to be over 1,500.
The headwaters do fish well in late spring before the runoff. Offering classic early season western trout fishing, you can find hungry fish that are willing to eat various caddis patterns or parachute Adams, along with generic mayfly nymphs like the hare’s ear and pheasant tail.
Generally short-lived, runoff of the Clark Fork ends in mid to late June and makes way for classic western river attractor dry fly fishing. Once July hits, the annual grasshopper “hatch” begins, and throwing small foam imitations in likely holding water becomes the norm.
As summer turns to fall, the resident brown trout begin their annual pre-spawn rituals. Small baitfish imitations need to be in your fly box if fishing the Clark Fork this time of year to draw browns out of their likely hiding spots.
Galen to Deer Lodge
Collecting more feeder creeks and springs, the Clark Fork turns into a small river compared to the spring creek “feel” upstream. Irrigation demand does cause low flows and warm temps in the summer, and it’s recommended to keep an eye on water temperatures to ensure a quality release of any caught fish. You will find habitat degradation in this section, and the river flows through agriculture fields that are home to cattle. With the warmer water, lower flows, and poorer habitat, trout numbers decline, but the fish in the river tends to be a bit bigger here.
As the river grows in size, the wading and casting become a little easier for the novice fly angler. Similar to the headwaters section, attractor dry fly patterns will work most all summer long along with generic nymphs like a hare’s ear or pheasant tail. Small baitfish also begin to call the river home – allowing for small streamer patterns to become more effective.
Although not having any designated FAS, this section boasts quality access points via bridge crossings on county roads.
If looking for quality access, easy wading, and good numbers of brown trout, spend an afternoon in this section of the Clark Fork. Chances are you’ll be thoroughly surprised with what you find!
Deer Lodge to Drummond
Continuing its route west to Idaho, this section of the Clark Fork offers, unfortunately, some of the most subpar fishing throughout its course. Strong irrigation demand causing low flows and habitat degradation from cattle causes some areas in this section to be completely void of trout altogether. That being said, the Little Blackfoot and Flint Creek do come into the river and add much-needed water to the system.
If you do find yourself here wanting to fly fish, we recommend throwing small to medium-sized baitfish imitations into the deepest pools you can find. Although trout numbers are low, you may be pretty surprised at the size of the brown trout that call this section home.
There is decent access through this section (via county road), but I-90 runs along most of it. Creating a far from the quiet and peaceful environment you come to love in Montana.
Drummond to Clinton
Echoing the Deer Lodge to Drummond section of the Clark Fork, the trout numbers tend to be even less common. So much so that we recommend pleasure floating as this is the most beautiful section of the entire river.
Clinton to Missoula
In the small town of Clinton, Rock Creek joins the Clark Fork – adding a much-needed flush of cool water. This creates an abundance of life compared to the above miles of river. A few miles downstream, the Blackfoot flows in, which turns the Clark Fork back into a fantastic fishery. Brown trout, rainbows, and even some cutthroat begin to make their appearance here. With the fresh flush of cold water and a steeper gradient, the river picks up speed as it begins to cut through a tight mountain valley. Generally, this section is more challenging to wade, but for the anglers willing to work for it, there’s excellent fishing to be had in the many riffles and runs.
The “fishing season” starts in earnest in late May with the annual salmon fly emergence. If the stars align and water conditions are favorable, the Clark Fork sees a spectacular salmon fly hatch each year. Throwing large foam imitations tight to the bank will bring the largest trout of the river to the surface. Dry flies from size six to size 2 are effective imitations!
After the salmon flies have passed, the Clark Fork begins to see a quality green and brown drake hatch by mid-June. Concentrating on the riffles, you’ll find hungry trout ready to consume the largest mayflies in the river system. Fishing the evening spinner fall should not be avoided either. After mating, the drakes die and slowly fall back to the river – creating an easy meal for trout. Large rusty spinner flies are the ticket here. Just ensure a perfect drag-free drift as dead flies don’t swim!
Typical of most western streams, by mid-July grasshoppers, become a staple of a trout’s diet. Casting these imitations tight to the bank to the middle of the river will bring trout to the surface, looking for a protein-packed meal. Don’t be afraid of twitching your fly now and then, either!
Access here is great – several FWP maintained FAS’s provide reasonable access for the wade angler. Floating from a raft is also a possibility and will help get you to more secluded water. After Missoula, the river becomes quite popular with recreational floating. We recommend fishing upstream of Missoula – especially in the summer months.
Missoula to Thompson Falls
Flowing through the Bitterroot Valley for about 20 miles, the river wides before entering the mountains yet again. This is a beautiful section to float and take in the scenery.
Once entering the mountains again, the Flathead River flows into the Clark Fork and creates the largest body of water in Montana. By the time it exits the Bitterroot valley, float fishing is the best way to access as wade fishing is difficult due to the size, and the low trout population can make for long hikes looking for few rising fish.
Considering the size of the river and the population of Missoula close by, the fishing pressure is low to moderate. Low trout numbers are certainly a factor to people not investing a lot of time fishing on the river. With that said, the fish that are found tend to be huge, and each year, photos of 30″ trout surface from the lower Clark Fork.
Early to mid-April brings the annual Skwala hatch – offering anglers the first chance to throw dry flies of the year. Coming off a long winter, trout are eager to eat a well-placed skwala presentation. Simple patterns like stimulators and chubbies are all that’s needed during this hatch. Don’t forget, it is April in Montana, and be ready for any weather!
Spring runoff begins in late April to early May – essentially closing the fishery until water levels subside and clarity improves. Shortly after the runoff, a tremendous gray drake hatch and PMD hatch take over the river system. With the low trout density, you may go hundreds of yards before finding active feeding fish. But when you do, they’ll readily eat a well-presented fly.
Like the rest of western rivers, come July, grasshoppers will once again become a staple of a trout’s diet. These large fish know that fall and winter are on their way, and they’ll rarely pass up an opportunity for a calorie-packed meal.
By September, baetis hatches begin and provide quality dry fly fishing when conditions allow. You typically look for cloudy, cool, and even light rain to get these bugs to hatch.
This article wouldn’t be complete without talking about the pike fishing opportunities on the Clark Fork below Plains, Montana. Each year, photos are circulated of fish over twenty pounds. The river quickly loses current here and widens significantly. Non-motorized boats are pretty uncommon in this section. Target these fish with large streamers or topwater poppers on heavier weight rods and get ready for a great fight!
Petty Creek Access to Tarkio Fishing Access
Below Thompson Falls, the river narrows, and the grade increases dramatically. With this cooler, more oxygenated water, the river’s trout population rises considerably. Class IV whitewater exists in this section that limits access, but you’re rewarded with fantastic pocket water fishing for the ones willing to wade tricky water. Fishing large, bushy dry flies in this water can be pretty productive!
Seasons on the Clark Fork River
By early to mid-March most years, the long Montana winter is beginning to loosen its grip on the Clark Fork. As water temperatures rise, typically in early to mid-April, fly anglers have the opportunity to target the first hatch of the year. The skwala. This hatch is a great opportunity to knock the rust off and get a couple of dry fly eats in before the annual spring runoff.
Nymph fishing on the lower Clark Fork can be pretty productive as well. Fishing small Pat’s rubber legs to mimic skwala nymphs along with general attractor type nymphs work well too. Search out the slow deep runs and ensure you’re using weight to get your flies down to the fish quickly.
After the runoff, the Clark Fork experiences classic western dry fly fishing. Fishing small attractor type dries through the river system will provide rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout opportunities. Caddis, PMD’s, various Drakes, and more cover the river system from early June to the end of August, allowing the dry fly angler multiple opportunities to chase fish on dry flies.
By mid-July, you’re starting to see the beginnings of the yearly grasshopper “hatch.” Fish will begin to search out these large, protein-packed meals. Don’t go to the Clark Fork without a handful of hopper imitations!
By mid-September, most dry fly activity has slowed. On cool, cloudy days, the lower river will have great Baetis hatches, but the real reason to be on the Clark Fork is for the streamer fishing. Especially on the lower Clark Fork. “Swinging for the fences” and looking for the largest fish in the river is the name of the game here. Each year, fish over 30″ are landed – mostly on streamers.
Popular Clark Fork River Flies
- X-Caddis 14-16
- Elk Hair Caddis 14-16
- PMD Cripples 16-18
- Sparkle Dun 14-18
- Olive Stimulator 8-12
- Flutter Bug 2-6
- Chubby Chernobyl 6-10
- Pheasant Tail 14-18
- Hares Ear 14-18
- Lil’ Spanker 14-18
- San Juan Worm 8-12
- Prince Nymph 12-16
- Caddis Pupa 14-16
- Wooly Bugger 4-8
- Muddler Minnow 6-8
- Sparkle Minnow 6-8
- JJ Special 4-6
Missoula River Lodge – When it comes to pure dry fly fishing, the rivers in Missoula’s vicinity provide some of the best opportunities! Former NFL linebacker Joe Cummings is the owner of A Classic Journey Outfitters, the outfitter for the Missoula River Lodge. Throughout the season, his team of guides pursues trout on famed rivers, including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Rock Creek, and the Missouri River. Accommodations for packages are at the Missoula River Lodge with three different fully-furnished locations, all on the centrally-located Clark Fork River. A Classic Journey Outfitters is our first pick in the Missoula area and is the total package when it comes to lodging and world-class fishing. The Missoula River Lodge has rightly earned a reputation of putting guests into fish on a dry fly, making for a great Montana fly fishing experience.
North Fork Crossing Lodge – The North Fork Crossing Lodge, which is owned and operated by PRO Outfitters, sits on the bank of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. They are the only full-service fishing lodge in the famed Blackfoot Valley. Their unique tent cabins are designed for the ultimate comforts of a full-service lodge without losing the intimate connection to nature that camping can provide. Each canvas tent cabin comes equipped with heat, electricity, wood floors, and a private bathhouse with all the amenities of home. The Blackfoot River boasts large populations of native West Slope Cutthroat Trout through years of collaborative efforts toward restoration of the Blackfoot River as a fishery that keeps getting better and better. From the lodge, you have access to several other rivers and unlimited walk and wade access to both private and public waters. If you want to test your skill on the mighty Missouri, it is only an hour and a half away..