Montana Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing the Clark Fork

Clark Fork

The Clark Fork : Fishing Information

For the rest of this guide to fly fishing the Clark Fork, we'll break down the river into sections, beginning at the rivers origin.

Clark Fork Origin to Galen, MT

Clark Fork at its origin
Photo Use Guidelines

From it's beginning in Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area to Galen, the Clark Fork resembles a spring creek. Directly at its origin, the Clark Fork is incredibly narrow, thickly choked in brush, twists and turns extensively (like every 5 yards there is another turn) and is quite shallow. The first five miles of the river flow in the Wildlife Management Area and thus have special fishing restrictions. Once it leaves the Wildlife Management Area the Clark Fork gradually picks up some flows and some width and by the time it reaches Galen resembles a "large" spring creek rather than the tiny thing found 10 miles upstream. Regardless of where you fly fish on this section, come prepared for spring creek fishing with all that accompanies it - the brown trout are wary, the casting is difficult and a careful approach is mandatory.

This is brown trout country, although an occasional rainbow trout can be found (they end up here by flowing down through the spillways in the Anaconda Settling Ponds). The brown trout average around 14 inches, with an occasional trout exceeding 20 inches. There are lots of fish in this section of the Clark Fork - well more than 1500 per mile - which considering the tiny size of the river and its proximity to the environmental disaster area found just upstream is all the more remarkable.

Fishing pressure on this section of the Clark Fork is not abnormally heavy. That said, most fisherman end up fly fishing at one of the three bridge crossings of the river. A short walk up or downstream (not always easy due to the thick brush in and around the river) will allow an angler to fish waters that seldom see a fly line.

Catching the brown trout on this section of the Clark Fork is no easy task. Besides having to quietly wade through a spring creek and fight the overhanging brush on the riverbanks, good fly imitations and presentation are very important.

Before the height of spring run-off occurs, cranefly imitations can work well. These insects end up in the river due to the rising levels of the river. Other early season dry flies that are effective include the Elk Hair Caddis, the Parachute Adams, and the X-Caddis, sized 14-16. Effective early season nymphs are the Hare's Ear Nymph and the Pheasant Tail Nymph, in sizes 14-18.

Spring run-off generally occurs in May and can last through late June, depending on the vagaries of the weather. Once spring-run off begins to subside, a locally developed dry fly, the Emergent Sparkle Pupa, works extremely well. Gary LaFontaine, who has studied caddisflies extensively, developed this fly specifically for the Clark Fork. Additionally, a standard Elk Hair Caddis or X-Caddis also are effective just after run-off ends.

Clark Fork River in Montana

Photo Use Guidelines

Beginning in July and lasting through September, hopper imitations become extremely effective. Hoppers are found everywhere along the Clark Fork and should you forget this before arriving you will be quickly reminded of it after taking a short walk through the fields that border the Clark Fork. Your vehicle will also be covered in hoppers, generally requiring a trip to the local car wash to "repair" the damage. Other popular dry flies, such as the Parachute Adams and the PMD Cripple, are also effective. For the angler who enjoys fly fishing nymphs, the Hare's Ear Nymph and the Pheasant Tail Nymph also work well.

Although this is brown trout water, streamers aren't heavily used on this section of the Clark Fork during the summer. Few baitfish (such as whitefish or sculpins) are found in the upper Clark Fork. As a result, the brown trout feed almost exclusively on insects and are less than apt to tackle a large streamer pattern - especially considering the vast array of insects that are found on the upper Clark Fork (this section of the Clark Fork runs through a very fertile valley). This changes, though, beginning in the fall. Large streamers, such as the Muddler Minnow and the Marabou Muddler, work excellent in pulling the brown trout - now more aggressive than earlier in the season - out from their holes and hiding places. And there is no shortage of places to fish these streamers. This section of the Clark Fork has some beautiful habitat for brown trout, although it can be frustrating at times casting to them due to the brush and the rivers narrow width.

Overall, this short section of the Clark Fork has been tailored made for the fly fisherman who enjoys spring creek type fishing conditions. The extensive brush, the twists and turns or the river and its narrow width all combine to create classic spring creek fishing conditions. Just be prepared for some casting difficulties as all the brush can make casting difficult at times.

Clark Fork : Galen to Deer Lodge

Clark Fork at Racetrack
Photo Use Guidelines

In this section of the Clark Fork, the river turns from a large spring creek to a small river by the time it reaches Deer Lodge. Unlike further upstream, irrigation use of the Clark Fork can be heavy, leaving the river with low flows and warm temperatures later in the summer. Habitat degradation in the form of cattle grazing along the banks to numerous irrigation developments all take a toll on the fly fishing. As a result, brown trout numbers begin to decline from Galen downstream to Deer Lodge.

In the upper part of this section, the Clark Fork can still have extensive brush along its banks. The brush, though, soon gives way to more open banks of hay and fields. As a result, the fishing conditions are easier than found upstream near the origin. Casting is generally not a problem as the river is wider and wading is a lot easier since you don't have to fight a jungle of prickly undergrowth.

While trout populations decline downstream from Galen, the populations are still healthy. The brown trout are also quite large, averaging more than 14 inches, with the occasional 20+ inch trout being seen from time to time.

Fly fishing for the brown trout in this section of the Clark Fork is similar to found upstream. More baitfish are located in this section of the Clark Fork, however, allowing streamers to be fished successfully all summer long. As is found further upstream, excellent habitat for the brown trout is found, with countless holes, undercut banks and downfalls providing wonderful cover for these fish.

Access to this section of the Clark Fork is good. While no designated fishing access sites exist, many county road bridge crossings are available that can provide access.

Overall, while this section of the Clark Fork may not have the high density of brown trout populations as found upstream, the easier fishing and casting can make for an easier experience for those lacking precise casting skills. And since the river is still fairly narrow and not too deep, wade fishing on this section of the Clark Fork is relatively easy.

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