Montana Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing the Clark Fork

Clark Fork

The Clark Fork : Fishing Information

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Lower Clark Fork (Missoula to Thompson Falls)

Clark Fork at Petty Creek
Photo Use Guidelines

The Clark Fork enters the Bitterroot Valley at Missoula and flows through the valley for some twenty miles before it begins to enter the mountains again. Once it enters the mountains, the Clark Fork flows through a beautiful landscape of small mountains with thick forests. As the Clark Fork travels further downstream, the forests gradually thin out, with more rock being found along the rivers edge - particularly downstream from St. Regis, Montana. The Clark Fork picks up the flows from the Flathead River at Paradise and becomes a massive river. The foliage along the river continues to thin out and the mountains get smaller as the river continues on towards Thompson Falls and the several reservoirs the Clark Fork flows into.

The Clark Fork in this section picks up the flows from several major rivers and many smaller ones, including the Bitterroot River, the St. Regis River and the Flathead River. By the time the Clark Fork leaves the Bitterroot Valley, the Clark Fork is a very large river with solid current and lots of depth. Below Paradise, the river is a huge river, and ranks as the largest river in the state. As a result, float fishing is the best way to fish the Clark Fork. Wade anglers will be at a big disadvantage since so many good fishing areas on the river are not accessible by foot.

Considering the rivers size and how sizable its drainage is, it is somewhat surprising that the river remains quite clear. Except for during the height of spring run-off, the Lower Clark Fork is quite clear throughout the year.

Fishing pressure on the Lower Clark Fork ranges from low to moderate, depending on where you are. The heaviest pressure will be found in and around Missoula. The further downstream one travels, the less fishing pressure will be found. Just be aware that lots of recreational floaters use the river, especially between Petty Creek Fishing Access Site and Tarkio Access Site due to some wild whitewater in that section.

Access to the Lower Clark Fork is generally quite good. A number of fishing access sites are along the river between Missoula and St. Regis. Between St. Regis and Paradise, a highway closely follows the road, providing nearly unlimited access. Downstream from Paradise to Thompson Falls, access to the Clark Fork dries up considerably and is limited to a handful of bridge crossings.

Clark Fork below St. Regis

Photo Use Guidelines

Fish populations on the entire Lower Clark Fork are lower than found further upstream. Rainbow trout are the prime fish found in this section of the Clark Fork. And while their numbers may not be large (less than 1000 per mile - not a high number considering the size of the river in this section), the fish can get extremely big - sometimes exceeding 30 inches.

Early season fly fishing on the Lower Clark Fork can begin as early as April during the Skwala stonefly hatch. A popular and effective fly for this hatch is the Olive Stimulator, fished down deep. Just beware of the Montana weather during this time. It may range from sun, rain, ice or snow - or with some combination of the above.

Late April or early May generally sees the onset of spring run-off, blowing out fishing. Spring run-off generally ends by late June, which coincides with a solid Gray Drake, and Pale Morning Dun hatch. Effective dry flies during this time include the Parachute Adams, the Sparkle Dun, the Comparadun, the Light Cahill and the Elk Hair Caddis, in sizes ranging from 10-18. Effective nymph imitations include the Hare's Ear Nymph and the Pheasant Tail Nymph, in sizes 12-16.

Beginning in mid-July and lasting through September, grasshopper imitations also work extremely well, and are often the best choice since they are effective when other hatches are occurring. Hopper imitations provide a good alternative for the angler who can't match the hatch of doesn't want to.

Fall on the Lower Clark Fork has a solid Baetis hatch. Popular flies for this time period include the Parachute Adams, the Sparkle Dun and the Hare's Ear Nymph, in sizes 14-20.

When fly fishing on the Lower Clark Fork, it needs to be remembered that fishing is spotty. This is a big river with relatively low populations of fish per mile. When fly fishing the Lower Clark Fork, pass on unproductive water and focus on select areas. In particular, look for top water activity and concentrate your fishing around that activity. It is not unusual for pockets of fish to be separated by several hundred yards of empty water. Should top water activity not provide any evidence of where the fish may be, look for seams in the current. These seams develop due to variable current speeds - usually faster in the middle of the river and slower near the shore. Fish frequently hold right at this seam. A dry fly or nymph floated right on the edge will frequently find the fish.

In addition to providing excellent, if somewhat scattered, trout fishing, the Lower Clark Fork, below Plains, also provides excellent pike fishing. Many of the pike found in the Lower Clark Fork exceed twenty-pounds. As the Clark Fork is so huge below Plains, many anglers use motorboats to reach the productive areas of the river.

Petty Creek Access to Tarkio Access Site

Clark Fork below Plains
Photo Use Guidelines

An exception to the spotty fly fishing on the Lower Clark Fork occurs on the whitewater section between Petty Creek Fishing Access Site and Tarkio Access Site. In this section of the river, extensive whitewater, often up to Class IV, exists. Trout populations in this section are significantly higher than elsewhere in the Lower Clark Fork. The problem, of course, is reaching them. This section of the Clark Fork is exceedingly difficult to reach by foot except by a long walk upstream from the Tarkio Access Site. Floating is not much easier, though, due to the fast current, waves, and whitewater. Trout are found holding behind the large rocks in the river, in the deep pools and other good habitat in this section. The trout in this section are also quite large, often exceeding twenty inches. Streamers are the most effective way to catch these fish, using a sinking line with weights in order to get the flies down to depth.

Clark Fork : Summary

Overall, the Lower Clark Fork is a beautiful river that offers superb fly fishing for large trout. While the fishing is scattered and the size of the river can be intimidating, the combination of being able to take large trout in a beautiful setting makes fly fishing on the Lower Clark Fork an enjoyable one.

The future of the Clark Fork is a bright one, hopefully. While other environmental horrors may await the Clark Fork due to past mining activities, and extensive irrigation use does hamper fly fishing in some sections, a new plan just released by the EPA calls for a massive removal of sediment along the river and the creation of a "buffer zone" along most of the rivers length, among other things. This plan, if ever implemented, promises to go along way in turning the Clark Fork into a true blue-ribbon trout stream.

Next Page : Floating the Clark Fork

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