Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Fishing the Clark Fork River

Posted 5/31/23

When I arrived in Missoula, MT, with my friend Joe after a long cross-country bus ride, the first river I saw was the Clark Fork.

At the time, we were enrolled as students at the University of …

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Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Fishing the Clark Fork River


When I arrived in Missoula, MT, with my friend Joe after a long cross-country bus ride, the first river I saw was the Clark Fork.

At the time, we were enrolled as students at the University of Montana. The fact that the Clark Fork flowed along the north side of the campus certainly was a very good sign for me as a fisherman.

Because I was new to the state of Montana and did not qualify for a resident license, fishing was not on the agenda for the first six months.

By the following spring, I had satisfied that requirement, and went to Bob Ward and Sons in Missoula to purchase my first license.

As the season began, my friends and I fished Lolo Creek, Rock Creek and the Bitterroot River, but not the Clark Fork. We found that the river on the campus side was not easily accessible, plus the railroad tracks that serviced the Milwaukee Road—as we called it—ran between the campus boundary and the river.

In addition, those folks who subscribed to a lifetime of free travel—and perhaps homelessness—rode the Milwaukee. Some of those people built temporary shelters next to the tracks while they waited for the next train. We called that area, for the lack of a better term, Hobo Junction.

We became more familiar with the rivers surrounding the Missoula area, and the local anglers had good things to say about the Clark Fork. We learned that upstream reaches east of Missoula offered excellent fishing and good access close to a bridge near Frenchtown. Late fall and early spring were considered good times to fish, because flows were low, with trout actively feeding.

While I preferred fly fishing, we fished live nymphs because there was little surface activity during those seasons. Drifting artificial nymphs along the bottom probably would have worked; I just never tried that method, because catching trout was so easy with bait and an ultra-light spinning rod.

There were two friends that I routinely fished with—Ed and John. John had a car, so we depended upon him for transportation.

The three of us always planned to be on the river by around 1 p.m. The sun was still high at that time and helped warm the water temperature. Even a few degrees were important, since the warmth caused the trout to begin feeding.

We took Route 10 east from Missoula, parked next to the bridge, and made our way to the Clark Fork, which was down a short incline. Since we carried no bait, our first task was to collect a good quantity of stone fly nymphs. The species we collected was not giant salmon flies. Instead, the rocks we turned over next to shore yielded Skwala stoneflies, which are a bit smaller. As with salmon flies, Skwalas have a life cycle of two to three years. Since they hatch early in the season,  right around mid-March, there can be some excellent dry fly fishing before runoff begins.

During my four years in Montana, I saw a hatch of Skwala stoneflies once,  on the Clark Fork near Missoula. I found one rising trout and caught it on a very large dry fly.

Skwala nymphs are not as large as those of salmon flies, but are still a good size and are an excellent bait for trout. We used a four-pound test monofilament spinning line, a number-12 light wire hook and a split shot or two to get the nymphs down to the level where the trout fed. The nymphs were hooked under the wing pads, then delicately cast upstream, so they had time to sink and float downstream.

The plan was to fish slow, deep sections of the river. That’s where the trout rested and fed during the colder months, when water temperatures were low and the fish sluggish.

The pool by the bridge had the best habitat, and whoever got there first had the best fishing. The water was deep, and the current on the slow side. Ed almost always seemed to get to this spot first, and as a result, caught the most trout. Or maybe he was just the better fisherman?

If I recall correctly, most of the fish we caught were rainbows, with a mix of rainbow/cutthroat hybrids. Those trout ranged from 12 to 14 inches.

Upon occasion, I fished the Clark Fork just upstream from Missoula across from the university campus. The Rattlesnake Creek entered the Clark Fork there, and at the time received the discharge from a dairy.

As at the bridge, stone fly nymphs were the best and most available bait. Boy, was I surprised while cleaning the first trout I caught at the mouth of the Rattlesnake, to find it full of curds from that dairy. Who knew that trout would eat those things?

The Clark Fork is a big river, not easily accessible due to the railroad and terrain. Although there were no guide boats on the river when I was in Missoula, a boat is the best and most productive way to fish the river.

While the Clark Fork is not as famous as the Madison, Yellowstone or even Rock Creek, it holds good populations of brown and rainbow trout, cutthroat hybrids, and even bull trout, which are protected. So any angler passing through Missoula should definitely plan to fish the Clark Fork. Guide services that float the Clark Fork are easily found online.

Clark Fork, University of Montana, fishingskwala nymphs


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