Like the famous Muhammad Ali match with George Foreman, the Clark Fork of the Columbia has been up against the ropes, pummeled and battered by powerful forces for over 100 years. Designated as one of the largest Superfund clean-up sites in the nation, the Clark Fork vies for the title of the comeback kid with the likes of Ali and Rocky Balboa. After a hundred years of mine waste discharge and heavy metal accumulation at the Milltown Dam, the river has yet to be declared champ, but the restoration and rejuvenation of the Upper Clark Fork has been stupendous. With fish counts at zero in the late '60s in the Warm Springs area and reaching over a 1,000 per mile 10 years later and almost doubling again, the brown trout population has attracted a great deal of angling pressure. From Warm Springs to Rock Creek the river varies considerably in the number of trout per mile due in part to thermal seepage, irrigation, years of drought, algae blooms and the insidious presence of whirling disease.
But the good news is that the Milltown Dam, just above Missoula, was removed in the spring of 2008, along with tons of toxic sediment. A marked improvement of clarity and the removal of sediment on the gravel beds is noticeably apparent one year later. For the past 100 years genetically programmed spawners have been blocked from reaching the Blackfoot River, Rock Creek and the upper river. The return of prodigious hatches of insects below the dam has already begun and large fish counts will follow. Missoula's Kelly Island to the confluence of the Flathead River continually improves. Fish, Wildlife and Parks Biologist Rod Berg estimates on average about 600 rainbows per mile with the larger 18- to 20-inch fish in the Superior and St. Regis area. Beware of the Alberton Gorge just below the town of Alberton and extending for approximately 18 miles to Forest Grove.
Lewis and Clark were warned, and if you haven't already heard of this section, consider it the playground of experienced whitewater rafters and kayakers. During my first year of guiding in 1981 for Grove Hull, he came back jubilant from a fishing adventure in the gorge with an experienced whitewater oarsman. Constantly trying to balance himself and cast without being thrown out, he had one of those great bragging days on the river. When he suggested I join him, I quickly responded, "Your boat!" No deal, he said. To this day I have never wanted to risk my raft or my life fishing the canyon. Those big rainbows would just be too distracting.
Since Interstate 90 follows the course of the Clark Fork River, I have covered Access to the River along with Tributary Creeks and Lakes. Additionally, I have included Camping Along the Clark Fork River. At the end of this article I have included popular Clark Fork Float Trips, but keep in mind that wading anglers have a superabundance of access points along the river, including the town section. In this access section I have also included exits from Interstate 90 that do not necessarily lead to fishing, but they could be helpful as reference.
River description by David Archer
*From the Idaho Border towards Missoula
St. Regis River: I recommend using Woolly Buggers and Bitch Creeks in the spring along the lower St. Regis River, as the browns follow the spring spawners to feed on the egg deposits. The opening day for the St. Regis River is the third Saturday in May. When I asked about the St. Regis River in general, one of the local guides said that the river gets scoured every year. The best fishing is in the first two miles, and he wouldn't fish any further up than four miles, except during spring and fall spawning runs. Preseason flies include Skwala stonefly from March 15-May 15; Gray Drakes (Amoletus), April 1-June 15; Blue-Wing Olives, April 1-June 1; Nemoura stonefly, March 1-April 30; and March Brown, March 25-April 30.
Hazel Lake: Follow Ward Creek Road (Road #889). The road is a single lane road with very few turnouts. The creek is very small and almost impenetrable, although it does hold small brookies. From the I-90 exit to the Hazel Lake trailhead is 6.6 miles, and the trail to Hazel Lake is 3.2 miles for small cutthroats.
Follow the main street in St. Regis a half-mile west. Turn left when you see the sign South Fork Little Joe Creek and Moore Lake. The mileage to Moore Lake is 14 miles, and this is the only sign to Moore Lake you will see again until you are zig-zagging up Road #221. (If you miss Road #221 you will wander like I did to the top of the pass and the Idaho State Line.) Turning at the sign just outside of St. Regis, the road will cross over the Interstate and St. Regis River. The road turns to gravel, but it is well maintained. At 3.3 miles there is a camping spot and an access to Road #221. Turn left on Road #221. The road follows the creek and is one lane and bumpy at times, although you don't need a 4X4. Follow this road 6.9 miles until the road makes a turn to the right, at the second Moore Lake sign. The lake is 3.4 miles from the sign. Moore Lake has a turn-around and an outhouse. The lake is 200 yards from the parking area and does not have any campsites. Nestled in a tight bowl, this 13-acre sub-alpine lake offers good fishing for 8- to 12-inch brook trout.
Little Joe Creek
Little Joe Creek is a very small creek, but up in the canyon on the way to Moore Lake the creek is backed up by many downfalls, providing little pools for small brook trout and cutthroats.
Diamond Lake and Cliff Lake: Heading eastbound, take Exit 43 off Interstate 90. Turn right at the stop sign and proceed over the railroad tracks. Continue seven-tenths of a mile and turn right on Road #342. The lake is 13 miles. Four miles from the lake, you will make a left turn at a T-intersection. Diamond Lake Campground is suitable only for tent camping. The road is a one lane, steep climb suitable for cars. Diamond Lake is a popular spot, as it is one of only a few lakes reached by road in the area. It is a 17-acre, deep lake in heavily timbered country, and it is full of small brookies. To define small, I fished the lake with a father and son from Maine. We dragged and carried three of my one-man boats about 200 yards before we could launch them. (The campsite end of the lake is jammed with logs so if you plan on launching a canoe, plan on a portage.) In the space of two hours, Tom, Lincoln and I managed to catch only 15 fish between us. Not one measured over 9 inches.
Much larger than Diamond Lake, Cliff Lake is reached 1.5 miles up the trail from Diamond Lake. The lake reportedly has 14-inch cutthroats. I spoke to two fishermen coming down the trail, and they said they couldn't even cast from the shore because of the cliffs and the debris and half-sunken logs surrounding the lake. Eager to float the Clark Fork that same day, we passed up the hike.
Fish Creek: Fish Creek empties into the Clark Fork. From the Reserve Street on-ramp, Fish Creek is 35 miles due west. Take Exit 66 off Interstate 90. Take a right turn to Rivulet if you want to fish the creek from the confluence upstream. Spin fishers and fly fishers heavily fish this section. Deep pools and heavy pressure keep the trout very wary and shy. Nonetheless, what it lacks in numbers, it can make up for in the size of the fish. In the first half-mile of the creek, I caught only three fish on a hot August day, but one of the fish measured 16 inches and jumped eye level to me three times.
Further up the creek the water is flat and shallow and heavily fished as the road parallels the creek. Years ago I used to take my sons to Fish Creek early in the summer for good catches of 8- to 10-inch trout. Having talked to three high school students from Huson, not much has changed, with the exception of some crafty bull trout, which makes Fish Creek very fishy!
If you fish the lower section, you might as well make a day of it and fish the Clark Fork as well. Continue the four miles to Rivulet, which is a railroad spur with two houses. Just above the two houses the river offers a half-mile of riffles with large side pools. You will have to slide on your butt down to the river through a lot of brush. Take a lunch and keep an eye on the pools.
Rattle Snake Creek: Here is a great creek right outside the city limits, but you need to be prepared to walk about six miles before you can wet a line in the catch-and-release section. The creek is closed to fishing from the city water supply dam of Mountain Water Company up the creek to the mouth of Beeskove Creek, which is a distance of about six miles from the parking lot to Beeskove Creek. But what a spectacular hike! The trail is a popular trail for both hikers and mountain bikers entering the Rattlesnake Wilderness. Wait until at least mid-July if you plan on fishing for pure strain Western cutthroat. From Beeskove Creek all the way up to the headwaters is catch-and-release fishing. If you have a bike, go all the way to the footbridge and fish above and below the bridge for 7- to 12-inch beauties. Van Buren changes to Rattlesnake Drive. Follow the Rattlesnake Wilderness signs. (The lower section of Rattlesnake Creek below the city water supply site to the mouth is open to fishing. Be sure to check the regulations.)
Popular Clark Fork River Float Trips
Float Trip 1: Beavertail State Park to Clinton and Clinton to Turah
Fishing the Clark Fork from Beavertail State Park past Rock Creek and finishing at Schwartz Creek Bridge has declined in the last number of years; however, given the right conditions, this section can be outstanding during the Salmon Fly hatch, as the hatch moves up Rock Creek. It is a long float trip, but it offers great scenery, albeit fair fishing. The section from Clinton to Turah is similar. The Turah takeout is a state campground, and right across the street from this campground is the Turah store and campground. Do not float past Turah, as there is no take-out from that point down to the Milltown Dam. Wade fishermen will find the Schwartz Creek access a better access point for hiking up and down the river.
Float Trip 2: Note: With the removal of Milltown Dam, new opportunities for float fishing have opened up. I will add this information during the summer of 2010, and it will include the town section as well.
Float Trip 3: Spurgin Road (Kelly Island) Kona Bridge or to Old Harper's Bridge
Missoula's first launching place is at the access on Spurgin Road. Don't be surprised when you drive through a very wealthy neighborhood and drive right between two houses. Fortunately, the access was in place before the developers plotted out the neighborhood. Take Reserve Street and turn west on South Avenue. Turn right on Clements Lane, and then turn immediately left again on Spurgin Road. Late summer during drought years, the small side channel drops really low, and quite often you must drag your raft through the shallows a short distance to the Bitterroot River. A hundred yards downstream the Clark Fork meets the Bitterroot. The takeout point for smaller craft such as canoes can be the Kona Bridge. Typically, however, floaters take out on the left side of the old Harper's Bridge abutment. This is a full day trip, and be forewarned that 2-wheel drive vehicles can easily get stuck in the gravel.
Float Trip 4: Harper's Bridge to Huson (Interstate 90) Note: The old launch site, which was on private property, is now closed.
Float Trip 5: Harper's Bridge to Single Tree. This is an extremely difficult take-out that I have not used for at least 10 years. I'll report on it during the summer of 2010.
Float Trip 6: Huson to Petty Creek. According to Jim Cox of Kingfisher Fly Shop, Fish, Wildlife and Parks is presently negotiating with landowners to secure a public launch site at Huson. This section is a nine mile float which offers good fishing and non-technical water. The take-out at Petty Creek Bridge is a developed site.
Float Trip 7: Petty Creek to the rest stop at St. John's. (Add information summer 2010.) For maps to these floating sections, see Jim Cox's page on the Clark Fork River.
Float Trip 8: Tarkio to Forest Grove: Update summer 2010.
Float Trip 9: Forest Grove to Superior (Big Eddy takeout at 11 miles or Dry Creek at 14 miles. Update summer of 2010. (Look up the old slide launch.)
Float Trip 10: Superior (Dry Creek) to St. Regis with a shortened trip at Sloway.
Interstate 90 - Idaho Border to Rock Creek
MM 0: Idaho border
Exit 22: Cabin City Campground
Exit 22 at Henderson. Travel east 2.5 miles on Camel's Hump Road #22148. Turn left (west) at the Cabin City Campground sign on Twelve Mile Creek Road #353 for two-tenths of a mile.
Exit 26: Ward Creek Road / Hazel Lake
Exit 30: Two Mile Road Fishing Access
Exit 33: St. Regis, Montana; the St. Regis River
During my tenure as a guide in western Montana, the furthest I had ever floated and fished the Clark Fork was from Forest Grove down to Superior, and those trips were few and far between. The lower Clark Fork has excellent preseason fishing in March and April, but in typical years the fishing doesn't get good again until mid-July.
Most of the locals are spin fishermen and favor black Panther Martins and black Mepps. During mid-summer local guide Brooks and his wife Jackie prefer floating from St. Regis as far down as the 14-Mile Bridge. Brooks recommends a caddis pattern in the evening until mid-August as well as a Parachute Hopper right into September. September through October they recommend a Blue-Wing Olive and the October Caddis. Brooks said his favorites are the Royal Wulff and the Madam X. As the water drops later in the summer to around 9,000 cfs, the fish in the Superior to St. Regis area tend to pod together as the water drops, providing an opportunity for some great fishing. In the late summer and fall, Brooks and Jackie also recommend hoppers, Slate-Wing Olives and Mahogany Duns. When I pressed Jackie for her favorite local lakes that could be reached by driving or a short hike, she said that there were a lot to choose from, but her favorites were Moore Lake, Diamond Lake and Cliff Lake.
Exit 43: Diamond Lake, Cliff Lake
Exit 43: Dry Creek Road
Camping and fishing access. After you exit the Interstate, you will come to a T-intersection. Turn right for the boat launch and turn left 3.2 miles for Slowey Campground. The campground is right on the water with numerous campsites adjacent to the river. This would make a nice destination for a short evening fishing trip from Superior. Slowey offers 16 campsites plus 10 trailer pull-through sites as well as horse camp facilities, cold drinking water, and a canoe or raft launch.
Exit 47: Superior, Montana, Fishing Access
Cross the bridge and make a right turn. Head east one mile to the Big Eddy Fishing Access.
Trout Creek Campground
Seven miles southwest of Superior on Trout Creek Road #257. 12 campsites. Drinking water. No garbage facilities.
Floaters wishing to float down to Superior will find access points along the access road, but most of them require sliding your raft down an embankment.
Exit 58: Quartz Creek Campground
(USFS) Quartz Creek Campground is divided by the Interstate although there is a tunnel joining the two loops. Popular with travelers and white water rafters, loop C has access to the river. 52 campsites. Cold drinking water. Flush toilets. Waste disposal site. U.S. fee area.
Exit 61: Tarkio Fishing Access
The fishing access is a popular whitewater boat launch one mile from the Interstate 90 exit. The access provides toilet facilities and long stretches above and below the access for wade fishermen.
Exit 66: Fish Creek
Exit 70: Cyr Boat Launch and Fishing
Exit 72: Fishing access. East bound only.
Exit 75: Alberton, Montana
Exit 77: Petty Creek, 24 miles from the Reserve Street on-ramp. Petty Creek is a very small creek with very small fish. However, wade fishing is excellent on the Clark Fork above Petty Creek.
Exit 82: Nine Mile Road
The upper stretches of Nine Mile Creek offer some nice camping sites, but the creek is not worth fishing, and the lower stretches of the creek pass through private property.
Exit 89: Frenchtown, Montana.
Exit 96: Highway 93 North to Flathead Lake.
Exit 99: Missoula airport.
Exit 102: Reserve Street Exit - Missoula, Montana.
Exit 104: Orange Street Exit - Missoula, Montana.
Exit 105: Van Buren Street, Rattlesnake Creek
Exit 107: East Missoula, Montana.