Clearwater River / Seeley-Swan Valleys / Highway 83
The Clearwater River is a brushy, small stream with limited access. Its greatest attribute, however, is the series of lakes that it connects from Summit Lake to Harper's lake, at the junction of Highway 93 and Highway 83.
Some fishers travel in packs and grudgingly compromise on their fishing itinerary; others travel with loved ones and, to the chagrin of family members, plan their family vacations not by destination resorts but by river tributaries. For the fly fisher who cajoles and pleads and promises the moon to his family in order to just wet a line on another river, the Seeley-Swan promises something for everyone in the family. Nestled between the Mission Mountains Wilderness and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Seeley Lake recreation area and the Swan River basin offer summer recreation at its best.
Golfing, swimming, canoeing, jet skiing, water skiing, trail riding and wilderness excursions provide just some of the many activities for the entire family. Oh, but here is the dilemma for dad and his fishing converts - just what type of fish to fish? The small creeks contain cutthroats and brookies, as do the mountain lakes. The Clearwater River holds nice browns, and the Swan River is home to both cutthroats and bull trout. The Seeley Lake chain offers kokanee salmon, rainbows, cutthroats, yellow perch and the notorious pike.
From Summit Lake down to the town of Seeley, and then down to Clearwater Junction, the watershed is a tributary of the Blackfoot River, which in turn is a tributary of the Clark Fork. At Summit Lake, Highway 83 crests on a small divide, which begins the watershed for the Swan River that runs north to Flathead Lake. Throughout this recreational wonderland are numerous forest service campgrounds, Montana state park campgrounds and many unimproved camping sites on both Plum Creek logging land and in the Lolo and Flathead National Forests. Backpackers will find that the Bob Marshall Wilderness offers over a million acres to explore.
The Bob is 60 miles in length and joins the Scapegoat Wilderness to the south and the Great Bear Wilderness to the north, which reaches all the way up into Glacier National Park. On the eastern side of the valley, the Mission Wilderness encompasses over 70,000 acres of jagged peaks, small glaciers and many mountain lakes and streams. All of this country is easily accessed from Highway 83, and every mile marker beckons the fishermen to a new piece of water.
Joe Bender of High Basin Sports in Seeley recommends ¼-ounce Rooster Tail lures in the rainbow, chartreuse and brown trout colors as well as 1/8- and ¼ -ounce Panther Martin lures in all gold or silver. He also recommends the yellow and red pattern and the black and red pattern. Joe said, "This country is where the fly fishers and the night crawler fishermen co-exist in harmony. There is just so much variety to choose from. In addition to the lures and spinners, one popular method of fishing from a canoe is to simply troll with a bobber and a piece of night crawler on a six-foot leader.
For the fly fisher, Joe generally recommends nymphs, unless they are rising to a hatch. He uses a sinking tip with a Prince or a bead-head pattern or an olive or black Wooly Bugger or leech pattern. When fishing for kokanee, Joe recommends a leaded line with cowbells, plus a three-foot leader and a Wedding Ring with a piece of white corn or a night crawler. Expect to catch kokanee from 8 to 13-inches.
Hyperbole and verisimilitude quite often tend to enter into discussions with fishing outfitters and shop owners. Joe is a refreshing anomaly. The evening before I met him I had hiked down to Clearwater Lake. Walking up the trail were three float-tube fishermen. They had fished all day and were quite pleased with the results, whenever the wind had died down. One of the anglers good-naturally boosted of the catch of the day, a 20-inch cutthroat. I told Joe I was a little skeptical. After 15 years as a guide, I am accustomed to some gross misjudgments for length and poundage of trout. Year after year I have had clients innocently proclaim that an 11-inch trout was a 14-incher. And when it comes to poundage, I have always marveled at full pound increments. When I do hear someone split the difference and call the catch a 4½ pounder, my imagination soars with the possibilities.
Joe confirmed that the lake contained many such specimens, but the lake was frustrating at times, as it lacked consistency. "When it's hot, it is one of the best fishing spots in the region, but I have spent a half a day fishing and gone home skunked." The mere word "skunked" is an anathema rarely spoken but in private moments with one's most intimate friends or spouse, and I took an instant liking to Joe. Comfortable with Joe's enthusiasm for the region's fishing and his open candor, I pressed him for his views on Seeley's Loch Ness Godzilla, the notorious pike.
Brought in by bucket biologists, the pike introduction is the bane of trout fishers. According to Joe the pike explosion has been a boon to the Seeley area, as it draws in pike fishers from all around the country. "Prior to the pike fishing, Seeley Lake was crap fishing for planted rainbows, sun fish, suckers and a few bass. It was the pits. Last year the largest pike that I know of being caught was 25 pounds and measured 46 inches. Now, that's a fish with an attitude."
What most fishermen come to realize is that, unlike the pike up in Canada who often feed on themselves due to the scarce food supply, Seeley Pike are not aggressive feeders, as they have large numbers of sun fish and trash fish to feed on. Joe recommends one-ounce red and white Dare Devils, big buzz baits, and large-jointed Rappalas. At the very minimum he suggests using 12-pound line. Other popular lures are Rappala Magnums, weedless rubber mice, Jaw Breakers and spinner bait. Joe forewarns those who fish the lily pads, "Plan on actually landing about 10% of the fish you catch."
Fly fishers wishing to fish for pike should use wire leaders and deer-hair mice. If you are fishing from a belly-boat or float tube, be sure to bring along a pair of pliers and gloves. When releasing a pike, turn them belly up so that they become motionless. When I asked Joe what his predictions were regarding the explosion of pike in the basin, he replied, "I think they are here to stay. According to a number of knowledgeable sources, the pike will peak in numbers and then decline. When this happens, they will move into pike zones, which we are seeing already. Once this happens the trout population will stabilize as well. The major detriment to the introduction of pike has been the decline of kokanee salmon, but in spite of this loss, I'm glad they are here."
Joe's store, High Basin Sports, is located on Highway 83 in Seeley Lake.
River description by David Archer
Access Points Along Highway 83 through the Seeley Lake region
MM 1: Harper's Lake and Blanchard Lake
Harper's Lake and Blanchard Lake are right next to each other. Both lakes are ¼ of a mile off the highway and provide access to the Clearwater River and a nice campground, especially for a family who has brought along a canoe. The campground is suitable for trailers and offers shade and an ideal spot for family recreation. Harper's Lake prohibits boats with motors. The lake is planted with trout each year, as well as some retired brood stock. A small 18-acre pothole lake, Harper's Lake is separated from Blanchard Lake by the access road. Blanchard Lake is a misnomer, as it is actually a 10-acre flooded oxbow of the Clearwater River. Blanchard Lake offers a potpourri of small trout, perch, bass, whitefish and rough fish.
MM 6.5: Salmon Lake State Park
Fee area. Salmon Lake State Park campground has been updated and provides new lavatories with coin-operated showers. The campground has a boat launch and a picnic area as well as an amphitheater where they bring in guest speakers to talk about the wildlife as well as educational seminars sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Native Americans also give presentations on their cultural heritage and history. Salmon Lake is a popular lake for all of the trout species and kokanee salmon.
The Clearwater River above Salmon Lake is a popular fishing area for browns. This short section to the Placid Lake turn-off is a challenge, however, as it is braided swampland crowded with willow and tag alder.
MM 10.1: Placid Lake State Park, Owl Creek, Jocko Lakes
Right after you exit the highway, you will cross the Clearwater River, which has a campsite and a fishing trail both upstream and downstream. About a half-mile further are some nice unimproved Plum Creek campsites on Owl Creek, the outlet creek for Placid Lake. Placid Lake State Park is three miles from the highway and charges a fee. The park has recently been upgraded and improved with coin-operated showers and handicapped-accessible rest rooms with hot and cold water. Placid Lake also has a boat launch. Popular with water skiers, the lake doesn't offer much for quality fishing, although it is loaded with small kokanee.
Owl Creek parallels the road and offers small cutthroats and brookies. Bring plenty of mosquito repellant if you plan on fishing the Clearwater River area where it is joined by Owl Creek.
Ignore the signs to Jocko Lakes. The road takes off from the campground entrance. The lakes are high up in the Mission Mountains on the Flathead Indian Reservation. They are closed to fishing. The outlet, the Jocko River, is an excellent high-country stream. However, you will need a tribal permit to fish so you would need to continue driving to Arlee, Montana. From Highway 83 to the fishing area on the Jocko River is approximately 25 miles.
MM 14: Seeley Lake camping . River Point Campground
Just after mile-marker 14, look for Boy Scout Road on the left. The road swings around the east side of Seeley Lake and rejoins Highway 83 above the town. River Point Campground is 2.1 miles from the highway and offers 26 campsites, swimming and picnicking. It is a USFS fee campground and provides lots of shade.
Seeley Lake Campground
A fee campground right on the lake, Seeley Lake Campground, Lolo National Forest, is 3.3 miles. Shaded by larch, it also offers a nice concrete boat launch and a beach with a roped-in swimming area. Public pay phones are available, but the campground does not offer showers. 29 campsites. Flush toilets. Cold drinking water. Boat launch.
Seeley Lake provides lots of fishing opportunities for perch, stocked rainbows, cutthroats and pike, not to mention some hefty 5- to 10-pound brood stock from the Arlee hatchery. Yellow perch are best caught with a rubber jig with a piece of night crawler. The best pike fishing is found at the outlet of the lake.
MM 15-16: Seeley Lake, Montana.
Seeley Trailhead Campground, Morrell Creek, Morrell Falls, Morrell Lake and Cottonwood Lakes (Road #477)
Just as you reach the outskirts of the town of Seeley, look for Morrell Creek Road which heads east. Morrell Creek is first crossed two miles from the highway. The creek offers small cutthroats, brookies and the occasional brown spawner in the fall.
Cottonwood Lakes, Seeley Trailhead Campground
The campground is one mile from the highway and not to be confused with the lakeside campground. Cottonwood Lakes are 8.4 miles from the campground, although there is only one real lake, which is the middle lake. The other two "lakes" are shallow mud ponds. The middle lake is a narrow 15-acre lake, and it is only fished out of a canoe or small boat. The lake is stocked with Arlee rainbows, and it is a popular lake for cutthroats and brookies. The lake offers a number of unimproved campsites. This is "pack it in - pack it out" country. Morrell Creek Road is actually a loop that comes out at Kozy Korner three miles from Highway 83. Take Woodworth Road just past Salmon Lake State Park.
MM 17.9: Seeley Lake Ranger Station.
MM 19.4: Boy Scout Road. This is the loop road which swings around the west side of the lake and re-connects at mileage marker 14.
MM 20: Clearwater Lake Loop Refer to Mileage Marker 28.
MM 22.5: Lake Inez. 293 acres with a maximum depth of 70 feet. Fishing is similar to Seeley Lake. Lake Inez has USFS non-fee campgrounds running along the shore of the lake right beneath the highway. Some of the sites are squeezed between the water and the access road with the highway up above it.
MM 24: Lake Inez Campground access.
MM 25: West Fork of the Clearwater River, Marshall Lake
As soon as you turn off the highway, you will cross the Clearwater River. Right alongside the creek and the road are two grassy unimproved campsites. The West Fork of the Clearwater River is a brushy little creek with few fish. The road to Marshall Lake is 6.4 miles and offers a stunning view of the valley. Narrow and bumpy in places, I would recommend pulling only a tent trailer. When I got up to the lake, however, I was surprised to see a 19-foot trailer. When I talked to the camper, he had a harrowing tale about backing up his trailer on a windy cliff-side road when he ran into a gate. Marshall Lake has one campsite and a place to launch a boat, although there are a couple of unimproved campsites on the creek about a hundred yards from the lake. The road forks just above the campsite and follows the side of the mountain up above the lake, where a gate blocks further travel. Vandals had removed the warning sign. The father said that it had taken hours to back the trailer down the narrow, windy road, and his two young sons were terrified.
Marshall Lake froze a number of years ago. All that was left were a few five-inch cuts when I fished it. The creek also froze out and offers poor fishing in the upper reaches. Check to see if the lake has been re-stocked.
MM 26: Lake Alva
Approximately 300 acres with a maximum depth of 90 feet. Lake Alva is the most popular fishing lake among the locals. Offering good catches of kokanee, trout and the occasional bull trout, the lake also offers perch and pike. Similar to Lake Inez, Lake Alva has a non-fee USFS campground that runs along the water's edge just short of mile marker 25, but it is more suitable to tents and truck campers.
Lake Alva Campground
Lake Alva Campground is a self-serve fee campground with no showers. 41 campsites. Cold drinking water. U.S. Fee Area. During the ice-fishing season, a 27-pound pike was speared in the lake. The campground has an excellent boat launch and a small beach with a roped-off area for swimming.
MM 27: Rainy Lake
70-acre shallow lake. Rainy Lake is popular fishing for 12-inch cutthroats. Rainy Lake has the largest population of bull trout and is free of pike.
MM 28: Clearwater Lake Loop
The dirt road is surprisingly smooth, and the view of the Bob Marshall Wilderness peaks are stunning. Clearwater Lake is seven miles from the highway. You will find a parking spot with a half-mile trail down to the lake (it seemed much shorter than a half-mile). Don't waste your time trying to fish this lake from the shore. The lake is extremely shallow around its entire length. The lake is rich in leeches and freshwater shrimp with good hatches so the cutthroats are sometimes uncooperative. The lake is best fished from a belly boat or a canoe. The best fishing is in the northwest end of the lake. Joe Bender recommends olive leeches, bead-head nymphs and hoppers in August. The lake offers a number of pack-in camping sites.
MM 31: Summit Lake
Summit Lake is a small, brushy-lined lake that freezes. It is rarely fished. The few rises that you see are smaller cutthroats moving up or down from Bertha Creek. Bertha Creek is so overgrown it is not worth the effort to fish it. Summit Lake is the dividing line for the Clearwater that drains south to the Blackfoot River and the Swan River drainage that flows north to Flathead Lake.