Nestled at the convergence point of five valleys, Missoula is a picturesque as it is interesting. Surrounded by towering mountains, three rivers come together here; the Clark Fork
. Each river is overflowing with rainbow, brown, cutthroat and bull trout, and the variety of opportunities to fish here are nearly infinite. For those inclined to venture out, it’s even possible to drop an impromptu line from a bridge in the middle of town and expect success with a catch. Other year round outdoor sports include white water river rafting, hiking and competitive marathon running.
What’s most unique about Missoula is that it’s not only beautiful but it appeals to sportsmen and artists alike. In fact, Missoula is a premier choice for fly fishermen with diverse interests such as the visual arts, live theater, cinema, local brewpubs and an active nightlife. Much of this activity is attributed to the presence of the University of Montana, frequently ranked as the most beautiful campus in the US, as well as being recognized for its academic excellence. The city is now host to the Montana Book Festival, the International Wildlife Film Festival and the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
Whether you are a fly-fisher with a yen for culture or you are a fisherman traveling with people who don’t fish, this is a wise choice for striking a balance between great angling and satisfying entertainment.
High in the Absaroka Mountains in the Beartooth Wilderness, the Rock Creek River springs to life and continues flowing for more than 55 miles until it reaches its confluence with the ... moreClarks Fork River. The river’s initial journey is dominated by dense, pristine forests and soaring, snow-capped mountains. After a short distance of about 15 miles, the river passes by the town of Red Lodge where the landscape opens onto soft, hilly pastureland. As is true with many rivers in this part of Montana, its banks are lined with thick stands of majestic cottonwood trees, tall reeds and wooly brush. As a result of Rock Creek’s original elevation, and that of the rivers that flow into it, the river maintains trout friendly, cool temperatures throughout most of the year.
Famous for its trout, the mountain stretch of the river is most likely to yield small cutthroat and brook trout that can be brought in with a variety of dry flies. Despite the gorgeous scenery and dependable fishing, with the exception of summer weekend campers, this part of the river is rarely congested. Larger browns, rainbow and bull trout are more likely found below the town of Red Lodge. This is an excellent place for those who prefer wading to floating; the river tends to be narrow and shallow enough to easily navigate on foot.
Most experts agree that float fishing Rock Creek is difficult and probably not worth the effort. The combination of sharp turns, narrow passages and low water through summer months, arguably make floating a bad choice. But for those willing to wade, Rock Creek generously rewards anglers with ample fish throughout the year. The river is particularly giving in late June and early July during the salmon fly hatch, although many who know the river well will dispute that. Those most familiar with Rock Creek say the best fishing can be found downstream in the early months of fall. That’s when the super-sized, aggressive browns and rainbows spawn and swim from Clark Fork and pour into the Rock Creek. Then you can get out your streamers and net in fish averaging 13” to 18” long. Some of the best fishing access sites to do this include Water Birch Fishing Access, Bull Springs, Beaver Lodge, and Horse Thief Station.
Given its association with transport, commerce and business development, it’s easy to forget that there remain parts of the Missouri set aside for fishing, boating and enjoying nature’s ... morebounty. From source to mouth, it is the longest river in North America, over 2, 341 miles. The river’s watershed consists of over a million square miles and includes parts of 10 American states and 2 Canadian provinces. When combined with the lower Mississippi, it is the 4th longest river in the world. Whew! That’s a lot to take in. But, if you’re a fly fisher in Montana, the only section of the Missouri you really need to know about is a tiny, 40 mile, stretch downstream of Holter Dam, near the towns of Wolf Creek, Craig and Cascade and not far from the city of Helena. This is the “Blue Ribbon” trout section of the Missouri.
Water released from Holter Dam keep this section the river at a fairly consistent level, helping to maintain cool temperatures year round. Some guides describe the river here as a gigantic spring creek surrounded by weed beds with long riffles, great banks and undercuts that provide ideal habitat for the river’s substantial trout population. By substantial, we’re talking 3,500 to 5,500 fish per mile on a yearly basis – and many of these exceed 16 inches! The first ten miles of the river from Holter Dam to Craig tend to have the largest number of hatches resulting in the highest concentration of fish.
In this “gigantic spring” part of the river, rainbow trout outnumber browns by a ratio of 6:1. In addition, stable populations of burbot and stonecats live below the dam. As a bonus, the reservoir is surrounded by the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area as well as three other designated nature preserves and wilderness set-asides. Look up and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a bald eagle, various types of falcon, red-tail hawks, osprey and golden eagles – you may even get a chance to see them snatch a fish from the water. Shore side it’s not unusual to sight bighorn sheep, elk, and mountain goats. This may be an area small in size but its large in its grandeur and many offerings.
Despite pressures from developers, ranchers and farmers, the Bitterroot, a Class 1 river, remains a haven for fly fishers. Flowing through the scenic Bitterroot Valley, the river is ... moreoften referred to as the “banana belt” of Montana, famous for its year round mild climate. Although the river tends to flow through populated areas and is located within the fastest growing area of the state, it’s still possible to see a wide array of animals along its banks including waterfowl, osprey, bald eagles, heron, white deer and mule deer. Wildlife is especially abundant within the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, located between Stevensville and Florence.
Like other rivers in Montana, this too has an interesting history. Bitterroot Valley was the ancestral home of the Salish Indians, more commonly known as the Flatheads. The area acquired its name from a plant (later to become Montana’s state flower) that the Salish cultivated and counted on as a major source of food. Father DeSmet, a Jesuit priest, established St. Mary’s Mission here in 1841, and a few years later sold it to John Owen. Owen opened a trading post that over time became Montana’s first permanent, European based settlement, eventually growing into the town of Stevensville. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, trees were harvested and the river was used to carry logs downstream to Missoula as well as used to support a wide array of agricultural products. Now, aside from sub-divisions, alfalfa is nearly the riverside’s exclusive crop.
Famous for its prodigious insect hatches, the Bitterroot teems with trout. The river carries about 1000 trout per mile, twice that of most similar size rivers, including rainbows, browns and a healthy population of native west-slope, cutthroat trout. This insect rich environment is attributed to the Sapphire Range’s calcium rich, feeder streams that join the Bitterroot and give rise to a large menu of stoneflies, mayflies and caddis. For anyone that might be interested, the river also supports northern pike and largemouth bass in some of its slower moving, backwater currents. A mere 75 miles long, the river passes through several towns including Darby, Hamilton, Corvallis, Victor, Stevensville, Florence, Lolo, ending at Missoula where it combines with the Clark Fork River.
The Blackfoot may not be the world’s longest or most majestic river, but it is certainly well known. First made famous by Norman Maclean’s moving story, it became a permanent part ... moreof the American imagination with the 1992 release of Robert Redford’s legendary movie. A favorite for floaters, the river offers scenic diversity and variation in flows from placid meandering to white water rapids. Filled with large populations of Montana’s only two truly indigenous salmonids, the Cutthroats and Bull trout, it is also host to Rainbows, Cutbows, Browns and Mountain Whitefish throughout its entire length. The Blackfoot Valley is regarded as a fully intact ecosystem, still thought to contain every species of fauna present before the first Europeans arrived – one of only 12 such remaining ecosystems on earth.
Starting out a leisurely pace, the upper portion of the river runs slow and easy through narrow channels and dense forest. From there it flows into a large, open plain, and the first of many intermediate rapids start a few miles above the Scoot Brown Bridge. As it enters the Blackfoot River Recreation area, the speed picks up, but it is from Sperry Grade, five miles down from the Scotty Brown Bridge, that white water appears. For the next seven miles floaters are challenged with Class III rapids and sizeable waves that eventually ease off as you approach Bonner Dam.
The initial 22 miles of the river down to Lincoln, offer little to entice fly fishers. Best fished waded, the appearance of Brown trout begins to pick up on the stretch from Lincoln to Mineral Hill. While the section of river from Mineral Hill to Cedar Meadows looks short on a map, it actually consists of 18 miles of rugged twists and turns. The water is slow through here so inflatable kayaks and canoes are highly recommended. At about the halfway point of the river, the Barefoot gains velocity and continues with quick to moderate flows all the way down to Clark Fork. Wildlife is abundant here, home to grizzlies, elk, bighorn sheep, cougar, lynx, wolf and deer.
The Clark Fork River has its headwaters in the Silver Bow (or Highland) Mountains, originating at the confluence of Silver Bow and Warm Springs creeks near Anaconda, Montana. The river ... moreflows north and west 350 miles through broad, semi-arid valleys, high mountain ranges, and steep-sided valleys and terminates in Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. The Upper Clark Fork, bordered on the north by the Garnet Range and on the south by the Flint Creek Range, meanders most of its first 38 miles through the flat plains of the Deer Lodge Valley. Vegetation is sparse, due partly to the effects of the mining boom, the greatest historical influence in the Upper Basin.
Downstream from the mouth of the Little Blackfoot River, the river flows through a steep, narrow canyon. Between Garrison and Jens the river channel has been shortened by highway and railroad construction activities, but past Jens the Clark Fork meanders away from the transportation corridor and native trees and shrubs appear along its banks. From below Flint Creek the river runs 26 miles through Bearmouth Canyon to emerge and widen to 150 feet for its confluence with the Blackfoot River. The Middle Clark Fork River extends about 115 river miles from Missoula to its confluence with the Flathead River and is entirely free flowing. Its drainage is mountainous and covered with large forested tracts, broken by grazing and cropland areas in the lower valleys.
From Thompson Falls Dam, its upper boundary, the Lower Clark Fork River flows through sedimentary formations and a landscape sculptured by the massive outflows of glacial Lake Missoula. It runs into Cabinet Gorge Dam, just outside the Montana border. Between the backwaters of Cabinet Gorge and the tailwaters of Thompson Falls Dam the river is inundated by Noxon Rapids Dam. When the Clark Fork crosses the Idaho border, it is Montana's largest river, carrying an average 22,060 cubic feet of water per second.
The Jefferson River is an important part of a system of rivers that combine to form the majestic Missouri. Starting at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers near Twin ... moreBridges, Montana, it winds 77 miles in a northeasterly fashion to Three Forks. Here, it meets with the Madison and Gallatin rivers that together converge into the Missouri River at the Missouri Headwaters State Park. Like so many other rivers in Montana, the Jefferson, named by Clark in honor of the U.S. President, runs deep with history. In fact, the Jefferson River is a segment of the larger Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, administered by our National Park Service.
When thinking about the Jefferson, a Class 1 river for recreational enjoyment, most observers view the river in three distinct sections. Characterized by slow, meandering flows, the upper third works its way through a broad, arid valley. Along this braided, 44 mile long floodplain, you will encounter working farms, dense cottonwood stands, flowered meadows and a variety of wildlife until you reach the town of Cardwell. Throughout the next 15 miles, its waters flow through a narrow, steep canyon where the water can be deep, slow and contained. As a result, the stretch from Cardwell to the Sappington Bridge has comparatively fewer trees, swamps, meadows and wildlife.
At Sappington Bridge the river once again becomes a circuitous, rambling river, rich in swamp life, colorful fields, large cottonwood groves and productive agricultural land. The presence of significant agriculture has resulted in competition for water use. During dry years, the river was tapped generously for irrigation, dropping water levels to the point where fish populations were adversely affected. Recent improvement in riparian management has tended to alleviate these issues. Primarily known as a brown trout river, rainbows, mountain whitefish, burbot and northern pike can also be found here. Less well known and less discovered, the Jefferson offers the opportunity to catch large fish in a scenic, un-crowded environment.