Western Montana boasts hundreds of miles of floatable water on three major rivers, the Bitterroot River, Blackfoot River, and Clark Fork River. Rock Creek, which provides float fish opportunities up until the end of June is also a major attraction. The combination of these rivers and creeks make western Montana one of the least crowded places to fly fish in Montana.
Fly fishing in Montana usually begins around mid-March, with the gradually warming temps and the appearance of a smorgasbord of mayflies. Not to mention the skwala stoneflies that really come into play around the first of April. Beginning in early May the water conditions will vary wildly based on runoff. Fortunately, the Missouri River is a beautiful two-hour drive away and typically provides steady flows and predictable angling throughout the year. Once runoff has subsided anything and everything goes. There’s no need to venture more than about an hour out of Missoula, because some of the finest water is right in our very own backyard. Fly fishing in Montana usually lasts right up until the end of October, but if you’re hardcore (and most of us Montana guides are), you can usually find open water in every month of the year. Some guides head south for the winter. But most Montana fly fishing guides and outfitters are family people, and have deep roots in the Montana communities that they live in and support, and will continue to fish the frozen waters of Montana in search of fish in all seasons.
The Bitterroot River begins at the confluence of the east and west forks near the town of Conner, Montana and flows approximately 80 miles north to join the Clark Fork River in Missoula. The Selway-Bitterroot mountain range provides stunning scenery along the entire river, especially on the upper river above Hamilton where jagged 9,000 foot tall granite peaks slice through the sky.
The Bitterroot’s south to north orientation helps warm the river in the spring and fall which makes it one of the first good dry fly options in the spring and probably the last and best option for floating in the late fall and early winter. Hoards of anglers flock to the Bitterroot River in the spring for the Skwala stonefly hatch which produces one of the seasons first hatch of flies you can fish without squinting your eyes. The Upper Bitterroot along with the East and West forks has a prolific salmonfly hatch which makes it a great option in the early summer before the rest of the river comes into shape. I am particularly fond of the golden stonefly hatch which begins in late June and carries on through July. By mid-August much of the mid river is dewatered due to heavy irrigation demands, making it a less viable option. But, by the end of August and into September and October the river picks up once again and the fall trico fishing, although challenging, will reward patient anglers who are willing to fish small flies and light tippets.
The Big Blackfoot River is probably one of my favorite rivers in the state to fish and guide. Outstanding scenery and exceptional dry fly fishing make this river a must for any angler. Our new house is located on the banks of the Blackfoot River, and with direct access to the river it’s my go-to option when folks come to visit Montana.
The Blackfoot is a freestone river that originates from springs and snowmelt along the continental divide near Rogers pass and flows westerly for approximately 130 miles toward the town of Bonner where it dumps into the Clark Fork River. The canyons and valleys of the Blackfoot River were formed by the glacial lake Missoula outburst floods that occurred during the end of the last ice age. The scenery is as diverse as the wildlife, and a float along any section of the Blackfoot will leave a lasting impression.
The Blackfoot River is well known for its eager West Slope Cutthroat trout who will take dry flies from spring to late fall. Large, predatory bull trout are extremely aggressive at certain times of the year and really add to the excitement. It’s not uncommon to be reeling in a cutthroat and have a big bull trout come out from nowhere and devour your fish. For that reason, the Blackfoot offers a legitimate chance at a trout grand slam.
The upper sections of the Blackfoot and the North Fork of the Blackfoot offer the best wade fish opportunities. The most popular sections for floating begin at the River Junction campground and numerous day float opportunities exist. You’ll need a boat if you want to experience the Box Canyon section of the Blackfoot or other less accessible sections of the river.
Clark Fork River
The Clark Fork River originates near the town of Warm Springs Montana where the recently restored Silver Bow Creek joins up with Warms Springs Creek. It is one of the longest rivers in Montana, nearly 280 miles from the confluence to the Idaho border, and drains more volume of water than any other river in Montana.
The rich mining history of the Butte/Anaconda area led to widespread pollution of the Clark Fork River. However, its distinction as a superfund site has aided in the restoration of the river and the continuing efforts to clean up a century’s worth of damage has created a respectable fishery.
The Clark Fork is commonly referred to as either the Upper Clark Fork or the Lower Clark Fork and from 1908 until 2008 the division was created by the Milltown Dam approximately 8 miles east of Missoula. Toxic sediments from upstream gathered behind the Milltown Dam which prompted the decision to remove the dam in 2008. The addition of water from the Blackfoot River and the Bitterroot River add significant volume to the Clark Fork, further distinguishing the lower river from the upper river.
Since the removal of the Milltown Dam I have witnessed a surge in the cutthroat population on the upper river and have encountered many more bull trout than before the dam was removed. There are good numbers of brown trout on the upper river as well, and you can always find decent rainbows and cutbows throughout. The lower river holds some real beasts and when you get on a pod of feeders it’s game on for 18”+ rainbows and cutbows.
There are several creeks in the state of Montana with the name Rock attached to it. However, there is only one Rock Creek that is also a blue ribbon trout fishery. The Rock Creek I’m referring to flows through portions of Granite and Missoula counties, and roughly parallels the Sapphire mountain range on its 50 plus mile journey to join the Clark Fork river just above the town of Clinton.
Rock Creek has been a long time favorite of mine and was the first body of water I explored with a fly rod when I moved to the Missoula area in 1986. It’s probably best known for the epic Salmonfly hatch that occurs each year in late May and June. It’s also well known as a bull trout fishery, and like the Blackfoot River, Rock Creek offers a great chance at hitting the trout grand slam. Bull trout are endangered, so targeting them is illegal. However, streamer and nymph fishing often result in catching a bull trout, so if you do get one on the line be sure to land it quickly and release it immediately. The creek is also chock full of rainbows, cutthroat, brown trout, and the occasional brook trout.
Rock Creek is generally divided into three sections….upper, middle and lower. The upper sections of Rock Creek are easily accessed via the town of Phillipsburg and if you’re planning on just fishing the upper sections then save the wear and tear on your rig and make the drive. Flint Creek is along the way and is worth a look if you have the time. If you’re planning on fishing the middle or lower sections of Rock Creek then you may just as well make the drive up Rock Creek road.
The road mostly parallels the creek so access to the creek is abundant. You can float and fish Rock Creek from a boat only up until the end of June. After that, it’s wade fish only. Some of my favorite access sites include Valley of the Moon, Sawmill, Welcome Creek swinging bridge, the Microburst, and the old Puyear ranch (now know as the Morgan-Case homestead). I highly recommend you hire a guide if you want to float Rock Creek. The current is swift and numerous hazards exist. Likewise, if you plan on wade fishing Rock Creek use caution, as the river rock is very slippery.
My favorite time of year to fish Rock Creek is in the fall when the brown trout start to make their way out of the Clark Fork and up into the creek to spawn. Fishing a deep, slow moving streamer will produce some very nice fish. Rock Creek is also a decent winter fishery and I usually venture up there at least a half dozen times between December and March.
If you are interested in booking a Montana fly fishing vacation, please call me directly or send an email and I will promptly get back to you.
Phone: (406) 370-9882