Know your water: Fall fishing on Montana's Clark Fork River

Fishbrain’s content specialist Cavan Williams floats a secret section of Montana's Clark Fork River, with a local guide, targeting brown trout on the fly before the fall snows fell.

Know your water: Fall fishing on Montana's Clark Fork River

The sun just started rising over the mountains and illuminated the sagebrush field below. The boat takeout was nothing more than an opening in some willows that were turning yellow for fall. Montana’s Clark Fork River was low, even for this time of year, but still high enough to float with a raft. A quick look at the weather forecast suggested this could be the last float of the year and the last chance for a dry hopper addict’s chance to fool a rising brown trout.

 Snow was on the horizon.

Keith McGlothlin met me wearing dark sunglasses, and his trademark goatee and smile combo. I met him with a bear hug, careful not to spill his coffee. Keith is an independent fishing guide, often running trips for Great Divide Outfitters and other guide services in the area. We met almost ten years ago working at the ski and snowboard school at a local resort. We guided whitewater trips several years after that and have remained close friends since. Life took its turns, as it does with everyone though, and I saw less and less of my good friend as careers and relationships took us in different directions like braids in a river.  

His bucket list goal is to float the entirety of every major river in Montana and he gets closer every year. Today will be a familiar stretch, however, even if it is a bit of a secret. 

It's early October and Keith assures me there are plenty of brown trout in this stretch and we will be catching them.

The Clark Fork

The Clark Fork is Montana’s largest river and runs for over 300 miles through Montana and Idaho before emptying into Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho. The river traverses a landscape as diverse as the West itself as it meanders through sage flats, timbered mountains and deep gorges. 

The river itself changes along with it’s scenery as it goes from slow moving horseshoe bends only a few steps wide, to class four whitewater down a gorge and then into the deepest lake in the country.

Cutthroat trout are the native species here, but rainbows and browns were introduced and now are just as plentiful. Northern pike and smallmouth bass are other transplants that can also be readily caught closer to the Idaho border. 

The river is named for William Clark, part of the Lewis and Clark exploration that mapped the river. Before Lewis and Clark came through, however, multiple native tribes like the Salish, Blackfeet and Flathead tribes utilized the bountiful river.

The river, like most of Montana, is a fly angler’s paradise. 

The Put In

The boat launch was a little more developed than the take out. The ramp was empty, which was good as Keith informed me this section was so narrow, it almost makes it a one boat river. 

His raft was already on the water and his wife Kelsey was already making casts from it. Their dog, Hoko, rode on the bow. 

Kelsey rowed over to us as I pulled on my waders. She had already caught one brown while waiting for us, but it wasn't anywhere near the 20 inch monsters that lurk in some of the big bends. We debated which flies to tie on. Keith went for a hopper with a nymph dropper in hopes to get just one more coveted hopper take before the season was over. I opted for a crawfish pattern streamer that worked great for smallmouth a few months earlier. 

The stretch of river is only around eight river miles (miles of water traveled not as the crow flies) but the float will take close to seven hours of drifting around one horseshoe bend to another. 

We didn’t wait long to hook the first brown of the day. We anchored the boat along a promising riffle and drifted the hopper dropper rig while waiting for the sun to come out and raise the water temperature. A small, but beautiful, red spotted trout took the  nymph, as did several more after it. THe browns were all near 8 inches, which made for fun catches in the narrow river, but were nowhere near the potential 20 incher we were looking for. 

The sun came out into full force unabated by any October clouds, warming the water. I stripped the crawfish pattern streamer across a dozen cut banks and little more than two bumps. Keith handed me a black wooly bugger with a wry smile. I tied the fly on and set the hook on the next riffle. 

After releasing the fish, I hooked another on the very next cast. Keith is a damn good guide. 

The One We Were Waiting For

We floated further down the Clark Fork past the yellow, changing leaves of willows. We stop to eat lunch and open beers on a bank with a clear view of the mountains in the background. For a brief hour, we are all back in our 20s guiding again.

Around almost every bend we jumped flocks of 20 or more ducks that would be making their winter migration within a few weeks. Everyone on the boat would be migrating in the upcoming weeks as well, away from the river and away from each other. 

The last few miles of the float bring us sharp bends in the river with deep pools on the edge of moving water. I toss the wooly bugger in and as soon as the fly hits the current I feel a cinder block slam the end of my line. Finally, a fish we’ve been looking for. My five weight bent in half. 

Keith instructs me to hold my rod tip high so the fish puts more stress on the flex in the rod and not purely on my line. Damn good guide.

We net the fish and I hand it to Keith to get proper photos. To our surprise the 17 inch trout is not a brown at all, but a cutthroat. The only true native species in the river, but still a rare sight this high on the Clark Fork.

The sun began its course toward the horizon shedding a warm length on the sagebrush fields surrounding us. We were only several bends from the take out spot in the willows and no one was fishing much anymore. We kicked out feet up, admiring the oranges and yellows lining the banks. Keith made a few more casts, which seemed more ceremonial than serious. We caught nearly 25 fish, drank the most delicious cheap beer imaginable and spent a solid day on a river that people travel thousands of miles to experience once in their life. 

Fall doesn’t last long in Montana. Snow falls early and that white blanket stays well into spring. It was my last day fishing for the year and it could not have been a better day in any other place, or at any other time. Life and time take us in directions we can’t control, often severing relationships that once seemed unbreakable. It's always nice to know that in Montana, there are special places to mend those bonds, even for just one day.


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