Clark Fork River Reports
April 10, 2018
I spent the majority of my guiding career on Montana’s Clark Fork River, driving from my home in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, to St. Regis, which is the first place this big, wide and mostly flat-surfaced gem comes into view. Sometimes I would make this trip 100 times between late spring and late fall. To do so I had to commit to a 95-mile drive each way. Needless to say, this river has a spot in my heart.
The Clark Fork begins near Anaconda, Montana at the confluence of Warm Springs and Silver Bow creeks, and continues downstream about 200 miles before flowing into Idaho’s Lake Pend Orielle. Through its length this river offers great trout fishing, although populations diminish downstream from the Flathead River confluence at Paradise, where warm water species, including smallmouth bass and pike, take over.
Along its length the Clark Fork receives water from countless tributaries, including some that read like a hit-list to any dedicated angler—the Little Blackfoot River, Flint Creek, Rock Creek, the Blackfoot River, Rattlesnake Creek, the Bitterroot River, Fish Creek, and the Thompson River.
I never ventured much farther than the area just below Alberton Gorge, which is a true whitewater stretch located about 40 miles downstream from Missoula. But I hit the sections between Alberton Gorge and Paradise hard. That is the water I know best, and part of the reason why I didn’t go farther upstream is because I’m a driftboat junkie. If I can choose between walking and wading for a day or floating downstream in a driftboat, I'll choose the driftboat every time. And the Clark Fork is ideal driftboat water, with long runs between modest rapids with trout usually rising to dry flies all the way.
Alberton Gorge to Paradise
The Clark Fork in this section—from Alberton Gorge to Paradise—is big and can be intimidating. But, with some prudence and a person on the oars with decent experience, this river is easily tamed in normal flows.
My general rule of thumb is that I'll fish the Clark Fork anywhere from a level flow of 16,000 cubic feet a second and lower. Seeing the Clark Fork at high flows can be intimidating, but if you have a couple feet of clarity on the banks it's game on for the fish. The water color can deter folks, but I’ve had amazing days either nymphing or dry-fly fishing with only a foot or two of clarity. I believe water temperatures and bug activity are the determining factors, not necessarily water clarity.
Another bonus to fishing this stretch of the river is that it is highly accessible: I-90 runs along most of its length and there are small towns and exits offering access along the way. If you are restricted to wading you can explore the banks and see what you can find. Sometimes that is where you have to start and if you do that, it won’t be long before you’re finding what the Clark Fork fishery is best known for—pods of 12-to 20 inch rainbows feeding on dry flies. It also offers good numbers of cutthroats and cutt-bows, plus a few brown and bull trout, too.
The Clark Fork near St. Regis
The only thing holding back some Idaho and Washington anglers from fishing the Clark Fork is the drive. I can make it from Coeur d’ Alene to St. Regis in about 90 minutes, if I don’t have to deal with road construction and/or bad weather. During summer, construction is an issue. During spring and fall you have to consider pass conditions because you’ll cross two (Fourth of July and Lookout) to reach St. Regis. Each can be miserable to negotiate when things are bad. Always check the department of transportation websites before heading out on this drive.
Before you write off that drive, realize it takes roughly the same time to drive from Coeur d’ Alene to the lower end of the St. Joe River and the upper stretches of the Coeur d’ Alene. So, it takes about the same time to fish any of our three best stream options, whether you do so when the snow flies or during the warm, dry summer months.
The Clark Fork in Alberton Gorge is mostly for whitewater enthusiasts, even though biologists do see elevated trout populations through this section, due to cool flows dropping in from Fish Creek and elevated oxygen levels from all of the rapids. And they note some of the biggest fish in the river here. But, again, this area has numerous rapids, including Boateater, Cliffside, Rest Stop, Tumbleweed and Fang, to name a few, and is best suited for rafting and kayaking—but only for experts. Anglers really have no business pushing their luck by floating through here.
This stretch becomes angler-friendly near the bottom of the Gorge at Tarkio. This is a great place to launch a boat because it offers concrete pavers all the way to the water and usually enough room for two rigs to launch at the same time. During mid-summer it can be congested with whitewater folks, so keep that element in mind.
There’s good fishing in this stretch, all the way down to the Forest Grove boat takeout/boat launch. There are a few campsite sites at Forest Grove and outhouses as well. It’s about a five to six mile float between these access, so you can pull it off in a short amount time if you choose, or you can beach the boat now and then to extend the float.
The next takeout is at Superior, roughly seven or eight miles downstream. Superior is a small town about 15 minutes east of St. Regis. The boat launch is not paved, but great nonetheless. In addition, you can gas up or get food and drinks at Castles IGA, which is the local grocery and liquor store. There are a few other services, including a hotel, two small cafes, and a few gas stations. The boat launch is located about a mile upstream from Superior. To get there from town cross over the Clark Fork and take a right at the T. From there you go up a slight hill and just after the hill you can see the boat launch on the right. This access offers a good ramp (not paved) and a straight shot into the river. When I guided, I spent a bunch of time floating downstream from Superior, either five or six miles to Dry Creek, or even farther downstream to Sloway, which is only four miles beyond the Dry Creek access.
Between Superior and Dry Creek
The reach between Superior and Dry Creek offers a great water and lots of trout, but it parallels the highway. If you don’t like the noise of an interstate, don’t float here. The Dry Creek launch is a good one and is located just off of, and visible, from the freeway. It has a good ramp with pavers.
Despite the traffic noise, I floated from Superior downstream a bunch. I like the option of doing a fairly short float from Superior to Dry Creek or spreading it out downstream to Sloway. Another bonus is that Sloway has a Forest Service campground with lots of spaces and it’s usually clean and quiet. It doesn’t offer power or hookups, but it does have fresh water.
The launch is located about a quarter mile from the campground and it offers slightly challenging conditions. The area is very rocky and not really improved. At high water you need to pay attention as you can blow by the takeout very quickly. At higher flows I usually stop upstream 10 yards of the ramp and walk my boat down. During mid-summer and fall you can get in and out pretty easy, but four-wheel-drive capabilities are always a good idea here. Because the float from Dry Creek to Slowway is only four miles long, you can do this one in a few hours if needed. So, when you’re short on time, and you want to fish some very good water, try this one.
Another great lower river float extends from St. Regis (which is where you first reach the Clark Fork when traveling from Coeur d’ Alene) to 14 Mile (Bridge), which is also called Ferry Landing.
The St. Regis access is located about a mile north from the four-way stop in town, just off of Highway 135. This is a good access and, again, the one you would use if you wanted to fish the first available access from Coeur d’ Alene. The St. Regis River dumps in upstream from here and injects nice, cool water into the Clark Fork, which is especially important during summer and early fall when water temperatures run high. This can be a go-to stretch in late July, August and early September, as that cooler water makes the fish happier than they might be upstream or downstream where the water is often warmer.
From St. Regis to 14 Mile is a long float, but well worth the time. Through that stretch you’ll find diverse water and lots of nice trout. There is a series of bridges you go under near the end of the float—the takeout is just past the third, on river right. It is a decent ramp, but can be very sandy in the spring, which means you don’t want to back your truck too far in.
Quinn’s Hot Springs
After the 14 mile takeout you’ll enjoy more great trout fishing downstream to Quinn’s Hot Springs. Quinn’s is a cool little hot springs resort that has been there for a long time. It has been recently updated, is clean, and offers many cabins to stay in. You’ll enjoy killer food any time you’re there—be sure not to miss Sunday brunch.
The takeout here is ok, not great, but doable with four-wheel drive. Another consideration before doing this stretch is a set of rapids you’ll have to negotiate. They are not horrible, but you have to pay attention and be on your toes. Scouting these from the road, before you take them on is always a good idea. This rapids’ wave-train can get larger as water levels drop, so don’t take it for granted even during summer flows.
I have only floated downstream from Quinn's once or twice over the years and found the fishing to be fair. That’s probably because the water warms and becomes a bit nondescript. Now that doesn't mean poor fishing—I know guys who fish it a bunch in the spring and do well, but only for a short spell. Some of the trout they catch here are very photo worthy, meaning 20 inches long or more. Remember, there is decent smallmouth fishing on the lower river below the junction of Highway 135 and Highway 200.
Seasons and timing
The Clark Fork can start fishing as early as mid-to late February. Some winters can be mild and we may see a mid-to high 40 degree temperatures, or a 50 degree day or two in late February and early March. When this happens you will see a great midge hatch along with a few BWO's. Nymphing can be good at this time using Pheasant Tails, Zebra Midges in black and red, San Juan Worms, and rubber-legs.
Angles start to see small stoneflies, called Nemuras, in early March. Soon after, the Skwala stoneflies arrive and their presence may continue into late May. These bugs are matched by a size 8 hook and are the first big bugs of the year. The trout take notice and dry-fly fishing, when conditions are favorable, can be as good as it gets. In mid-to late March grey drakes and march browns add to the hatch mix. Streamer fishing can be fantastic early, too.
Fishing the lower Clark Fork in May can be touch and go, due to snowpack and warming weather. The river usually bumps in and out of shape so you need to pick the right day to be on the water. June is almost always shot due to high water, but some years we get some favorable conditions and the fishing is awesome.
By mid-July the flows drop and it’s game-on. This is the most consistent time on the Clark Fork, which means it’s also one of my favorite time to be on this river. Mid-summer through the end of August always is good, but the water temperature can get warm, so mornings and evenings fish best.
September through October, for sure, is my favorite time of all, not just on the Clark Fork but anywhere in north Idaho and western Montana. This timeframe provides truly awesome fishing and the weather is unbeatable. Trees are changing, mornings are brisk, and hatches are consistent. We will see lots of PMDs, BWOs, mahoganies, small flying ants, hoppers, and the beginning of the big October caddis. The Octobers, mahoganies and BWOs will be your core late hatches to concentrate on. Still, you’ll find some smaller caddis through September and October as well.
There is a great diversity of fish in the Clark Fork. Cutthroat, rainbows, browns, cuttbows, bull trout, whitefish, pike, pikeminnow, suckers, and smallmouth bass. I have had many days on the Clark Fork when we catch four or five species, which is pretty cool to see. But, when you get down to it, the Clark Fork is a rainbow trout fishery offering bigger and stronger fish than we find on many other area waters. It makes sense; these fish battle big flows and are well fed and they fight like mad. When the water temp is just right these fish will kick your butt—they are lightning in a bottle. I’ve had numerous fish put me into my backing on the Clark Fork. The average trout runs 12 to 14 inches, but there are lots of 16 and 17-inch fish and plenty that grow larger than that—even a 20-incher isn’t uncommon.So bumping up in tippet size and using a strong six-weight, instead of your standard four or five-weight, is a great idea.
For years I have used Joe Cantrell for shuttles on the Clark Fork. Joe and his family own a lodge and restaurant in St. Regis and have never missed a beat. I consider them be extremely good folks who know the area very well and care for your vehicle. Shuttles run $20-to $35, depending on which float you do. To contact Cantrell call 406-649-3474.