The Clark Fork also offers great spring fishing. You can throw above or below town with equal success. This is a big river, very intimidating to the fledgling fly fisher. But fear not—plenty of action takes place near the banks, with trout sipping blue-wing olives one after the other, sometimes in pods of rising trout numbering in the dozens. If you float the river you can reach all the available water, which includes massive eddies and pools, typically lined with foam. When fishing the Clark Fork, remember, foam means fish. That’s because adult midges, mayflies, and even skwalas collect in that foam. The trout merely poke their noses through the surface to grab a bite. This can be technical fishing consisting of 6X tippet and size-20 dries; or, when March browns and skwalas are about, anglers might get away with 4X tippet and size 8 dries.
The fish are a mix of rainbows and cutthroats, with only a few browns thrown in on the side. Bonus: spring offers good opportunities to catch northern pike in the backwaters and side channels. If you want to do just that your guide likely can provide an 8-weight rod, a five-inch long fly, and a wire leader. The rest is between you and the water wolf. That can be a challenge. Pike to 20 pounds are possible.
Prefer pocket water and a more intimate setting? Rock Creek has your name on it. This river runs 60 miles through a nearly pristine corridor with abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bald eagles, moose, and black bear. I even saw a mountain lion while driving out of Rock Creek one evening; it leaped from one side of the dirt road to halfway up the opposite bank. It was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in my life.
Rock Creek isn’t known for giant trout, although the average size of its fish seems to be on the increase, with 16-to 17-inch trout being pretty common these days. Ten-to 14-inch fish make up the majority of the catch.
You’ll find an appealing mix of browns, rainbows and native westslope cutthroat here, and they’ll rise eagerly for dry flies beginning on the warmest of February days. That early, they’ll look for midges. By mid-March blue wing olives are squarely in the mix. Around late March extending through April, March browns come off. Seeing scads of trout eating those bugs can be an amazing sight, like somebody flicked a switch and told every trout to head to the surface at one time. You can get technical while matching this hatch, but the trout are eager and throwing nothing more complex than a size-14 or 16 Parachute Adams scores big results. Of course, emergent mayfly imitations and the ubiquitous Purple Haze produce nicely, too. Look for this hatch to pop between 11: 30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Don’t overlook the skwala on Rock Creek. When these fish get on the big bug you can catch good numbers. On the right day you might hook 30 fish. Again, afternoon hours are prime, with most of the activity occurring between 1 and 5 p.m.
Lower Rock Creek is located just 25 miles from Missoula. Anglers can fish their way up the river for 60 miles, finding abundant public access throughout. The creek offers tons of riffles and deep runs, pools and side-channels. You can cast across it in most places but it isn’t a trickle. This is fun fishing, usually with lots of action, but its fish can get freaky after seeing flies floating over their heads all spring. If they do just that, low-profile, technical imitations often crack the code. Your guide will have some “secret weapons” on hand, sneaky patterns that trick educated fish. Don’t be afraid to ask about them.
The lower Blackfoot River meets the Clark Fork about five miles east of Missoula. Good fishing for browns, rainbows and cutthroat extends upriver for 50-some miles. The average fish here measures 14-to 16 inches long, but know that larger fish exist. Any given cast could bring up a 20-some inch brown or bow . . . or a 30-some inch long bull trout. You can’t specifically fish for bull trout, but they prefer the same streamers you’ll throw for rainbows and browns.
Much of the Blackfoot runs between canyon walls. You can find every sort of trout water known to man. And the hatches bring fish up in all of these places. Blue-wing olives are abundant on the Blackfoot, and the skwala comes off in good numbers, too. You can find March browns and midges also. Maybe the most exciting way to fish the Blackfoot is with streamers when the water turns to beautiful green, not really clear but not blown out either. Fish can find your fly easily enough, and they aren’t too shy because that color in the water gives them mega-confidence. If you want to catch a large trout in the Missoula area, the Blackfoot during spring time, when water conditions allow, is the place to be.
You can fish the Blackfoot by wading the banks, but in most places its steep and rocky, and wading is a challenge. Best to let a guide pull the oars while you and a buddy or a spouse or kid cast from the bow and stern, working those Sparkle Minnows, Buggers, and Double Gonga’s, along the banks, teasing big browns and massive bull trout out of the boulders and into the net. Can you say, “photo opp.”
I grew up in Seattle and have visited family often over the past 30 years. One of the best ways to make this a quick trip to God’s Country is to leave early in the day, whether exiting the city from the north or south. If you leave at 5 a.m., you won’t deal with any traffic and could be casting on the lower Clark Fork by about 3 or 4 p.m (MST).
That’s not an option if you head towards the state’s more famous waters in southwest Montana—to reach many of those rivers requires a 12-hour drive and you can add two more mountain passes to the mix, which could make driving sketchy. I know: I made that drive from Ennis to Seattle and vice versa about a hundred times when I lived in the Madison Valley—it takes 12 long hours (13 if headed from Seattle to Ennis because you lose an hour due to a time change). But fear not: Missoula’s spring fishing is as productive or more so than what you’ll find elsewhere.
If you book with Joe and Tammi Cummings, who own Missoula River Lodge, you can leave Seattle early in the a.m. and unpack your gear that afternoon, possibly leaving time for a late day dry-fly session on the lodge’s 100 private acres of riverfront property. Staying at Missoula River Lodge means you are in prime position to fish any of these five rivers, depending on which offers the best options on a particular day. The guides are experienced and super dialed into hatches and water conditions—they give you the best shot at early season dry-fly nirvana.
When not on the water you can kick back in the lodge and enjoy views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range while watching the water and the wildlife drift by. And you can enjoy some seriously fine dining, all prepared by executive chef Carrie Nowlen, who was named one of America’s top 100 chefs by the Washington Post. So, live large this late winter and spring and hit one or more of these hatches. You won’t find better dry-fly fishing anywhere close to Seattle or beyond. See you out there.