Montana – Three rivers in three days

Clark Fork trout and guide Clayton.

   I don’t have a bucket list but one of the things I wanted to do was before the horseback ride to the lodge became an obstacle was to repeat the St. Joe’s Lodge trip in Idaho. Since 2000 I’ve made six trips to fish parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. There are so many good rivers in the west that even if you lived there it would be impossible to fish all the water. Two trips to the Yellowstone area, two to Dillon and two to the Missoula comprised the trips with a few side ventures to Glacier National Park and the Missouri river. I like the Missoula area; the Bitterroot, Clarks Fork and Blackfoot provides great fishing with numerous creeks including Rock Creek not that far away.

Cabin we stayed at on the Bitterroot.

Cabin we stayed at on the Bitterroot.

The first trip in 2000 and the 2005 trip known as the Fire, Earthquake and Horse wreck trip were comprised of remnants of the Bull Salmon Club trips started around 1990. Many of the club trips are included in my book Granite Lines. My guiding partner Gerry along with his brother Gary from Missouri were the two anglers involved in the horse wreck; that was Gerry’s last trip. Since then he’s fished Labrador; one of the things on his bucket list for brook trout. He wanted the opportunity to fish for large wild brook and experience what fishing was once like in New Hampshire before centuries of abuse destroyed the habitat that supported our only native trout, and yes I know the brookie is a char.

Hookup on the Bitterroot

Hookup on the Bitterroot

We made reservations for St Joe’s in 2013; although I had concerns about my hip which started limiting my physical ability in September. As it turned out it was a back problem that did not improve until June. I have a son who would have taken my place on the trip. We only ended up with four on the trip including Gerry’s brother Gary and my wife Barb. The trip was two parts; Montana and Idaho. For fishing the Missoula area we fly to Spokane Washington and drive three and a half hours to Missoula. Southwest has some very good rates if you book in advance.

Finding a good outfitter and guides can be somewhat of a crap shoot. It’s always best to check references. On our last trip to Missoula we had Clayton Paddie; the best drift guide I’ve had on a western trip; more importantly my wife thought he was great. Clayton arranged for another guide Adam and booked the trip through an outfitter he works with. In Montana you have to go through an outfitter to book a guide. One of the things we like to do on a trip is rent a house; Clayton recommended a cabin on the Bitterroot, it worked out great. There are motels in Missoula where you can fish the river behind the motel. We planned the trip for early August. Not the best fishing but it’s our slow season and western slow usually equates to phenomenal fishing in the east.

Lunch stop on the Bitterroot, Bitterroot mountains in the background.

Lunch stop on the Bitterroot, Bitterroot mountains in the background.

With everything set on August 4th Barb & I took the Boston Express to Logan. The bus was right on time and we pulled out on to 93 only to pull over with a warning light. Traffic started backing up and the likelihood of missing the flight increased. Our plans hinged on getting to Spokane on time. We switched busses and at 7am were in heavy traffic at 495; a 9am flight did not look like a possibility. Traffic started moving and we pulled into the terminal at 8am. There was no line at the check-in or security and we basically walked through to the gate. We made Spokane at 4:30 pacific time. Gerry and Garry were already there and had a van. We made Missoula at 8:45 in time to pick up licenses at Walmart. The cabin was in Florence about twenty miles away, we picked up a few groceries and made it by 10. The cabin was at the end of a long dirt road and a little hard to find in the dark.

Clayton Paddie kcpaddie@gmail.com and Adam Spenner missoulatrout@yahoo.comarrived shortly after sunrise and we headed out to do the Bitterroot. I like to be the first boat on the water and so does Clayton. With the warm days the fishing is better before noon. The Bitterroot is a tributary of the Clark Fork River and runs for about 75 miles. The Bitterroot River valley is bordered by the Sapphire Mountains to the east and Bitterroot Mountains on the west; it is a very scenic river. There are several towns in the valley that are fly fishing destinations. The valley is relatively flat providing large flood plains on both sides of the river. The flow at Missoula was 760 Cubic Feet Per Second; it was starting to get thin for using a raft. The water was 63-71 and the air ranged from the 50’s to a high of 95. We put in at Blodgett and took out at Tucker. We did not see another raft or angler on the river. Considering the conditions we did well; a great start to the trip. Back at the cabin we made a grocery run and checked out a public access point a few miles from the cabin. It required quite a walk to get to the river. There was a grill on one porch and another large screened porch where we had dinner at night. At 9pm it was still very light but we all packed it in after a long day.back-of-canoe-016

Day two was the Clark Fork; the largest river in the Missoula area running 310 miles and drains a large area of western Montana and Idaho. It is the largest river by volume in Montana and is part of the Colombia River watershed after flowing into Lake Pend Oreille. The highest elevation on the watershed is Mount Evens at 10, 641 feet. The mountains; high elevation and snow pack are all contributing factors that contribute to the habitat for a great fishery. The river was explored by Lewis and Clark in 1806 on their return trip from the Pacific. As scenic as the area is there are several superfund sites in the area as a result of mining; specifically around Butte, Anaconda, and Missoula. In addition to the mining large water withdrawals for farming affect the rivers.

The Clarks Fork is similar to the Bitterroot having large flood plains along the valley. There are sections with canyons which are pretty steep. The flow was 3,000 water 63-71 and air 50 to 96. Although there was little hatch activity we caught almost all of the fish on dries. The fish were larger than the Bitterroot or Blackfoot. We did the run from mile 9 to the rest area. There were some difficult rapids. Again we did not see another raft on the river.

Clark Fork river – notice the size difference and contour of the river.

Clark Fork river – notice the size difference and contour of the river.

The third day was the Blackfoot; so far my favorite river in the west. The river is snow and spring fed and flows from near the continental divide. A good portion of the river is in a canyon and at a higher elevation than the Bitterroot and Clarks Fork. The headwaters are near Rogers Pass at 5610 feet and Stemple Pass at 6376 and flows to Missoula at 3210 feet where it joins the Clarks Fork. Like many rivers in Montana rafting and tubing are very popular on the lower stretches of the river. The rivers canyons and valleys were formed from the glacial stage at the end of the last ice age. The Blackfoot was the river in the novel A river Runs Through It. There are sections with great public access; unusual for a Montana river. We did the run from Whitaker to Johnsrod. The flow was 1000, water 63-67 and the air from the 40’s to 97. This is a classic river with a constant variety of pools, drops and white water and the best fishing of the Montana rivers we had. We did see one other boat; a wood drift boat; having owned a few wood boats it was kind of nostalgic to see a wood boat running the river. I would not have tried it with my Hyde boat or a raft; there were several treacherous drops and the guides were working hard all day. Because of the constant changing pools and drops the guides were changing flies and giving instructions on where to place the flies switching from side to side almost constantly. From the back of the raft it’s easy to see how hard they were working. Gerry and Gary were very satisfied with Adam. Another great day of fishing with a stop for lunch in the shade.

Blackfoot River notice the difference in contour and rapids in background

Blackfoot River notice the difference in contour and rapids in background

It was really hot on the drive to the cabin. We stopped for Huckleberry shakes on the way. In addition to huckleberries cherries were peak and we had a large supply. One evening after dinner Gerry discovered that the cabin was only a few hundred yards from the public access site to the Bitterroot. After packing for the St Joe’s trip we were in bed again by 9pm. My October column will be about the St Joe’s and the great native west slope cutthroat fishing.

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