Fall Fly Fishing on Montana’s Clark Fork River

I was chatting with another fly fisher in an area fly shop. He was visiting from another state in mid-summer and was looking for some local information. Our conversation turned to the best time of day to fish the nearby Clark Fork River.

I said with a smile, “Normally I’d say first light, but Clark Fork trout are respectable trout. You don’t have to be on the water at dawn. The trout here don’t get up early.”

After the fellow left the shop, owner and fishing guide Joe Cantrell said with a sigh of resignation, “The fish around here always get up early. It’s the fishermen who don’t get up early.”

Joe likes to get out early, and I don’t blame him. Although Montana’s Clark Fork River can put out fish any time of day, first light almost always yields the best fishing. Almost. But not always. Let us consider.

One of the best times for fly fishing the gentle waters of the Clark Fork River is right now. The cool morning temperatures of Indian Summer mean lethargic bugs, but as the chill of the mornings yield to the special warmth of Montana Fall afternoons the table is set, entomologically speaking. Bug activity blooms. There’s lot more busyness in the bug world.

This is a magical time, sandwiched between the nip of winter and the sizzle of summer. And if the bugs don’t get up early, why should a fly fisher? Now is the time of year for a little extra shut-eye and a leisurely brunch before bending a rod. A warm afternoon also means a little warmer water, which in turn means a hardy fly fisher can forgo waders.

And, ah, the scenery. The cottonwoods bordering the river’s banks stand tall and proud wearing suits of yellow-green in anticipation of winter. The needle-like leaves of Western Larch, that oddity among conifers, stand on Northern slopes like guardians of the mountains wearing burnished gold armor as their needles fade to gold.

There is yet another bonus to fall fly fishing on the Clark Fork: The crowds are gone. As a friend once commented, “This is when the real fly fishers go fishing.” I, for one, enjoy the solitude. It’s not that I don’t like people; I like ‘em just fine. I just like ‘em in smaller batches.

Before writing this article, I checked in with my friend Joe Cantrell to pick his brain a bit regarding the hot items bug-wise right now on the Clark Fork. As a fishing guide, Joe spends much more time on the river that I do, and consequently he’s got a superior feel for the daily whims and fancies of the trout that swim here. Old standbys to run down the conveyer belt include #8-12 Chernobyl Ants, #12-18 Purple Haze, and blood-red San Juan Worms in sizes #10-14, with or without the bead.

However, Joe’s favorites right now are #20 Tricos, tiny BWOs, and little #16-20 Adams. Don’t fear using a double-fly rig; a tiny Trico trailing a tiny Adams about 16” behind the Trico will help determine the location of these minuscule trout snacks. Just off the bottom, try a #10 or #12 Pat’s Rubber Legs in brown or black with a caboose of a #14-16 Prince about 16” back from the Pat’s.   

Now, then: How about a little fish story?

A few days ago Joe was guiding a fellow on the river, and the water was so clear Joe was able to easily see any fish that approached his fisherman’s dry fly. Joe watched as a typical Clark Fork trout of about 15” examined the fisherman’s offering. But this fish was acting really strange. It would approach the fly but instead of taking it, the fish would turn its’ head as if to take a more intimate look. It would then drift back just a bit. The fish repeated this 2-3 times then finally committed. When the fish was cradled in the net and just as Joe was getting ready to send it back home, he noticed that the trout only had one eye.  It was totally blind on one side, so as it approached the fly it would turn its’ head to its’ good side get a better look!

How about  you? Got any good stories about fall fishing?