Tag Archives: clark fork river

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?

When the Time Comes

“Time is Running Out” by zamboni.andrea is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It was a slow day in the fly shop, so I was glad to see a visitor. With deliberate care, he opened the door of the fly shop and softly closed it behind him. He was slightly stooped, and lines of many years etched his face. I guessed his age as the early 80s. After closing the door, he looked toward me and his face radiated a kind smile as his eyes caught mine. He walked slowly to where I stood behind the counter.

“I’ve never been able to drive by a fly shop without stopping,” he said. A visitor from out of state, he asked, “Fishing any good around here?”

“Fishing’s almost always good,” I said, “But the catching varies. However, the catching has been pretty good lately.” I motioned towards a couple of nearby padded chairs reserved for visitors. “Have a seat,” I said, “And we can chat. Unless you have to be some place. I don’t want to keep you off the river. There’s some pretty good wade fishing spots close by.”

He eased himself into a seat. A deep sigh of contentment followed. “Thanks,” he said. “No, I don’t have to be anywhere in particular. But I’m afraid I won’t be going fishing. My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I get tired in a hurry. I’ve had to give up fly fishing. But as I said, I just can’t drive by a fly shop without stopping.”

We burned an hour or so trading fish stories, and then my visitor rose to leave. “Thanks,” he said, “I appreciated your time. You’re a good listener.”

I held the door open for the man, and after closing it behind him I returned to my seat. I had much to think about. What would happen to me if I couldn’t fish any more? How would that be? Would I still hang around fly shops and explore the local rivers and still waters? Or will there come a day when I, too, will be slowed or even benched by physical limitations?

I smiled smugly. Well, that’s never gonna happen to me, I thought. As long as I can string a fly rod, I’ll keep fishing. I’ll never let anything stop me.

Then my thoughts took a sobering turn. When did I stop climbing stairs two at a time? When was the last time I was on my mountain bike? When did I start using a magnifier to tie on a fly? Not too long ago I could tie on a #22 trico without thinking about it. Now I can’t even see a #22 trico. I pride myself on being pretty healthy and in pretty good physical condition for a geezer. But the last time I went backpacking with a friend, a man 35 years my junior, I noticed that I had to stop and rest a lot more than he did. I once was strong, tough, and feared no man. Now I carry a concealed equalizer on my right hip.

No doubt about it, age catches up with all of us. We eventually slow down, no matter how much we strive against it.

How about you? Think about it. Share with us. If you’re an old fart like me (that’s Mr. Old Fart, if you please) how are you adapting? If you’re a young buck, what advice can you offer us old-timers?

In the Good Ol’ Summertime!

Copyright Mike L Raether, 7/2020

Suddenly the season is upon me. So what’s a guy to do? So many choices, so many options. Fly fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, huckleberry picking, shooting, reloading, cooling off in the Clark Fork River, or – forbid the thought – getting stuff down around the house so I can go fly fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, huckleberry picking, shooting, reloading, or cooling off in the river. Or I could do some work around the house – or not. I must first consider my Montana options one at a time –

  • Fly Fishing. This is probably my first choice, especially with the nearby Clark Fork River right at hand and producing lots of cooperative trout. Grasshopper season is just about to get into full swing (better known as “hopper/dropper” time). A big, fat, tan Chernobyl Ant might be hard for a fish to resist. If I need up-to-the-minute fishing info, I can call on my friends at Joe Cantrell Outfitting.  A float trip on the Clark Fork is the best way to fish this big river which drains most of Western Montana, but sometimes I prefer wade fishing. A while ago I composed a list of wade fishing areas for some of the local rivers and creeks, and if you shoot me an email I’ll send you a free copy (no spam, and your email address will never, ever be shared. Promise).
  • Hiking, Backpacking, and Camping. When I first relocated to this part of Montana, I was amazed at the myriad of alpine lakes in Northwest Montana that could be reached without wearing off too much boot leather. I even wrote a fly fishing guide book about the mountain lakes which was published in 2018 through Wilderness Adventures Press of Belgrade, Montana. I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the lakes I wrote about, and shooting some video this time around. Should you be interested in my book, you can find it here.
  • Huckleberry Picking. What we call huckleberries here are actually wild blueberries and they’re ripening as I write. Huckleberries are a thing in Western Montana. Huckleberry fiends can get huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry lattes, huckleberry candy, and of course, fresh-picked huckleberries. I see a huckleberry pie in my future.
  • Shooting and Reloading. I think I’ll save this for a rainy day project in my shop. If it ever rains again this summer. Been in the upper 90s the past few days. My wife Katherine asked me recently, “Which do you like more: shooting or reloading?” I thought for a minute and replied, “Reloading. I shoot so I can reload.”

    Copyright Mike L Raether 7/2020
  • Speaking of temps in the upper 90s, I can go cool off in the river. The flow of the lower Clark Fork is gentle for the most part, making it ideal for folks in drift boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards (float at your own risk, of course. And ALWAYS wear a life jacket!).

So what am I gonna do? Hmmm . . . What would YOU do?

Good Medicine

Montana’s Clark Fork River in  winter copyright Mike Raether 2019

What’s a fisher to do? The chill of another Montana winter is upon us. The shortest day of the year, winter solstice, is just around the corner. The mountain lakes lie buried under deep blankets of snow, so hiking to stillwater is out. The nearby river is floating ice, but the ice on the lowland lakes isn’t yet thick enough for safe ice fishing. But I’ve got an itch to get outdoors, and I have to scratch that itch, even if there just isn’t much to do out there at the moment.

At this time of year, it’s easy for me to get frustrated, discouraged, or even depressed. But I found an answer, an answer that might work for you, too.

My solution for evaporating the winter gloom is found next to flowing water, even if that water is floating ice. I find a comfortable perch next to the river, but without fishing rod in hand. I’m not here to take; I’m here to receive. I’m here to let the sound of flowing water cleanse my mind.

And I think. I remember. I meditate. As Herman Melville wrote in his novel Moby Dick,  “…meditation and water are wedded forever.” I let memories flow through my mind as the river water flows on. I remember fish fought, caught, and released. I feast on the memories of laughing wildflowers, the warmth of summer past, the turning leaves of fall, and the chill of that first morning frost.

As I remember, I am refreshed. I am restored. I am healed.  Cares fade away and are replaced by memories of seasons past and fine times. The river flows, bringing peace. Water is life.

What about you? Do you remember the time… Think back. Replay the film. Get outside and you’ll feel better inside. It’s the best medicine.

Do the Clark

The Big Hole. The Madison. The Gallatin. The Jefferson. The lower Clark Fork. Their names fall from a trout fisherman’s lips with awe and reverence. But wait – the lower Clark Fork? What’s THAT name doing in the company of this short list of the exalted “blue ribbon” trout streams of Montana? I’m glad you asked me that question!

Oh, yeah!

At first glance, the section of the lower Clark Fork from the about the town of Superior to the Ferry Landing boat launch about 12 miles downstream from St. Regis on MT 135 can be intimidating. The river is big and broad, draining as it does most of Western Montana. But when you take a closer look, you’ll notice the typical back eddies, seams, riffles, and pocket water that make trout fishermen drool. Combine these with trout that will stretch a tape from 12- to 18-inches on the average, and you have the stuff that legendary trout rivers are made of. 

But the trout here aren’t pushovers. A seam that looks promising may not host any fish, but the next seam might be alive with rises. This is what makes this section of the Clark Fork not only challenging, but downright fun. It’s more like hunting than fishing, as the fish tend to hang out in pods rather than swim more or less evenly distributed throughout the river. 

This portion of the Lower Clark Fork is a drift-boater’s dream, as there are no rapids to speak of. A little faster water, but no rapids. Shore access is good from about Mile Post 3 on Montana’s scenic Highway 135 most of the way to the Ferry Landing boat launch and even beyond. 

Best of all (I think) the lower Clark Fork is a river where flies out-fish hardware and bait many times over (see my post Do it on the Fly). Recommendation dries start with March Browns early in the season, Green Drakes, Blue Wing Olives, caddis, Adams, then hoppers (!), and finishing off the season with Mahogany Duns. If nothing’s happening on top, hang on an indicator and go below with nymphs such as the Prince and Pheasent Tail.

If you decide to give the lower Clark Fork a chance, you might want to stop by Joe Cantrell Outfitting for the latest fishing info or to schedule a guided float trip or shuttle. From the town of Superior on down, boat launches with concrete ramps include Big Eddy, Dry Creek, St. Regis, and Ferry Landing. For detailed info regarding these launches, log onto Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. If you’d rather try the area’s mountain lakes, you might be interested in my book, The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes.

Now go do the fly thing.

Out-Fished 22 to One

How could this be happening? I was usually the one with all the luck, but today my fishing rod had about as much life as a stand of last year’s cattails in the dead of winter.  However, my friend Ben’s rod continued to dance as fish after fish climbed aboard as eagerly as kids offered free candy.

Public domain

I rehearsed the events that had led to this situation.

It was a frigid winter’s morning, and Ben and me had elected to do some ice fishing on Montana’s Clark Fork River. The target was rocky mountain whitefish. Sleek, silvery, and averaging perhaps a foot in length, they’re scrappy on the line and hard to beat on the table, especially when smoked. The Montana catch limit is liberal, and if lady luck smiles on a guy he can take home a bucketful of good eating. However, lady luck wasn’t smiling on this particular guy. 

Silvery whitefish flopped all about Ben like water droplets on a hot griddle. One after another Ben pulled them up through the whole he’d chopped in the ice, and he hooked up again almost as quickly as he could freshen his bait and lower his offering to the river bottom.

What was I doing wrong? I was using the same bait as Ben. I was rigged up the way same as Ben. I was fishing six inches off the bottom, just like Ben. My ice fishing hole was only a dozen feet away from Ben’s. I should have been catching fish right along with him. But the fish seemed as excited about my bait as a kid faced with a pile of spinach.

At first I got getting frustrated, but then the thought struck me: this was Ben’s day. I snapped out of my grumbling and started rejoicing with Ben. It was this verse from Scripture that turned me around— “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

To “rejoice always” is to make a decision to rejoice regardless of the circumstances. Two brief words, four short syllables, but how hard it is to put them to work sometimes!  And yet, as we do we are refreshed with joy as with a cool summer rain after a hot spell. To refuse to rejoice is to admit that our pride is only exceeded by our selfishness.

As I pondered these things on that cold winter’s day, it didn’t matter anymore that Ben was catching all the fish. I began to rejoice with him, and congratulated him on his luck.  After a while the fish stopped biting even for Ben, and we decided to call it a day.  However, just before we left I finally managed to put one whitefish on the ice. In the end, Ben had out-fished me 22 to one. But it didn’t faze me a bit. Not only was I happy for Ben, but I was happy that I didn’t have to clean all those fish.

But wait, there’s more! I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more. You can comment, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe.

Do It On the Fly

My raft was floating high as we drifted downriver, but my hopes were about sunk. We were near the end of a five mile float trip down Montana’s Lower Clark Fork River and my grandson and my daughter’s boyfriend Jeff had not had one hit. They had tossed lures and bait from one side of the river to the other in an effort to nail one of the Clark’s hefty trout but with no success. I had my fly rod aboard, but I’d stayed on the oars the whole time in order to give them the best shot as they had come from out of state. But then it happened.

A Fat Clark Fork Cutthroat
A Fat Clark Fork Cutthroat

Jeff pointed toward the opposite bank. “Look at THAT!” he said.

“That” was a series of trout rises just downstream from a small, rocky point that jutted out into the river and stalled the current.

“That” was what I was waiting for.

I had them both real up and put their spinning rods away as I rowed across to the rocky point and dropped the anchor. After squinting toward the rises and determining that the trout were feeding on a hatch of PMDs (Pale Morning Duns), I tied a #14 PMD dry fly to the end of the leader. I made a few false casts to work out some fly line and dropped the fly just downstream from the point so it would float down the edge of the broken current and meet the feeding trout.

Fish on! I soon boated a fat rainbow of about 15.” I dried out the fly, dabbed on a little dry fly floatant and worked the fly back out to the feeding trout.

Fish on! I handed the bobbing fly rod to my grandson. The fish made a few determined runs, then came unbuttoned. By now the fly looked a bit bedraggled, so I tied on a fresh offering and once again dropped the fly just upstream from the feeding trout.

Fish on! This time the fly rod went to Jeff, and immediately the trout made a smoking run downstream. Jeff managed to turn the fish before it got into the backing, and it responded by stubbornly sulking on the river bottom. Jeff and the fish played a game of tug a war for a few minutes until the Jeff won. Another chubby ‘bow of about 15” came to the net.

This last effort put the trout down and they stopped feeding. I rowed the raft down to our takeout. Jeff shook his head as the raft bumped the shore. “Man,” he said, “I gotta learn to fly fish!”

How about you? If you’re a fly fisher, you’re nodding your knowledgable head in appreciation. There’s few things more exciting than catching trout on a dry fly. 

However, if you’re not a fly fisher you don’t have to lose out on the experience of doing it on the fly. You can get with a local outfitter and fishing guide such as Joe Cantrell who just about has every trout named in every hole. Joe can arrange a guided float trip for you on the Lower Clark Fork River. Included in his reasonably-priced package is all the tackle and flies, free casting lessons if you need them, and a hungry-man shore lunch. Joe also owns a lodge on the banks of the Clark Fork and can put you up for a fair price.

So, how about it, fishers? Do you do it on the fly? Or would you like to learn more about it? Tell me!

But wait, there’s more! (I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more). I’m interested in your thoughts. You can reply, send me an email, and/or help design the new monthly newsletter –

Mineral County, Montana: An Outdoorsman’s Overview

I was stunned. It was abundantly more than I could ask or think.

When I arrived in heavily forested Mineral County in far Western Montana, one of the first things I did was spread out a USDA Forest Service map for the Superior Ranger District. As an outdoorsman, I wanted to learn about where I’d landed. What I discovered was an outdoorsman’s jaw dropper.

Bonanza Lake #1. Photo copyright by Mike L. Raether

First off, Mineral County is 87% publicly owned, and these public lands contain hundreds of miles of non motorized recreational trails. My new “back yard” was home to over 50 mountain lakes, most accessible only by trail and many with good to excellent trout fishing. All mine for the hiking.

And then there is the Clark Fork River with its many tributaries. The Clark Fork is big water that drains most of Western Montana. Although the Clark is overshadowed by the abundance of Montana’s blue ribbon trout waters, the Clark yields beautiful fish up to five pounds for those who learn how to fool ’em. The Clark’s tribs are fair to excellent fishing for brookies, cutts, ‘bows and sometimes big bull trout (be sure to check the regs).

Did I mention the hunting? No, not yet, but as some of you were wondering if I’d get there, here we go –

First, I have to deconstruct your thinking.

Montana in general is not the hunter’s paradise some make it out to be. There’s not a big game animal standing behind every tree or game birds flushing from every bush. Still, the hunting is pretty good, and there’s a certain romanticism connected with hunting in Montana. However, for sheer numbers, a hunter would be better off elsewhere.

But  back to Mineral County. I enjoy good hunting here and the proof is mounted on my walls. The hunting pressure is light if a hunter is willing to get back in the bush a quarter mile or so. Still, the mountains of Mineral County have been called “young men’s mountains” as they are steep and heavily forested. But a seasoned hunter knows that elk and deer don’t usually go straight up the mountain; they’re much smarter than that. They make trails. And a hunter who finds the game trails and uses them finds it much easier to get around the mountains. And he saves a lot of sweat and energy in the process.

Rivers, streams, mountains, lakes, trails, wildlife – yeah, I like it here. I also like sharing. By the way, how about sharing with me? What are your favorite things to do in the great outdoors? Or perhaps you have a question or suggestion?

But wait, there’s more! (I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more). I’m interested in your thoughts. You can reply, send me an email, and/or help design the new monthly newsletter –