Few places offer more trout fishing variety than the rivers and streams surrounding Missoula, Montana. And you won’t find a better collection of freestone streams in the Western United States. Rock Creek, and the Bitterroot, Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers, offer trout fishing the way it use to be—on freestone rivers carving through dense, wildlife-rich forests with the only fluctuations in flows being determined by Mother Nature.
In addition, you won’t be casting at pellet-fed stocked fish here—the Missoula area offers sleek and wild, naturally reproducing rainbow and brown trout, along with wild and native westslope cutthroats and bull trout. The average rainbow stretches between 12 and 18 inches; the average brown ranges between 14 and 20 inches; the average cutthroat goes 10 to 18 inches; and the average bull trout stretches between 18 inches and eight pounds.
Bitterroot River: Perhaps the most scenic river in the area, offering mad variety and lots of great fish. The Bitterroot begins south of Missoula with the marriage of the East and West forks (each of these streams offers great fishing). The mainstream Bitterroot continues for 70 miles before merging with the Clark Fork just west of Missoula at Kelly Island. The ‘Root, as it’s often called, hosts about 2,000 wild trout per mile, ample numbers for a great day on the water. These are a mix of rainbows, browns and cutthroats, and they grow to good size—it’s not uncommon to catch 17-inch long representatives of each species, and nobody would doubt you if you got off the water at the end of the day and said, “I caught a 22-incher.”
The Bitterroot’s hatches are prolific and it offers a variety of angling situations during all seasons. If you want to drift along and hit the banks with a dry and a dropper you can do that. If you want to target large fish and hit the banks with streamers, you can do that. If you want to cast tiny dry flies to technical trout sipping Tricos off a flat-surfaced backwater, you can do that. And, if you want to drop the anchor and stalk pods of rising trout with dries, you can do that, too.
Clark Fork River: The Clark Fork can be intimidating to novice anglers—in the sections downstream from Missoula, before its confluence with the Flathead River, the Clark Fork is broad and strong with some major rapids that demand a guide’s attention to the oars. But between those sections are long, glassy glides, highlighted by braided channels, foam lined eddies, and long, grassy banks. The trout through this stretch are large and challenging but a well-presented fly is rarely refused. However, light tippets and small flies are often a must.
The upper Clark Fork, above Missoula, is a far different river. Lots of brown trout mix with rainbows and a few cutthroats and in the very upper sections the river runs through grassy pastures with deep cut banks and pools—places where brown trout to four or five-pounds often lurk. Below the mouth of Rock Creek, just 25 miles from Missoula, the Clark Fork has a classic freestone look with lots of riffles, definitive runs and plunge pools. Anglers catch variety here, with some big rainbows and browns in the mix.
Rock Creek: What not to like? This classic small freestone stream flows through 60 miles of a wilderness corridor and offers wild trout throughout. These are mix of rainbows, browns and cutthroats, and although they don’t run as large as you might find on the Clark Fork, Blackfoot or Bitterroot, 18-to 20-inchers are entirely possible. This is a walk and wade-fishers paradise where dry fly and nymph tactics hold equal appeal. When you’re looking for incredible canyon scenery, lots of wildlife sightings, and solid daily numbers of trout, Rock Creek is the place to be.
Blackfoot River: The lower Blackfoot 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 it’s 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 Sex Dungeons along the banks, teasing big browns and massive bull trout out of the boulders and into the net. Can you say, “photo opp.”
Boats and Equipment
Missoula River Lodge guests fish out of a variety of boats, including super stable McKenzie-style drift boats and fiberglass skiffs. When floating Rock Creek or one of the Clark Fork’s whitewater sections, guides may use rubber rafts.