Early run off in Western Montana

March and April can be a great fishing months  around Missoula Montana. A few years back my wife’s sister moved out to a beautiful log home on the way up to Snow Bowl ski resort. Since then it hasn’t been to tough to convince me to visit the family. Much like the McKenzie and Willamette spring fishing success hinges on water levels, water temperatures and air temperatures. When all three variables come together, fishing on Montana’s Bitterroot, Clark Fork and Rock Creek can be fantastic in the early season. Typically in March, April and early May water levels are low and clear, with snow falling or clinging to the spectacular mountain ranges surrounding Missoula. Most residents can predict traditional run off within days of May 17th. This year however unseasonably warm weather has brought early run off to the area. Local fly shop reports were recommending you stay home and tie flies this past Friday. But when you drive 10 hours to fish, you go fishing regardless of the conditions. With the Clark Fork and Bitterroot completely blown out, chocolate mud we decided to try Rock Creek. The shop we stopped in to get a licence suggested the middle section and upper section of the creek would be best. We picked up some San Juan Worms (great high water “fly”) and headed off.


Lower Rock Creek was really ugly and 2200 CFS is a big number on a fast flowing cold river.


We tried a couple of spots with zero success. We drove all the way up to the Philipsburg Junction before we found accessible water around a Gilles boat launch. It was around 2pm by now and the river is still looking brown but the air temperature has risen just a bit. As we ate our sandwiches river side, I convinced myself that a fish had risen on the other side of the river, always the other side. River access is a bit of an issue on this stretch, and clearly farmers do not want anglers jumping fences and tromping the banks.  But that is really tough to take when you are skunked at 2pm and the best looking water is across a river that is not all that wade-able.  Yet a farm road on the other side of a nearby bridge leads right to the spot. Needless to say I found a way to fish the slow water on the other side.



The slow water across from the ramp produced, and I continued to search out slow inside turns and side channels with success for the next couple of hours. Most of the fish were nice cutthroats with a couple of browns mixed in. All but one fish ate the worm tied below a Mega Prince off a Thingamabobber 5 feet.



On the way back to Missoula that evening we scouted a float for the next day. The ramp was 8 miles upstream, just downstream from the West Fork confluence. On the way we saw Bald Eagles, Elk, Big Horn Sheep and the Moose pictured below.


We took my brother in laws PAC 13 Outcast on day two, the boat is ideal for most of Missoula’s shallow running rivers throughout the year. Again we stopped at a local shop and picked up a few bugs. More red worms and some Yellow Yummy’s at the shops suggestion.



The start of the drift was all fast flowing riffles and minor rapids with little holding water. We found a few spots on the upper three miles but very little ideal holding water given the water and air temperatures. I did not take a water temp but it was very cold, around 46 I would say. We had a bit of sun, snow, rain and lots of wind, especially late in the day. About 4 miles into the drift the water slowed and classic cut banks and moderate speed riffles developed. We found fish on the worms, Mega Prince and the Yellow Yummy’s. With 65 degree air temps, (which we did not have) March Browns, Skwala Stone Flies and Blue Winged Olives would have been present. As it was however, only a few adult insects were present and very few fish came to the surface.




We drifted through private land the entire way. The float season is very limited on Rock Creek and by July first it is illegal to float Rock Creek in it’s entirety. I am pretty sure we were one of the few boats to float this section this year. I say this because we came across a barbed wire fence completely blocking the river.


Like Oregon, Montana’s water rights allow for public access within the floodplain of a river.  Constructing a fence across and thus blocking a river is completely illegal. Needless to say, we cut the bloody fence and watched it swing down stream to the other bank. Barbed wire is a bit tough on rubber but a leatherman has no problem with it.

Although is was very cold and water conditions could have been much better, my spring trip to Missoula was a great time.–CD

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4 Responses to Early run off in Western Montana

  1. Eric says:

    WOW great to see some of my X home waters. I moved back to Oregon 5 years ago, and I really miss Rock Creek. Strange that you guys didn’t see any one on the river, it is pretty popular. great photos Thank you.

  2. Eric says:

    July 1st is the last day you can float rock Creek.

  3. Brian says:

    Wow, that’s a pile of disgustingly large deep sinking nymphs– Josh Stanish did a weekly fly demo on that giant prince nymph I see there!

    The high water patterns (like the sjw and the yellow yummy) are invaluable recommendations that I will be sure to try this spring.

    good stuff.

  4. Nice post! You were correct in cutting the fence down. It is a violation of federal law to block the river, which is a public passageway, just like it would be illegal if you did that on a country road. In case you have other river access issues in the future, or want to learn more about the law on rivers, check out our non-profit site, nationalrivers.org. We just released a revolutionary book that discusses how and why the public has rights to paddle, fish, and otherwise recreate on rivers. The link for that book if you’re interested is: http://www.nationalrivers.org/why-you-should-get-public-rights-on-rivers.html

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