Clark Fork River Float Recommendations

The Clark Fork is the biggest river in Montana by volume by the time it crosses the western border of Montana. Because of this, many people tend to overlook the Clark Fork as a wade fishing option, when, in fact, it can produce some truly world class fishing without a boat. While much of the surrounding riverbank is private land, there are lots of public access points and if you stay below the high water marks (delineated by where the vegetation changes due to the yearly spring runoff), you can fish any section of the river you’d like. You don’t have to go far to find excellent fishing on this river, the stretch of water that runs right through town is very high percentage water . . . for really nice sized fish. If you’d like to expand your horizons a bit, consider doing some wading on the rip-rap banks near Clinton and Turah, or going down below Missoula and hitting Kelly Island, Kona Bridge, Petty Creek or Cyr.
For those of you considering floating the Clark, you’re in for a treat! There are about 124 miles of water that constitute the most popular floats on this river, and water character varies from totally serene flats to all out, serious, sink your boat type whitewater.
Most of the floating begins at the Schwartz Creek Bridge east of Missoula about 16 miles. The Ferry landing or 14 mile access is generally the western most take out point utilized by boats based out of Missoula. Trout fishing deteriorates dramatically from Plains downstream. Here is a quick run-down of the floats and what you can expect:

1)Clinton (Schwartz Creek) to Turah: Both put in and take out are easy for either rafts or driftboats. This is a float for experienced floaters due to braiding channels, sweepers and logjams. This is a ten mile float and should take most of a full day depending on water levels. Make sure to check locally to see what the latest obstacles are. Map

2) Milltown dam to Sha-Ron (east Missoula): Both are driftboat and raft friendly access points giving you access to a short float of about 2 miles. There is not really a good place to take out a driftboat in Missoula, but if you continue this float in a raft or personal water craft, you can float right through town and pull your boat out along the banks of McCormick park. This is non-technical water although there is a small concrete diversion dam just as you enter Missoula. There is almost always a slot on the far right bank. Extending the float from Milltown to McCormick will make it a full day float of about 8 miles. Map

3) There isn’t much floating on the main Clark Fork downstream of McCormick park for a few miles due to big diversion dams, shallow braided channels and lots of in stream obstacles. This can be a very dangerous section of water until you get below Kelly Island. Map

4) Kelly Island to either Kona Bridge or Harper’s Bridge: Kelly island has a cement ramp that’s great for rafts or driftboats. Kona bridge is a steep bank on the downstream, right side of the bridge, that’s a pain for either rafts or driftboats. You can take out either one here, however. Kelly to Kona is about a 4 mile float with no technical water whatsoever. If you extend the float to Harper’s bridge, the trip becomes a full day affair and you’ll end up taking out on the downstream, left hand side of a fallen down, wooden bridge. The takeout is a river cobble flat that’s easy for driftboats or rafts, but you’ll probably want to have a 4-wheel drive rig Map

5) Harper’s Bridge to Single Tree: Great water! Easy launch at Harper’s, but a real pain in the butt takeout. You end up having to winch your boat up a steep incline bank on the left side of the river about 15′. The drive out is on a crappy gravel road and takes about 35 minutes. The fishing can be worth it. There is a major hydraulic behind the mill, about 20 minutes after launching at Harper’s Bridge that you’ll want to avoid, especially in the spring. Stay river left and you’ll be O.K. Harper’s to Single Tree is a full day float of about 10 miles. Map

6) If you’re in a kick boat or canoe, or in a raft and don’t mind a really nasty takeout, you can extend the float (or launch at Single Tree), taking out at the back channel of Huson. This channel begins just below the trestle bridge on the right side, but during the summer, the upper end of this oxbow can be totally dry. If this is the case, you need to row down to the lower end of the oxbow and then row up the channel. The “takeout” is in the middle of the oxbow. Be prepared to back your rig down a sketchy corridor and winch your boat up an ugly incline. This is a much better launch than a takeout! Harper’s to Huson is about a 12 or 13 mile float.

*NOTE: The Access at Huson is now in dispute; therefore, as of now, there is no official takeout at Huson. FWP is in negotiations to purchase a launch site but for now there is not a public LEGAL put-in at Huson.* Map

7) Huson to Petty Creek: This is about a 9 mile float that’s full of great water, none of it technical. Once you get past the crappy launch at Huson, you can look forward to a nice cement ramp on the upstream, left side of the Petty Creek Bridge. The Petty Creek Bridge will be the 3rd bridge you see during the float.

*NOTE: The Access at Huson is now in dispute; therefore, as of now, there is no official takeout at Huson. FWP is in negotiations to purchase a launch site but for now there is not a public LEGAL put-in at Huson.* Map

8) Petty Creek to Rest Stop/St. John’s: A very nice float of about 6 miles. There is some bigger water on this float, although not much more than aggressive standing waves. It can get very big in the spring, however, so be prepared. The takeout at Rest Stop is on the right side, and is another cobble flat type affair that’s better suited to 4 wheel drive rigs. You don’t want to miss the takeout since Rest Stop rapids are right around the corner and can be very dangerous depending on the season. If you’re having your rig shuttled, make sure they (or you) park it where you can see it from the river. This float can be a quick half-day or it can last an entire day easily depending on how hard you work the water. Map

9) Below Rest Stop and on to Tarkio, you begin to get into the serious whitewater section of the Clark Fork know as the Alberton Gorge. The boat ramp at Cyr is a long, steep descent that will put you at the beginning of a run that’ll include lots of serious whitewater. 16′ rafts are routinely dumped in this section, so if you’re into calm and not calamity, this section is probably not your cup of tea. Map

10) Tarkio to Forest Grove: Very short float that brings you from cement boat ramp to cement boat ramp. This is a shady section of river that’s a great alternative on 90-degree days when cooler water is key. There are a couple of rough sections of water here, but should only be of concern to beginning rowers. This float is about 5 or 6 miles long Map

11) Forest Grove to Superior (Big Eddy): This is an all day affair (except in the spring where high flows make it easy to get down to Dry Creek) that’s ideal for both rafts and driftboats. There is a cement ramp at Forest Grove and a sand ramp on the right side of the river about 35 minutes after you go under the 3rd bridge of the day. This is non-technical water on a good full day float of about 11 miles. If you extend the drift to Dry Creek, the float becomes about 14 miles and ends at another sandy boat ramp on the right side of the river. You’ll want to have a 4-wheel drive for these sandy ramps. Map

12) First Creek to Superior/Dry Creek: This is a launch option that puts you a couple of miles into the Forest Grove float to start with. You end up launching down a grassy bank at a pull off along the frontage road near First Creek. This is a good launch alternative to shorten the aforementioned floats, but not a good takeout alternative Map

13) Superior/Dry Creek to St. Regis: More good full day options characterized by slower, flatter water for the first half of the day, ending in more riffles and runs as the day ends. Dry Creek to St. Regis is about 10 miles and a good full day float during the summer months. In early season, higher water, you can lengthen the float by putting in at Superior. If you want the option of shortening these floats, you can take out at Sloway, which is about 3 miles below Dry Creek on the right side. This is another good access point for both rafts and driftboats. Map

14) St. Regis to 14 mile: An excellent piece of water that’s a good, long, full day float. This isn’t a drift you want to dawdle around on since the 15 mile length takes all of a day to do, especially if you don’t know the water to blow through. In the spring, it goes much faster, but there can be some dangerous hydraulics and rough water that time of year. In the summer, it’s non-technical. Map

Major hatches: The best hatches on the Clark Fork are Skwala stoneflies, March Brown mayflies, PMD’s, Hoppers, caddis, giant golden stoneflies, tricos, mahoganies, blue wing olives.