State of the Fishery – Clark Fork (of the Columbia) River

Silverbow Creek near Butte. A recovering stream and a destination for cutthroat trout.

After putting on the biggest Trout Unlimited banquet ever held in Montana, the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited isn’t just sitting back, as the following week they presented another of their monthly State of the Fishery meetings, this most recent one concerning the Upper Clark Fork River.

Jason Lindstrom, the FWP fisheries biologist reported on continuing cleanup of the Clark Fork River, including several sections where work on stream restoration has been completed. Sections 1 and 2, just below the confluence of Warm Springs Creek and Silverbow Creek is an area where work has been completed and the stream banks are again open to foot access. Work has been completed in Sections 5 and 6 (in the Galen and Racetrack area) but it’s not yet open to foot access, though boaters can float through.

Areas slated for restoration in 2017 have not yet been determined. In the meantime, Lindstrom says that restoration work is moving forward in a number of Clark Fork tributaries, including Brown’s Gulch, Blacktail Creek, Warm Springs Creek and the Little Blackfoot River.

Lindstrom reports that 2016 was a tough year for the river’s fishery, as many areas, especially downstream from Racetrack Creek, had extremely low flows, and high water temperatures of up to 24.5º C. (76º F.), which can be lethal to trout. The Department is exploring possibilities for improving water flows.

Still, he says, there are bright spots. Lindstrom describes the Little Blackfoot River as a healthy stream, and believes a lot of Clark Fork brown trout migrated up the Little Blackfoot last summer to escape warm water.

Lindstrom also reported on the continuing recovery of Silverbow Creek, the former industrial sewer that 15 years ago was still a dead stream. It now has a thriving population of westslope cutthroat trout and brook trout. In fact, Lindstrom asserted, “If you want to catch a big cutthroat or brook trout, this is the place to go.” He says there are lots of fish in the 14 – 20 inch category.

As part of the stream restoration, a migration barrier was built downstream from Durant Canyon to prevent brown trout and rainbow trout from migrating upstream. In fact, Lindstrom requests, “If you catch a brown or rainbow trout, or rainbow/cutthroat hybrid, kill it and take it home and eat it.” The stream is “catch & release” for cutthroat trout, and it’s an artificial lures-only water.

Lindstrom also reported on water quality changes after Butte’s new Waste Water Treatment Plant went online in 2016. While there are still plenty of nutrients in the plant’s discharge, there has been a big reduction in ammonia, which had been the worst problem in the old plant’s discharge. He concludes, “Based on limited data, the new plant seems to be working.”

Casey Hackathorn, a Program Manager for Montana Trout Unlimited, and a Clark Fork enthusiast, followed with suggestions on fishing the Clark Fork River.

He described the Middle Clark Fork, the area downstream from Missoula, as a big river that’s best suited for float fishing. There are lots of rainbows, rainbow/cutthroat hybrids, and some big brown trout and an occasional northern pike. He notes the river is an easy river to float, except for the Alberton
Gorge, which can be a deathtrap for floaters.

An area of environmental concern is near Frenchtown, where deteriorating settling ponds from the old Stone Container plant are leaching pollutants into the river, and there are advisories warning people not to eat fish caught in this section.

In the upper Clark Fork, he considers the stretch below the confluence with Rock Creek as the best fishery on the upper river. Ironically, the stretch immediately above the confluence is the worst, with long channelized and rip-rapped stretches and contaminants from tributaries.

The headwaters reaches of the upper Clark Fork, Hackathorn says, still have lots of problems with water chemistry. Still, he says, “There are a lot of big brown in the river. In addition, some big rainbow trout wash into the river from the Warm Springs Ponds.

“It’s an impaired system, but it has possibilities.”

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