My guide, Chase Soresen, instructed me to put my fly rod in the bottom of the raft and to hang on. We were about to go through some serious whitewater rapids in a 10-mile stretch of what is called The Gorge on the Clark Fork River located in far western Montana. I did as instructed and was glad I obeyed because soon after that our raft entered the rapid.
The drop came suddenly. It was at least 4 feet to the bottom of that drop where our raft was violently halted by a standing wave higher than the drop. Chase pushed forward on the oars and we lifted over the top of that first wave to get repeatedly wet as successive waves of the same height batted our raft around for about 50 yards before we left that rapid behind and the Clark Fork calmed down enough for me to pick up my fly rod and begin fishing again. A roller-coaster ride for sure and the first of nine more rapids to run that were guaranteed to provide the same thrill if not more than the rapid left behind before we landed at our takeout below the Gorge.
While not a remote, unchartered canyon like the one I wrote about last week, this particular section of the Clark Fork is wild enough to provide whitewater enthusiasts some real challenges, but it also keeps all but the best boat fishing guides away from the Gorge except during runoff when the rapids are covered by snowmelt and, truth be told, probably not even known to the majority of early season anglers floating through the Gorge. Because the rapids were now very apparent, if not intimidating, this meant the fishing pressure in September would be light. It was the very reason my guide Chase recommended this section as the one to float, even if it resulted in a sudden swim or drenching as we floated throughout the day.
Chase’s recommendation proved to be worth the effort and risks this past Thursday. Temperatures were cool, thanks to the same cold front that slammed Cody earlier last week. The cooldown had the trout reluctant to come to the top to eat our dry fly offerings of pale morning duns and grasshoppers.
While we did catch a few trout with dries, Chase felt we would do much better by fishing deep with nymphs in all the pocket water we would see throughout the day.
Again, his sage advice and rowing skills had my partner and me constantly into trout once the switch was made to go ‘wet’. We fished a modified version of a Pat’s rubber legs in a size 12. The color was olive and black with olive speckled rubber legs. I was amazed how well the rainbows, west slope cutthroat and cut bows reacted to the fly. We didn’t float very far nor drift for any length of time before our lines were tight and our rods bent again, and again, and again.
While this kind of fishing action seems like there was a trout on every cast, there was not. There were times we hooked the occasional whitefish and more than our fair share of squawfish (In 1999, the American Fisheries Society officially changed the common name to pikeminnow. The four species of this genus Ptychocheilus were formerly known as squawfish throughout the Western states before political correctness called for a renaming of the species.)
We did manage to look at some of the scenery on the float through the Gorge and I even managed to take some video of the rapids, us fishing and still photos of the steep canyon and its scenery and of course, trout being fought to the net before Chase had the hooks out and the fish of all species quickly returned back into the cold, deep waters of the Clark Fork. While none of our trout pushed past the 20-inch mark, we landed dozens and dozens of trout that probably averaged 16 inches. The remarkable thing about the trout, regardless of species, was the power. I am glad I had a stout 6-weight fly rod in my hands by the end of the day. Even with a stout rod, my arms were tired and there was a pleasant pain (make that a satisfied pain) in the middle of the back, which meant a lot of fish had been lifted in the 10 hours we floated.
Floating The Gorge is a long day for the guide and fishermen. The guide was rowing and dodging rocks all day, while we anglers were fighting fish after fish to the surface. As mentioned, we began the day with frosty weather but by the time we reached our takeout, the air temps had climbed into the mid 80s by late afternoon. Our guide Chase and my partner and I have already set a date for next September. The experience and the memories will last for a long time. As Arnold would say, “I will be back.”