Blue Ribbon River
Nestled at the base of a narrow valley, with a road only Montana could cherish, lies Rock Creek, Missoula’s Blue Ribbon trout stream. Home to moose, bighorn sheep, black bear and deer, it’s not just trout that grow next to the Sapphire Mountains! Starting in Lolo National Forest and running 52 miles to the Clark Fork, Rock Creek may be the most popular fly fishing destination in Montana. It has the most access points for fly fishing, the easiest access points, and for many, it’s absolutely the perfect size for fly fishing. It’s our smallest watershed, with a steep gradient that’s home to the best Salmon Fly hatch in Montana.
Starting near Philipsburg, MT, Rock Creek cascades through some of the most picturesque scenery in Montana. The narrow valley feels like you’re engulfed by mountains, while the river bounces and bisects the canyon center as if its sole purpose is providing the perfect Montana fly fishing experience. The road needs to be driven to be believed, and trust us, we say that with love and annoyance! There are few roads like Rock Creek Road, mercilessly cut from the rocks, with twisting, narrow passes carved at the mountain’s base when cars were tiny and few rules governed road side gradient. Depending on the spring, and the last time the road was graded, Rock Creek Rd. can be one giant pothole interconnected by infrequent sections of bumpy washboard. From Missoula, it takes about 2 hours to get to the top of Rock Creek traveling the highways through Drummond and Philipsburg. It takes the same 2 hours to get to the top traveling Rock Creek Road- a 52 mile drive. The first 13 miles is paved, so it takes about 90 minutes to cover the unpaved 39 miles. Rock Creek Rd is not built for speed.
With its closeness to Missoula, easy access and higher gradient, Rock Creek is favored by winter anglers. Faster water doesn’t freeze as rapidly, and the abundance of fish can be a real boon when cold water slows the winter fly fishing down. As spring approaches, the Skwalas, BWO’s and Western March Browns start to appear. While the Skwala fishing is good, the WMB’s can be excellent, from top to bottom. Work the edges of the creek and be patient. Dry fly drift isn’t easy on a fast moving river. Rock Creek will fish well until run-off, which usually starts at the end of April. Run-off on Rock Creek is a bit different than run-off on other Missoula rivers. The high gradient has removed much of the silt from the river, which means it clears faster. Whenever the water drops for 3-4 days during run-off, Rock Creek may have cleared enough to fish. The wading may be non-existent but at least you’re fishing! keep an eye on the flows at the USGS website or check our fishing reports.
As run-off diminishes in mid to late June, Rock Creek’s world class Salmon Flies starts to happen. The composition of Rock Creek makes this watershed one of the most productive stonefly rivers in Montana. Anglers come from all over the world to experience fishing size 4 dry flies to slashing, hungry fish. Rock Creek is a Mecca for anglers at this time, with floaters and waders all trying to find the epic day with the biggest dry fly in Montana! There are boats ripping by, with anglers frenetically casting to likely spots that appear and disappear at tremendous pace. The boats appear as soon as run-off ends, and end on June 30. Officially, you can float Rock Creek year round, but you cannot fish from a boat after July 1. A little advice. Don’t float Rock Creek after July 1. There are so many waders fishing the rapidly shrinking water that there’s no room for boats. There are too many other Missoula rivers where floating is better and easier. Don’t push the original Row v. Wade after July 1 on Rock Creek!
If you bring your raft to float and row Rock Creek for the Salmon Fly hatch, you need to bring your double A-game. At peak Salmon Fly flow, you may cover 27 miles in 8 hours, with back rowing. Rock Creek’s high gradient is never more apparent as you go flying down that river in a boat, looking for wading anglers and keeping the boat in the correct fishing position. If you’re bringing your raft to Missoula, please contact our Missoula fly shop 406-728-7766 to find out if there are any obstacles in the river. If you don’t know about them, you’re moving at such pace they can be a real problem. A phone call doesn’t take much time, better safe than sorry!
As a quick aside, while the salmon flies get all the ink, Rock Creek also has excellent hatches of Golden Stones, PMDs, PEDS, Green Drakes, Tan Caddis and Spruce Moths. It’s so easy to get caught up in the Salmon Flies that anglers might neglect these other species. Believe us, the fish don’t ignore these food sources, and you shouldn’t either. Once July 1 comes, and the boats disappear, Rock Creek becomes a Montana wading paradise. The water is dropping, and more places to wade appear every day. The neglected hatches become more important to the wading angler, because the lack of mobility (compared to a boat) means covering less water, but more thoroughly. You’re more apt to see rises fishes on the edges of the creek when wading, not going by at 4 miles an hour!
Rock Creek, while small and easily accessed, is certainly not simple wading. The high gradient pushes a lot of rock downstream during high water, leaving round rocks about the size of bowling balls along the bottom. As the water heats up and the vegetation starts to grow on the bottom, those rocks get slippery. Lots of anglers have taken some spectacular falls on Rock Creek trying to balance on those slippery bowling balls. If you have any wading issues, bring a wading staff. It’s invaluable for keeping you upright and dry while wading Rock Creek.
As the water drops and gets a bit warmer through the summer, the fish start to seek a little deeper, faster water. The tricos will appear on Rock Creek in August, and that’s close to the only true hatch in late summer. Though a Tan Caddis as a searching pattern is effective all summer long, because Rock Creek is full of caddis. Depending on the water temperatures, high summer on Rock Creek can be dawn and dusk fishing, though the canyon will often keep the sun off the water for a significant part of the day. Don’t neglect the summer streamer fishing up here. Rock Creek is small enough the streamer fisherman can completely cover the Creek bank to bank, a luxury not often found on Missoula rivers. Fish in the faster water, you’ll be surprised what will come out of 3 feet water to slash at your streamer.
As fall approaches, Rock Creek certainly gets Mahoganies, BWOS and October Caddis. But if you spend a little time on the lower sections, you’re going to see some big Clark Fork Brown Trout moving up Rock Creek to spawn. These fish will smack a streamer as they travel upriver, and many people will head to Rock Creek in the fall with the sole purpose of targeting these lunker browns. Then, when the fish start rising, slide the streamer off and start casting to the BWOS, Mahoganies or October Caddis. As the fall hatches start in the afternoon, with Missoula’s fall weather sunny and pleasant, you know why you took the time to bump down the road to find these access spots that almost define Montana fly fishing.
Rock Creek is the most beloved river in Missoula. It’s the first place most locals go fishing, and it holds such a special place in the hearts of most Missoula fly fishers. The narrow canyon, smaller water that encourages wading and a classic pocket water fishery cascading down from the top of the Sapphire Mountains combines to make Rock Creek the gem of Missoula fly fishing. As a Blue Ribbon Montana river, the chances of taking more than a few fish is much greater on Rock Creek. The easy access and beautiful, scenic valley combine to make Rock Creek a favored destination for anglers near and far. If you take your time traveling Rock Creek Road, you’ll find the trip less bumpy, and the surroundings more appealing. You can pick your spot on Rock Creek, you’ll find trout and so much more on Missoula’s favorite trout river!