Fly Fishing the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

Wyoming’s only designated Wild and Scenic River, the Clarks Fork originates high in the Beartooth Mountains on the northwest borders of Montana and Wyoming, flowing in a southeasterly direction into Wyoming for approximately 40 miles before re-entering Montana and flowing northeast to join the mighty Yellowstone River near Laurel, Montana.

This river is NOT to be confused with the Clark Fork, which is located near Butte, Montana and is a tributary of the Columbia River system.

Fed by a hundred, or more, glacial lakes draining the Beartooth Plateau, the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone is a fly fisherman’s dream river. The Clarks Fork has three distinct sections: Upper Clarks Fork , Middle Clarks Fork and Lower Clarks Fork. Each fish differently and each section has its own personality, requiring fly fishermen to change tactics on each section in order to keep the rod bent and the reel singing. Each section of the Clarks Fork will be dealt with separately in order to highlight the excellent trout fishing found in each section.

Upper Clarks Fork

The Upper Clarks Fork headwaters near the town of Cooke City, Montana, some 12 miles north of the Wyoming border. As the river gains small springs and freshets flowing off the ice pack of the Beartooths, the Clarks Fork is a fast-flowing freestone stream. Not wider than 50 feet, the flow is definitely moving downhill rapidly. Wading in the early part of the season can be a true challenge. Nevertheless, there are eager brookies, Yellowstone cutthroat and rainbows to be found in every nook and cranny of the river. Pocket water fishing is the norm. After runoff (July 15), the Clarks Fork flows begin to drop, wading becomes easier and the dry fly fishing is unbelievable.

Hatches are abundant. Caddis are the major insect order, but there are plenty of golden stones, green drakes, blue-winged olives, flavilinea, pale-morning duns and gray drakes to keep the dry fly “purist” busy right through the first weeks of October. The upper Clarks Fork is the place for 2 and 3 weight fly rods. Aside from hoppers and large attractor flies, most of the time, anglers can use size 12, and smaller, nymphs and dries to entice the eager numbers of trout abiding behind log jams, boulders, in deep pools, long runs and riffles. If you are the individual who can appreciate picking a stretch of water apart, piece by piece, the upper Clarks Fork is for you. If you are a fan of Saturday morning TV, the upper Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone was featured on a TNN Outdoors segment with host Ron Shearer and owner Tim Wade several years ago. The river was also much loved by author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in a cabin close by the river and finished final drafts of several books in between the times he spent wading the river.

The upper section of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone (beginning at the Wyoming border) runs close to Highway 212 for half of its 25 miles. There are some private ranches which do not allow angler trespass, but those stretches of the river are not long, so access is available via trails, turnouts and campgrounds in Shoshone National Forest. The access can be difficult in some areas. If you have a heart problem, asthma or other condition affected by high altitude, hiring a guide at North Fork Anglers is recommended. Our guides know “secret” places where the physically challenged can still have some of the finest fly fishing found anywhere.

The Middle Section of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

The Middle Section of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone begins below Hunter Peak campground. The river is wider here with long runs, some pocket water and some riffle sections. The river has also added 40% to its volume from Crazy Creek and Lake Creek. Wading in the early part of the summer requires caution and knowledge of the river!! Even so, wading along the margins can still provide lots of action on dries and nymphs, even small streamers fished down and across.

It is hard to define the mileage of the middle section. From where it begins at Hunter Creek campground, the Clarks Fork still has some characteristics of an alpine stream/river for about 2 miles. After that, the river begins its plummet through a huge, thousand foot deep rent in the earth’s crust for 8 to 10 miles. This is considered by our guides the heart and soul of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. The upper canyon has some long, flat sections where outstanding midday hatches of mayflies and evening hatches of caddis can be enjoyed. Mostly, it is dropping rapidly into the canyon.

Here, too, major tributaries, that are excellent trout streams in their own right, begin to tumble into the Clarks Fork. One mile below the last flat section at Hunter Peak, Crandall Creek joins the Clarks Fork. The narrow straights of the Clarks Fork is not wadeable here. In fact, anglers should respect the current and hydraulics and cast from the bank or from the large, house-sized granite boulders filling the river bed. The brookies, cutts and bows will be behind any current break in plenty of numbers. A few miles below the confluence of Crandall Creek, Sunlight Creek enters the canyon, adding even more volume. Around a huge bend in the granite cliffs, the last large tributary, Dead Indian Creek, falls into the Clarks Fork. Again, wading this section is not recommended until after Labor Day. Even then, it can scare the peewaddle out of even the best of waders.

If the above paragraph hasn’t intimidated you, fish the canyon section. Access is available on two trails, Cardiac and Dead Man Creek. The trails are not marked on maps. The trails are aptly named and, again, should not be attempted by anyone with a physical impairment, including failing knees. Upon your descent, expect to find rainbows and cutthroats in the 12-over 20 inch range. Due to the terrain, few anglers see this part of the Clarks Fork. Consequently, the trout are not bashful and will take most flies, whether it matches the hatch or not.

The canyon section can be fly fished as early as the first of August. Normally, the later week of August through the first of October is safest, when wading can be done (prudently and with caution!) in some parts of the canyon. North Fork Anglers does guide in the canyon, but we are the sole judge of who will and who won’t be making the trek in and out. If you are in great physical condition, don’t mind physical excursion and would enjoy seeing a part of the river few anglers ever see, this is a guided trip you should definitely consider![top]

Lower Clarks Fork

The Lower Section of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone begins at the end of the deep canyon section. Here, the Clarks Fork yet maintains its appearance of hairy Class III and IV waters, but the long runs, deep pools and rapids also hold good numbers of Yellowstone cutthroat, grayling, rainbows and Rocky Mountain whitefish. Due to the volume of water, most of the trout in the upper fast water stretch of the Clarks Fork are smaller than those found in the two other sections already discussed. However, it is not uncommon to catch fish larger than 18 inches, especially in the pre-runoff months of April-May, and again in September-late October.

Approximately 3 miles after exiting the canyon of the Clarks Fork, the walls of the canyon widen to a mile or more, leaving lots of room for the river to begin snaking its way toward the small agrarian community of Clark. Wading becomes easier and accessing the entire river allows fly fishermen to, once more, begin to pick the river apart. Large attractor dry fly patterns, such as hoppers, Stimulators, Royal Trudes and Madam X’s, all work well throughout the summer months. There are times when matching the hatch can be specific and frustrating due to multiple emergencies. Once the right fly has been selected, though, anglers are back in the “set the hook” mode and can enjoy fine fishing until, once again, another fly choice has to be tied on the tippet. The lower river can be successfully fished March-November most years. Expect to fish a variety of streamers, nymphs and dries in order to keep your rod bent except in the warmest part of summer.

Lower Clarks ForkNorth Fork Anglers offers float and walk/wade trips on the lower Clarks Fork. Due to the large parcels of private land found on the lower section of the Clarks Fork, floating the river makes a lot of sense to visiting anglers. If you are a novice boater and are only experienced on slow moving waters, leave the rowing to us while you work the edges for big browns, cutts and bows!

One final note. Due to the topography of the lower section, high winds can be a problem. Bring along a strong rod to push the wind on those days. Usually, the winds lay by late afternoon, leaving the twilight hours for some great dry fly fishing.

Hatch Chart

InsectSizeBegin DateEnd DateBest Time
Caddis12-16March 20October 30morning and evening
Midge8-22April 1November 30afternoon and evening
Baetis16-18April 1November 30afternoon and evening
Terrestrials8-14July 1October 15afternoon and evening
PMD16-18July 1October 15morning and afternoon
Green Drake10-12July 1August 15afternoon
Golden Stone8-10July 1August 15afternoon
Pale Evening Dun16-18August 15October 15afternoon and evening
Gray Drake10-12August 15September 30morning and afternoon
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