Fall Blitz at Clark Canyon
Fall Blitz at Clark Canyon
Jerry Kustich shook his head and said:“Man-o-man, there are some beautiful fish in here.” Kustich, a bamboo-rod builder and co-owner of Sweetgrass
- By: Norm Zeigler
Jerry Kustich shook his head and said:“Man-o-man, there are some beautiful fish in here.” Kustich, a bamboo-rod builder and co-owner of Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges, Montana, had just released a 22½-inch brown trout into frothing waves. Kustich and I had been planning for several weeks to check out the autumn shore fishing on Clark Canyon Reservoir, the 4,800-acre impoundment at the headwaters of the Beaverhead River, in southern Montana. We had driven 20 miles south from Dillon on a sunny, breezy early October afternoon, but soon after we parked at the lakeshore the weather began turning less benign. Within half an hour we were wading under an overcast sky with a 20-mile-per-hour northwest wind churning the lake to whitecaps. The temperature was in the mid-40s.
Clark Canyon Reservoir is renowned for producing outsize trout. Planted rainbows and a robust, self-sustaining population of brown trout grow fast and fat on a variety of invertebrates and baitfish, including carp fry, suckers, burbot and whitefish. At the nearby Buffalo Grill, a regional landmark and watering hole with stunning lake panoramas, monster catches from the past line the walls.
The reservoir is formed by the confluence of two major inflows: Horse Prairie Creek and its tributaries, Bloody Dick Creek and Medicine Lodge Creek; and the Red Rock River, with its major tributary, Big Sheep Creek. The Clark Canyon Dam, built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1964, holds back the water and its bottom-release sluices help promote the blue-ribbon trout fishing in the Beaverhead.
In the warm months the reservoir is mainly a deep-water boat fishery. Says Bill Kemph of Lilly& Kemph Outfitting in Twin Bridges,“In the summer the trout are in the river channels and spring channels.” The best action is on tiny midge nymphs—chironomids—fished under strike indicators at least 20 feet below the surface. Though there is occasional surface action on dry flies,“It’s so little that I don’t even bother with it,” Kemph says.
But beginning in late August, waning hours of daylight and the advent of the first chilly nights begin to cool the lake, getting the fish on the move and starting a different kind of fishing. As the water temperature drops, large numbers of big fish leave the depths and begin cruising the drop-offs and shallows that skirt the lake’s 17-mile shoreline.
Under the right weather conditions, fall shore fishing on Clark Canyon can be awesome. This fact was confirmed for Kustich and me 10 minutes after we began wading along the lake’s southern shoreline, casting weighted streamers.“Oop,” Kustich said, as his rod doubled over and began bouncing to the beat of a hefty fish. A couple of minutes later he slid a 19-inch rainbow into his hand.
Over the next several hours, Kustich and I endured spitting snow, cold rain and an increasingly severe wind-chill factor while wading a half-mile of shoreline and landing fish between 17½ and 22½ inches. The biggest was the thick-bodied, kype-jawed male brown that Kustich hooked up on a black-and-red Woolly Bugger. The fish’s power and stamina in the big, open water were impressive as Kustich battled it on an 11-foot, 7-weight rod.
The rainbows were brilliant, silver-sided fish with few spots.“Look at that fish…It’s like a steelhead,” Kustich remarked of one.
Though many of the trout were introduced by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife& Parks agency, Clark Canyon Reservoir’s hard-battling rainbows should not be disparaged. These are not tame, put-and-take, keeper-size fish raised in pens for easy harvest; they’re semi-wild trout that have grown up in the lake. The vast majority of the rainbows stocked in the last 10 years were between 1 and 4 inches long.
Beadhead Woolly Buggers were the flies of the day—black, black-and-red and brown—but I also landed a 19-inch rainbow on a dumbbell Schminnow. Kustich, who was casting a sinking line,
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had the better of the early fishing. For me, the action picked up when I attached a 10-foot sinking tip to my floating line. Most of the fish hit just beyond the edge of the drop-off.
We also observed a phenomenon. The reservoir was dotted with hundreds of migrating waterfowl. Mallards, widgeons and other so-called puddle ducks, as well as coot and geese, stayed close to shore, feeding and resting near a few marshy sections along the margins. But flocks of diving birds, including grebes and bluebills (scaup), paddled and dived in deeper water.
I followed one small flock of eared grebes that was diving near the drop-off, bobbing up one by one with small minnows, and then gulping and stretching their necks as they swallowed the bait headfirst. When I waded out to my waist and cast close to the flock, I had a steady succession of hits and hookups. The birds were obviously following a large baitfish pod, preying on the minnows from above and I surmised that trout were tearing into them from below. One huge brown broke the surface—head, back and tail—crashing the baitfish beyond casting range. It was an intriguing scenario, more reminiscent of striped-bass angling than trout fishing. When the birds and bait moved farther out, the action slowed.
For an hour the wind relented a bit and we caught brief glimpses of sun through the racing clouds. But as the sun slid down the southwestern sky, dipping behind the Bitterroot foothills, the wind came roaring back with bone-chilling force. In the deepening dusk the temperature plunged into the 30s, calling a halt to our red-letter angling day.
As in all lakeshore fishing, the location of the fish in Clark Canyon is not always predictable. Where the trout cruise in the biggest numbers depends on a number of factors, including weather, time of day and location of baitfish schools.
Fishing with another buddy, Dave Delisi, a few days after Kustich’s and my outing, we had no luck at the south end of the lake. Though the temperature was still seasonably cool, the sky was cloudless with a high, bright sun. A gusty southeast wind churned up shoreline silt, turning the water to the color of bad coffee. We made a few perfunctory casts, but soon conceded the futility of our efforts: We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. To complicate the situation, our vehicle bogged down in muck barely off the two-track gravel trail when Delisi made the first point of a three-point turn. It took us nearly two hours of jacking and cramming rocks under the front wheels to get it out and head for a different fishing location.
In the late afternoon, with filmy cirrus clouds coalescing overhead and long mountain shadows edging toward the lake, we drove around to the southeastern lee shore, near the inflow of the Red Rock. The water was clear and only moderately riffled and I landed an 18-inch rainbow on the third cast.
Over the next two hours I caught six more fish, including a thick-shouldered 19-inch brown and a splendid 24¼-incher that I cast to after I saw it jump.
Joking, I had told Delisi,“I’m going to catch that fish,” cast 15-feet ahead of where it breached, stripped once, twice and laughed in surprise when I felt the first hard jolt. Delisi landed three rainbows between 16 and 20 inches and both of us had a handful of other hits before darkness set in and we headed for home.
The following day Kustich, psyched up by my account, deferred half a day at the bamboo bench and we headed back to Clark Canyon in early afternoon. The wind had abated and again a brilliant sun set the lake and the snowy Bitterroots agleam. But the same water that had teemed with trout less than 24 hours earlier was frustratingly barren.
For nearly four hours we cast and waded, changed flies and fished shallow and deep, hooking up fewer than half a dozen.
Later, discussing the reason for the slowdown, we both came to the same conclusion: As so often with trout, the weather was too good, the sunlight too intense. It was only when the sun finally began to disappear behind the mountain peaks, casting long shadows over the lake, that the action finally picked up.
Browns and rainbows began crashing bait on the surface and we had multiple hits and hookups. We spotted three huge browns that leapt clear of the water, too far out to reach. This time the blitz lasted barely three quarters of an hour. But we were there to take part in it.
Norm Zeigler is a freelance writer who splits his time between Florida and Montana.