Fly Fishing Rock Creek
Rock Creek in Western Montana, is a freestone river that flows from south to north joining the Clark Fork near Clinton, Montana. Designated a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream, Rock Creek boasts 2000 fish per mile.
The creek flows 50 miles through a narrow valleys and canyons. Here you’ll find a mix of public lands with unlimited fishing access, as well as private land. Mile markers along the road are helpful for remembering great spots to fish. I’ll be referencing mile markers as I describe great spots to fish.
When we are not living in our camper and traveling to cool fishing destinations, Rock Creek is our home. We fell in love with the creek in April of 1999 and purchased our little log cabin in 2008 as a second home. In 2013, we made the move west and became residents.
While we have fished many, many rivers, for us, nothing compares to Rock Creek. It’s not just the fishery; its the rugged mountains, the curious wildlife, the seasons, and the friendly folks that call this valley home.
Rock Creek Near Hogback Creek
Spotted rainbow trout caught near the Morgan-Case Homestead on Rock Creek
Fishing Rock Creek – The Details
From Missoula, Montana, Rock Creek lies 21 miles to the east. At exit 126 on I-90, Rock Creek Road heads south and some of the West’s best fly fishing lies ahead.
Rock Creek can also be accessed from Philipsburg, Montana, a small mining town turned tourist/ski town. Take Route 348 which leads to the Kyle Bohrnsen Bridge near the 41 mile marker or take Route 38 to bring you out higher on the creek. Here Route 38 leads to the seasonal Skalkaho Road that goes over the Sapphire Mountains and drops into the Bitterroot Valley near Hamilton. The Skalkaho Road is open in summer and fall. It is a narrow and winding gravel road.
There are numerous fishing access, primitive campsites, and roadside access to Rock Creek. Angler paths lead up and down the river in many spots. A well-trod path often means good spots to fish. Don’t worry about finding the ‘best spot’. Rock Creek offers great fishing in its entirety. Grab your fly rod and go. If you are not successful in one spot, keep moving. With 2000 fish per mile, you’ll come upon a great spot just around the corner.
Floating the Rock Creek
Floating the river is a great way to cover water and fish in the spring, during the salmonfly hatch, and during run-off. Floating is prohibited after June 30. Most folks float pre-runoff in April through June.
There are no official boat launches on Rock Creek. Floating the creek is done by rafts fitted with fishing frame. This is no place for a hard boat.
Seasoned floaters know the spots. Near the 4 mile mark, the “Tamarack” launch (unmarked) is a popular take-out and launch for floating down the Creek and into the Clark Fork, taking out at the Clinton Fishing Access. This access can be dicey as there are often snags and sweepers in the river channel here.
Near the 13 mile mark, a crude launch/take out exists for floating to tamarack or taking out. Continuing upstream, the Harry’s Flat Campground had launch access. Floating downstream from Harry’s Flat will take you through the boulder field of the Dalles. There is a crude take out just above the Dalles. At the red bridge near the 22 mile mark and Bitterroot Flat, there is a crude launch/take out.
Above that, you’ll find small launches that are no more than a place to drag a raft from a small turn out. Bridges such as the Concrete Bridge and the Kyle Bohrnsen also provide put in/take out spots. Contact the Rock Creek Mercantile to inquire about shuttles.
Rock Creek Hatches
I’ve seen fish take an insect off the surface in every month of the year on Rock Creek. Of course, some months are much better than others. You can expect dry fly action April through October. Here’re a list of hatches you can expect to see.
Blue Winged Olives – Almost any month of the year bwo’s hatch on the creek. From size 16 to flies so small they can barely be seen. Admittedly, BWO may not be the absolute correct name or term, baetis, or maybe just olive midges, but you get the idea. Have some small, olive bodied or dun bodied winged flies sized 18-22 ready should conditions warrant in the colder months.
Nemora – These early stoneflies make spotty appearances in late March and early April. Sized 12 or 14, with a thin body, this bug can get fish to look up in the afternoon.
Skwala Stonefly – When the skwalas hatch, it’s the start of the big bugs in Montana. Skawalas can be on the water anytime in April.
Western March Brown – A favorite mayfly hatch, look for these sized 14 Mays to hatch between noon and 3 pm daily beginning mid-April.
Salmonfly – Fish the salmonfly hatch just once and you’ll know why folks get so cranked up for it. Water temperature dictates when these big bugs hatch. The hatch begins in the lower portions of the creek and moves upstream daily. Start watching for the hatch in late May.
Golden Stones – Summer is on its way when the Golden Stone hatch in June. Smaller than the salmonflies, these are still good sized bugs that hatch when the salmonfly hatch is over.
Cadddis – Caddis can be found on the river from June through September.
Pale Morning Duns – July brings great hatches of PMDs. Be sure to have variants such as cripples, duns, emergers, and nymphs in your box.
Spruce Moth – In late July and early August the Spruce Moth hatch is a favorite. Sized 14, these bugs resemble caddis. And the fish just love them!
Grasshoppers – July – August – September, have hoppers in your box! Foam bodied in a variety of colors, don’t skimp on hoppers.
Trico – Look for tricos in mid August, hatches will wind down after this.
As autumn sets in, fishing during the best time of the day becomes more important. Early and late are not as productive as the cool weather sets in.
Upstream of the Swing Bridge at Welcome Creek
Casting a BWO in September
Access For Fishing Rock Creek
For many, the access to the creek begins near the confluence of the Clark Fork River, just 21 miles east of Missoula. The mile markers begin here.
Mile Markers 1-12
The river runs along the Rock Creek Road about a mile down the road. You’ll find turn-outs to park in various spots between the 1 and 4 mile markers and access to the river is pretty straight forward.
This section can be heavily fished at times since it’s an easy drive from Missoula. But that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. This section holds a great number of fish, and in normal flows, the wading is as easy as it gets in the lower river.
Valley of the Moon
The wide Valley of the Moon area, near mile-marker 2, is not only picturesque but offers great fishing and easy access with well-trodden angler paths along the banks. Park in pull-outs or along the Valley of the Moon Road. Do not park at the base of the rock slide directly across from the Valley of the Moon Road as rocks come off that slope pretty often, especially in spring.
I have caught some of the biggest trout, especially browns, in this section. In autumn, the browns come up out of the Clark Fork to spawn in these waters. And in the spring, Clark Fork trout find their way into this section to forage in these fertile waters.
Elkhorn and Spring Creek
The Elkhorn Ranch lies between the 3 and 4 mile marker and is private. The river is accessible to the high-water mark but access begins at either the Tamarack boat launch or at turn-out near the 3 mile mark.
Spring flows into Rock Creek at the 4 mile mark. There is parking at the snowplow turn-around. Access the river just accross from the parking to fish upstream and beyond. The river features logs jams, hard turns, glide pools and riffles.
Solomon, Sawmill, and Norton Fishing Accesses
Private land dominates the landscape unil the 12 mile mark, however, fishing access every couple of miles give great access to the river. The Solomon Fishing Access is located at the 6 mile mark. Sawmill is well marked and located on the Sawmill Fishing Access Road, just off Rock Creek Road at the 8-mile mark. Acess the river again at the Norton Campground. Drive into the campground and park at the fisherman’s access point and follow the footpath to the river.
In Montana, the stream access law gives anglers, floaters and other recreationists full use of most natural waterways between the high-water marks for fishing and floating, along with swimming and other river or stream-related activities.
Near Mile Marker 1
Sawmill Fishing Access at the 8 Mile Mark
Mile Markers 12-30
The pavement ends and the Lolo National Forest begins. The road is gravel, and depending on when the last maintenance occured, can be good or washboarded and rutted. Either way, take your time, this is a very beautiful part of the country. The river winds through a tight canyon. Primitive campsites can be found in numerous spots in this stretch which offer parking and river access.
The Welcome Creek trailhead features a swing bridge for crossing the river at about the 14 mile mark. This iconic spot is loved by hikers, anglers, and summer swimmers.
Upstream you’ll find a three-mile-long stretch which features large boulders strewn mid-river. The Dalles, as this section is known, requires caution when floating this section in high water. Several anglers have lost their lives here during run-off.
Numerous small creek feed the river. Fishing where a creek comes in the main stem is always a good bet. Places like Butte Cabin Creek, Cougar Creek, Little Hogback Creek, Wyman, and Ranch Creek are sure bets for great fly fishing.
The Micro Burst
Near the 26-mark, the landscape is very dramatic. The road rises and become very narrow. The road crests at a switchback, and as you descend, the river with its deep pools and s lond bend, lies below. To the west, the bowl of the mountain shows the scars of weather and fire; to the east the south facing slope is a lush meadow, while the bottom along the river is a wetland where moose frequent.
A parking area features intepretive signage telling the story of the land. Angler paths from here lead to great fishing, often in solitude.
Passing the 29 mile marker the road again rises narrowly off the valley floor and crests at a switchback known as a hogback. Below, the valley opens wide as the river courses through the meadow. Parking can be had near the homestead or at the Wyman Gulch trailhead. Like several spots on the creek, the river features glides, riffles, and dog-legs turns as the waters crash into the rock faces of mountain slopes and deep pools are created.
Wildlife is abundant here. Watch for moose in the willows near the creek and bighorn sheep on the steep mountain meadows to the east.
The Microburst Area
Mile 30 to the Forks
As the Lolo National Forest boundry ends, private lands again dominate. Access is again restricted to roadside access to the creek, campgrounds, and bridges. The Kyle Bohrnsen Bridge near the 41 mile marker provides great access upstream and down.
Take the bridge to head over to Philipsburg, just 12 miles away. The Philipsburg Brewery is a great spot to have a couple of craft brews and talk trout.
From the bridge upstream, the river run through private land and access is very limited until the forest boundary begins as you head up the east or west fork. The Ranch at Rock Creek lies along this upper stretch and if you are looking for a luxurious spot to stay for a Rock Creek fishing trip, this is the place.
Fishing the Creek
Wading Rock Creek is my favorite way to fish it. It’s a personal preference though. For me, wading into the water and casting to a rising fish on the far bank, is just the best.
Unless it is peak run-off, there is always someplace to fish.
The river has a gravel bottom that is strewn with rocks of various sizes. The use of a wading staff is recommeded. Waders are optional mid-June to mid-September. Wet wading the creek on a hot July day is better than slogging around in a pair of waders, breathable or not.
There is places to catch fish while wading at every fishing access or turn out.
There is no better way to catch lots of fish than by floating the creek. Get in a raft and float 10 miles and you’ll float over 20,000 fish. Fishing from a raft is also the best way to fish the Salmonfly hatch. Cast one those big, awkwardly flying bug towards shore and watch big trout slam your fly inches off shore.
Guided float trips are a great way to get on the water in May or June. Three local outfitters run trips on the creek; John Perry, Joe Cummings, and Blackfoot River Outfitters in Missoula. All recommeded outfitters and good all around folks.
Floating Rock Creek During the Salmonfly Hatch
Fly Fishing Near the Microburst on Rock Creek
Videos of Rock Creek
April March Hatch on Rock Creek
Dry Fly Fishing Rock Creek in October
Brown Trout Spawning in a side channel of Rock Creek in November
The Micro Burst Area of Rock Creek
The Rock Creek Mercantile has been serving anglers for decades. Located less than 1 mile down Rock Creek Road, the Merc sells flies and terminal tackle as well as Montana fishing licenses. They are quick to offer advice for flies to try and spots to fish. Many a fishing trip to Rock Creek begins with a stop at the Merc.
All the fly shops in Missoula post fishing reports that cover Rock Creek. Not all update as often as I’d like, but a quick call to your favorite shop will get you the knowledge you need before heading out.
Fly Fishing Waters Near Rock Creek
Wow, this is the epicenter of Western Montana fly fishing. Check these nearby fishing spots!
- Blackfoot River
- Clark Fork
- Bitterroot River
- Georgetown Lake
- Flint Creek
Current Rock Creek Stream Flow
Fly Fishing With Dogs
Belle and Pie
Our Favorite Flies For Rock Creek
It’s always wise to check in with the local experts. Here’s what we always have in our box
- Pale Morning Duns (dry and emerger variations)
- CDC Caddis (olive and dun bodies)
- Bead San Jaun Worm / Power Worm
- Hatching Pupa
- Olive Marabou Streamer
- Purple Haze
- BH Flashback Pheasant Tail
- Double Bead Prince (big)
Fateful Phone Call
I was on my way to a Steve Miller concert with my two boys when I got the call. The excited voice on the other end of the line was Lisa. “There is a cabin for sale near the 8 mile marker on Rock Creek.”
“That’s great,” I said. “The next time we are out there we should take a look at it.”
“We can do that tomorrow,” Lisa replied. “We have a flight out of Boston and the cabin is available for rent tomorrow night. And oh, by the way, I’ve already agreed to purchase it.” So off we went.
Never passing up a chance to fish Montana, we toted along the fly rods and gear. The little log cabin was just perfect, the river was just a short walk away. Morning came and we headed off for the creek. Lisa heading upstream, while I headed down. The sun had just starting hitting the steep, rocky walls across the river when the first clumsy cream-colored moth crashed into the water’s surface. The fluttering bug hadn’t drifted more than three feet downstream before it consumed by a large trout.
I’d heard the Creek had a pretty good Spruce Moth hatch that time of year, but hailing from New Hampshire, I wasn’t familiar with them. A quick search of my vest yielded nothing even close in appearance. In our haste to leave the Granite State, I neglected to pack a box of elk hair caddis flies, which would have worked perfectly. Frustrated, I dug around in the pockets of my vest and pulled out a small paper box containing a dozen oversized, cream-colored CDC caddis. Pretty close, I thought.
First cast, nothing. But a long cast dropped under a spruce tree, brought brown trout gold. The next hour was full of takes, misses, and a dozen healthy browns and cutts.
As I brought the last fish of the morning to net, two thoughts occured to me. My wife is a really smart woman and this is where I want to spend the rest of my life.
Our picks for fishing information, food, and places to camp.
My advice for visiting the area is to plan ahead. Buy groceries, fuel, flies, and adult beverages before heading into the canyon if you are serious about fishing. Time spent driving around is not time on the water. Depending on where you are staying, food and fuel can be a considerable distance away.
Drive slow on Rock Creek Road. The road often has bighorn sheep, deer, bear, moose, and more on the edges or right in the middle of the road. In early summer lambs and fawns can be in the road. Go slow and enjoy.
Lower Rock Creek Road is very narrow. Often there are rocks that fall from the steep slopes in the road. Again, just drive slow and be courteous. Views here inspire artists.
Once in the canyon, there is no cell reception. Most all rental cabins offer wifi but the forest service campgrounds have no service.
Fishing is fun, but in such a special part of the world, it’s good to take a day or two and look around. Here you’ll find great places to hike, tons of wildlife, a really cool college town, and amazing mountain scenery.
Go with knowledge! We keep guidebooks in the camper and the state atlas in all of our rigs. If you’re serious about fishing, here’s our recommended reading for this water.
*The link takes you to Amazon where you can read more about the titles and purchase the guidebooks if you choose. We do receive a small portion of the sale for providing the link which helps to support this site. We appreciate your support!
When your line enters rock creek you don’t know what to expect..
My friend J.J has a beautiful cabin at the 7 mile marker.Peace of heaven
I know your friend J.J. Lucky is one to have friends on Rock Creek – it’s a great place to fish!
Visited P-Burg 2 years ago for the first time. Next visit I’ll have fly rod in hand. Thanks for your in depth summary of the Creek and surrounding area. I’m sorry to learn of the loss of your long-time companion, Pie. God Bless.
Pittsburg is a special place. Rock Creek drew us away though – Love it here. I’ve had 6 Brittany spaniels who worked with me in the woods of northern NH. The end is always so hard. Our last, Belle, will keep us on our toes for the next few years. Pie was such a good hunter. He pointed a woodcock at 4 months old which my hunter shot – a great way to start. RIP my boy Pie.
I started browsing rock creek facebook page shortly after we visited P-Burg in 2019; reviewed again recently, noticed a few of your posts, starting to connect some dots with your sojourn. So, are you guys still residing in the area? Do you operate an AB&B? Thanks.
very clear and good article easy to understand. Thank you
Thanks! I’ve been researching Rock Creek for weeks after my Yellowstone trip was canceled due to flooding. Your article is clearly the most informative and contagious reading I’ve found…and I’ve read a lot. Again, thank you. A tremendous asset as I plan and navigate my first trip to these waters.