A Bit About Clark Fork River

It occurred to me that I haven’t written much about the Clark Fork River, which flows right by our town. In fact, our valley wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the river, which gradually cut a channel through part of the Rocky mountains. 

When people think of major rivers in Montana, if they have any idea to begin with, they usually think of the Missouri River and the Yellowstone River. However, the Clark Fork has historically been important and it is actually the largest river in Montana, by volume of water.

Unlike most rivers in the United States, which most often flow southward, the Clark Fork flows roughly northwest. It starts near the city of Butte, Montana and at its headwaters, it is only a half mile from the continental divide. From there, it flows toward Missoula, Montana, which is the largest city in the state. From Missoula, it flows north by northwest, past our town, through the town of Thompson Falls and it gradually takes a slightly more westerly direction. Eventually, it flows into Lake Pend O’reille (pronounced “Pond-er-aa”) in Northern Idaho. During its 310 mile journey, it is joined by a number of tributaries and thus forms the drainage of a huge amount of Montana, west of the continental divide.

Historically, the Clark Fork was the home to the Flathead Indians. It was in what is now the Clark Fork Valley than Lewis and Clark met the Flathead Indian people and the river is named after William Clark. Since Lake Pend O’reille is in the Columbia river drainage, the river is technically “The Clark Fork of the Columbia River”, though the connection to the Columbia is via another river that flows from the lake, westward.

The river and its tributaries were huge in the mining of numerous minerals, including copper and Gold. More gold has come from the Montana gold rush than from the San Francisco gold rush that established San Francisco as a major US west coast city, though people usually aren’t aware that Montana was such a big player in gold mining. There is still gold in many of the tributaries of the Clark Fork River.

This river is also important for one of Montana’s biggest industries; tourism. More specifically, huge numbers of people come to Montana every year to fish in the Clark Fork River. The river is considered to be one of the best fly fishing rivers in the country. There are also a large number of fish species to be found in this river; small-mouth bass, flathead catfish, black and yellow bullhead catfish, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, yellow perch, dolly varden trout, lake trout, whitefish, two species of dace, suckers, cutthroat trout, shiners, pumpkin seed sunfish, northern pike and pike minnow, to name just some of them. There are also a number of fish present that are fish of concern because of their low populations, nationwide. Local and visiting fishermen catch a lot of fish out of this river yearly, some of them quite large. Right here in town and near the bridge separating the town from the fairgrounds, a 20-pound northern pike isn’t unusual.

Additionally, the Clark Fork is important for supplying a lot of the water that is used to water agricultural lands, which produce everything from wheat and other grains to cherries, apples and other fruits. 

The Clark Fork River defines the valley I live in and it is responsible for the valley’s existence. Around here, it is usually just called ‘the river’, but it is one of the most important rivers in Montana. It is also the largest and is quite scenic. For me, I simply enjoy fishing and swimming in the river.


  1. Gil Camporazo

    What a river! The water is seen flowing without stop. I would like to be with the scene for I like to listen to the rushing water. As I listen to it, I feel like a music to my ear. The rushing water sounds so sonorous, that I feel like sleeping.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It is beautiful. It is also peaceful in some places and rapid in others. And yet, when Americans learn about geography and rivers in the US, this isn’t one of those they normally learn about.

  2. Barbara Radisavljevic

    Someday I hope to visit Montana. I have a cousin there, at least I think she’s still there. I’d like to see your river. Rivers intrigue me. I live a few blocks from one, but it’s dry most of the time.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      @barbrad, Clark Fork never dries up, though in the driest years, the water level gets quite low; enough that in places, a person could wade across. Still, that is about as rare as huge floods are. The last really big flood on this river was in 1908. It isn’t an enormously wide river like the Mississippi is in the lower reaches, but at the bridge here in town, it is probably 150-200 yards across.

      Where my home is located was river bottom a couple hundred years ago, before the course of the river shifted to about a mile west of here.

  3. Andria Perry

    Sounds like around here , we say ” the river” but that could mean one of several.

    I would love to fish there, you make it sound inviting.

    I stumbled this one too!

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      Thank you! Well, for people who love to fish, this is a great place to do it. There are sure a lot of different kinds of fish a person can catch. Almost every time we go there, we catch something. The river has plenty of trash fish, too, mostly squawfish, but the garden loves those and the deer don’t, so it is still a win-win. 😀

    2. Rex Trulove Post author

      Incidentally, I found out just today that walleyes aren’t considered to be game fish here. There is no limit to the number a person can catch. I’ll remember that the next time we start catching walleyes. 🙂

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