For more than a century, the Clark Fork has been a waterway divided. Anglers fished its upper reaches from the Deer Lodge Valley to Turah. Whitewater fiends reveled in its lower course through the Alberton Gorge. But riding the seven miles from Turah through Milltown remained physically impossible. Even after Milltown Dam was breached in 2008—a feat that took 22 years of blood, sweat and lobbying on the part of conservationists and officials—a legal closure through the former reservoir persisted.
The river’s confluence with the Blackfoot has since gone from dam site to demolition site to industrial wasteland, no fit place for floaters and anglers. Mounting public attention to a $115 million cleanup and reclamation project built up a sense of expectation in western Montana that, someday soon, we’d see a once-nasty waterway reborn. But visibility remained largely limited to what passing motorists could glimpse from Interstate 90. This single seven-mile stretch of the Clark Fork has proven a constant reminder of western Montana’s mining legacy—or, more pointedly, the mess former barons of industry left in their wake.
All that goes a long way in explaining the bustle at the Turah boat ramp the morning of May 1. Four rigs are already waiting to put in when my group, including Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling and fishing-guide-turned-Indy-writer Jamie Rogers, rolls up. Dozens of people mill about the parking lot in waders, stringing fly rods and counting cans of beer.
“Take a number,” Bruce jokes as we find our spot in the queue.
Bruce hops out of the truck to say hey to allies from the 25-year battle to reclaim this stretch to Milltown. We begin hearing mixed reviews on the condition of the river. Several individuals say we’ll have a smooth ride, but rumor circulates of a tricky logjam that will require rope-lining. Pat Saffel, region 2 fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, confirms the latter point. He scouted this stretch last week with FWP river ranger Chet Crowser, and while snow flurries have since caused the upper Clark Fork to rise, he doubts the logjam is any easier to navigate. Saffel adds a volunteer from the Whitewater Rescue Institute is stationed at the spot today to aid passing floaters.
The crowd calms just long enough for Lt. Gov. John Walsh, Department of Environmental Quality Director Tracy Stone-Manning and a few others to rattle through some celebratory speechifying. As boats begin drifting away from shore, the pop of a champagne cork echos across the landing. Members of the Clark Fork Coalition loudly toast victory after a quarter century spent fighting to reverse the river’s unfortunate legacy.
The back-pats and bubbly aren’t the only reason everyone’s here, though. During the morning’s speeches, someone utters the phrase “rivers, like us, are at once fragile and resilient.” We’re here to see for ourselves how resilient.
About an hour into our float we get an early answer. My strike indicator dives below a riffle. I set the hook and reel a beautifully speckled cutthroat-rainbow hybrid to the surface.
“First fish caught on the Clark Fork!” Jamie shouts. “Well, legally anyway,” he adds by way of a disclaimer. We laugh, knowing full well that this stretch has been fished illegally before. But today’s a day of firsts, and even a 10-inch cutbow is enough to elicit cheers from everyone in earshot.