Thompson River Time

By Beacon Staff

I caught a sardine-sized brook trout the other day. I took it as a sign a good day was at hand.

That’s the only brook trout I’ve caught on the Thompson River in my few visits to the little stream that runs south from the Thompson Lakes west of Kalispell to its confluence with the Clark Fork near Thompson Falls. I’m told brookies are fairly common there, at least in the headwaters. It’s fun water to fish, involving light rods, long leaders and careful presentations of dry flies.

The fish aren’t huge, but a dude could find worse ways to spend a day. That baby brookie — which I momentarily imagined lined up in a tin marinating in olive oil and chilis with a dozen or so of its river mates — was the first of many I released that day. None were bigger than 12 inches, but a foot-long wild trout is fine sport on a four-weight.

Most of the trout I caught that day were browns, for which the Thompson is most known. I assume browns rule here because the Thompson drainage is lower in elevation than most western Montana trout streams. That means higher water temps later in the summer since the snowpack comes off sooner. Browns tolerate heat better than most trout, so it’s no surprise they’re common here.

That low-elevation drainage is one of the keys to the Thompson’s charm. As I write this, the forks of the Flathead are still probably a good week away from fishable levels, while the Thompson has been in great shape for a good month. It will stay that way at least until the big river clears up.

Drive to the Thompson from Kalispell and you’ll hit the pretty meadow stretch just south of Highway 2. The river, really just a creek at this point, meanders through grassy meadows that provide plenty of open space for beginners to launch wayward back casts. Here the Thompson is easily fished from the banks, and when the weather is nice that’s how I like to approach it: wearing shorts and river sandals and taking time to position myself to make clear casts even when I’m not standing in the middle of the stream.

It’s beautiful down there, but like much of the country in the northern Rockies the Thompson displays scars of hard use. The upper drainage is largely Plum Creek land and one visit will make clear the company felled its share of board feet over the years. There’s still active logging in the drainage, so it pays to take your time on the road to avoid trucks loaded with timber.

Slowing down also allows me to keep an eye on the water. I usually see the rings of rising trout in those meadow meanders. Often I’m looking beyond the fence lines of water on private land, but I’m OK with that. I don’t have to catch a trout to be pleased by its presence.
There are signs of wear in the bottoms as well. Much of the native vegetation in the meadows has disappeared. Shrubs and willows were cleared to make way for hay, and hardy introduced grasses form dense monocultures along the stream bank. The slow work of restoration is underway, at least in patches where the ground has been covered by weed mats intended to give reintroduced native species a chance to reestablish themselves.

If the restoration goes as planned those clear back-casting angles may someday be crowded with fly robbing willows. That’s both a good and bad thing as far as fishing goes. A restored riparian zone with it’s tree canopy draped over the water will require advanced casting skills, but those up to the challenge may find more trout to cast to, as willows also shield the water from the sun.

Orvis fly fishing guru Tom Rosenbauer once summed up the requirements for good trout-holding water thusly: “Foam is home. Rocks rock. Wood is good. Made in the shade.”

Streams that stay in the shade are cooler. Cooler streams make better homes for trout. And any place that’s a home for trout is all right in my book.

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