Rock Creek Redux

There has been a longstanding debate as to whether Rock Creek is really a float river

By Rob Breeding

It used to be easier to fish Rock Creek when I lived just over the hill in the Bitterroot. Back then we could take Skalkaho Pass over the Sapphire Mountains to fish the upper reaches of the creek. It was an easy day trip.

If most of my youth hadn’t been misspent as an incompetent fly fisher I’d have a whole mess of stories about killing it during Rock Creek’s magnificent salmon fly hatch. Unfortunately, my primary Rock Creek experience was defined by the first time I fished the stream. That trip was a fiasco as my dentist and his 7-year-old son, as well as another friend I no longer remember, drove over the pass towing the dentist’s raft for a float.

This was right after I moved to Montana and I’m not sure I’d ever been in a raft before. I am certain I’d never been on the oars before, and my turn at the sticks nearly turned into a disaster. I promptly flipped the boat. Fortunately, everyone was OK, and, also fortunately, that’s the only time I’ve been upside down in a raft.

The truth is that none of us were experienced enough to ensure a safe outing that day. We dropped our boat where the pass road crosses the river. There has been a longstanding debate as to whether Rock Creek is really a float river at all as it’s pretty small. You have to hit it early in the season as we did that day, and stick to the lower parts of the river where the flows are the heaviest, as we didn’t do.

It turned out the fishing was pretty good that day. The float, however, not so much.

In addition to being upside down at one point, that upper stretch we choose to float in our ignorance had a number of low bridges installed by ranchers that required everyone to duck as we passed under. Finally we hit one so low we had to dismantle part of the frame to get the boat under the bridge, and that was a rig without lean bars.

Smartly, boat traffic on Rock Creek is limited these days. After July 1, you’re allowed to float, but not fish from a raft. That cuts down on some of the traffic, especially from the scourge of the river otherwise known as guides. As a recovering guide myself, I know how evil we can be.

I got back to Rock Creek just the other day for the first time in a long while. I was in Missoula to visit my daughter who’s going to school at the University of Montana. I’d forgotten how close the stream is to the university. The kid was in class until 11 a.m. and had to be at work at 3 p.m. It turned out to be just long enough for us to get a few hours on the water and put a few fish in the net.

I know where I’d spend all my time between classes if I was a college student at UM.

Time restraints meant we couldn’t drive too far south of the Merc. Even in the lower reaches of the creek in this year of drought it was hard to imagine anyone floating that piece of water. It was easily wadeable from bank to bank, but there wasn’t much point in that as it was even easier to reach the far side with a cast.

Maybe this drought-diminished Rock Creek would be floatable in a one-person pontoon boat, but a 13-foot raft turned sideways would drag both shorelines in a lot of places.

Of course the necessity for drag-free floats requires a bit of wading, and with low flows that was fun. The cool pressure of the river on our waders put us both at ease. It was just what we needed.

Rob Breeding writes and teaches when he’s not fishing or hunting.

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