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Wednesday, April 8, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

1 river, 320 miles

End-to-end fly-fishing float trip marks beginning of upper Clark Fork’s recovery

Drift boat anchors are destined to be the new heavy metals in the upper Clark Fork River. “Undoing 150 years of mining, smelting and agricultural abuse will not be fast or cheap, but we’ve made a big leap in the right direction,” Daniel Kiely of Missoula said as he worked the drift boat’s oars.

He diverted his attention from the reporter briefly to put Stuart Goldberg, a Missoula real estate developer, in position to cast a 4-inch, olive rabbit-fur streamer – with enough weight to cold-cock a bull moose – into dark, trouty water along an undercut bank.

“Stuart is trying to rebuild his ego after his wife kicked his butt on the river yesterday,” Kiely said. “She caught four big brown trout, including one 23-incher. He got nothing.

“Abused as it is, the upper river has some big brown trout. I’m glad we had her along yesterday to prove it.”

It was July 2 downstream from Drummond, Mont., near Beavertail Hill State Park: Day 6 of Kiely’s mission to float, fish and camp along the navigable length of the Clark Fork.

Having started at Racetrack Creek Bridge near Butte, he’s scheduled to finish Thursday or Friday at Lake Pend Oreille – 320 miles in 20 days.

On Day 4, he didn’t get off the river until 11 p.m. “I’ve always wanted to fish for brown trout at dark,” he explained. “The upper river doesn’t hold a lot of fish – not yet – but it holds some big browns. I’m a dad with two children, I don’t get many chances to do something like that.”

The trout he caught and released that night somewhere near Drummond more than made up for the lack of sleep, he said, offering no more details.

The Merrill Lynch financial planner had a bloody blister on one hand, “but I’m fishing 20 days in a row and getting the word out about what’s going on,” he said. “I’m also a better rower than when I started.”

And he’s improved his previously untested skill in field hook extraction methods since setting out.

“This isn’t the most pristine river, but it’s the center of my fishing universe. And the future is bright,” he said.

The $100-million-plus toxic sediment removal project – highlighted on March 28, 2008, with the breaching of Milltown Dam upstream from Missoula – was just the start in the longest Superfund cleanup and river restoration effort in the nation and possibly the world.

Kiely is a board member for the Clark Fork Coalition, which had a lobbying hand in the 1985 Environmental Protection Agency decision designating 120 miles of the upper-river corridor a Superfund site.

Removing Milltown Dam gave fish free reign for the first time in 100 years to run upstream and use hundreds of miles of upper river and tributaries in the 22,000-square-mile watershed.

Now the focus will shift to restoring 43 miles of the upper river with projects such as removing toxic sediments and planting trees and vegetation to stabilize banks and provide shade to help lower water temperatures and make them more suitable for native fish.

Montana has received more than $200 million from a lawsuit forcing Atlantic Richfield Co. to fund cleanup and restoration of natural resources damaged by mining and smelting around Butte and Anaconda.

“I grew up here, and what’s going on with the Clark Fork is proof that every river needs its champions,” said Ron Pierce, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist.

“There are indications the Clark Fork has the basic productivity of the Beaverhead and upper Yellowstone, but a lot of people still regard it as strictly utilitarian. The recovery of the fishery depends on how fast people (along the river) get with the program.

“The potential is here for phenomenal improvement in five years if we address flows, irrigation runoff, water quality, livestock, channel degradation as well as toxic sediments and shoreline vegetation.”

The Clark Fork Coalition is trying to bring the public and landowners on board, said Kiely, who joined fishing guide John Havlik in a boat with a special guest on July 3.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer made a special one-day exemption to open the restricted Milltown section of the river so he and an entourage could be among the first in more than 120 years to legally float past the old dam site and the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot.

Kiely said the governor used a fly rod to land an 18-inch cutthroat caught from the seam between the two rivers.

That section of the river isn’t likely to be reopened to the public for at least two years.

After holiday fanfare, Kiely and Havlik drifted downstream out of the spotlight, hosting day trips for Clark Fork Coalition donors, whom he calls “the unsung heroes who have helped us go all the way to the Supreme Court to benefit this river.”

He’d also enlisted the help of 10 fly-fishing guides who volunteered to give up a day of income to pilot guests along the way.

“I want guides to be in the game, to talk about us and this project,” Kiely said. “We want their businesses to flourish, and restoring the upper river will help that happen.

“One guide told me he remembered the coalition fighting the development on Rock Creek and he wanted to show his thanks.”

The river’s transitions have been obvious to the end-to-end floaters:

The upper river showed the most neglect, with barren arsenic-laced sections of bottomland, four cables illegally strung across the river, mosses and algae on the river bottom indicating the river is too warm and nutrient-loaded, flood irrigation runoff fouling the water quality, and “bucolic” stretches where livestock trample the shoreline.

This is where the next phase of restoration will focus.

“We saw a herd of antelope grazing on some land that had already been capped, seeded and restored,” he said. And big brown trout are already there and ready to repopulate restored habitat.

The middle river is showing signs of recovery from the breaching of Milltown Dam. The first cutthroat trout – an indicator species for good water quality – was caught on Day 5.

The Day 6 group lingered briefly near the mouth of Rock Creek, where a national forest drainage managed for water quality merged with the Clark Fork and brightened its flows with clearer, cooler water.

It was there that Roy O’Connor of Missoula hooked a bull trout Pierce estimated at 28 inches long.

O’Connor’s wife, Susan, a major coalition donor, brought out wine from her raft for a toast to the fish and the restoration project.

The lower river gets new life blood from the confluence with the Bitterroot River downstream from Missoula. Impacts of the toxic mining history are further diluted from there downstream. Aquatic insects are more profuse and rainbow trout fishing is world-class all the way down to Thompson, Noxon and Cabinet Gorge reservoirs, where the Clark Fork’s three remaining dams are installed.

“We caught trout on nymphs; we caught trout on dries; we caught trout on streamers: I can definitely tell we’re on the lower river now,” Kiely reported by cell phone from the stretch between Huson and Alberton.

“This river is a global model,” he said. “There’s a lot of white-collar effort into this restoration, but it’s also the biggest blue-collar project in Missoula County. And there’s a green-collar aspect to it, too.”

The coalition has purchased a 2,300-acre cattle ranch in the upper Clark Fork to help develop and showcase river-friendly livestock raising, irrigation and farming techniques, he said.

“We just want to raise awareness of the economic and environmental benefits for a full-scale recovery from the headwaters down to Lake Pend Oreille,” he said. “The river connects us all.”

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