When it comes to trout fishing, there really is no place like Montana. Home to some of the most famous rivers in the world, the fly fishing options in the state are endless. With everything from gin clear high mountain lakes, to tight quartered technical tributaries, Montana offers everything one could want as a trout fisherman. So follow along and see exactly what it is that makes big sky country so darn special.
Rivers to Fish in Montana
While Montana is home to several world-renowned trout rivers, there are five rivers in particular that we feel truly encompass Montana trout fishing. The first of the five is the Bitterroot River (pictured above). Nestled just outside of Missoula, Montana, this blue-ribbon trout river flows for 84-miles through the Bitterroot Valley and contains some of the most incredible scenery that MT has to offer. The Root is home to rainbows, browns, brookies, bulls, and last but certainly not least, native westslope cutthroat. While the fishing on the Root is second to none, the views and wildlife are no exception. The Bitterroot Valley inhabits a healthy population of bald eagles, mule dear, and the occasional bugling elk.
Next, we have the Blackfoot River. As one of the most storied rivers in all of Montana, the Blackfoot is the proud birthplace of Norman Mcleans, A River Runs Through it. Although the movie itself was actually shot on the Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Boulder Rivers, Mclean wanted both the book and film to be set just outside of Missoula, and for good reason. This river is teeming with mountain views, Ponderosa pines, and a healthy population of trout. The Blackfoot provides anglers with a very diverse fishing experience. With everything from deep, slow-moving pools to shallow, choppy riffles, many anglers find themselves fishing dries, nymphs, and streamers all within the same day!
When it comes to targeting big, predatory fish, the Missouri River is a must. Boasting an average fish length of 17 inches, you won’t want to leave home without the strong stuff. We highly recommend having a 6-7 weight rod in the boat….let’s just say things can get serious real quick. Flowing for over 2,500 miles, the Mo is the longest river in the United States! While many anglers prefer to fish from a drift boat, there are numerous public access sites for wade fishermen. We highly recommend parking at Sterling Ranch near Craig, MT for ease of access and practical wading. Rental boats are also a great option for out of town anglers looking to cover water quickly.
The Madison River is one of the most revered bodies of water in all of Montana. This 183-mile tributary forms at the heart of Yellowstone National Park and flows several hundred miles north until it eventually merges with the Missouri. The Madison typically fishes best during early summer and all through the fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get on ’em any time of the year! However, during the mid-summer months the park is very quick to close fishing due to higher than normal water temps, so plan accordingly. When wading the Madison, it is crucial to do so cautiously. There are several stretches that appear to be shallow but are much deeper than expected. The river is lined with lush, tall grassy banks which make for excellent hopper fishing when the weather allows. Be sure to check the Yellowstone fishing regulations before planning your trip to the Madison!
South Fork of the Flathead River
Finally, we have the south fork of the Flathead River. Flowing for nearly 98-miles, this river serves as the second-largest tributary of the Flathead River and is acclaimed as one of the most pristine rivers in the state of Montana. The river originates in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and flows north until met by Hungry Horse Reservoir. The Bob is referred to as one of the most remote areas in the lower 48, and we intend to keep it that way. The south fork of the Flathead is home to genetically pure, westslope cutthroat trout. The same ones discovered by Lewis and Clark in the 1800s. Wading access is readily available on the south fork, and is preferred by many that are camping on foot. However, for boat access, anglers typically book trips with local outfitters in which they pack in on horses and float/fish their way out. When visiting the Bob it is crucial to plan ahead. Forgetting the necessities can quite literally be the difference between life and death, so come prepared.
Creeks and Streams to Fish in Montana
While Montana certainly has its fair share of trout rivers, their are still plenty of small water options where productive fishing can be had. Compared to larger rivers, the trout inhabiting smaller streams tend to be smaller in size but are often caught in greater numbers due to their opportunistic feeding habits. Smaller streams are typically sparse with aquatic insects, which make the trout highly alert when it comes to a meal. Below are a couple of small stream options worthy of checking out this fall!
Located deep within the Lolo National Forest, Rock Creek serves as an excellent option for anglers looking to spend their day picking pockets. Rock Creek is a tributary of the Clark Fork River, and flows for 52 miles between the Sapphire and John Long Mountains. Despite its lack in size, Rock Creek holds a whopping 2,000 fish per mile and is half the size of many larger rivers in Montana! This creek has got diversity written all over it. Its waters support a healthy population of brown, brook, rainbow, cutbow, cutthroat, bull trout, and of course whitefish!
Paradise Valley is home to some of the world’s most beautiful spring creeks. Spring creeks are streams that receive a constant flow of water from an underground aquifer that supplies cold water year-round. While there are several hidden gems tucked away in the valley, Depuy Creek has been a personal favorite of Montana anglers for years in the past. While Depuy Creek is considered a small stream, it’s limestone influence produces a rich population of aquatic insects, causing trout to reach abnormally large sizes for a small/medium-sized fishery.
For anglers in search of a more challenging stream, we highly recommend Nelson Creek. Not only is Nelson’s the smallest spring creek in the paradise valley, but it is also the most challenging. The creek predominantly consists of crystal clear flats, presenting a host of challenges when attempting to sneak up on active fish. While long leaders and light tippets are a must on this creek, they only make the fight more interesting when a fish takes your fly!
Montana High Alpine Lakes
For the adventurous angler, high alpine lakes are a golden opportunity to escape the crowds and target some truly undisturbed fish. While alpine lakes often require lengthy hikes into the backcountry, it is because of these treks that many opt for easier fishing options. Stillwater fishing can be very tough, but can also be some of the most rewarding and exciting fishing out of the entire year. Whether you’re fishing dries, streamers, or nymphs, seeing a fish eat in crystal clear water is an experience that never gets old. High alpine fishing is all about preparation. Often times it can take the better part of a day just to hike to the lake, so be sure to bring the necessities. There are various ways to fish alpine lakes, with sight fishing typically being the most rewarding. Stalking the banks for cruising fish is a great way to keep the fishing fun and unpredictable. However, stay far off the bank as not to cast a shadow, and spook fish that are on the move. Click here to find some alpine lakes of your own!
Montana Fishing Guides and Outfitters
When visiting Montana, we highly recommend hiring an experienced guide to show you around. While Montana offers plenty of great fishing options, booking a trip with a guide makes for a relaxed and stress-free fishing experience (from the client’s perspective). Below are a couple of awesome outfitters that we highly recommend booking with
1. Missoula River Lodge
On our recent trip to Missoula, we had the pleasure of booking a day-long float with our friends over at Missoula River Lodge. Our guide for the day was Matt Breuer, an Ohio native whose guided in Alaska, Russia, and Argentina! It was a pleasure sharing the boat with Matt for the day. His knowledge of the river was first class, and his sense of humor was even better! We managed to make a pretty decent day out of some less than ideal conditions, proving just how great of a guide Matt really is! We highly recommend booking with Missoula River Lodge next time you’re in the area!
2. Headhunters Fly Shop
When it comes to five star guiding, no one does it like the folks at Headhunters. Based out of Craig, MT, The guides over at Headhunters Fly Shop specialize in floating the Missouri River. Not only is the Missouri home to some seriously large trout, but it also produces some incredible hatches. Click here to book a float with the folks over at Headhunters!
3. Montana Angler
While Montana Angler offers a wide variety of day trips, their Bob Marshall 7 Day Trip is a must. The first two days of the trip typically consist of hiking into the backcountry on horseback. However, the later days are what are considered “float days”, in which you float down the river targeting aggressive westslope cutthroat on dries, or big buck-nasty bull trout on streamers. As if the fishing isn’t enough, your guides will have dinner prepared at the end of each day, ensuring your fishing stories are never told on an empty stomach. Click here to learn more about Montana Angler’s Bob Marshall 7 Day Trip!
4. Bozeman Fly: Outfitters and Guides
Bozeman Fly is a guiding service that prides itself on professionalism, personalization, and experience. Whether you’re a newbie exploring fly fishing for the first time or an experienced angler looking to refine your skills, the folks over at Bozeman Fly have got you covered every step of the way. Bozeman Fly guides specialize in guiding on the Yellowstone and Missouri headwaters. These include the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson rivers. Bozeman Fly places a special emphasis on putting the client first, a quality that makes anyones experience that much better. Click here to book your next trip with Bozeman Fly!
5. Montana Fishing Outfitters
The last outfitter on our list is Montana Fishing Outfitters. When it comes to versatility, these guys have it down. They currently have a team of 19 different guides who grew up fishing some pretty unique waters. It’s safe to say that Montana Fishing Outfitters has a guide for everyone. Whether you’re a streamer junkie looking to rip into some big boys, or a dry fly purist looking for some surface action, the folks over at Montana Fishing Outfitters will help you plan a trip of a lifetime!
Flies to Fish Montana
When exploring new water, having a wide variety of flies in your box is crucial. There’s nothing worse than planning your big Montana trip only to find yourself surrounded by fish and no flies to catch them. However, fear not, below we’ve included a fly guide for each time of the year to ensure you don’t leave home without the necessities.
- Streamers: Sparkle Minnow, Mini-Dungeon, JJ Special, Smoke N Mirrors
- Dry Flies: Mohagany Duns, BWO, Trico, October Caddis
- Nymphs: Blowtorch, Zebra Midge, Pat’s Rubber Legs, Lively Legz Double Trouble.
- Streamers: White Circus Peanut, Olive Conehead Zuddler, Bangerhead Sculpin, Peanut Envy
- Dry Flies: Midges.
- Nymphs: Zebra Midge, Pink Scud, Lightning Bug.
- Streamers: Yellow Mini-Dungeon, Olive and White Barely Legal, Black Mongrel Meat.
- Dry Flies: Griffith’s Gnat, Skwala, BWO, March Brown
- Nymphs: Pheasant Tail, Zebra Midge, Sow Bug
Montana Fishing Regulations
While few things compare to Montana fly fishing, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement that comes with it. It is crucial to always be aware of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to fishing MT waters. Linked below is a guide to the seasons and regulations to follow when visiting Montana. It is imperative to read through these guidelines before booking your trip. Click here to view the seasons/regulations for fishing in Montana
Between the vast mountain peaks and the crystal clear creeks, Montana truly is an outdoorsman’s paradise. Whether you’re planning an upcoming fishing trip with the guys or taking a vacation with the family, Montana has something for everyone!
Article by Flylords content team member, Owen Rossi. Head over to @Nativerelease on Instagram to see more of his work!