Montana is a fly fisherman’s dream. It has a huge number of rivers and lakes full of hungry trout that are surrounded by some incredible scenery and wildlife. Montana is home to the Rocky Mountains, Yellow Stone National park and a whole host of other national forests. It’s been a famous fly fishing destination for a while and got it’s peak when it was featured in the film A River Runs Through It. Today it’s very popular, well protected and if you’re into fly fishing, a place you have got to spend some time. Here is a guide to the best fly fishing in Montana.
The Missouri River
The Missouri River is the longest river in North America and is where a lot of the best trout rivers in Montana eventually end up. It is certainly one of the top rivers to fish if you’re into dry fly fishing and sight-fishing for big trout.
The Missouri begins at Three Forks where three of the most famous rivers in Montana, the Madison, the Jefferson and the Gallatin join to form the Missouri. This happens about a half-hour drive west of Bozeman and the stretch from Three Forks to the Canyon Ferry Reservoir outside of Helena is known for trophy trout fishing, especially in October when big brown trout head up the river from the lake.
For some of the best dry fly fishing, head to the stretch below Holter Dam. This area gets amazing hatches and is beautiful dry fly water. There are a lot of access points in this section making it easy to get down to the river. There’s also a campground below the dam which is a lovely place to stay that also has a boat ramp to launch your drift boat from if you have one.
If you really want to try and catch a monster, try fishing at night with a mouse pattern to lure out huge brown and rainbow trout.
The Yellowstone River begins in Yellowstone National Park and flows 692 miles until it joins the Missouri in North Dakota. It is the longest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States and a world-class blue-ribbon trout river holding rainbows, browns and cutthroat trout. It has some great hatches and provides excellent dry fly fishing, it’s a dreamy place to fish. The best fishing is found upstream from Livingston and here are some top sections for you to check out.
If you’re looking to wade fish and hunt down trophy cutthroats then the section between Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone inside the park is a great place to start. The river meanders through stunning scenery and holds amazing waters that big cutthroats seem to thrive in. It’s a bit harder to access compared to the sections outside the park but well worth the effort.
The section from where the river leaves Yellowstone National Park and flows through Paradise Valley to Livingston has geat access. The river gets larger here and is best fished by floating downstream on a drift boat. There’s a high density of browns, rainbows, and cutthroats in this section and the numbers slowly taper off once you go past Livingston. Although you can find some big trout and odd pockets of fish further down. This section can also be wade fished but you may struggle to cover the ground and get the distance on your casts.
The Madison starts inside Yellowstone National Park where the Gibbon and Firehole meet. It flows 183 miles from the thermal waters of Yellowstone through Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake outside the park. The Madison has a very diverse range of water and is one of the most beautiful rivers in Montana to fish. Many parts hold more than a thousand trout per mile which makes the river one of the best in Montana. The sections below Hegben Lake and Quake Lake are some of the most picturesque and productive pockets to fish.
There is excellent wade fishing found at the 3$ bridge but it is always crowded. Do not let this deter you though, there are big browns and rainbows that call the section home and will keep to engaged and busy for days. In the summers, there are some fantastic evening caddis and mayfly spinner hatches that are well worth fishing into dusk for,
Down from the $3 Bridge to Ennis Lake, access to the Madison is easy and the sections are great for float fishing but it does get busy and you will not have the river to yourself. If you’re more of an adventurous angler, it’s worth the hike into the stretch in Beartrap Canyon. Access is tricky, but the fishing is good and you’ll most likely have the place to yourself. This section is home to a lot of crawfish, so remember to bring some good imitations to trick the bigger fish that live there.
The Gallatin is one of the shorter rivers in Montana and is one of the most popular for wade fishing. It’s the right size and float-fishing is prohibited which allows wade fishermen to go about their business undisturbed. It’s fast-flowing with a high gradient and remains very cold throughout the year. It’s a great option when the days are very hot and other rivers may be less productive.
The river begins inside Yellowstone National park and the upper section inside the park is well worth fishing but the best fishing is found further downstream, particularly from Big Sky down to the canyon. There is a lot of easy road access in the National Forest and it’s a great river for unguided fly fishing. The best time to fish is early to mid-July until mid-September and you’ll find a lot of brown and rainbow trout plus some cutthroats and grayling. The Gallatin River is a top dry fly stream and standard attractors and moth patterns work very well.
The Bighorn River actually starts as the Wind River in Wyoming and flows out into Montana at Devils Canyon and into Yellowtail Dam on the Crown Reservation just near Billings. The Bighorn is one of Montana’s world-famous trout rivers the best way to fish it is by boat. It’s a large river with a big flow and is not really suited to wade fishing unless you are there when river levels are low in early spring and late summer.
Fishing the Bighorn is a trek as it is a little isolated from other famous trout streams. If you plan on going, it’s best to plan a 3-day trip or more to get the most out of it. The river has world-class fly fishing for browns and rainbows, and there are a lot of fish in the river. If numbers are your game, it’s a great choice and it also has some big fish too.
The best hatches happen in spring and late summer with amazing caddis and mayfly hatches plus some stoneflies.
The Smith River is a blue-ribbon trout fishery and has been named as one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers. Due to this, access is limited and there are restrictions on the number of float trips allowed per year. To be able to float the river you have to submit your name and hope you get one of the few permits. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to do a multi-day float trip through arguably some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery in Montana. If you haven’t got a permit, you can try and book a trip with a guide who does. Don’t be dismayed if you’re planning on going and aren’t prepared, you can get on the river if you’re willing to try.
The fishing is excellent and the majority of fish are rainbow and brown trout, although you can find some brook trout in the upper reaches. The best way to target big browns is by fishing large streamers and if you can time your trip with the salmon fly hatch, you’ll likely experience some of the best fishing it has to offer.
Yellowstone National Park
Only a tiny part of Yellowstone is actually in Montana and as a fly fisherman, you have got to go and fish inside it. The park has so many fishing options, you wouldn’t run out of new waters to try if you fished there every day for the rest of your life.
Fishing in the park takes you even further into the wild. It’s not just a fishing trip, it’s a wildlife and geothermal safari at the same time. Yellowstone is home to brown, rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout as well as grayline and mountain whitefish. It’s some of the wildest fishing in the U.S, casting a fly in a crystal blue spring creek with the occasional bison, bear, moose or elk walking past is quite a thrill.
One of the best parts of the park is the northeast section which holds a range of different rivers. A short drive from Cooke City will take you into the Lamar Valley and give you access to the Lamar River, Soda Butte, and Slough Creek. These rivers are full of cutthroats and some large brown trout that will happily take a dry fly.
Fall fishing on the stretch of the Madison inside the park is awesome, especially for large fish. The big lake trout head upriver in late summer to spawn and the best fishing is in late October. It will be cold so come wrapped up warm for some icy conditions.
There is also the Yellowstone River inside the park and Yellowstone Lake.