Fly fishing in Montana tops many a fly fisher’s bucket list. And we can’t blame them. We are lucky enough to live in a state that boasts the best trout fishing in the United States and one could argue the Planet. From the mighty Clark Fork and Blackfoot and other Missoula area rivers to the Yellowstone and Gallatin, we’ve gathered our 18 places to fly fish in Montana in 2018. These are by no means in order of importance, but they are places you want to make sure to fish at least once in your lifetime, if not more!
If you like throwing dry flies to pods of rising fish then this is the river for you. Depending on the time of the year and the hatches you’ll have dry fly fishing all day long. Whether it’s PMD’s in June/July, Hoppers in August or our favorite Mahoganies in the fall there will be fish rising. In fact you can have pods of 30 or more fish rising in a back eddy! This is a “must fish” river for all you dry fly fanatics like us to fly fish in Montana.
Made famous by Norman Maclean in his book “A River Runs Through It,” the Big Blackfoot is a magical place full of native Cutthroat trout, rainbows, and browns. This is a textbook, boulder-strewn river with a bit of whitewater mixed in. Trout thrive in its green-blue water and love eating attractor dry flies. If you want a lazy day throwing attractor dries and willing fish then you want to make sure to fish this river. The beauty and majesty of this river along with it’s bountiful trout make it top place to fly fish in Montana!
The Bitterroot has some of the best spring fishing in Montana. The Skwala Stonefly, a size 8-12 dark olive stonefly, crawls up on the rocks and hatches in late March and early April. It’s the time of year that some of the biggest trout in the Bitterroot are willing to come out and gobble up a big foam dry fly, and catching fish on a dry fly in the spring will cure any cabin fever you might have from a long, cold winter. However, this isn’t just a spring fishery because major stonefly, mayfly and caddis hatches happen all summer and fall as well.
If a perfect trout stream were to exist, it has to be Rock Creek. This tributary to the Clark Fork has everything a fish could want – riffles, runs, pools, cutbanks, boulders, and strainers. This all makes for a smaller, by Montana standards, river that is full of browns, rainbows and cutthroat. It’s well known for one of the best Salmonfly hatches in all of Montana in late May and early June. But its yearlong fishing is just as wonderful as trout are always willing to eat a well presented dry fly, nymph or streamer.
The Missouri, a.k.a. the MO if you’re a local, is basically a giant spring creek with upwards of 5000-6000 trout per mile below Holter Dam, near the towns of Craig and Wolf Creek, MT. If you like fishing small dries or nymphs to big trout then this is the place for you. It fishes all year long due to the fact that it’s a tailwater, meaning that you will find a few fish to be caught, even in the winter! Although the Missouri can get busy, it’s well worth the trouble as there are plenty of fish to be caught.
With its close proximity to Bozeman, MT, this is a great river to explore when visiting. From fishing pocket water and riffles to it’s lower end braids and undercut banks, this river has it all. The cookie-cutter rainbows and browns make for a great day of catching 13-16 inch fish on dries and nymphs alike.
The Madison is one of the most famous rivers in Montana as the fishing and the scenery is amazing. The Upper Maddison, above Ennis, MT, is known as a giant riffle. The river is shallow and fast-moving for most of the way. Fishing behind boulders, in mid-river buckets, and undercut banks is the way to go. The Madison is best known for its Salmonfly hatch in late June, but there is good dry fly fishing through the summer and fall.
The Beaverhead is basically an irrigation ditch with big browns and rainbows living in its waters near Dillon, MT. It’s a typical tailwater with lots of fish being caught on smaller dries and nymphs. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can only use small flies here. The streamer fishing in August when they are letting a lot of water out of the dam can be downright amazing. Put on a white streamer, hit the banks and hang on!
The Big Hole is a freestone river in Southwest Montana near the town of Dillon, MT. From its headwaters south of Jackson, MT to its confluence with the Beaverhead River it snakes its way through amazing country. It is best known for it’s Salmonfly Hatch in June when it gets most of it’s fishing pressure, but it really shines before and after the “big” hatch. Springtime Skwala fishing, as well as fall Mahoganies, BWO’s and streamer fishing make this a “must fish” Montana fly fishing river.
The Smith is known for it’s amazing scenery, limestone canyon walls, and a wilderness feel. The only way to float-camp this highly sought-after 60 miles is to draw a permit through a lottery system. Although the Smith is not known for it’s trophy potential, the brown and rainbow trout fishing in the spring and early summer is fantastic. All major hatches happen here, but it’s best fished with nymphs and streamers. The Smith River is in danger from a potential gold mine at it’s headwaters that will threaten it’s entire ecosystem.
The Yellowstone is Montana’s biggest un-dammed river, making it a cutthroat, rainbow and big brown paradise. From fishing the headwaters in Yellowstone National Park to the big waters near Big Timber this is should be a “must” on every fly fisher’s bucket list. The trout are willing dry fly eaters with hatches like Salmonflies, PMD’s, BWO’s, Caddis as well as terrestrials like Hopper, Ants and Beetles. In its lower trout water near Big Timber, you have a chance at catching some of the biggest browns in the state on big streamers.
12. Bighorn River
The Bighorn near Fort Smith, MT is one of the states most famous tailwater rivers. Here you have a chance at catching lots of browns and rainbows, everywhere from 14-18 inches with bigger fish being caught often. The fish here love small tailwater flies like scuds, sow bugs and small mayfly patterns. There are massive hatches of small Tricos and BWO’s depending on the time of year that make the fish rise with consistency.
Although the Jefferson isn’t as well known as its headwater rivers like the Big Hole and Beaverhead, it needs to be on this list. The Jefferson’s past isn’t stellar, due to dewatering in the summers for irrigation. Even though it isn’t your ideal trout habitat, the trout seem to come out of nowhere in the spring and fall with some great drake and BWO hatches as well as some really big fish being caught on streamers if you’re willing to throw the big fish for that “one” fish.
The Ruby River below Ruby Dam is very similar to it’s brother the Beaverhead. It’s small, intimate, and loaded with fish. Almost its entire length flows through ranch lands, which makes it a very productive Grasshopper river. Brown trout are the dominant species, with a good number of rainbows mixed in. This is a great caddis, PMD, and Terrestrial stream. Access is somewhat limited, floating is basically out of the question, but it’s a wade fishermen’s paradise. The Ruby is often overlooked with the Madison, Big Hole, and Beaverhead rivers all less than an hour away.
15 – 18. Nunya
There are a lot of rivers and streams in Montana that no one talks about and no amount of money or beer will get it out of those who hold those places close to their hearts. Our advice is to get a map and find a blue line. If it’s in the western half of the state, there is most likely a trout in it. So, get out and explore. You might find a stream or river with big fish that not many people know about. You won’t tell a soul and it will be just for you and your memories. If people ask where you fished in Montana you’ll just say Nunya, Nunya business!