Montana Fly Fishing

This page provides an outline of the major big rivers of Montana. While no means a complete guide to Montana, it does provide a great starting point for a trip planner or just anyone interested in what Montana has to offer.

The Bighorn River

bighorn
Bighorn River

The Bighorn River, located in South-central Montana, is arguably one of the finest western trout rivers. Miles of cold water below the Afterbay Dam provide a productive trout fishery throughout the season harboring huge numbers (approximately 5000-7000 fish per mile!) of large trout. Browns to twenty plus inches are not uncommon and there is also a very healthy supply of large rainbow trout. There are two Special Regulations area’s along its path.

The most productive section of river starts at the Afterbay Dam in Fort Smith and runs approximately 46 miles to the town of Hardin. The water is cold throughout the season with the help of the tailwater dam in Fort Smith. The river is large averaging 150-200 feet wide with flows averaging 4000 cubic feet per second. Open hilly plains with scattered patches of trees make up the surroundings of this fabulous river. Gravel and grass islands are found throughout the river as well as sandstone cliffs which rise from its banks. These islands create excellent seams and diverse water for trout to hold.

Access to the Bighorn is available for both wade and float fishermen via Route 313 and secondary roads. From the dam in Fort Smith anglers can float fish down to numerous access points along the river. A few of the access points include Three Mile, Bighorn, Mallards Landing, and Two Leggins. These access points all support a boat put in and take out area. Other points along the river provide access where anglers can either float or wade fish from.

The most popular stretch of the Bighorn is from Fort Smith to the Bighorn access. This stretch is the upper end of the river which runs the coldest during hot summer months. Bighorn access to Hardin is also a very productive stretch of river that should not be over looked. There are miles of river in this area all of which are very productive throughout much of the season (season is open all year).

The trout in the Bighorn are healthy and strong very capable of bolting down river taking you into your backing. Finding holding water is best done by looking for soft seams along the banks, below islands, tails of pools, or in areas of broken currents. Nymph fishing, like on many western streams, is productive throughout the day. Dry fly fishing on the Bighorn is excellent also, especially on overcast days, mornings, or late afternoons and evenings. Streamers and Woolly Buggers take a good number and some of the biggest fish of every season.

Hatches on the Bighorn include Midges, Blue-winged Olives, Tricos, and Pale Morning Duns. There are also good numbers of caddis in tan, black, and ginger as well as stoneflies. The hatches are not very diverse but the ones that come off do so in prolific numbers. In fact, the Tricos can be so blinding that fishing larger “cluster” patterns can work well. There are so many flies on the water during this hatch that a larger pattern, which is tied like an “oversize” Griffith Gnat, can look l ike a group of Tricos stuck together. This can be a very productive pattern during the late summer months when fooling a fish into taking your tiny fly seems impossible with the amount of food on the water.

Fort Smith is a tiny quiet town with a nice surrounding. Quality restaurants, accommodations, shops, and service is readily available along the Bighorn river. It is a favorite destination for many anglers throughout the country and especially for the locals who fortunately have this tremendous fishery at their dispose everyday. If you’re planning a trip to fish the Bighorn, the nearest commercial airport to Fort Smith is in Billings which is approximately 55 miles west of Hardin.

Fly Fishing the Bighorn River: Hatches, Fly Patterns, Access, and GuidesGÇÖ Advice
  • Galletta, Steve (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 240 Pages - 07/15/2015 (Publication Date) - Headwater Books (Publisher)

The Beaverhead River

beaverhead river montana
Beaverhead River

The Beaverhead river, located in Southwestern Montana, is well known for its abundance of large trout. Brown trout average nearly 18 inches while the rainbows also weigh in at an impressive size. Twenty plus inch fish are not uncommon for the Beaverhead. It is a narrow brushy tailwater fishery not to be overlooked because of its small size. The water stays cool all season long in its upper reaches with the help of Clark Canyon Reservoir and its tailwater dam. The trout are enormous, beautiful, and “reel-screaming” strong.

The Beaverhead flows for over fifty miles before joining the Big Hole River to form the Jefferson River by Twin Bridges. There are a few Special Regulations on the river.

The upper portion of the Beaverhead from the reservoir to Barretts Diversion Dam (approximately 12 miles) is the most popular section of river. It is also the coldest portion of the river because it is closest to the cold outflow from Clark Canyon Dam. Large rainbows flourish up here along with an over abundance of big browns. The river is tight and wanders through a series of sharp curves making it semi-difficult to drift. Overhanging thick willows and cottenwoods make casting to the banks hard as well. Heavy tippets to get your flies out of the brush and keep your big trout out of the heavy weed bottom is the norm. in.

Wading the upper river in most areas is difficult because of the brushy steep banks and deep hard pushing flows. Floating is the easiest and most productive way to fish this section. Route 15 follows the upper river from Clark Canyon Dam past Barretts Diversion Dam to the town of Dillon. Route 15 turns north towards Melrose and the Big Hole River at the town of Dillon.

Barretts Diversion Dam takes a significant amount of flow away from the lower Beaverhead for irrigation purposes. From the diversion dam to Dillon the river tends to warm faster with the increased distance from the cold outflow at Clark Canyon Dam and the smaller amount of water flow although it does hold a good number of quality brown and some rainbow trout. Wade fishing the lower section of river is much easier and does attract more anglers who choose not to float.

Down river from Dillon the Beaverhead is not as productive, although it does hold a decent number of trout. The river below Dillon is followed by Route 41 all the way to Twin Bridges where it meets the Big Hole River.

Hatches on the Beaverhead include Blue-winged Olives, Pale Morning Duns, caddis, stoneflies, and craneflies. The stoneflies that hatch include large golden stones and small yellow sallies. Caddis can come in a variety of colors although tan seems to be the most predominant.

Dry fly fishing can be challenging sometimes and at other times seem “brainless”. Nymphs and streamers are also extremely effective on the river.

If you’re planning a trip to the Beaverhead or surrounding area, Bozeman and Butte offer the closest commercial flights. Dillon is the main town on the Beaverhead although surrounding towns serve access to the area. It is a beautiful part of the state with a lot of wildlife. Seeing moose and other animals is always a possibility. Fly fishing on the picturesque Beaverhead River is top notch that many anglers come back to experience year after year.

The Big Hole River

big hole river
Big Hole River

The Big Hole River, located in Southwestern Montana, is well known for its trophy size brown and rainbow trout. There is also a good population of cutthroat trout, brook trout, and grayling as well. The diversity of this river provides excellent angling for people of all skill levels bringing them to the Big Hole from across the country year after year to fish this spectacular piece of water. There a few Special Regulations sections throughout the river.

Starting upstream of the town of Wisdom, the Big Hole flows for over a hundred miles before meeting with the Beaverhead River near the town of Twin Bridges. The Wise River enters at the town of Wise River. Here the Big Hole is small and holds a good population of brook trout and grayling. The river flows northeast over a gravel bottom through grass pastures with scattered riffles and slow pools. This stretch is best for wade fishermen with a three to five weight rod which is ideal for this portion of the river.

Below the town of Wise River the Big Hole changes from a quiet meandering stream to a swift tumbling river with the influence of the Wise River. From the town of Wise river to the town of Divide, the Big Hole flows southeast and offers excellent fishing for rainbows and some brown trout. The river cascades through canyon walls past large boulders creating beautiful pockets and seams for trout to hold. Access to the river from Wisdom to Divide can be gained via Route 43. Parking along the road and taking a short hike down the bank will give access to anglers throughout this stretch.

At the town of Divide the Big Hole turns south for approximately twenty miles to the town of Glen. The tiny town of Melrose falls between Divide and Glen, and is one of the more popular towns along the river. From Divide to Glen, most people choose to float the river although there are several access points where anglers can park and wade.

The river below Divide is big and moves swiftly past boulders and fallen trees. Big browns on the lower river are found in good numbers. Fishing large nymphs and streamers can be extremely effective on these trout that feed heavily during the season to fatten up for the following winter. Downstream from Glen the river turns northeast and flows for approximately another ten miles before meeting up with the Beaverhead River. Fishing the lower section below Glen is also very productive although access is a little harder to find. The Burma Road follows much of this section from Glen to Route 41.

Water flows on the Big Hole can vary greatly and making future arrangements is best done by researching what times of year the flows are usually optimal. The salmon fly hatch usually occurs between late May and late June. This large stonefly hatch brings people from all over to fish for the large browns and rainbows that feed on these big morsels. Caddis are the mainstay for the rest of the dry fly season. Nymphs and streamers are the norm on the Big Hole during other periods of the year.

If you’re planning a trip to the Big Hole the nearest commercial airports are in Bozeman or Butte. Devide is approximately 30 miles from Butte and 90 miles from Bozeman. The Beaverhead, Jefferson, and several other rivers are nearby the Big Hole which give more fishing opportunities to the angler.

Located in Southwestern Montana, The Bitterroot is an excellent river consisting of diverse water and quality hatches. Cutthroat, brown, rainbow, and brook trout can all be found in its waters. The Bitterroot is approximately 75 miles long from the junction of the East and West Fork just below Conner to where it meets the Clark Fork near Missoula. Throughout this long stretch you will find riffles, deep pools, fallen trees, and other characteristics of a great trout fishery. There are a few Special Regulations area’s along its path.

Flowing North from Conner, the Bitterroot River passes the towns of Darby, Grantsdale, Hamilton, Victor, Fort Owen, Florence, Lolo, as well as a few others before reaching Clarks Fork. During its journey through a wide, gentle sloping valley, it flows past fir, cottonwood, and aspen trees as well as farms and ranches.

The upper portion of the Bitterroot, from Conner to Hamilton, has the fastest flowing stretch and offers excellent fishing with the dry fly, nymph, and streamer. The river tends to stay cooler throughout the year in this section because of the cold headwaters of the East and West Fork. As the river nears Hamilton, its flow begins to slow and the Bitterroot takes on the personality of a classic dry fly fishery.

The Bitterroot

bitterroot river montana
bitterroot River

From Hamilton, the Bitterroot flows for approximately 12 miles before reaching the town of Victor. This part of the river is also excellent throughout much of the season, fishing extremely well with dry flies, nymphs and streamers. Riffles and pools make up its character with an occasional fallen tree or bend to create an undercut bank. Islands and braids break up the river throughout, creating excellent holding water for trout. During years of drought, this stretch can become low and somewhat warm because of irrigation purposes. Check with a local shop for the best areas to fish.

Below Victor, the river flows for approximately 35 miles before it enters the Clarks Fork River. This stretch slows down in speed from the rest of the river and can be very productive when conditions allow.
Access to the river can be gained via Route 93 which follows the East Fork and main stem of the Bitterroot. County route 473 parallels the West Fork. The Bitterroots’ gentle currents make it possible and appealing for both wade and float fishermen to fish the river. There are several well marked access points along Route 93 for anglers to use.

The Bitterroot is well known as one of the finest dry fly fishing rivers in the state. The dry fly fishing season begins sometime in March, depending on the weather, and ends in late November. Spring is always blessed with high water that lasts for two to three weeks in late May and early June. This time of year is always good for the trout because of the abundance of food available when rocks are washed along and nymphs uprooted. Once this is over the river returns to its meandering nature and settles in for the summer fun.

The first major hatch is the Skwala (stonefly) in March. If the conditions are right the fish will key on the imitation pattern for a full 6 weeks. One pattern to use for the Skwala is a bullet head fly tied with a black egg sack and dark body. The underwing is dark brown or black and the overwing is tied in bullet head style with dark brown premo-deer hair. The fish seem to look for this hatch to begin their yearly feeding habits and with the size of this stonefly they can build bulk fast. The late fishing which continues into November includes patterns such as the October Caddis and Midges. The October Caddis are large and can be fished with an imitator that is size #8 or #10. The Midges on the other hand are from #20 – #24. In between the major hatches include Pale Morning Dun, Blue Winged Olive, Green Drake, Salmon Fly, Golden Stone and several varieties of Caddis. The mayflies are typically sizes 14 – 18 with the exception of the Green Drake which is size 10. The Salmon Flies should be fished with a size 6 or 8 and the Golden Stones are sizes 8 – 10.

The summer fishing is best described as a continual opportunity for dry fly action. With the abundance of mayfly hatches the expert as well as the novice fisherman can do well. If you are not capable of matching the hatch a well tied attractor pattern such as a stimulator will usually do the trick. There are opportunities for fishermen who prefer wading as well as those who prefer floating from a raft. Many access sites provide the wading fisherman ample stretches to spend a few hours or the entire day.

September and Labor Day mark an end to the heavy tourist season. With children going back to school and vacations over the river lulls to a slower pace. As October approaches the local Montana people begin to ready themselves for the winter. Many begin gathering wood that they will use to heat their homes during the next 6 months. Elk and Deer seasons begin later in the month and it is time to sight in that favorite rifle. After the third weekend in October you can count on having the river almost to yourself almost the entire day. The only local fishermen you will bump into are those like yourself who have chosen to spend their time fishing rather than hunting. Late fall fishing can be the golden opportunity that you have been waiting for.

The closest commercial airports are in Missoula or Butte. There are other rivers in the area to fish and also many recreational activities for the family. The area is very scenic and harbors abundant wildlife. Eagles, osprey, deer, elk, and bear are a few of the wonderful animals that traverse the beautiful country side found along the Bitterroot River.

The Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot River
The Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot River, located just outside Missoula in Western Montana, is well known for its outstanding diversity of water, beautiful scenery, and quality trout. It flows through charming riffles, fast runs, and deep dark pools while passing firs and willows along its route. Cattle ranches and farmland also exist along the river which makes for a serene float. Rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and the endangered bull trout are all found in the Blackfoot River. There are a few Special Regulations for the river.

Staring its journey in Helena National Forest, the Blackfoot turns and wanders as feeder creeks increase its volume. The water in the upper reaches are narrow and shallow for the most part and fishing is not at its best until the river flows past Scotty Brown Bridge which lies just downstream from the town of Ovando. There are a fair number of brown, brook, and cutthroat trout above the bridge.

Below Scotty Brown Bridge, the river begins to develop into the tremendous fishery it is well known for. Rainbows become predominant, with good numbers of brown, cutthroat, and bull trout. Access becomes much easier and floating becomes a great way to fish.

Averaging seventy five feet across; deep long pools, choppy riffles and fast runs characterize the river. Pine and willow lined banks as well as emerald colored water creates a wonderful setting. Floating the river is almost a tradition in the area. Its waters consist of great diversity which makes a float down the Blackfoot a great experience. Rapids, long gentle glides, boulders, and hard bends create both an easy and difficult float. Many anglers also choose to wade fish the river from one of the many access points found along its route.

The Blackfoot is a quality fishery all the way to where it meets the Clark Fork just below where I-90 crosses the river. Access to the Blackfoot can be found at one of the many bridge crossings, along side roads, and in the Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor. The corridor has many access points in which to float to and from, or simply wade fish from. Inside the corridor there is a road that extends from the Johnsrud Park Access upstream to the Missoula County line just downstream from Scotty Brown Bridge. This recreational area consists of many access points for anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Route 200 also parallels the river and provides access in some areas. I-90 Crosses the Blackfoot just upstream from where it enters the Clark Fork River.

Hatches can be excellent throughout the year. Stoneflies are very productive and important throughout the Spring and Summer. Stoneflies include Salmon Flies, Golden Stones, Little Yellow Sallies, as well as a couple others. Large fish over twenty inches come to net each year when the “big bugs” are on the water. Caddis are productive from Spring till mid Fall and include a variety of different species. Many mayflies also hatch throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall and include Blue-winged Olives, Pale Morning Duns, Western Green Drakes, Western March Browns, Callibaetis, Tricos, Mahogany Duns, and a few other less productive ones. The smaller dry flies fish best in the flat pools found along the river while the larger stonefly patterns can be thrown in the harder pushing water throughout the riffles and runs. Terrestrials, especially hoppers, are also very effective during late summer.

Streamers and nymphs are also very productive throughout the year. Bring a sink tip line if you plan to get your large streamers down. Nymph fishing is most effective using a floating line with a leader approximately twice as long as the depth of the water your fishing. Woolly buggers and generic nymphs are local favorites.

The Blackfoot is easily reached from Missoula or any of the towns in the area. The closest commercial airport is in Missoula and also one in Butte a short drive from the Blackfoot. If your planning a fishing trip the Blackfoot is a wonderful choice. The area also has other quality fisheries to create variety for your trip.

Clark Fork

clark fork river MT
Clark Fork

The Clark Fork River, located in Western Montana, is a beautiful fishery for rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and endangered bull trout. Although mining has had detrimental effects, this large river has recovered and remains a quality fishery with the help of the surrounding communities. Thirty years ago fish populations were almost non existent but are now over a thousand fish per mile in many areas. The trout average around 15 inches, but fish to twenty inches are fairly common with the occasional over that “trophy” mark. Check the Special Fishing Regulations before venturing to the river.

Starting at the confluence of Warm Springs Creek and Silver Bow Creek near Anaconda, the Clark Fork makes its way for approximately 275 miles northwest before entering Idaho and eventually feeding Pend Oreille Lake (Idaho’s largest lake).

The Lower Clark Fork near the Idaho border has more volume then any other Montana river. The river and surrounding land for many years has been a focus for several industries in the state. It is used for mining, irrigation, power generation, and of course fishing as well as other outdoor and industrial activities. With all of these activities taking place the river needs to be protected to ensure its health for the many years to come.

The upper Clark Fork from its source to Milltown Dam is comprised from a variety of different features. Narrow brushy stretches in the first miles of its journey, broad stretches of agricultural land with influential feeder creeks to beautiful rocky cliffs, deep long pools and white water as it nears Milltown Dam. The rivers history shows the fishing is usually best below where feeder creeks enter the river.

Feeder creeks like the Little Blackfoot, Rock Creek and the Blackfoot provide cool cleaner water to the river which in some areas depends upon it. Angling in this stretch downstream to Milltown Dam is best for brown trout with a good population of rainbows. The first few miles are tight and can be fished with a light rod. As you near the town of Bonner, where the Blackfoot River enters, you will need a larger rod as the river widens and volume increases. The river is paralleled by Route 90 all the way to St. Regis which is well downstream from Missoula. Side roads off of Route 90 will help find the access points.

Below Milltown Dam the river flows through the large city of Missoula on its way to the Idaho border. The best fishing in this stretch is found from the dam to Thompson Falls. Within this beautiful stretch of landscape you will find less pockets and “sweet” water then in the upper stretch of river. Don’t be fooled because there is a good number of trout to be found in this stretch although the makeup of the river may depict otherwise. This is big water here and finding feeding fish can at times be difficult without a boat.

The small amount of riffles, runs, and pockets makes reading the water more difficult. Quality rainbow trout are found in good numbers, however. Hiring a guide is a great choice although wade fishing is possible in much of this stretch. An area of heavy rapids is found below Alberto which can be dangerous for rafts and drift boats. From where the Flathead River feeds the Clark Fork just above the town of Paradise to Thompson falls the river is generally warmer and less productive. From St. Regis Route 130 then 200 parallel the river to the Idaho border.

Overall, fishing on the Clark Fork can be excellent. Dry fly fishing is usually exceptional from Spring to Fall. June through October is the peak for dry fly fishing. Salmon flies, Golden Stones, and Olive Stones make up the population of stoneflies. The most prolific mayfly hatches include Olives, Pale Morning Duns, Gray Drakes, Green Drakes, Mahogany Duns, and Tricos. Caddis are extremely important throughout the season along with terrestrials during the late summer and early fall. Streamers and nymphs are extremely productive and can produce at any time of year. Matukas, Woolly Buggers and Bitch Creeks are among some of the favorites.

The Clark Fork is a diverse river with great fishing opportunities. There are also many other first class fisheries in the area to create options and diversity. If you are coming to the Clark Fork River the nearest commercial airports are in Missoula and Butte. The Clark Fork is a beautiful river and can be rewarding for anglers of all skill levels.

Fly Fishing on The Lower Clark Fork River: Montana In September
  • Thompson, FG (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 74 Pages - 10/02/2023 (Publication Date) - SpecTHINK, LLC (Publisher)

Flathead River

flathead river mo
Flathead River

The Flathead River, located in Northwestern Montana, is a unique glacial river consisting of three different branches; the North, South, and Middle Forks. These forks combine to form the Main Flathead River. Originating from glacial run-off the rivers run extremely cold, especially the South and Middle Forks. Although the Flathead River system is not very prolific with mayfly hatches, it does have an excellent population of caddis and stoneflies. The smaller amount of available food for the trout offers much easier fishing. 20-30 fish days are very possible.

There are good runs of cutthroat trout from Flathead Lake as well as resident populations of wild rainbows and indigenous brook trout. Bull trout also inhabit these rivers and can be very large in size. The Bull trout are a protected species so be aware of the regulations put upon them.

The Main Flathead River is started after the confluence of the North and Middle Forks. Special Regulations apply. This large river has a better population of resident fish then the other branches which hold more migratory fish. This river can at times run a little off color but the fishing can be excellent. The fishing in this stretch is best for resident and migratory cutthroat as well as bull trout. Floating the river is the best way to access its waters although wade fishing is possible in spots.

Attractive dries, caddis, and stoneflies are the best choices for dry fly fishing. Nymphs and streamers will also work effectively. Route 2 and 35 will help you to access the river. Columbia Falls and Kalispell are two major towns in the area. The Flathead river eventually spills into Flathead Lake near Big Fork.

The North Fork of the Flathead originates in Canada and flows south along the western border of Glacier National Park. Special Regulations apply to this river. This medium size river is a beautifully clear piece of water most people would imagine as having huge populations of resident browns and rainbows. Contrary to this, migratory cutthroat, resident bull, and some wild rainbow trout exist here. The lack of insects gives the opportunity for anglers to have fairly “easy” fishing.

The fish are not very selective giving that the food supply is limited. The river is absolutely beautiful and one of the most scenic you will find. Much wildlife is also to be found along the river; bears, deer, and occasionally mountain lions as well as other wildlife comes the river. The river is rated with class 2 and 3 rapids and should be considered dangerous to the non experienced boatsman. Hiring a guide to drift you down this tremendous river is a great idea. Nearly 60 miles of water to float fish exists with several areas to put a boat in and take out. The most popular float is from Big Creek to Glacier Rim. Access to the river although limited from high banks and private property can be gained from County Road 210.

The Middle Fork originates in the Bob Marshall (Great Bear section) Wilderness and flows approximately sixty miles northwest eventually creating the southwest boundary of Glacier National Park. Special Regulations and Wilderness Regulations apply to this river. The Middle Fork is one of the most dangerous of the three forks. Its rapids are classified from a 3 to 5 in most areas. Choosing to float this river on your own without first experiencing it with a guide is an idea you should think twice about. Tight turns, crashing and tumbling white water, and dangerous chutes do exist. Although it may seem to much to bother with it is one of the most popular of the three forks for both fisherman and adventure seekers. The Middle Fork like the North Fork is very beautiful and runs clear with outstanding scenery.

Much wildlife shows itself along the river and presents great opportunities for quality photos and memories you will not forget. Fishing on the Middle Fork can be good for migratory cutthroat and some rainbow trout. The water on this river is extremely fast in most areas and fishing at times is outstanding with a high floating dry fly such as a large elk hair caddis or small stimulator. Attractive dries also work very well. Like the North Fork the fish have little time to react to your fly and strike vigorously at almost any well drifted pattern through the head of a fast riffle or run. Access to the upper river is difficult and is accomplished with a horse or strong pair of legs and a good amount of time. The lower river from where it first forms the southwest boundary of the park to its end at the junction of the North Fork can be easily accessed via Route 2.

The South Fork of the Flathead originates in the Bob Marshall Wilderness as does the Middle Fork. Special Regulations and Wilderness Regulations apply to this river. Accessing this river is the most difficult of all three. Access is gained by using Route 2 to enter the town of Hungry Horse from which you will find and cross Hungry Horse Dam. After Crossing the dam you will take South Fork Road along the west side of the reservoir. It is an approximate 50 mile drive along a dirt road from the dam to the mouth of the South Fork where it enters Hungry Horse Reservoir.

From there the only accessible water via car is from the reservoir to Spotted Bear Creek. After reaching the creek the only access is from hiking or horse back. Many people choose to do this for its sheer beauty and the wilderness adventure it provides. Hiring a guide or outfitter is a great way to access this river and fish its waters. It is well worth the little extra effort to fish its waters. Catching good numbers of trout is very possible. Fishing the upper section of the South Fork should only be done if you are ready for an adventurous trip. Cutthroat, bull, and some rainbow trout reside in the river. The bull trout are a protected species.

The lower Flathead, located below Flathead lake, is a warmer fishery known for holding some trout and pike. The fishing here is not very desirable for most anglers. Some people choose to thrown large deer hair flies to try and excite an awaiting pike. Trout anglers generally fish the upper Flathead or its forks. Power generation at the dam fluctuates the river drastically.

Overall, the Flathead River System is one that “everyone” should eventually see. It is composed of vast wilderness, abundant wildlife, charming rivers, and beautiful scenery. Many anglers come here for more then just the fishing. The adventure and outdoor potential is outstanding. The closest major airport is in Missoula which is about a two and a half hour drive from Kalispell. Kalispell and Columbia Falls also have commercial flights. If you plan on visiting Glacier National Park or you’re just looking for a great fishing adventure be sure to check out the Flathead River.

Gallatin River

gallatin river mt
Gallatin River

The Gallatin River, located in Southwestern Montana, is a beautiful western trout stream worthy of recognition. From its source in Yellowstone National Park, it flows for over 100 miles before reaching the Missouri River. During its journey the Gallatin passes through “breath taking” canyons and open meadows. The river is open all year with a Special Regulation section.

Rainbows, cutthroats, and browns all make up the population of trout in these waters. Yellowstone National Park gives birth to the Gallatin just inside the northwest boundary. The river is a small brushy stream met by Route 191 a few miles before leaving the park. As the river flows north along Route 191 it begins to gain volume, depth, and width as it nears Belgrade. At Belgrade the Gallatin picks up Route 90 and parallels it to its end at the Missouri river.

From where Route 191 meets up with the Gallatin to the town of Big Sky in Montana, the river is a narrow and shallow stream with the lack of much depth. This skinny section of river flows through a tight canyon which opens up as it nears Big Sky. The river has many feeder creeks especially in its headwaters, but it is the Taylor Fork that is most important.

At Belgrade the Taylor Fork brings muddy water to the Gallatin during runoff and rainy periods. If clear water is what you seek, the upper Gallatin above Taylor fork is better during wet periods.

Down to Big Sky the river holds a good number of trout which are a little smaller and also less selective then the fish in the bottom end of the river. Many access points dot this stretch of river along Route 191.

Below Big Sky the river flows for approximately twenty miles before reaching the end of the Gallatin Canyon. The canyon here is steep and rocky but access to this area is fairly easy.

The river gains double the width and volume as it plunges past large boulders. Swift riffles and runs broken up by long pools also characterize this stretch. This is a popular section of river for both fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts. Every year the salmon fly hatch is greeted in this area by many fishermen.
After leaving the canyon the Gallatin flows for several more miles before reaching the influx of the East Gallatin River. The river slows in pace and flows through agricultural land as it wanders through a widening valley. Here, the river braids and warms during the summer as brown trout become more prevalent. This section can be excellent all year round although some years water depletion for agricultural purposes can impact the system. Trophy browns are taken each year throughout this stretch of water on a variety of flies from grass hoppers to salmon flies to big woolly buggers. Watch water temperatures during hot summer days and try to fish early and late in this stretch.

Below where the East Gallatin enters, the river flows for a few more miles before reaching the Missouri River. This is the best section for people who wish to float fish. The river wanders through big slow pools, gentle riffles, and runs. Fish will migrate into here from the Missouri River for spawning purposes. There are also resident fish as well. In this area, wildlife is often spotted making this an enjoyable stretch for almost anyone. There are a few areas for access to the river throughout this stretch.

Hatches on the Gallatin include Olives, Pale Morning Duns, caddis, and stoneflies. The salmon fly hatch usually occurs between mid June and early July. It is often met with high runoff, but the large stonefly can offer excellent fishing if conditions allow. Terrestrials will fish well during the summer months and an attractive dry, streamer, and nymph will be very productive on the river throughout the season.

If you’re coming to the Gallatin River, the closest commercial airport is in Bozeman. The area has many other fishing opportunities as well as other outdoor activities and attractions. Many anglers come to the Gallatin each year to fish its beautiful and productive water.

Jefferson River

jefferson river montana
Jefferson River

Formed from the junction of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers, the Jefferson River is one that many people overlook as its reputation is not that of the many other Southwest Montana rivers. Fortunately for the anglers that fish its waters, it is generally not crowded and can offer quality fishing for mostly brown and some rainbow trout. Slow long pools interrupted by beautiful riffles characterize the river.

From the junction of the Big Hole and Beaverhead, the Jefferson flows for approximately twenty five miles before reaching the town of Cardwell. This stretch of river is characterized with long slow pools flowing through areas of agricultural farmland and ranches. Surrounding mountains spruce up the scenery which is already spectacular. Here, the Jefferson averages 200 feet wide in many spots and is generally the most popular section because of its population of trout. Both floating and wading this stretch is very possible and can be very productive.

Routes 41, 287, 55, and 2 parallel the river from Twin Bridges to Cardwell. Streamers and big buggy nymphs are excellent during much of the year due to the sparce hatches. Golden Stones, Callibaetis, Pale Morning Duns, and caddis will show themselves at times from spring through fall.

Just below Cardwell is the start of the Jefferson Canyon which extends approximately twelve miles to Sappington. The canyon’s water remains very much the same. The river is slow moving with gentle long pools and shallow riffles. Jefferson Canyon is made up of limestone walls and beautiful rock formations carved from thousands of years of erosion.

The fishing in the canyon can be especially good since the canyon walls hide the sun sooner then later. The rivers quiet slow nature keeps the trout from feeding on top until the sun is either hidden from overcast skies, low in the sky, or shaded by the walls of this beautiful canyon. The river is paralleled by Route 10 from Cardwell to Three Forks and provides access along the way.

Below Sappington the river flows for approximately fifteen miles before reaching Headwaters State Park by Three Forks. At Headwaters State Park the Jefferson meets the Gallatin and Madison Rivers to form the Missouri River. This lower stretch of river is once again very slow moving with beautiful surroundings. Cottonwoods are prolific here with lush or snow covered mountains (depending on time of year) encircling the view. Wildlife is often seen throughout the rivers valley in these lower reaches. The water tends to warm faster during the summer months in this stretch.

Hatches on the Jefferson are not usually prolific but at times can be outstanding. Your best dry fly bets for fishing the Jefferson include Golden Stones, Pale Morning Duns, Blue-Winged Olives, Callibaetis, Caddis, and a few other less prolific mayflies. Attractor patterns such as Humpies, Wulffs and Coachmans can also work well when the right conditions exist. Big nymphs and streamers can be very productive and often produce the largest fish. Woolly Buggers, Matukas, Muddler Minnows, Bitch Creeks and Girdle Bugs are a few local favorites.

Check the Special Regulations that apply to the Jefferson before venturing out. If your traveling to Montana and are interested in the Jefferson River, the nearest commercial airports are in Butte and Bozeman. The river is not the most popular in Southwestern Montana but is one worth trying. Runoff usually peaks in early June. Fishing is usually best on the Jefferson in the spring and fall or during the summer when the sun is low or overcast skies persist. Many other rivers are in the area to provide variety. The Jefferson is an excellent choice for the chance to catch a trophy brown trout.

Madison River

madison river
Madison River

The famous Madison River, located in Southwestern Montana, is known as the “fifty mile riffle”. It seems as if the water between Quake Lake and Ennis lake never changes. You will not find any slow pools, boulders, fallen trees, or tumbling runs. What you will find is a strait wide river characteristic of a long giant riffle. There are no boulders to break currents or changes in the gradient to slow it enough to create a pool.

Why is the Madison such a famous river if it does not have a diverse character? For one, the river flows at a steady pace (approximately 5 m.p.h.) making it easier for beginners to be successful. The trout do not get the chance to examine and decide if your fly is a “real” meal. The river is very accessible, easy to wade, and easily drifted just the same. It also has an excellent diverse population of large trout; rainbows, browns, and a few cutthroat and cutt-bows as well. There are Special Regulations along its path.

The headwaters of the Madison above Hebgen Lake consist of the Firehole and Gibbon which, in their own right, are excellent trout streams. They combine to form the Madison which eventually flows into Hebgen Lake. The upper stretch of the Madison is characteristic of slower dry fly pools catering to wade fishermen. It is easily waded and provides exceptional fishing throughout much of the season. It also has runs of spawning trout that make their annual journey each year from Hebgen Lake. The rainbows spawn in the spring while the browns spawn in the fall. These trout can reach weights of six pounds or more. in.

Hebgen Lake is also a very productive and famous piece of water consisting of large rainbows and browns. Many people fish the lake from boats or float tubes when conditions are right. Large woolly buggers are a productive fly in the lake. The Madison leaves Hebgen Lake and flows into Quake Lake which was created by an earthquake in 1959.

Below Quake Lake, the Madison makes its famous journey to Ennis Lake, approximately 50 miles to the north. This is the long strait journey that is considered the “50 mile riffle”. This is a world renowned stretch that runs cold throughout the year due to the water releases from the dam at Hebgen Lake. Large rainbow and brown trout are the main attraction here. The riverbed consists of gravel and small stones. It flows through an open environment of brush, hills, scattered trees and surrounding mountains.

Route 287 and other secondary roads provide several access points along the Madison all the way to the Town of Ennis and Ennis lake. Look for areas of softer windows and depressions where trout will hold. Remember that the river does not have deep slow pools, undercut banks, turns and runs, which are characteristic of most other rivers.

Below Ennis lake, the Madison makes another 30 mile journey until meeting with the Gallatin and Jefferson to form the Missouri. This stretch of river is similar to the section above Ennis Lake, except for the warmer water and raging conditions of the Bear Trap Canyon stretch which is located a few miles below Ennis Lake and is considered too dangerous to float for most boatsmen.

The river flattens out below Bear Trap and slows down before entering the town of Three Forks and its meeting with the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers. Large browns make up most of the trout population below Ennis Lake. Large nymphs drifted in the Bear Trap Canyon stretch can produce some trophies, just be careful and bring a lot of weight along.

Hatches on the Madison include Caddis, Salmon Flies(big stones), Yellow Sallies, and a few mayflies like the Blue-winged Olive. Hoppers are also important to have in late summer. Woolly Buggers, other streamers, and different sizes and styles of nymphs are also a staple throughout the season.

If you’re looking to plan a trip to the Madison the closest commercial airport is in Bozeman. Bozeman is a short drive from the Madison and is a good central hub for other rivers as well. Your opportunities in this part of the state are excellent with the numerous rivers in the area. Yellowstone National Park is also a short drive from Bozeman and definitely worth a visit.

Missouri River

missouri river montana
Missouri River

Nestled in Western Montana, the Missouri River is renowned for its exceptional insect hatches and spirited trout that put up quite a fight. With its diverse insect population and water reminiscent of a classic spring creek below Holter Dam, it stands as an unparalleled dry fly fishing destination, often regarded as one of Montana’s finest. This river boasts impressive widths, stretching up to 300 feet wide in certain stretches.

The Missouri River begins at the junction of the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison which are three outstanding rivers in their own right. This junction is rightfully named Three Forks. From this junction the river flows for approximately twenty miles before reaching Toston Dam. This stretch of the Missouri runs slow and warm during the summer months. It is not very popular with trout fishermen although there are some fish to be found.

Below Toston, the river flows for approximately twelve miles before reaching Canyon Ferry Lake. Gentle sloping hills and meadows surround the riverand this stretch of water is more desirable for trout fishermen. The trout fishing here is for reservoir run fish which are quality browns and rainbows. These fish can be found throughout this stretch at certain times of the year. Rainbows migrate up river in the spring while the browns migrate up in the fall. Rainbows will also follow the browns in the fall to eat their eggs. Some resident trout are also found throughout this twelve mile piece of water.

Below Canyon Ferry Lake the river flows for approximately one mile to Hauser Lake. This short stretch of river is noted for very large fish and also a lot of fishing pressure. Large streamers and nymphs usually work best in this area.

From Hauser Dam to Holter Lake the Missouri is once again known for its migrating trout. At the right time of year, you have the chance of catching a “lunker”. This is also a recreational area with many other outdoor activities available. We have finally made it! After passing three dams already, the next is the most significant by most standards. Below Holter Dam the river takes on its characteristics as a large “spring creek”. This tail-water stretch all the way to Cascade spans thirty four miles of cold water. Trout flourish in these waters and the abundant population of insects makes it a great dry fly fishery. These are resident trout unlike most of the fish in the other areas above Holter Lake and are known as “reel screaming” river fish. These fish will easily strip you into your backing especially on the light tippets needed to fool them.

The water from Holter dam to Cascade is very flat in most areas. Riffles and runs break up the large pools in some spots. An area called Half Breed Rapids can make drifting through very difficult for an inexperienced boater. It is an area that has quite a few boulders and fast water, making the stretch between the Prewett Recreation Area and the Pelican Point Recreation Area more for the experienced oarsman. We would discourage people from taking pontoons, float tubes or other small watercraft through this stretch. This section could, however, be considered treacherous during high water and people should be encouraged to check with the local fly shop for river conditions before attempting this stretch. Along this area from Holter Dam to Cascade are the towns of Wolf Creek, Craig and Hardy. The river flows northeast to Great falls and eventually east through Fort Peck Lake reaching North Dakota several hundred miles later. Access to the Missouri is gained via route 287, Interstate 15 and secondary roads. There are many access points along the river to either wade or float fish from. Contact a local shop for more details.

Hatches on the Missouri include a few different insects. Blue-winged Olives, Pale Morning Duns and Tricos make up much of the mayflies. Tan, black and October caddis make up much of the caddis hatches. Although there is not a diverse range of hatches the ones that do occur come off in very large numbers. The water at times can be covered with bugs making the fishing difficult but exciting. Changing currents also make getting a drag free drift very difficult. Look for feeding lanes, also called “scum lines”, to form where food is funneled to the trout.

If you’re coming to the Missouri River the closest airports with commercial flights is in either Helena or Great Falls. Helena will put you closer to some of the other fabled rivers to the south if variety is what your looking for. The Missouri River is one not to over look. Its diverse waters are among some of the finest in Montana.

Rock Creek

rock creek montana
Rock Creek

Born approximately 20 miles west-northwest of Anaconda in western Montana, Rock Creek is an anglers dream. Its water runs cold and most of the time clear even during the hot summer months making it a tremendous fishery for brown, rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout. There are also the large and endangered bull trout that reside in the river. On occasion one of these brutes will swallow your fly and bend your rod like no trout has ever before. If you catch a bull trout be sure to promptly release it since they are a protected species. In addition, it is an absolutely beautiful and also easy river to “read” making it a great place for a seasoned or beginning angler. Check Rock Creek Special Fishing Regulations for specific information.

Rock Creek’s headwaters are comprised of the East, Middle, Ross, and West Forks. Route 38 crosses the river where the forks all finally come together to form the main Rock Creek. From here Rock Creek flows for approximately 50 miles before spilling into the Clark Fork River near Clinton. It flows past fir and pine trees along with beautiful rock formations and steep cliffs and banks for much of its length. Boulders, logs, and sharp bends are a few of the great attributes that create holding water for the trout that reside here and also for the browns that migrate into the creek during the fall from the Clark Fork River to spawn.

With gentle riffles and pools to swift runs and pockets, Rock Creek has water to please almost every angler and trout. From its headwaters to where Hogback Creek empties in, it is made up mainly of soft flowing riffles and runs. Cutthroat trout are prolific here and account for the majority of the population. Hogback Creek to Henry’s Flat is where the river picks up pace and is characterized mostly by swift riffles and pockets. The holding water in this section is generally less abundant yet it is a wonderful stretch of river to fish (especially if you prefer nymph fishing). This section has a fair population of all species of trout although rainbows seem to account for the majority. From Henry’s Flat to its end at the Clark Fork River, Rock Creek is characterized by swift riffles, deep runs and classic pools. Brown trout are prolific here and there is an abundance of larger fish.

Access to Rock Creek can be found in many places along its path. Rock Creek Road follows the creek from Route 32 near its headwaters to Route 90 where it ends at the Clark Fork River. Wading is generally easy aside from the slippery rocks that line the bottom of the river. Boats are only allowed on the river from December 1st until June 30th. From July 1st until November 30th only wade fishing is allowed. Hiring a guide during the boating or wade fishing period is a great way to learn this tremendous fishery and increase your odds.

Hatches on Rock Creek include a fair variety of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis. Mayflies include Blue-winged Olive (baetis), Pale Morning Duns, Green Drakes, some Brown Drakes and Gray Drakes. The two most important stonefly hatches on the river are the famed Salmon Fly hatch and the Golden Stone hatch. These flies are sure to bring some of the largest fish of the season to the surface. The Salmon Fly hatch usually occurs during the middle of runoff which usually runs from early May to late June. Caddis are made up of variety of sizes and colors. Tan and gray are two excellent colors for caddis ranging in size from 12-18. In the fall orange sedge hit the water and at times are an effective fly. Midges and terrestrials fill the gaps when the other insects are not on the water.

Rock Creek is a tremendous fishery often overlooked by many anglers. It has a diversity of water and a great population of trout. Dry fly, nymph, and streamer fishing are all productive methods on this scenic river. If you’re going to be in western Montana or planning a unique fishing trip somewhere, consider Rock Creek. You’ll be glad you did!

How To Books

Fly Fishing Montana
  • Holt, John (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages - 04/01/2015 (Publication Date) - Lyons Press (Publisher)
Montana's Best Fly Fishing: Flies, Access, and Guide's Advice for the State's Premier Rivers
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 296 Pages - 08/16/2010 (Publication Date) - Stackpole / Headwater (Publisher)
Fly Fishing Montana: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters (No Nonsense Fly Fishing Guidebooks)
  • Grossenbacher, Brian (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 160 Pages - 08/01/2007 (Publication Date) - No Nonsense Fly Fishing Guidebooks (Publisher)
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Flyfisher's Guide to Montana (Flyfisher's Guide to)
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Chuck Robbins (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 475 Pages - 04/02/2013 (Publication Date) - Wilderness Adventures Press (Publisher)

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