Montana is renowned for its scenic natural terrain and picturesque streams, rivers, and lakes. In simple terms, the landscape of the ‘Treasure State’ makes for some top-notch fly fishing–one of the most popular outdoor attractions of the entire region.
Those who live in Montana already know, and visiting anglers are usually well-pleased to discover they are surrounded by some of the best fly fishing waters in the country, if not the world.
It’s a fact that some of the highest numbers of fish per square mile of water exist in this part of the world. The rivers and streams are fairly brimming with wild trout, and one of the few issues many anglers are likely to have is making the decision of where to pitch their tackle.
Even locals will have different answers as finding the best fly fishing in Montana is a huge task in itself given the options.
Many of the famous rivers across the region are indeed esteemed trout fishing hot spots, as are some of the lesser-known ones—and there are plenty of those. It can certainly be a challenge knowing where to begin if you don’t know the area that well, so this is where local outfitters may come in handy if necessary.
With literally dozens of famous fly fisheries and hundreds of smaller streams and creeks to choose from, this list is just a taste of what’s on offer. And a spot of prior planning can go a long way towards best utilizing any fly fishing time in Montana.
To give some idea of what exactly you may expect to find in the state fly fishing-wise, here are a few of the main river options that should undoubtedly feature in any attempt at finding the best fly fishing in Montana.
Guide to Fly Fishing in Montana
Fishing Seasons in Montana
The first thing that you need to understand before heading to Montana to fish, is the different seasons for fishing. Sure, Montana has the normal, “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall”, but there’s much more to it than that.
Winter – Winter runs from mid-November to mid-to-late March. Locals fish in the winter, and with quiet streams, the patient angler can expect to have a successful fishing day even with cold temps and snow on the ground. You’ll need to bundle up and watch the weather. Montana weather can change in an instant, so be prepared.
Spring – Spring runs from late March or early April to mid-May. Fishing in the spring is best in the lower elevation streams and rivers as they start to warm. Higher-elevation streams are still cold and unproductive.
Run-Off – This season starts around mid-May and extends through June, and sometimes even into early July, depending on the snowpack. Run-off season is a great time to fish tailwaters. Avoid the big rivers because the water will be high and dirty.
Summer – The summer season runs from July through September, and it’s often considered the best season to go fishing in Montana. The big rivers have cleared, and high mountain and backcountry streams and lakes have warmed enough to be productive.
Fall – For locals, the fall is the ideal time to fish in Montana. It’s a short season, running just eight weeks from September through October. Tourists have gone home, which means you’ll enjoy a quiet fishing experience, and the opportunity to catch trophy-size trout.
Best Time to Catch the Most Fish in Montana
If your goal is to catch a lot of fish, spring into early summer is probably your best time to enjoy fishing in Montana. During this time there are more insects for fish to feed on, and you’ll be able to have good catch days on any lake, river, or stream in the state.
Keep in mind, however, this is when all the other anglers will be out.
If you’re looking for a good catch day without the crowds, wait until later in July, and head into the backcountry for high-mountain fishing or fishing on private lands.
You will need to be willing to do a bit of work for these prime fishing locations. You will want an experienced fishing guide for backcountry or private land fishing, to get you to the best fishing locations safely.
Best Time to Fish In Montana Without Crowds
Not everyone wants to hike into the backcountry, and you don’t have to for amazing fishing in Montana, so if you’re looking for a great day of fishing, but don’t want to battle crowds there are two windows of time for consideration.
First, believe it or not, April to mid-June is a great time to hit the blue-ribbon streams. You’ll see some locals out, but it’s still too early for the tourists. The blue-ribbon streams will be teaming with life during this time, and you’ll have a great day.
The second time is mid-September through November. The tourists have gone home, the weather is still nice and if you want to experience some of the more famous fisheries like the Missouri, Madison, or Yellowstone this is the time. You might see one or two other anglers, but that’s about it.
Best Time to Catch “The Big One”
Maybe you just want to catch, One. Big. Fish. If that’s your goal for fishing in Montana, there is a time for you, as well.
Many of Montana’s large reservoirs are home to some big fish that can be hooked any time of year, but if you’re looking to catch a trophy-size trout, you’ll need to know when and where to look.
In Montana, giant Brown Trout are at the top of the “Big Fish” list. Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams are well known for giant Brown Trout. If you want to snag a big one, hit the blue-ribbon streams in October and November or mid-April to early May.
Some anglers have had good luck getting huge trout during summer rainstorms. So don’t be afraid to hold out when summer showers roll through.
The Best Fly Fishing in Montana – 10 Must Visit Locations
1. The Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is held by many to be a special place when it comes to Montana fly fishing. Many simply consider it to be the best river in the state as it is the longest undammed stretch of water in the whole state.
There are rather large numbers of cutthroat trout to be found in Livingston’s upstream regions, where rainbow trout, as well as brown trout, populate the entire river’s stretch.
Fly Fishing on the Yellowstone River is undoubtedly some of the best dry fly trout fishing anywhere in Montana, and the brown trout that get caught here are some of the biggest in the state.
Many locals (depending on region, of course) may be likely to tell you that if you could only pick one river to fly fish in Montana then this could well be one of the best options.
The Yellowstone River starts out at Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park and flows uninterrupted until it intersects with the Missouri River in North Dakota.
The river is one of the longest free-flowing waterways in the country, and the scenery surrounding the river is quintessential Montana. Not surprisingly, this section of the river receives the most fishing pressure throughout the year.
Fly fishing the river in Yellowstone National Park is also popular but it comes with more restrictions. This means it is all wade fishing, with no tubing or floating permitted.
Anglers looking for a bit more freedom and a spot of quiet fishing time might try casting a line anywhere beyond Livingston. Due to the easy access and the length of the river, this is an entirely uncrowded waterway with some of the most scenic landscapes in the country.
2. The Gallatin River
The Gallatin River is a much shorter river than any other in Montana. It does have very easy access though, as it is close to a highway.
This makes it an attractive option for anyone visiting who would prefer to go solo than hire a guide.
The river also provides access to some excellent fly fishing, and this spot is actually ideal for anglers who prefer to wade as it is pretty much devoid of any traffic like rafts and boats.
The Gallatin also starts its course up in the high peaks of Yellowstone National Park, from where it runs through the Gallatin Canyon and the Gallatin Valley.
The river eventually connects to both the Jefferson and Madison rivers, forming the Missouri River in Three Forks. This is a scenic river that somehow lends itself to some excellent fly fishing despite its length.
Twenty-five miles of the river are within Yellowstone National Park and are accessible only via a hike and with a park fishing permit. No floating is allowed within park boundaries though, and the 40-mile stretch of river that runs past Big Sky and through Gallatin Canyon is more appealing for many anglers.
As it turns out, this stretch of river is the one made famous from the scenes of A River Runs through It.
Many sections of the river are shallow enough to allow wading, and scenic mountain peaks with forested slopes flank the entire corridor. On top of that, the river also flows mainly through national forest land with easy public access.
3. The Madison River
The Madison River is undoubtedly one of the most revered fly fishing waterways in Montana. The thing about this river though is that success is more likely when time has been spent learning how its dynamic and swift currents work.
This river is not necessarily the best option for first-timers then, but those who take up the challenge usually find it worthwhile.
The Madison River is packed with decent populations of wild brown and rainbow trout. The skillful angler may be able to hook these fish on every bend of the river.
The waterway’s proximity to Bozeman also makes this river a popular choice, bringing in anglers from across the globe at certain points throughout the year.
The Madison River also flows through Yellowstone National Park for over 20 miles, and if you fancy fly fishing the Madison within the park, early summer and fall are the best seasons.
Once outside the national park the river runs into Hebgen Dam (also a popular spot for still-water fishing), and beneath that the river filters into Earthquake Lake.
Once past the regions of this lake, the river starts to morph into some fairly intense rapids, hence its reputation as one of the state’s best white water rivers.
4. The Blackfoot River
The Blackfoot River has also been the backdrop for a variety of movies, with its clear waters which are something of a haven for trout.
The region’s ample numbers of native Cutthroat Trout along with the surrounding scenery make this river ideal for a day’s fly fishing on the river.
The upper reaches of the Blackfoot River flow all the way down to its confluence with the Clark Fork River. Anglers find plenty of decent fly fishing opportunities along the whole stretch, and hordes of locals, tourists, and trout make good use of the clean, clear waters.
The river flows over 100 miles from the Continental Divide to meet the Clark Fork River near Missoula, and reportedly the entire stretch provides quality fly fishing opportunities, with plenty of access points being available off both Highway 200 and Highway 141.
5. The Missouri River
The Missouri River presents what many would consider the absolute best fly fishing stretch in the state.
The river’s accessibility for year-round fishing makes it attractive, although reportedly the months between April and October are considered to be the most productive by local experts.
There are reportedly averages of something like 5000 trout or more per mile in this river, which sometimes takes visiting anglers by surprise. Local anglers believe there is nowhere else in Montana so versatile for fly fishing.
The Missouri River spans more than 700 miles through Montana, which makes it seem overwhelming when considering the right spot to fish from. However, the 30 or 40-mile stretch just below Holter Dam is where you’ll find many local fly fishermen.
This renowned section of the Missouri River is best-accessed from Craig, just north of Helena. Having said that, there is an abundance of access points just off the nearby Interstate 15, and both wade fishing and float fishing are popular along this stretch.
6. The Big Hole River
This river has often been described as one of the most scenic stretches of river in Montana—but aren’t they all? It’s not hard to see why this particular river stands out though considering its gentle banks that steadily wind and flow through both meadows and canyons.
The river itself presents a fairly diverse range of fishing opportunities with rainbow, brown, and brook trout all being prevalent in these waters–not to mention the odd west slope cutthroat.
Big Hole is another Montana waterway that should be on every angler’s fishing list at some point, as it provides an excellent combination of top fishing and picturesque surrounding scenery.
In the southwestern part of Montana, the river runs for 150 miles after originating up in the higher reaches of the Bitterroot Mountains.
It then flows through the picturesque Big Hole Valley, where the chances of landing something on the large side—whether rainbow, brown, or cutthroat–this river is a blue-ribbon fly fishing river surrounded by a variety of landscapes with relatively easy access.
Highway 43 runs parallel with the waterway, and the stretch of the river downstream from Wise River is one of the sections that contribute to the Big Hole River’s excellent reputation for fly fishing.
7. The Bighorn River
The Bighorn River is yet another fly-fishing trout heaven. The numbers of fish per mile are higher than many other rivers here and can lead to catches of epic proportions. Anglers from far and head to the Bighorn River intent on landing rainbow and brown trout over and above the 15-inch mark.
Although it may be true that fish populations in this river have been hit by various environmental factors, the Bighorn River is still a major destination for many Montana fly fishing trips. The river flows below the Yellowtail Afterbay Dam which is located within the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
The main stretch of the river that attracts anglers is downstream from the dam and flows for 13 miles. This is a wild trout fishery that also flows through the Crow Indian Reservation, even though the river has been deemed public property. The surrounding tribal lands are private though and require permits for entering.
Boat fishing is one of the most popular options on this section of the river below the dam. Wade fishing is possible when water levels are low although the majority of fervent fishermen can’t wait to jump into a boat as the waters are regulated by the dam and thus calm.
8. The Bitterroot River
This river is virtually surrounded by mountains by way of the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphires in the opposite direction. The Bitterroot River is what many would consider a classic textbook trout fishing spot. The winds flow in a south-westerly direction and keep anglers busy with miles of trout habitat.
Some of the earliest season fishing to be found in the state is along the Bitterroot River, and there are a few decent access points, even though the fishable stretches are well-spaced.
Anglers coming to test the waters of the Bitterroot will soon find the most prominent species of fish to be rainbow trout. The odd brown and cutthroat are also caught from the river, and although fishing pressure on the river can be high, it does tend to ease off around springtime.
Excellent fishing is also available along the Bighorn River throughout the entirety of summer and fall.
9. The Sun River
The Sun River originates high up in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex on the eastern wing. As you can imagine it isn’t exactly the easiest fishery to get to and flows are affected by irrigation dams. Many anglers tend to steer clear due to these factors—the result being that the trout are likely to be biting at anything they see.
Having flowed out of the wilderness area the river then flows through Sun River Canyon. The fishing is challenging here due to the steep landscape and rapids, but anyone willing to try may find payoffs in the form of a plentiful rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout. Both the river and the fishing are a bit easier past the canyon.
Another option is to fish the South Fork or North Fork of the Sun River, both of which are in the wilderness complex. This would be a hike-in fishing outing due to the location, with the upside being that any willing angler finds himself completely surrounded by incredibly serene and peaceful wilderness.
Once you’ve found your way up to a spot like this in Montana, followed by a few hours of fishing with literally dozens of bites per hour, you may be thinking that it may go down as one of your most cherished Montana fishing memories.
10. Rock Creek
Rock Creek is another classic Montana trout stream in the vicinity of Missoula. The creek has the appearance of more of a river and is ideal for wade fishing. The river flows for 30 miles through the incredibly-scenic Lolo National Forest which also has great public access.
Rock Creek Road runs virtually parallel with the river which makes access and finding a decent spot much easier. The waters are generally shallow and contain some great trout habitats with riffles, rock gardens, deep pools, and various other features.
Wade anglers will find they can access both banks along the river due to the shallowness which is fairly consistent.
Rock Creek’s ideal fishing times are usually well outside of winter, with June hatches usually proving fruitful. This obviously puts a fair amount of pressure on the river which may last through July when other hatches follow.