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Best Fly Fishing in Montana – 6 Locations You Need to Explore

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.

Best Fly Fishing in Montana

fly fishing

The Yellowstone River

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.

The Gallatin River

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.

The Madison River

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.

 

The Blackfoot River

the blackfoot river
Image: Bureau of Land Management

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.

The Missouri River

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.

The Big Hole River

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.

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