Montana is famous for fly-fishing, and for trout fishing in particular. The big rivers of Yellowstone and Gallatin draw thousands of hopeful fishermen every year, but the small streams of Montana offer a different experience.
They give you the chance to do away with the big crowds and head off the beaten track to enjoy Montana at its simplest best. Small streams are often harder to reach but are quieter for that exact reason.
There are thousands upon thousands of excellent small streams for fishing in Montana; follow the tributaries leading to any major river and you’ll often discover a hidden gem.
But for those who want a clearer guide, here are some of the best small trout streams in Montana:
The Best Small Trout Streams in Montana
- Rock Creek
- Paradise Valley Springs Creek
- Mill Creek, Twin Bridges
- Big Creek
- O’dell Creek
- Hyalite Creek
- McDonald Creek
- North Fork Big Hole River
1. Rock Creek
Rock Creek is well-known as one of the finest trout streams in Montana – you will find rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout year-round in this Clark Fork River tributary.
It’s a particularly great spot for wade anglers and fly-fishing. The odds are in your favor in this Blue Ribbon stream, as very few people will leave Rock Creek without success.
Fishing here is an unmissable experience – people travel from far and wide for the privilege. The lower section, close to the road, tends to be the busiest. The further up stream you go, the quieter it will be – though the fish are usually smaller in size at the very top of the river.
Much of Rock Creek passes through National Forest lands, making it one of the easier creeks to access on this list. Its proximity to Missoula is another factor – if you’re in the area, you have to make a stop. There are over 50 miles of the creek to choose from!
2. Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
The Spring Creeks that run six to eight miles south of Livingston are small, beautifully clear meadow streams overflowing with trout. At these tricky but rewarding locations you will find brown trout, rainbow trout, and the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The nutrient-rich waters ensure that the fish, though difficult to catch, are large and plentiful.
The cold and clear waters of Armstrong Spring Creek, one of Paradise Valley’s best spring creeks, are ideal for trout – the healthy numbers in the creek are testament to that. It’s one of the most sought-after fishing locations in Montana thanks to the gorgeous scenery.
The DePuy Spring Creek is connected to the Armstrong Spring Creek, and is another area with beautiful surroundings; the Absaroka mountains provide a stunning backdrop.
Beautiful mountains and lush meadows also make up the scenery for Nelson’s Spring Creek, the final of the three in Paradise Valley. The creek weaves between the Nelson and Dana properties before eventually flowing into the Yellowstone.
3. Mill Creek, Twin Bridges
Mill Creek flows into the Ruby River, just outside of Twin Bridges. The creek is an odd mix of a spring-fed creek and a freestone meadow stream, but the cold, clear water is perfect for fishing.
Despite being a relatively small stream, the fish can grow quite large in Mill Creek. It’s not uncommon to catch 15” inch fish in the creek, and they can easily grow larger than that.
The creek is primarily a brown trout fishery – most people who come here have some luck in catching them. There’s a healthy population here; it’s a stream unlikely to disappoint.
Even when ignoring the quality of the stream itself, you can see why Mill Creek is an appealing location to fish. The gently rolling fields give way to distant mountains in typically picturesque Montana scenery, while the remote solitude of the area provides that much-needed alone time.
4. Big Creek
Despite its name, Big Creek is another of southwest Montana’s excellent small streams. And as is true for many of Montana’s best small trout streams, you need to walk a little to reach Big Creek.
Delve deep into the Gallatin National Forest and find a fishing spot that offers a serene escape in near complete privacy. Unlike many other streams, Big Creek has several sheltered areas. It’s an ideal spot in the height of summer, as the cool stream and available shade is perfect in helping avoid the heat.
If you’re lucky you can catch brown, rainbow, and brook trout here.
Big Creek might be a little out of the way, but it is more than worth the effort to get there.
5. O’Dell Creek
A wonderfully restored tributary to the Madison River, O’Dell Creek has once again become an integral part of the Madison Valley’s rich ecosystem.
The habitat, which was drained and ditched in the 50s, has been lovingly nurtured back to its original state. Instead of depleted and eroded river banks, there is flowing water – the restoration of O’Dell Creek is helping to cool the Madison River itself and has brought with it a return in wildlife.
The cold, clean water of the creek is a blue-ribbon fishery in its own right. You can catch brown and rainbow trout while fly-fishing here. As there has been a concerted effort to restore and preserve O’Dell Creek, the amount of fishing that occurs here is limited.
Much of the land is privately owned, but you can access the creek while staying at Rainbow Valley Lodge in Ennis, or through a few guiding companies in the local area.
6. Hyalite Creek
Hyalite Creek is a lovely small mountain stream that is easily accessible from Bozeman – the Hyalite Reservoir is only 20 miles south of the city.
The section of the creek below the reservoir offers 12 miles of wadeable waters and is generally easy to access. The area around Langohr Campground is often considered the best part to fish, though Lower Hyalite Creek offers the opportunity to fish year-round.
You can test your fly-fishing skills in this area, with plenty of opportunities to catch rainbow and cutthroat trout. In parts of the creek, there are pockets of fast-moving water that can be challenging to fish.
It can also be competitive to get a good spot, though generally the further you walk downstream the less crowded it will get. Nestled in the stunning Hyalite Canyon, this creek balances the experience of fishing well with lovely scenery. `
7. McDonald Creek
Set in the gorgeous surroundings of the Glacier National Park, McDonald Creek trickles down from the Rocky Mountains, eventually merging with the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
This creek can thank its alluring scenery for its place on the list: though many species of trout can be found here, they aren’t exactly in abundance.
If you’re very fortunate you can catch bull trout, but the more common hauls are filled with cutthroat and rainbow trout. It is strictly catch-and-release at McDonald Creek to help preserve the populations of fish. The Lower McDonald creek is by far the best part to fish – the Upper McDonald is easier to access but quite limited in numbers.
It’s hard to beat the scenery here though. McDonald Creek is visible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road – the famous vistas of snow-capped mountains and alpine forests are the perfect surroundings for fishing.
8. North Fork Big Hole River
The Big Hole River offers an excellent – and varied – fishing experience. While the lower sections of the river are closer to what you would expect in a large river, the headwaters to the North Fork area provides some classic small stream fishing opportunities.
Fishing on the North Fork of Big Hole River is a real joy. The population numbers are very healthy and you can find rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout all in the stream.
The scenery is also incredible – you are surrounded by dense forest and towering mountains on all sides. You won’t find many sizeable fish here, but the variety and picturesque setting make it one of the best small trout streams in Montana.