Kootenai River, Montana – The Best Things To Do

Rebecca Hanlon
Last Updated: March 4th, 2023

The Kootenai River in Montana might just be the place for you if you’re interested in a new and thrilling fishing experience. It may not be as well-known as many of Montana’s other blue-ribbon rivers, but it offers some of the greatest trout fishing in the state.

Indeed, some of the largest fish ever pulled from a Montana river have come from the Kootenai, and there are plenty of possibilities to snag trophy-worthy rainbow trout here.

It is also one of the area’s major rivers, running for 485 miles from British Columbia through western Montana and northern Idaho before turning north and flowing back to Canada.

In this blog, we will cover everything about the Kootenai River in Montana, including the location of the Kootenai River in Montana, peak fishing season, and much more!

The Kootenai River

the kootenai river
Image: Spend A Day Touring, LLC

The Kootenai River is Montana’s greatest tailwater fishery, with British Columbia accounting for more than half of its drainage. It is a significant tributary of the Columbia River, and because of its isolated and clear blue waters, it can be considered a fishing paradise.

Fish Species Found in Kootenai River

Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout, Bull Trout, and Mountain Whitefish are the most commonly observed fish species in the Kootenai River.


The Kootenai River originates in Canada’s Kootenay National Park, which is located in British Columbia. It runs 485 miles from there into northwest Montana, passing by the cities of Libby and Troy. From there, it runs through northern Idaho before returning to Canada and Kootenay Lake, eventually entering the Columbia River.

The river is held back 16 miles north of Libby by the Libby Dam, which creates a 90-mile-long reservoir named Lake Koocanusa, which spans into Canada.

The Kootenai River is the second greatest tributary to the Columbia River in terms of streamflow volume and third in terms of drainage area. The Kootenai Basin is mostly hilly, with three major ranges dominating.

The eastern limit is formed by the Rocky Mountain Range and its branch, the Flathead Range, while the Purcell Range cuts it nearly in half from north to south.

In comparison, the western limit is defined by the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. Elevations reach a high of roughly 12,000 feet, with most summits falling between 6,000 and 7,500 feet. Except for a few spots, the whole watershed is highly wooded.

The Kootenai River’s principal tributaries are the Bull Elk, St. Mary, Yaak, Fisher, Slocan, and Moyie rivers.

When Is The Best Time To Fish In The Kootenai River?

best time to fish in the kootenai river
Image: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Fishing often begins in the Kootenai in the spring, usually in March or early April. This is the breeding season for the river’s massive rainbow population, and the purity of the cool water presents enough possibilities.

This is also the best time for wade fishing because the water levels are still quite low. Several hatches will begin along the length of the river in May and June, and dry fishing becomes quite popular.

The river’s water level usually climbs significantly along its tailwater sections as summer approaches. This is usually the busiest time of year for fishing, and rainbows are said to be numerous.

Even in the middle of August, the water is quite chilly, and this time of year can provide some excellent opportunities to capture some of Kootenai’s larger trout.

Best Kootenai River Fishing Locations

kootenai river fishing locations
Image: Tony Webster

The greatest Kootenai fishing begins right below Libby Dam. Some fishermen may find this 17-mile stretch intimidating because the river is so wide here and the flow of the water may be fairly rapid at times.

When the water level rises, entire areas of vegetation can be inundated, and this creates lots of deep pools teeming with trout if you can find them. Hiring an expert is recommended, as they know the exact spots to catch the fish.

The river narrows dramatically in early spring and late fall, when water levels are lower, and broad gravel bars are visible along the banks. Since the river’s flow can change considerably, it’s critical to give importance to water level reports, especially if you want to dive in.

We recommend that you sail this portion in a boat, as this is typically the safest and most successful technique, especially in the summer. A highway – Hwy 37, runs along most of the river’s length, and there are several access locations, many of which are boat ramps.

Several feeder rivers flow into this section, providing excellent fishing possibilities as fish seek refuge from rapid currents. Paying attention to seams in the center of the river that produce pockets of slower running water can also be beneficial.

Another 33-mile length of the river, past the settlement of Libby, can provide decent fishing opportunities. This section of the river is comparable to the upper section, except it has more rapids and less access spots.

The deep pools situated surrounding the various boulders and riffles in one stretch known as China Rapids provide some good fishing opportunities.

Beyond this point, the river flows to Kootenai Falls, which has 30-foot waterfalls. The region beyond the falls and before the Idaho border has the lowest elevation in Montana, which may provide some unusual fishing chances and pleasantly mild weather.

Other Activities Available On Kootenai

other activities on kootenai
Image: Northwest Power and Conservation Council


The Kootenai River is known for two rare species fisheries: white sturgeon and native Kootenai River burbot. In order to preserve this unique fish, the Kootenai Tribe has created a freshly opened hatchery in Twin Rivers.

However, for game fishermen, the river offers excellent cutthroat and rainbow trout fishing, as well as mountain whitefish and other species.

Are you concerned that the Kootenai River will only be about trout, water, and fishing? Don’t be, since there’s a lot more to the River than just fishing. Bonners Ferry has public boat docks as well as a boat ramp. The Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge is just a few miles downstream from town and features a vehicle tour route as well as riverside footpaths.

The Twin Rivers Resort, located at the confluence of the Moyie River and presently managed by the Kootenai Tribe with a new and ambitious sturgeon and burbot fishery, is located 8 miles upstream in the town of Moyie Springs.

Camping, picnics, swimming, and simply resting are all available at the resort and surely an experience one should not miss out on.


Motorboats may navigate the river all the way through Idaho. The river meanders through the Kootenai Valley downstream of Bonners Ferry; most of the boating action is upstream in the picturesque canyon.

This section is popular with rafters, canoeists, and kayakers; there is no whitewater, although expert abilities are recommended due to the swift and fast nature of the stream. River levels are regulated by the Libby Dam upstream in Montana; thus boaters should be aware that river levels can swiftly rise or fall.

Silver Bow Outfitters offer half and full-day drift boat float tours on the famed and gorgeous Kootenai River in Libby. They also offer all the fishing equipment for your Montana float excursion. On their full-day drift cruises, snacks, beverages, and a shore lunch are also offered. On their half-day drift cruises, snacks and refreshments are provided.


Image: Spend A Day Touring, LLC

Whitetail deer live in the river canyon all year and elk, while mule deer and moose make frequent trips. The Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic site for animal enthusiasts, with literally thousands of migrating waterfowl, upland game birds, hundreds of songbirds, and other wildlife to be seen during the season.

And let’s not forget how this lovely, huge mountain river provides excellent viewing opportunities for bald eagles, nesting osprey, great blue herons, and waterfowl; a birdwatcher’s paradise indeed!

You can watch bald eagles and osprey diving for fish and returning to adjacent snags on the east side of David Thompson Bridge, right below the powerhouse; there are more than 20 nests between Libby and the dam.

Bald eagles flock below the dam in the fall to capture Kokanee salmon. It is an exceptional sight, as often over 100 eagles can be seen fishing here. Eagle migration begins in October, peaks around the middle of November, and then begins to decline at the end of December.

The river is controlled by the Libby Dam, which receives water from the 90-mile-long Lake Koocanusa.

Final Thoughts on The Kootenai River In Montana

If you’ve been to other parts of the Treasure State but have always wanted to visit the Kootenai River in Montana, now is the time, as in doing so, you will get to “re-discover” Montana. Come on over if you’ve never been to this part of the world before; the seas and opportunities are fantastic!

If you’ve already fished your way throughout the magnificent state of Montana, you owe it to yourself to try your luck on the Kootenai River. You will have a fantastic and completely unique experience.

We hope the information we have provided above will prove to be useful for when you plan your trip.

About The Author

Rebecca Hanlon

Rebecca has been a travel blogger and editor for over 5 years, working with some of the biggest brands in industry. She’s taught English as a foreign language in 5 different countries, and her most fulfilling role was as a tour guide around some of Europe’s finest vineyards. She the one behind the social channels here at Discovering Montana, whilst also finding the time to perform an assistant editor role.

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