Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures Destinations

Plan your trip

Montana Fly Fishing Trips on Freestones vs. Tailwaters

When planning a fly-fishing trip to Montana, choosing the right destination can seem daunting. We’ve got the Bighorn River, Big Hole River, Smith River, spring creeks, backcountry waters, and more. Fortunately, these waters will always be here in Montana and in your lifetime you can strive to fish them all.

Montana is our home and we take pride in its diversity of fishing. We have the luxury of being able to fish whenever, and usually, wherever, we want. Here’s some help and knowledge on our two main types of rivers—freestones and tailwaters.

freestone river has not been impeded by the construction of a dam across its width and therefore has a period of snowmelt runoff with high flows and muddy water and lower flows throughout the rest of the year. A tailwater river has a dam, or a series of dams, that have been constructed and the fishing occurs on the river section (s) downstream of such dams. Flows can be higher and lower, but, unlike a freestone, tailwater rivers rarely have a period of muddy water.

Because of their relatively consistent flows throughout the course of the year, tailwater rivers have high numbers of fish per mile and an overall larger average fish size than most freestones. Because of the consistent level of flow, the insect life trout rely upon for food is plentiful and diverse.

In a freestone river, trout are products of their natural, unaltered river environment. Like the seasons, a freestone river has periods of prolific insect life and periods of less available food; often directly correlated to the available snowpack and water in a given river’s drainage area. Because of this, freestone trout have a much greater variety in number of fish and the average size of fish from year to year and river to river than tailwater fish.

And, some rivers, like the Madison River, can be considered a freestone and a tailwater because of tributaries below dams that may cause a pro-longed runoff.

Our favorite tailwater rivers: Missouri, Bighorn, Beaverhead, Kootenai, Madison, Ruby

Our favorite freestone rivers: Smith, Big Hole, Yellowstone, South Fork of the Flathead, Madison, Jefferson

In Montana, our freestones and tailwaters flow through amazing scenery—from deep canyons to wide-open high prairies to broad valleys framed by mountains—providing beautiful fishing under our Montana big sky.

For planning a trip on the Missouri or Bighorn Rivers most anglers choose to fish just one river for the length of the trip. At Yellow Dog, this is easy because we’ve got a given river’s best lodges and hotel accommodations dialed. The fishing action can be consistent plus we’ve paired lodging and dining packages across all budgets and tastes.

A trip to one of our freestone rivers means the variety is an option. Lodging and dining packages also run the gamut, but, we’ve got several exciting destinations that allow you to fish a variety of freestones and perhaps add in a day on a smaller tailwater like the Beaverhead or Ruby Rivers.

What a destination tailwater fishery may lack in a variety of different waters, it makes up for with an extending angling season. The Missouri and Bighorn are solid options from April through October. Most freestones have moments of greatness, but, rarely are those moments in early or late seasons. Because freestones are more subjective to changes in weather—rainstorms or early season snowmelt—a freestone-based trip is best suited for post-runoff.

When planning a trip to an area with more freestone rivers than tailwater rivers, it is important to contact Yellow Dog so we can look at current conditions or gauge what conditions to expect, and what the best available options might be for a future trip. A good example of this is planning a trip to Montana’s Smith River.

The Smith River is a central Montana freestone river. It is fished on a multi-day camping and floating trip. Like the Missouri or Bighorn Rivers, a Smith trip is dedicated to one river. But, because it is a freestone, planning when to go is crucial. Like any fishing trip, weather can always help or harm your angling, but, on a 60-mile Smith River backcountry trip, once you push off on day one from Camp Baker, you get what the weather gods dish-out. Our years of experience can help choose the best range of dates.

From the Smith River to the Madison to the Missouri, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventure has several lifetimes of experience fly fishing in Montana. For your next Montana fly fishing trip, let us help choose the location for you.

When coming to Montana to fish, freestone or tailwater is a decision but contacting us a necessity.


You currently don't have any favorite destinations.

The 2021 Yellow Dog Flyfishing Travel Guide

Sign Up To Get Your Free Digital Copy

The 2021 Yellow Dog Flyfishing Travel Guide is here! Packed with fly fishing focused content on the world’s finest fly fishing lodges, outfitters and destinations.