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The Backstage Pass

Montana: Overview of the Missouri, Bighorn, Madison, and Yellowstone Rivers

May 03, 23

Montana is home to rugged mountain peaks, broad valleys, and rivers and creeks with several species of wild and native trout. Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures has several decades of experience fishing these waters and is proud to partner with a variety of Montana lodges and fishing outfitters. If you are looking for a Montana fly fishing trip, contact Yellow Dog today for our in-depth knowledge and advice or read on to learn more about the Missouri, Bighorn, Madison, and Yellowstone Rivers.

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From the Missouri River in central Montana to the Bighorn River in southeastern Montana, with the Madison and Yellowstone in between, these rivers offer an ideal destination trip for anglers wanting to experience Montana.

Missouri River

Favorite float: Wolf Creek to Craig

The hatch to match: Blue Winged Olives in May

Nearest town for a burger and a beer: Craig, Montana

Home to thousands of trout per mile, and most of them over 14-inches, the Missouri River is at the top of many anglers “must-fish” lists for a Montana fly fishing trip. With sections named the Bay of Pigs, Land of the Giants, the Home of the Wolf Pack, and more, the consistency of the Missouri is only matched by its diversity of angling and lodging options.

Located in central Montana between Helena and Great Falls, this tailwater fishery possesses one of the longest angling seasons in Montana. Beginning in April, hatches of Blue Winged Olives kick-off the dry fly fishing. Anglers willing to fish nymphs below an indicator can often pad the numbers if conditions are good. By May and June, the river level can be the highest of the year and nymph fishing is the name of the game indeed. As soon as flows drop by mid-June, Pale Morning Duns, and caddis hatch and it is “go-time” for this popular, fish-filled tailwater.


Montana’s Missouri River boasts over 45 miles of ideal trout habitat. Most guides and local anglers use drift boats to enjoy the river’s fishing. Craig and Wolf Creek are trout-centric and happening crossroads that service the Missouri. From there we have hotel style lodging and several high-end destination lodges for anyone desiring a fishing program on a world-class and consistent fishery, with great guides, and the ability to enjoy delicious food and fine accommodations.

Montana’s Missouri is the river Montanans fish on their day’s off.

Check out our Missouri River destinations

The Missouri River Ranch

The Lodge at Eagle Rock

Missouri River Trout Shop

Bighorn River

Favorite float: 3-Mile to Bighorn River Access

The hatch to match: Black caddis in July

Nearest town for a burger and a beer: Hardin, Montana

Home to some of Montana’s best guides and top-rated fly-fishing lodges, a trip to the Bighorn River is a special Montana fly fishing trip. Located in eastern Montana, set out on its own from the rest of our blue-ribbon rivers in Montana. It flows out of the Pryor Mountains and is less than two hours from Billings, Montana.

The Bighorn River boasts high numbers of browns and rainbows with consistent fishing beginning in April and lasting well into October. While nymphing tends to be the most productive technique on the Bighorn, fantastic dry fly and streamer fishing can occur if conditions dictate. As long-time anglers on the Bighorn, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures can help you plan a trip to have you fishing the river at the best times to suit your tastes. We offer hotel and motel-style accommodations and high-end all-inclusive lodges with trained chefs and very comfortable rooms.

From head-hunting rising trout to using a boat to access the deeper runs, there is something for every skill level. Our selection of lodges caters to all budgets and a trip on the Bighorn serves up the opportunity to intimately fish a famous Montana river for any length of stay.

Check out our Bighorn River destinations

Bighorn Angler Fly Shop and Lodge

Bighorn River Lodge

Madison River

Favorite float: Lyons Bridge to Ruby Creek

The hatch to match: Salmonflies in late June – early July

Nearest town for a burger and a beer: Ennis, Montana

By the numbers, the Madison River is Montana’s favorite river because more anglers fish it than any other river. Located near Ennis, but within an hour of Bozeman, Big Sky, and West Yellowstone, the Madison is ideal for anyone basing out of these towns. From old-times who’ve been fishing the Madison since the 60s to folks new to Montana, this river has no peer—hatch-hunters, streamer draggers, and nymph anglers will all enjoy the fishing and the surrounding beauty of the Madison.

On the west side of Lone Peak and Big Sky Ski Resort, the Madison flows through the gorgeous Madison Valley. Beginning in early May, with a little break from mid-May through mid-June for snowmelt runoff, the Madison is in play. By late June runoff has waned and hatches of salmonflies, golden stones, PMDs, and caddis feed hungry trout. Fishing grasshoppers patterns in late summer and early fall on the Madison 50-miles of riffle water is an enjoyable way to spend a day. By mid-September the nights become longer and the mornings frosty, experienced anglers will enjoy fishing streamers for a chance at a trophy-sized trout.

Ennis is the main town for fishing the Madison. Trips out of Big Sky and West Yellowstone can also be arranged. Ennis is located on the river and its where most guides will end up at day’s end trading stories at The Gravel Bar or on a truck tailgate on Main Street.

Few things are as Montana as drifting the Madison River casting your fly into good-looking trout lie after good-looking trout lie. It is ok to look up at the mountains often because the Madison is home to some of Montana’s best guides and they surely will tell you when to set the hook.

Check out of Madison River destinations

Madison Valley Ranch

Madison Double R

Yellowstone River

Favorite float: Emigrant to Pine Creek

The hatch to match: Terrestrials/grasshoppers in August

Nearest town for a burger and a beer: Livingston, Montana

Flowing out of Yellowstone National Park near the town of Gardiner, the Yellowstone River boasts nearly 120 miles of trout-filled riffles, pools, runs, and banks. Names like Yankee Jim Canyon, Paradise Valley, and Big Timber owe their namesakes to the river. Native only to the Yellowstone River, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout also swims here. One of the longest and largest rivers we fish in Montana, it is also one of the most mysterious.

As the longest undammed river in the Lower 48 the Yellowstone experiences an annual period of high-water snowmelt. Unlike rivers that are dammed, this period of prolonged high water, which can move large quantities of river sediments, can create new trout habit each year while possibly changing old habitat. Because of these annual changes, the Yellowstone river is a dynamic fishery in a river that requires expert local knowledge. A few of the Yellowstone’s major tributaries provide fishing for adventurous anglers as well.

Yellow Dog has been fishing the Yellowstone for decades. Our guides and lodges on this river are locals and embrace the river’s moods and its array of temperaments. Once the river clears in early, the salmonflies hatch in abundance, followed by golden stones, caddis, and Yellow Sally stoneflies. Despite the Yellowstone’s prolific insect life, its trout can sometimes behave like Millennials—very active and cooperative most times, but certainly have moments lacking the enthusiasm to provide joy to others.

Livingston, Bozeman, and Big Timber are the main towns servicing the Yellowstone River. Several destination lodges provide great guides, fine accommodations, and delicious meals for anglers wanting an intimate Yellowstone River experience. A visit to the Yellowstone River should include some time in eclectic Livingston. Home to anglers, artists, fishing guides, restauranteurs, laborers, ranchers, and tech-savy telecommuters, few towns exist like Livingston…all with a world-class river flowing through town.

It is only fitting the source of the Yellowstone River south of Yellowstone National Park is the most wild place in the Lower 48—it is 33 miles from the nearest road—because the Yellowstone is special river, in a special place, and requires a special angler to appreciate the river’s wildness.

Check out our Yellowstone River destinations

Yellowstone Valley Lodge

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