When to Fly Fish the Missouri River
The Missouri River is a year-round wild trout river that can fish exceptionally well at any time of the year. There are a few times of the year when it’s not the best choice, so we avoid going up there when conditions are not ideal. Our favorite time of year is May and June on the Missouri as there are less people around, there are no weeds in the river, and warming water temperatures keep the fish feeding all throughout the day.
Rainbows spawn in March and April and typically make a mass exodus from the main river into a handful of smaller streams during this time of year. This is about the only time of year we avoid the river, but there are still plenty of fish that remain in the main river, and fishing can be quite good, especially on cloudy days.
Late summer gets hot, and the water temperature of the Missouri River is significantly affected by the long, hot days of late July and August. Water temperatures typically reach the upper 60’s and cool very little overnight. Trout feed less during this time of year and for shorter periods of time throughout the day. Good numbers can still be found, but it usually requires more work than the rest of the year. Add to that the mass of aquatic vegetation that seems to cover the entire river surface and bottom during this time of year, and just getting a clean fly to a feeding fish is the biggest part of the problem. Recreational floaters flock to the Missouri as well to enjoy the beauty and refreshing waters this time of year, so it can be quite crowded.
Highlights of Fly Fishing the Missouri River
Late spring is undoubtedly one of our favorite times of year on the Missouri River. The dry fly fishing is typically not as good as other times of the year, but the nymph fishing is as good as it gets. Rainbows are finishing up the spawn and return to the river once the tributaries get their first flush of the year. These fish are hungry, aggressive, and have not seen many flies in the last few months, so they are cooperative when it comes to eating flies. The weeds and crowds that plague the river throughout the warmer months are also absent at this time of year. Finally, the river remains relatively clear throughout the runoff season thanks to the series of upstream reservoirs.
Summer fly fishing on the Missouri River is best suited for the experienced dry fly angler or novice angler that wants to learn more about “match the hatch” fishing. Weed growth starts to develop this time of year but is generally very manageable for most fly anglers. Even so, PMD and Caddis hatches bring trout to the surface throughout the day. The patient and persistent dry fly angler can target rising fish all day this time of year, and our guides like “hunting heads” more than just about any other type of fly fishing.
October is a great time of year to be on the Missouri River when the weather cooperates with cloudy, wind-free days and mild temperatures. BWO hatches can be as prolific as any hatch of the year on cloudy days, and rising fish can be found in every back eddy and current seam in the river. Once the weeds of summer disperse, however, it is the streamer fishing that draws us to the river this time of year. It’s an excellent combination for the experienced angler and one that our guides look forward to every year.
The Fish of the Missouri River
Rainbow Trout are the more common species that we tend to see most days on the Missouri River, but Brown Trout are also regular visitors to the nets of our guides. As a wild trout fishery, a wide range of different-sized trout are always present in the river. Unlike most of the rivers we fish in the state, the stretch of the Missouri, just below Holter Dam has a good number of hatchery-raised Rainbows that have come over the dam during times of increased flows. Overall though, the Missouri has some of the highest wild trout densities in the state and tend to average around 17” from year to year. Most of the fish we catch and see throughout the year will be smaller than 20”, but there is always a handful of Browns reaching 24” that find our guides’ nets as well. Larger fish are present in the river for sure and a dedicated streamer angler can occasionally find a fish in the 25-30 inch range.
Carp fishing has gained in popularity in the last few years, and the upper Missouri River offers some of the best fly fishing for carp around. Fish typically are in the 4-8 pound range – so not as big as some other places – but they are prolific, to say the least. Notoriously difficult to catch, fishing in this area is unique because anglers can expect to get dozens of shots.
Sections of the Missouri River
Holter Dam to Craig
This is a very popular stretch of the “Mo” with anglers and rafters alike. Depending on the time of the year, one can experience exceptional hatches of blue-winged olives, caddis, pale morning duns, and tricos throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall months. Due to the popularity of this section of river and the amount of insect activity, long leaders and precise casting are essential for successfully utilizing dry flies. The dry fly fishing on this section of the river can be compared to fishing the infamous “Ranch” section of the Henry’s Fork in Idaho. The slow and flat moving water can be deceiving from the river bank until you make a cast and watch your fly dance among microcurrents as it scurries downstream. The trout aren’t forgiving of sloppy casting, and the microcurrents will challenge an angler’s typical presentations. Anglers focusing on catching numbers of fish can benefit from nymphing the numerous drop-offs and other river bottom features. Getting your fly into the zone is critical, so ensure that you have a solid selection of weighted nymphs and don’t be afraid to play around with the depth you’re fishing. This section of the Mo includes the side channels where anglers can find hungry trout with fewer rafters during the hot summer months. An excellent guide that intimately knows the river can become a total game-changer in helping you catch fish and cutting the learning curve. They will show you how to set up on rising singles or pods of trout, the best methods for fly presentation, fly selection, and other tricks that they’ve added to their arsenal over years of guiding on the Missouri.
Craig to Dearborn
From the Craig bridge downstream for a couple of river miles, the river resembles the Holter to Craig stretch in features and characteristics. The river begins to narrow slightly when you pass the Stickney Creek access, and the water picks up. This is an excellent section for casting and swinging streamers in the long, narrow runs and up against the bank.
Seasons on the Missouri River
Springtime in Montana can be translated to potentially experiencing all four seasons in one day. You may have days where the temperature climbs above seventy degrees, or you could face heavy snow. Be sure to come prepared with a mixed bag of clothes and always bring a jacket. During the early spring, the water temperature can result in trout holding deep and not displaying the same active behavior as they do in the summer. Double nymph rigs with weighted sowbugs, nymphs, midges, and scuds in sizes 12-18 work well this time of year. If you get an overcast day or light rain/snow showers, you may experience fantastic blue-winged olive dry fly fishing that brings the fish to the surface, concentrating around slower currents and slicks.
In addition, the Missouri also has hatches of skwala stoneflies (size 8/10) and march browns (size 14) in the spring. These hatches are not as consistent as hatches of blue-winged olives or midges, but they can provide some action throughout the day if the weather has been stable.
Anglers targeting fish using streamers need to get their fly down quickly to where the fish are holding. Due to colder water temperatures, trout may not be as willing to move very far for food. Slowly stripping or swinging your fly will most likely pick up more fish throughout the day than faster retrievals. Search for trout in the numerous long and deep runs with slow-moving water.
With rising water temperatures in mid-to-late May, trout can be found in one place in the morning, then move to their old summertime haunts behind rocks, against the bank, and shallow riffles by mid-day. For example, you may be targeting fish with a double-nymph rig in deep, slow-moving pools in the morning and casting dry flies up against the bank in the afternoon. Because Missouri River trout have so much food available to them subsurface, it takes a substantial hatch to bring them to the surface during the colder months. In short, be prepared for all types of fishing methods this time of year!
Rainbow trout are spawning or coming out of the spawn this time of year. Please do not target rainbows on redds or in shallow water that display lethargic behavior.
Due to potential cold, rainy weather and increased outflows from Holter Dam, early June can be hit-or-miss regarding bugs and rising fish. From late May through mid-June, most of your fishing will likely be nymphing unless you can find a window where you have decent weather coupled with consistent flows. But just because the water is high doesn’t mean that the fishing will suffer! At this time of the year, fishing worms, scuds, sowbugs, and other nymphs in pocket water, seams, and foam lines can produce great days on the river.
During late June, Mighty Mo comes to life, and the small fishing towns of Craig and Wolf Creek double in population. At this time of the month, flows begin to recede, and once below 6,000 CFS, it is game on. The first pale morning duns to come off are larger (size 14-16), and the trout cannot get enough of them. For the best fishing opportunities, be sure to have pmd flies in all life forms: nymphs, emergers, cripples, adults, and spinners. Generally, most trout can be fooled with a solid presentation and either a cripple or spinner; however, you’ll most likely experience at least one fish that may be more difficult to fool. Pay attention to the fish’s rise form if this is the case. Is the nose coming out of the water, or do you see boils? Many trout feed on rising nymphs right below the water’s surface. The nymphs fill with air bubbles that give them buoyancy; at this stage of their life cycle, they are helpless. Try using a dry fly that you can see, then take a non-weighted pheasant tail or split case pmd nymph (size 14-16), applying just a little bit of gink to the top of the dropping it a foot off your dry fly. Unless the fish is feeding on the bank, a down-and-across presentation will most likely suffice.
During prolific hatches, anglers can find fish in singles or pods near the bank, on one of the many shallow “flats,” in seams where slow water and fast water meet, and in riffles. Come early-to-mid July, the Missouri is in full swing. Between the sheer amount of caddis and pmds, the dry fly rod is either in your hand or ready to go in the boat. You can have a terrific spinner fall in the morning, target fish midday during a pmd hatch (especially if you get some cloud cover), and finish the day by fishing caddis in the evening. When fishing caddis, look for shallow and fast-moving water with some overhanging brush. The rising fish in these areas will most likely take a well-presented caddis dry fly.
In the last half of July, anglers can still have phenomenal caddis and pmd fishing. The hatching bugs begin to get smaller, so be sure to carry some size 16-20 dries. The introduction of terrestrial fishing in late July presents more dry fly opportunities. Casting hoppers, ants, and beetles can fool fish that have seen every pmd fly in the shop float by them numerous times until this point. Small mayflies, referred to as “tricos” also begin hatching in late July. Strong hatches of tricos can bring pods of fish up all over the river.
With increasing water temperatures, especially in early August, the best fishing will most likely be in the early morning and evening. More cold water can be released from Holter Dam during years with a decent snowpack. On below-average snowpack years, they preserve the water and won’t release as much downstream, resulting in warmer water temperatures and fewer fish up feeding on the surface. This is dependent on the previous winter!
Hatches of trico mayflies start in the early morning. If you want an exceptional challenge, then this is it. These tiny mayflies are between hook sizes 18-22 and require fishing light tippet to achieve drag-free drifts. This can be some of the most challenging dry fly fishing in the U.S. West. Some anglers will fish a larger dry fly that they can see and drop a tiny trico off of their larger dry. You can also get away with fishing larger “cluster” dry flies such as a buzzball in sizes 16-18 that may resemble several tricos floating together.
By mid-day, the trico fishing is most likely over, and anglers either cast double nymph rigs or terrestrial dries. The Missouri River below Holter Dam is lined with farm fields, and there is no shortage of big, juicy grasshoppers for fish to feed on. Many anglers choose to fish a hopper fly as their main fly and drop a smaller ant or beetle off the back to pick off fish that may not want the full steak dinner. Look for trout in all usual places: deep pools, slicks, behind or in front of structure, along the bank, and under overhanging brush when the sun is high in the summer sky. By late August, you’ll still have hatches of tricos, caddis in the evening, and some decent terrestrial fishing before things cool down and the river moves into another phase.
Much like May, the month of September can bring many diverse fishing options from streamers to dries. Hatches of tricos may begin to occur a little bit later in the morning once things start to warm up after cooler nights in the first half of the month. If casting tiny dry flies to Missouri River trout wasn’t challenging enough, the excess of weeds in the river will add another element to the game. Once hooked, many anglers lose fish that swim down in the thick weeds that have had time to grow and collect on the water’s surface. It can also be difficult trying to keep your dry fly clean of weeds when making your presentation. In any challenge, whether it is wind or weeds, the best thing to do is use it to your advantage. In this case, finding beds of weeds can be productive, as it acts as a vacuum for collecting thousands of bugs. And where the food is, the trout are not far behind!
By the end of September, anglers are back to slowly stripping and swinging streamers, targeting fish on the surface, eating blue-winged olives, and nymphing. There may also be a few large (size 8-10) October caddis. One great thing about this month is the amount of boat traffic subsides, with many anglers transitioning to hunting and cooler weather keeping rafters off the water. You’ll most likely have a lot of water to yourself, especially in late September.
Popular Missouri River Flies
Pale Morning Duns
- Last Chance Cripple (size 14-20)
- Film Critic PMD (size 14-18)
- CDC Rusty Paraspinner (size 14-20)
- Split Case PMD (size 14-18)
- Sparkle Dun PMD (size 14-18)
- Henry’s Fork Caddis (size 14-18)
- X-Caddis (size 14-18)
- Spent Partridge Caddis (size 14-18)
- EZ Caddis (size 14-18)
- CDC Paraspinner Trico (size 18-22)
- Buzzball (size 16-20)
- Cluster Midge (size 16-18)
- Pink/Black Morrish Hopper (size 8-12)
- Parachute Hopper (size 8-10)
Nymphs, Midges, and Scuds
- Two Bit Hooker (size 14-18)
- Bubble Yum Scud (size 12-18)
- Tungsten Zebra Midge – black, purple, brown (size 16-20)
- Rainbow Warrior (size 14-18)
- Tailwater Sow Bug (size 14-18)
- Juju Baetis (size 18-20)
- Barely Legal – olive/white (size 4)
- Home Invader – black, white, olive (size 6)
- Kreelex (size 6)
- Sparkle Minnow Sculpin (size 4-8)
The Lodge at Eagle Rock – is the first all-inclusive, full-service luxury fishing lodge on the Missouri River. In addition to some of the finest trout fishing in the world, guests at The Lodge at Eagle Rock will enjoy attentive service, gourmet meals, luxury accommodations, and personalized packages that pair them with professional outfitters and guides. Whether you want to pit your skills against the browns and rainbows of the Missouri, take a jet-boat ride to the “Land of the Giants,” wade-fish hoppers on Prickly Pear Creek or raft down the Dearborn, the Lodge at Eagle Rock is the one destination on the Missouri River that can put it all together for you.
Missouri River Ranch – located just outside Craig, Montana, offers couples, friends, families, and small corporate groups luxury accommodations and Missouri River frontage surrounded by 160 acres of wildflowers and meadows. Over a mile of private access to the Missouri River runs through the Ranch property, which will keep any angler busy before or after a day of drifting. Owners Chip and Sue Anderson have upgraded the amenities to create a one-of-a-kind Ranch with warm and welcoming hospitality, paired with close proximity to some of the best trout fishing in the U.S., making the Missouri River Ranch the ultimate destination for fishing the famed Missouri River. The Ranch works with local guides and outfitters in the region who have a solid reputation for taking great care of guests and putting them on fish all day. Non-angling activities include hikes, mountain biking, massages, cooking classes, as well as day trips to the many museums and historical sites within a short driving distance of the Ranch.
The Trout Shop – is the perfect example of what a true fly shop in Montana should be like. The shop is located in the heart of Craig, Montana and only a short walk away from the famous Missouri River. Besides being one of the best-stocked fly shops in the Western United States, their services also include fully guided fishing trips on the Missouri River, lodging options, drift boats, gear rentals, and shuttle services. Not to mention a great deli and convenience store attached to the fly shop. They truly are a one-stop fly shop.
All guide trips originate in the mornings at The Trout Shop fly shop. Everything will be arranged from top quality guides, a fresh custom lunch from their deli, and logistical support while you enjoy the river. Your guide will bring you back to the fly shop at the end of the day. Some say that the Missouri River is the “world’s largest spring creek.” It is known for its prolific hatches, dry fly fishing, and feisty rainbow and brown trout.
Missoula River Lodge – When it comes to pure dry fly fishing, the rivers in Missoula’s vicinity provide some of the best opportunities! Former NFL linebacker Joe Cummings is the owner of A Classic Journey Outfitters, the outfitter for the Missoula River Lodge. Throughout the season, his team of guides pursues trout on famed rivers, including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Rock Creek, and the Missouri River. Accommodations for packages are at the Missoula River Lodge with three different fully-furnished locations, all on the centrally-located Clark Fork River. A Classic Journey Outfitters is our first pick in the Missoula area and is the total package when it comes to lodging and world-class fishing. The Missoula River Lodge has rightly earned a reputation of putting guests into fish on a dry fly, making for a great Montana fly fishing experience.