Fly Fishing in Montana – Guide
Our home state of Montana arguably offers some of the world’s finest fly fishing opportunities for numerous species of trout. Whether you prefer casting tiny dry flies to technical Missouri River rainbow trout, chucking large streamers on the Yellowstone River for trophy browns, or nymphing seams on the “50 Mile Riffle” (a.k.a. The Madison River), there is enough variety to please every angler. In addition, from the high alpine lakes to large freestone rivers and everything in between, Montana has more fishable water than someone could learn in a lifetime. It can be pretty overwhelming when you look at where you want to spend your time from a 30,000-foot view. With the sheer amount of fishing variety, fishable water, and lodging options, it is our goal at Yellow Dog to help you determine which Montana fly fishing trip may be ideal for you. We have a diverse range of vacation packages and lodging options suited for anglers of every skill level, and we’re ready to match your trip needs and requirements to the best possible fit! Continue reading below to learn about the different trout streams, appropriate gear, weather, and more.
Montana Fly Fishing Species
Montana is home to an array of fish species, but anglers from around the globe travel here to pursue trout on the fly. The different trout species include brown, rainbow, cutthroat, brook, bull, and lake trout; however, only cutthroat, bull, and lake trout are native. Scientists believe that only rainbow trout in the northwest corner of Montana in the upper Kootenai River drainage are native to Montana. In addition, Rocky Mountain whitefish and grayling are also native.
Rainbow and brown trout were introduced in southwest Montana in 1889, the same year Montana officially became a state. The rainbow trout anglers catch today on rivers such as the Gallatin River are descendants of rainbows from the McCloud River in northern California. Brown trout derived from Europe and parts of Asia and were first planted in Montana’s Madison River.
There are two subspecies of native cutthroat trout. The Yellowstone Cutthroat is found in southwest Montana and parts of eastern Idaho, and northwest Wyoming. They are distinguishable by their yellow sides, peach-colored bands, and a red slash across their jaw. Westslope cutthroat trout, Montana’s state fish, is mainly found in the western part of Montana in cold and healthy streams that are crucial for their survival. Westslope cutthroat is more of a silvery color than their Yellowstone cousins, but they still sport the iconic red slash across the jawline.
Bull trout country is considered the far west/northwest part of Montana. While they have “trout” in their name, modern-day science determines that they are a separate species from Dolly Varden. Today, bull trout are labeled as a threatened species due to their population decline, and extensive fishing regulations have been put in place to ensure their survival.
Brook trout were imported from parts of eastern North America in 1889 as well, where they now flourish in cold and intimate settings, such as small ponds and headwaters, across the western half of the state. Brook trout are distinguishable by their dark greenbacks, orange fins, and multi-colored spots.
Traveling to Montana
Traveling to and getting around Montana is easy compared to many congested cities and locations across the U.S. Five commercial airports, all serviced by major U.S. airlines, will give you access to the majority of our Montana fishing lodges and operators: Billings (BIL), Bozeman (BZN), Great Falls (GTF), Helena (HLN), and Missoula (MSO). Most lodges will provide pre-arranged ground transportation or shuttle to and from the airport.
Weather in Montana
We often get asked when is the best time to fly fish in Montana? Although it can snow at any time of the year, it is rare to see a snowy day during the summer heat in July and August. Montana begins to warm up in mid-April, right after the skwala hatches, and the first march brown mayflies start to appear on numerous streams. The month of May is refreshing as everything begins to blossom, and the trees and grasses display every shade of green. Weather in May is usually in the 40-70 degree range, but snow showers can still occur, so always pack a jacket.
By June, the average high temperatures fall between 70 and 80 degrees. In the first half of the month, expect to get some showers or an afternoon thunderstorm. Most Montana rivers are in runoff or starting to get into fishing shape by the end of June if they are freestone rivers.
July through August are the hottest months of the year. You can expect highs of around 90 degrees and lows in the 40-degree range. Remember, just because it is hot during the day, you’re still at a high elevation! When the sun drops below the mountains, it can get cold at night. Always be ready for cold weather and pack accordingly.
August is one of the sunniest months in Montana, with an average of over twenty days of full sunshine. It is also one of the driest months, with an average rainfall of fewer than 1.5 inches throughout the state.
The month of September brings cooler weather with an average high of around 70 degrees and an average low of approximately 45 degrees. Around mid-September, the leaves on the aspen trees begin to fade into their vibrant fall colors. By October, we are in the peak fall season – one of the most beautiful times to be in Montana.
Recommended Flies for Montana
There are thousands of different trout patterns, from nymphs to streamers, available for purchase at fly shops across the state. It can be pretty overwhelming to know what to grab or tie for your trip. While we could list tons of different flies, these patterns are tried and true. If you get these flies in a range of colors and sizes, you’ll be able to effectively fish the entire state of Montana at any time of year.
- Sparkle Duns (size 10-20)
- X Caddis (size 10-20)
- Rusty Spinner (size 10-20)
- Buzzball (size 14-18)
- Last Chance Cripple (size 10-18)
- Chubby Chernobyl (size 8-14)
- Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Stone – Golden and Salmon Fly (size 4-8)
- Film Critic (size 12-18)
- Renegade (size 12-18)
- Morrish Hopper (size 6-10)
- Foam Beetle (size 12-16)
- Two Bit (size 12-18)
- Zebra Midge (size 12-20)
- Flashback Pheasant Tail (size 12-20)
- Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-16)
- Pink Scud (size 10-18)
- Squirmy Worm (size 12-14)
- Home Invader (size 2)
- Sparkle Minnow (size 4)
- Barely Legal (size 4 and 1/0)
- Galloup’s Dungeon (size 2)
Overview of Montana Trout Streams
The Gallatin flows over 90 miles with the addition of small creeks adding to its flow. It originates from springs in Yellowstone National Park. It flows down towards Three Forks, where the Gallatin joins the Jefferson River and Madison River to form the Missouri River. The Gallatin River in south-central Montana is one of the top fly fishing destinations in the state, located in the beautiful Gallatin Valley.
There are three known sections of the Gallatin; the Meadow, Canyon, and Valley sections. The Meadow stretch extends approximately 30 miles from Yellowstone to Big Sky. Riffles, runs, and pocket water characterizes the Gallatin here. To reach the upper Gallatin near Gallatin Lake in the park, one has to hike up the Bighorn Pass trail. These headwaters have a good population of cutthroat trout along with stunning views. The Canyon stretch runs approximately 25 miles through a narrow, shaded, rocky gorge. The classic river fishing scenes from A River Runs Through It was filmed in this section. Lastly, the Valley section contains 35 miles of traditional Western freestone water. The lower valley section, as the river flows close to Four Corners, Montana, is known for its incredible local fly fishing. For any fly fishing enthusiast, the Gallatin River is a bucket list place to fish.
The Gallatin is fishable most of the year; however, the most popular time to fish is during the summer months when strong hatches of mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies occur. Anglers fish stoneflies, attractor nymphs, dry dropper setups. By late May, runoff begins, and the Gallatin usually is not fishable until mid-June. Late June is salmon fly time on the Gallatin, and July brings the golden stones, caddis, and PMDs. August and September is terrestrial season; hoppers, caddis, and attractor dry flies.
Expect to see many types of wildlife, from bears to elk or bighorn sheep; make sure you bring your camera to capture some of nature’s best scenes. Rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and cut-bow hybrids are the primary species for the Gallatin in the 12 to even 20-inch range. Below Big Sky, Montana, the Gallatin enters a canyon where the water moves very quickly and is highly oxygenated. A dry-dropper setup can be successful through the summer months. Nymphing is a fantastic tactic to catch these fish as the pools are deep, rocky, and fast. A swung sculpin or quickly retrieved sparkle minnow will be perfect for targeting the bigger fish in the Gallatin.
The Beaverhead River begins flowing below Clark Canyon Dam as a tailwater just outside the town of Dillon and flows for 80 miles to the confluence with the Jefferson River. In the first sixteen miles below the Dam, the river flows tight and windy through hills. The banks of the Beaverhead River are lined with willows, cottonwood trees, and grass. Aside from the excellent angling, the summertime float parties are a common obstacle. If not floating the Beaverhead River in a raft or drift boat, the bank access is quite good with many official access sites. Prime float fishing flows between Clark Canyon Reservoir, and Barrett’s Diversion Dam is considered to be 600-1000 CFS. At this flow rate, wade fly fishing is challenging.
Better flows for wading occur when the river drops to 300 CFS. The higher flows are seen in late spring and early summer. Frequently the tint and bump in flow make the fishing very productive. As the Beaverhead River flows lower into the valley, irrigation takes a large portion of water, and the river loses a significant volume. Also, amongst the lower river is a lot of private lands. The floats through these waters on good water years can be incredible. The Beaverhead is a pressured river with picky but large trout that need to be fooled on small nymphs, using appropriate tippet. The rewards can be magnificent. The Beaverhead River is also prime water for large brown trout with gravel, undercut banks, lots of structure, and excellent hatches. The Beaverhead produces more sizeable brown trout consistently than any other river in Montana. The browns commonly range from twelve to fifteen inches. Either streamer fishing on a stormy fall day or nymphing the perfect run loaded with remarkable fish, the angler on the hunt for a true earned 20″ plus brown will find success here.
The upper stretch of the river is primarily a nymph fishing river. Some of the large fish do get fooled every year with terrestrial patterns throughout the summer months. The Beaverhead River does have great caddis hatches during the summer, making for a great surface and subsurface opportunity. The fishing can be more demanding in the colder months as the water is low, but the larger fish can be fooled on streamers out of deep pools in the open sections.
Big Hole River
The Big Hole River in Montana is one of the most infamous rivers of them all for fly fishing and scenery. The Big Hole River only flows for 155 miles and starts at Skinner Lake in the Beaverhead Mountains close to the Idaho state border. Three sections can characterize the Big Hole River; the Upper Big Hole River, Big Hole River Canyon, and the lower. It begins as a scenic, mountainous, smaller flowing stream through Wisdom, Montana. Eventually, it turns into the Big Hole River valley, where the flow volume is more notable and braids through gorgeous cottonwoods. It is known for its unique brown stain from iron content levels, yet it is still evident. But don’t let this fool you because there is a significant population of feasting trout that don’t mind it one bit.
There are 155 miles of river that make up the Big Hole, with a great portion being private and public. The river along Highway 43 is the most accessible, with both official and unofficial access points throughout. This section of the river is ideal for wade fisherman with a narrower width and calmer current. In the upper river, this reach of the Big Hole River is characterized by a slow-moving, high meadow stream and where native Arctic Grayling also call it home. One will also find a good brook trout population here and a smaller population of rainbows and browns.
Heavily populated by thick stonefly hatches, the canyon section of the river is defined by large boulders and pocket water. The steep canyon walls provide tons of structure for these fish. Anglers should come prepared with nymphs, streamers, and dries and be ready to switch up methods. A significant number of resident trout, unmatched scenery, and fantastic bug hatches throughout the primary fishing season make the Canyon section of the Big Hole River a world-class trout fishery.
The Lower Big Hole finds its way through Melrose, Montana, where it eventually meets the Jefferson River outside Twin Bridges. This piece of the Big Hole is littered with cottonwoods and side channels, riffles, deep, long pools, and an abundance of solid Rainbows and Browns. This section is known for floating with a drift boat and also has great streamer water for pre-runoff
One of the most popular times of year to fish is the month of June. The reasons are the water is just clearing up from runoff and the salmon fly hatch. Big fish are on the prowl for these high-protein meals. There are a variety of bugs that hatch throughout the year. The most notable freestone river hatches begin with Skwallas, then transition to caddis, and the salmon fly and golden stone hatch in June. Hatches of tricos and spruce moths take over the scene in late July through August and keep the fish looking up. And, of course, the hoppers abound for large rainbow trout and brown trout on this section.
The Madison River begins inside Yellowstone National Park at the confluence of the Firehole River and Gibbon River. From the beginning, the Madison flows for more than 140 miles through astounding views, valleys, high cliff walls, and canyon water before it arrives in Three Forks. The Madison River offers superb fishing. All fishermen tend to enjoy this river because the dry fly fisherman, the nymph fisherman, and the streamer fisherman all find success fishing for wild rainbow trout and large brown trout.
The Madison River runs for twenty-three miles within the park before exiting and making its way outside West Yellowstone. From there, the river flows into Hebgen Lake and eventually dumps into Quake Lake. The section between Hebgen and Quake is known as the “between the lakes” area with great numbers of sizeable trout. This section fishes well in the fall for migratory brown trout coming up from Quake.
Below Quake, the river flows steep and downward with class 3 and 4 rapids until it flattens out into the Madison River Valley. Its next destination is Ennis, MT, where the Madison River flows into Ennis Lake, where it then passes through a dam and flows through Bear Trap Canyon with more whitewater.
As the canyon ends, the lower Madison flows for approximately 31 miles and offers great floating and wade fishing access for nice brown trout and rainbows, too, not far from Bozeman, MT.
The river flows at a consistent speed and, in many locations, is full of large boulders and shallow runs or pocket water. Stonefly and caddis hatches make both the nymphing and dry fly fishing excellent during the spring and summer months. The fishery holds strong through the fall for large browns on the move upstream inside the park and between the lakes while using streamers.
The Yellowstone is the longest free-flowing river in the United States – beginning in Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota. It starts flowing out of Yellowstone Lake, then moving north downstream from Gardiner, Montana, through a scenic canyon, a popular spot for whitewater kayakers. Then, it passes through another canyon called Yankee Jim. Once through Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone shoots out into Paradise Valley, one of the most scenic, beautiful valleys in all of Montana.
Fly fishing and floating the Yellowstone can be a fantastic experience with beautiful views all around and great fishing. It is most common to fish between Gardiner and Livingston. This is the most mellow section for both floating and wading. There is excellent access on the river when it isn’t roaring during high water, upwards of 20,000 CFS. Once the water begins to recede in the summer, it is relatively easy to walk along exposed graveled riverbanks.
The Yellowstone River holds a population of Yellowstone Cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, whitefish, and brown trout in the upper half of the river. The lower half (Below Big Timber)is unique; it turns into a warm water fishery with walleye, catfish, and sturgeon.
When fly fishing the Yellowstone River, it is easier to do it from a boat versus wading. While wading or fishing from the bank is popular and effective during Mother’s Day caddis picking fish one by one, fishing from a boat is a considerable advantage as the water is wide and flows quickly.
The Yellowstone supports a wide variety of insect, sculpin, and fish habitats that, in turn, offer exceptional dry fly fishing and sub-surface fishing with nymphs and streamers. The deep troughs and shelves on the Yellowstone make for excellent streamer fishing and, during stonefly hatches, dry dropper opportunities. June and July are ideal months for fly fishing the Yellowstone with caddis, salmon flies, and golden stoneflies when the flows drop. To find genuinely trophy-sized brown and rainbow trout, plan your trip accordingly. Give us a call at Yellow Dog, and we’ll be happy to assist you with this.
The “Mighty MO,” or the Missouri River, is arguably the best fly fishing tailwater in the state. Many locals and well-traveled fly fishing enthusiasts even place this fishery as one of the best in the lower 48 states.
From the Holter Dam downstream to Cascade, MT is a 40-mile stretch home to approximately 3,500 to 5,500 fish per mile. Rainbows and browns exceeding 16 inches are plentiful, and it is no question why this section of the Missouri has its reputation. The majority of fish are rainbow trout that average between 14-18 inches. The occasional browns tend to be a bit larger.
There is a fair amount of river access from the Holter Dam to the city of Cascade, with numerous public access sites. With great fertility and prolific hatches of mayflies, caddis, and midges, the Missouri River can fish well year-round.
Late June through August is the best time of year for this tailwater. Weeds grow tall, but fish move shallow, and the hatches take off. While there is somewhat of an absence of stonefly hatches, the terrestrials can be plentiful during the late summer months. The strong group of consistent bug hatches is midges, baetis, caddis, and PMD’s.
In the winter, spring and fall, many enjoy trout spey fishing this wide, long, flat river. And, of course, it is known for deep nymphing long seam lines with scuds and 5x tippet.
The Bighorn River starts at Boysen Reservoir in Wyoming and eventually makes its way to Montana over 150 miles downstream. The river then moves into Bighorn Lake, which Yellowtail Dam forms. Once the water passes below the dam, the river flows through an isolated landscape as a tailwater stream, traveling through the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area for the first twenty miles – finally passing through the reservation for twenty-eight miles on its way to the confluence with the Yellowstone River.
Both the Pryor and Bighorn Mountains backdrop the valley and stream throughout. There are many rock cliffs with scattered trees for the terrain. There is a mix of grass, cottonwood trees, and all sorts of brush along the bank. The Bighorn produces average brown and rainbow trout in the 15-16 inch range; however, larger trout are occasionally caught. With great hatches year-round, including midges, BWO, caddis, and some golden stones, the Bighorn can fish well throughout the year. Usually, it is fished with very consistent patterns like rubber legs, worms, pheasant tails, and other attractor nymphs. Although when a hatch is popping off, double dry fly rigs work well to target rising fish. Trout fishing on the Bighorn River excels within the first 13 miles below the dam, to the Bighorn Access Site. In these upper thirteen miles, flows are controlled by the dam and stay relatively consistent. As a result, it seems to always flow cold and clear, at a good pace.
As the river progresses further downstream, irrigation begins to pull a good portion of water, making the stream slower and warmer. Big browns like these conditions, even though they don’t come in great numbers. The trophy trout tend to lurk alone. During warm months on the lowest sections of the Bighorn, it is known as a warm water fishery for catfish, whitefish, and bass.
The Smith is one of Montana’s most remote stretches of river between the Big Belt and Little Belt Mountains. It holds value as the river flows through true wilderness. Montana’s Smith River begins around White Sulphur Springs, a small ranch town located almost directly north of Bozeman. The river then courses for over 60 miles through canyons, mountains, dense trees, and forests before entering the Missouri. The river is full of great opportunities for brown trout of up to 18 inches and rainbows of up to 15 inches.
When using the word remote, many activists are working to keep the Smith this way as the access is minimal. Anyone looking to float the river is required to register and obtain a state legislated permit that can only be drawn at random and in a specific amount or by going with an outfitter designated to fish the Smith.
Several types of trout can be targeted throughout the entire river system, including rainbow, brown, and brook trout. Seek fishing the deeper holes or canyon walls to find the lurking brown trout. Aside from the canyons, the Smith holds many downed trees and undercut banks. Although the weather is not always ideal due to color and runoff, April provides excellent fishing and floating along the Smith River. The higher water commonly provides for excellent nymph fishing.
June is typically the best month to fish and float the Smith as the river begins to clear and the water is cold as the sun picks up heat in the dog days of summer. The hatches become plentiful from evening caddis to PMD’s and foam attractor dry flies to imitate the handful of Skwala and Stoneflies that hatch. From July until September, terrestrials will become an essential part of the trout’s diet, especially the rainbows.
Ready to begin planning your Montana fly fishing adventure? Give us a call at Yellow Dog, and we will be happy to assist you!