Anyone, and we mean anyone, can fly fish in Montana. Guides set out all times of the year, with clients of every stripe: some have never picked up a rod, others are looking for multi-day excursions in remote wilderness. Spinning gear – known also as rod and reel – has serious limits. If you’ve never tried fly fishing, or have never taken a trip to the western US, Montana is the ideal place to get started, just don’t forget your rod holder!
You can’t fail to find great rivers here, which is why Montana fly fishing is legendary. Whether you are looking for a quick trip to the river banks, or a guided float, you cannot go wrong in this part of the country. Montana is the fourth largest state, but has a population of under one million – so anglers find Montana fly fishing a literal wide-open paradise.
The rivers running through Montana are famous for trout, and this guide will help you decide where to snag a pan-sized rainbow trout or pull in a record breaking brown. We’ve included five destinations where the fishing is excellent, and yet doesn’t require a four-wheel drive vehicle or hike to reach.
Because Montana is vast, we’ve selected five surefire hits for Montana fly fishing in every season.
- Clark Fork River
In the Clark Fork River (named for Captain William Clark, and forking off the huge Columbia River), the fishing is fine from June through September, from the wee hours till sunset. The summer months are known for PMDs. As summer comes to an end, Hoppers come out to play and by fall (you can fish up to mid-September most years), the Mahoganies are in season. Rainbow, brown and cutthroat swim these waters. This large river can host huge pods of 20 to 30 fish, and is popular with anglers who prefer to dry fly it. The fish hatching differs every year, but Montana fly fishing enthusiasts return again and again to the Clark Fork.
- The Bitterroot River
This famous river flows 84 miles through the western part of the state, and is known for
its spring fishing, beginning later in March, through April. The river is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery that holds native bull and cutthroat. In late March the dark green Skwala Stonfly hatches, and the trout begin to jump. What’s great about the Bitterroot River, though, is it’s year-round fly fishing: in summer, anglers can find mayfly and caddis hatching. In spring, some very large trout will be swimming through the cool waters of the Bitterroot, and decent-sized rainbows love the waters here.
- The Missouri River
The Missouri rivals the famous Mississippi River in size, but has a remote feel in the rolling landscape of Montana. For great Montana fly fishing, you can start just a half hour from Bozeman, after flying in. Below Holter Dam lies a stretch of tailwater running near Wolf Creek and Craig. Lodging and guides make this an ideal first trip to explore Montana fly fishing, especially since over 5,000 trout swim per mile below the dam. In addition, this river holds sizable populations of carp. As a tailwater, anglers can fish here in winter months. The Missouri is spring-fed, and offers endless opportunities to cast your fly for some record setting trout.
- Ruby River
Despite its name, the Ruby River does not run red, but it does sit below the appropriately named Ruby Dam. This smaller river is similar to the last one on our list (Beaverhead), and although chock full of fish, access can be spotty. The Ruby runs from one ranch to the next, and cannot be floated. This makes it less popular, however, for the dedicated angler willing to locate public lands along the Ruby. Bring your waders, and you may find a stretch where you are the only angler around. The Madison and Big Hole fishing spots are close by, so fly fisherman often go for those more accessible spots. You’ll find fish feeding on copious grasshoppers, especially in midsummer. Both rainbow and brown trout swim these waters, and the Ruby is known for its early (late March, April) catches.
- Beaverhead River
We think this one is misnamed, as it’s less a river and more of a wide gulch. Located below a dam, this river is located in southwest Montana near Dillon, and runs a total of only 69 miles. For recreation, the Beaverhead is Class I water so you may find a rafter or two here. As a tailwater, smaller dry flies are what work here, such as nymphs, but bring your whole fly kit because August waters bring high waters from the dam, and the banks of the Beaverhead are filled with anglers casting white streamers into its swollen waters.