An Expert Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Montana

Montana is high on the list of must-fish places for most anglers! Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith lists some of the best places to fish around the state.

Two men smiling and each holding large trout.

Some big catches. Photo by Joseph Smith

If you are an angler of any stripe, you know that Montana and western fly fishing are synonymous. Perhaps it is due to the movie A River Runs Through It that the splendor of Montana’s streams was forever canonized in the world of fly fishing. Big trout combined with beautiful landscapes. What more could an angler wish for? If the Big Sky state is not on your bucket list, I would encourage you to revise it. This is a state that has some of the best fly fishing in the country. Just a reminder, in Montana, anglers have the right to access rivers below the high-water mark. Please be respectful of landowners and posted land. As laws and regulations change, make sure to consult updated regulations before going.

Yellowstone Area

Two men kneeling in wet sand. One is holding a trout.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Some of the best-known rivers are around Yellowstone National Park. Many of these rivers also flow through Wyoming. Although the same river, management may differ, so be sure to check local regulations.

Gallatin River

The Gallatin River.

Gallatin River. Photo by Bryn Gibson

This river has it all. From its start in Yellowstone National Park, this river flows through some very scenic country. Dry flies and nymphs fishing will yield rainbow and brown trout. Float fishing is not allowed on this river, so bring your waders.

Madison River

Formed by the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers in Yellowstone Park, this is one of the best-known rivers in Montana. The upper portion is known as the 50-mile riffle, and dry fly-fishing yields large fish, and a famous salmon fly hatch occurs here every June. Popular spots include the $3 bridge due to its wade access. Downstream, Beartrap canyon will reward the adventurous as access can be challenging. Do not overlook Hebgen Lake, Quake Lake, and Ennis Lake, which are all located on the Madison River as places to cast streamer flies to cruising trout in the shallows. Fish these baitfish imitations on a strip retrieve for some exciting takes. Wade and Cliff Lakes are two crystal clear alpine lakes near the $3 bridge that can be fished with a canoe.

Yellowstone River

Running 692 miles, this river is the longest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States. Although the lower sections near its confluence with the Missouri River are good warm water fishing (and even walleye), the section near Livingston is trout fishing at its finest. Cutthroat, rainbow, and big brown trout make this river their home. In the lower trout waters near Big Timber, streamer fishing yields big trout.

Missouri River

A man holds out a fish while sitting on a boat.

Most rivers in Montana eventually end up in the Missouri River. The Missouri River starts at the Three Forks where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers meet. There are many great places to fish on this river, but the section below Holter Dam is popular as the state of Montana provides multiple public access points in this area. The focus in this tailwater section is dry fly fishing for monster-sized fish. The Canyon Ferry Reservoir section is known as a trophy fishing section for brown trout that swim up from the reservoir in October.

Bighorn River

This tributary of the Yellowstone River flows through an isolated scenic area in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Near Fort Smith, this tailwater river will produce browns and rainbows consistently in the 14- to 18-inch range. Hatches of blue-wing olives and tricos produce plenty of dry fly action. Below Yellowtail Dam, there are estimations that this blue-ribbon trout stream holds 3000-5000 fish per mile.

Jefferson River

A man in a boat holding a large trout.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Although this river is not as well known as its headwaters, the Beaverhead and Big Hole, the Jefferson River is still worth fishing in the spring and fall. During July, the summer irrigation needs may make the water flow less than ideal. Although this is not ideal trout waters, large trout are caught here.

Beaverhead River

Only a 2 ½ hour drive from Bozeman near Dillon, this stream starts at Clark Canyon dam and flows for 80 miles before entering Jefferson River. This river is known for abundant mayfly and caddis hatches and sports a large brown and rainbow trout population. Long leaders, fine tippets, and dead drift presentations are required to catch these pressured fish.

Big Hole River

A man stands on a boat on the bank of a river.

Photo by Joseph Smith

This freestone river in Southwestern Montana drains into the Beaverhead River. It has an epic salmonfly hatch in June. Other insect hatches produce action as well and have considerably less fishing pressure.

Ruby River

This tributary of the Big Hole River is a small fishery that runs through Ruby Valley. This river has the advantage of receiving less fishing pressure than other nearby larger streams. Rainbow and brown trout eagerly gulp hopper imitations cast up against the grass banks. Although too small for a float trip, this is a great river for walking and wade fishing.

Clark Fork River

This is a river of rebirth. At one time, this was a dead river due to mine runoff. A superfund cleanup has revived this river and created a home for monster rainbow and brown trout. The more popular sections are near Missoula where the Blackfoot and Rock Creek add cool water.

Bitterroot River

Located near Missoula, this river does not get as much pressure as other rivers in the area. Rainbow trout are the main sought-after fish, although brown and cutthroat trout can be caught here as well. Plenty of good hatches on this river will keep dry fly fishermen happy.

Rock Creek

This tributary of Clark Fork has just about everything needed for a quality trout stream – riffles, runs, pools, cutbacks, boulders, and strainers. This smaller stream is an idyllic place to cast to rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout.

Blackfoot River

A man with a cigar in his mouth holds a large trout over a fish net. There is a body of water in the background.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Another tributary of the Clark Fork River, this is the river made famous by the movie (although some of the scenes were filmed on the Gallatin). This picturesque river has westslope cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout that willingly take attractor flies. This freestone river is accessible to both drift boats and wading.

Smith River

This is an off-the-grid river. Sixty miles of amazing scenery and limestone canyon walls require a highly sought-after float permit to experience. To truly experience this blue-ribbon trout fishery, using a float guide is your best bet.

South Fork of the Flathead River

Near Glacier National Park is the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Here, only the southwest corner is accessible with dirt roads. Anywhere else will require backpacking, a pack horse, or a pack raft. Here, you truly will be in the most remote area in the lower 48 states. Wild westslope cutthroat and bull trout can be targeted and the wildlife and scenery will be spectacular.

Sun River

Beginning on the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, this river offers seclusion as well. Below the Sun River Dam, this is an isolated wild river that flows through Sun River Canyon and then spills out onto the prairie. Although irrigation demands limit trout reproduction, the Sun River offers anglers shots at trout in areas that do not see the influx of anglers that other locations in Montana do.

Paradise Valley Spring Creeks

These privately-owned creeks do charge admission. Large rainbow and brown trout are common, but landing them can be a challenge. These are day trips if you are staying in Livingston or Gardiner and want to mix fishing up from the Yellowstone River.

Private Land

Secret honey holes and rivers that can only be accessed through private lands abound. For the adventurous, a topographic map, an ultralight fly rod, and some flies are all that are needed to venture into the backcountry to make your own fly fishing trip. Just about any stream, especially in the western portion of the state, likely holds trout. The use of a guide will often grant access to private waters that has phenomenal fishing that the public does not have access to. If the other options are too crowded or you are daring and bold, find some of these locations on your own. It may be well worth it.

Final Thoughts

A man leans back on a boat. There is water and mountains in the background.

A moment of relaxation. Photo by Joseph Smith

Montana fly fishing has something for everyone. It is no wonder that Montana is one of the top destinations for fly fishing. If you have questions or need help selecting a rod, reel, and line for a Montana trip or gearing up for your next adventure, please reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert at Curated. We would love to help. Tight Lines!

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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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