Our Classroom: Montana's Fly Fishing Waters
Variety, challenges, and plenty of fat trout
At Montana Fishing Guide School, the spring creeks, rivers, and lakes of Montana offer the best location in the world to learn the profession of guiding. Our locations of Bozeman, Helena, Craig, and Big Sky offer up the best access to waters that will hone your guiding skills and challenge your angling ability. In addition to our area waters, these locations have more fly shops and outfitters per capita than any region in the world-making it an ideal location for prospective guides. Toss in a wide selection of dining and lodging options, and it is clear the XXX Guide School's classroom is as "Montana" as it gets. Our daily on-the-water sessions will take place on any of the following spring creeks, smaller freestones, larger rivers, and private lakes. We create our week's itinerary and on-stream instruction based on what fishing options offer the most rewarding teaching opportunities. If you desire is to be a guide, be a better guide, or just take your fishing to the next level, few things will make you better than a session fishing our classroom!
Consistency and Challenge: The Missouri Rivertop
- Home Base: Helena or Craig
- Seasons: Year-round
- Prime Tactics: Dry fly head-hunting and deep nymphing
The Missouri begins where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers all converge a few miles north of Three Forks, Montana. This area, know of Headwaters State Park is not thought of as a fishing destination, yet. There is a lot of water to explore in the area around Three Forks, but very few anglers report great fishing on the Missouri near the headwaters. When fly anglers speak of the Missouri in Montana they are referring to the 40-miles of water downstream of Holter Dam. These 40-miles offer some of the best fly fishing for large trout in Montana and in the world. The river immediately below the headwaters and down to Canyon Ferry Reservoir holds a few trout and is slowly gaining popularity for its exciting sight-fishing for carp, but this chapter will mostly refer to the water below Holter Dam and to Cascade. Adventurous anglers are encouraged to explore other areas of the Missouri but few services exists to cater to anglers on parts of the river other than the water below Holter. More >
Before the late '90s the Missouri was an obscure tailwater fishery in central Montana known more for Lewis and Clark history than as a world-class fishery. That all changed when every fly fishing magazine in the country ran a feature-length story on the fishing action occurring on the Missouri. This great fishing was directly related to the cyclical nature of the rivers fish populations. Following a five to eight year cycle - meaning at some point between five and eight years, fish populations rise to numbers as high as 7,000 fish per mile and then drop to 2,500 fish per mile-the Missouri fish populations grew when some other rivers dropped. News of the great fishing on the Missouri spread and what was a little known river became a true destination. So how come today, when the numbers are a fraction of what they were during the "glory days" do anglers still flock to this river? Two words: rising trout. Today the Missouri may be the most consistent river in the northern Rocky Mountains, perhaps the world, where anglers can find rising trout any day of the year. During the angling season, which next to the Bighorn, is the second longest in Montana, dry fly enthusiasts will find large trout rising to various hatches.
Sections of the Missouri River
From the Headwaters to Canyon Ferry Reservoir
This section is really two parts: the water upstream of Toston Irrigation Dam and the water below Toston to Canyon Ferry Reservoir. These forty miles of river are not known for great fly fishing, but there are a few times during the course of the angling year when large trout will migrate from Canyon Ferry up to the irrigation diversion. Above the dam there are a few trout scattered here and there but few anglers bother with the slower moving, warm waters of the Missouri at its confluence. However, what all of these forty miles do have is some good to great fly fishing for carp. More >
Yes, the golden ghost. Many anglers are discovering the exciting carp fishing on the Missouri between the headwaters and Canyon Ferry. Especially in late summer when grasshoppers are in the surrounding wheat fields and then land in the river, the large populations of carp (some are ten pounds and bigger) feed like gangbusters. However this is not for the faint of heart because long casts, accurate presentations, and good fish-fighting technique are all critical. For any anglers who harbor disdain for carp, being humbled by these golden giants may coerce a change of opinion.
Carp aside, the river contains little else for fly anglers and once the Missouri is backed-up into Canyon Ferry Reservoir a serious of reservoirs limit the amount of water readily available to fly fishers. Because much of the fishing from Canyon Ferry downstream occurs on lakes, few fly fishers bother. However there are some adventurous locals fish for the reservoirs populations of rainbow and brown trout. Once in Canyon Ferry the Missouri then flows into Hauser Lake, then into Holter Lake. A few miles of river separates these bodies of water and it is not until the Holter Dam, and the water river below it, does the Missouri become a fabulous fishery.
From Holter Dam to Cascade
These forty miles of river provide anglers with ample access and varied fishing opportunities. Holter Dam creates a consistent flow, which means consistent water temperatures of clarity for the bulk of the angling season. Under those circumstances the river is best characterized as a gigantic spring creek for nearly forty miles. Weed beds, long riffles, great banks, and underwater shelves and potholes provide ample habitat for the rivers thriving trout population, with numbers hovering between 3,500 to 5,500 fish per mile on a yearly basis. And many of these trout are over 16-inches. More >
The first ten or so miles of river from Holter Dam to around Craig have the highest concentrations of fish per mile than the river below Craig. Access is quite easy and the river is wide, nearly 100 yards wide in some places. However, flows are often around 4,000 CFS making wading very easy for this stretch of water. Plus with the wonderful cooperation of a few landowners access is easy, safe, and always appreciated. With that being said that can only continue to be the case as long as local and visiting anglers treat the property they are one with respect and care.
This upper section of the river sees the greatest concentration of hatches than the lower river on down to Cascade. In the heat of the summer this water will also run a little cooler and therefore have more active trout.
Once the river passes below Craig is begins to enter the "canyon section" and is outlined by high canyon walls, some towering as high as 800 feet above the river. These walls create a very scenic backdrop to the good fishing. Anglers will find fewer anglers down here but also less trout than above Craig.
The character of the water changes some in the canyon and more riffles and banks are present. Floating anglers will have few problems in this stretch. However first time anglers may find the water down here a little difficult to read compared to the water above Craig. For anglers desiring a little more solitude the water in the canyon is a nice option.
Once the river exits the canyon around Tower Rock (appropriately named by Lewis & Clark) it leaves the rugged landscape behind for wide-open high plains. From here to Cascade the river is broad, with only one rapid, Half-Breed Rapids (also named by Lewis & Clark), and generally slow moving. Few anglers venture this far from Craig but the ones who do may find the occasional big brown trout but will also find some wind and some days with few fish. Most anglers down here are fishing bait and run the river in motorboats.
From Cascade and down it becomes a warm-water fishery with carp and a few other species. Trout can be found in the faster riffles but access is only available from a boat with a motor, as the next access downstream of the town of Cascade is too long a float for a driftboat.
Walk-Wade Technicality: The Paradise Valley Spring Creekstop
- Home Base: Bozeman or Livingston
- Seasons: Year-round
- Prime Tactics: Clear water stalking. Sight-nymphing and sight-casting to rising fish
Armstrong's/O'Hair's Spring Creek, DePuy's Spring Creek, Nelson's Spring Creek
- Favorite Stretches: DePuy's has the most variety, Nelson's is the most challenging, Armstrong's/O'Hair's is a nice mix of long runs and riffles with plenty of fish
- Seasons: Year-Round, prime season June through August
- Prime Hatches: Pale Morning Duns in late June
XXX Guide School believes walk-wade fishing is by far the best way to become a better angler. The intimate atmosphere of standing in the water within casting range of a trout is perfectly suited to increase the learning curve. The sight-fishing and hatch-matching that occurs on these spring creeks is both exciting and rewarding. In becoming the best guide possible, cutting one's teeth on spring creek trout is essential. These creeks teach the feeding habits of trout, allow for multiple sight-fishing opportunities, and offer a variety of fishing tactics. All of these are essential to becoming a better angler AND becoming a better guide.
The three creeks, Nelson's, DePuy's, and Armstrong's/O'Hair's offer challenging fishing in one of the most beautiful valleys in Montana, the Paradise Valley. DePuy's is the longest of the three creeks, then Armstrong's/O'Hairs, and then Nelson's. Anglers looking for selective fish in a technical piece of water should try their hand at some of these trout. If the fishing proves too difficult there is always the backdrop of the snow-capped Absorokas to enthrall the spirit.
Freestone Fickleness and Dry Fly Prospecting: The Yellowstone Rivertop
- Home Base: Bozeman or Livingston
- Seasons: Year-round
- Prime Tactics: Streamer fishing and attractor dry fly fishing
If Montana had a Yankee Stadium, the Yellowstone River would be it. Not only is the Yellowstone a fairly large river - it is over 200 feet wide in most parts and its peak flow is over 15,000 CFS - it boasts the state's longest length of high-quality trout water-nearly 120 miles of prime fly fishing. Oh, and, we haven't even mentioned that it begins in Yellowstone National Park, flows through Paradise Valley (aptly named for its majestic peaks), and the river is banked by cottonwoods and back-dropped by four distinct mountain ranges. More >
Bozeman is a popular jumping-off point for anglers headed to the Yellowstone. However, it is the town of Livingston that is the epicenter of the Yellowstone's fly fishing activity. If a town were to be created by a fly fisher, Livingston would be that town: Not too big, not too small, not over-priced, yet there is no Wal-Mart in town, and has the perfect mix of great food, lodging, and good beer. Plus, the river literally runs right through town as there are two Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks state managed access sites in town. Very few cities in Montana can lay claim to that.
Because the river drains such a large area and much of the drainage area is high mountain country, the Yellowstone experiences a prolonged runoff well into June and sometimes July. For some this adds to the excitement of fishing this river because the only way to know when it is fishable requires on-hand local knowledge. The river is devoid of any dams so the fish-ability of the river is entirely dependent on snowpack and whether and when it becomes fishable is related to when the muddy water from runoff clears enough to successfully fish.
Sections of the Yellowstone River
Yellowstone National Park Boundary to the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon
As the river tumbles out of Yellowstone Park at the town of Gardiner, anglers can begin to float fish the river and access becomes easier than in the remote sections of YNP. Wading anglers have a little more trouble wading because of the steep banks and willows that align the banks. Most people serious about fishing this stretch opt for a float trip. More >
This stretch is often referred to 16-or-so miles of water upstream Yankee Jim Canyon. Yankee Jim Canyon has three major rapids and many float-fishing anglers tend to stay out of the canyon. Whitewater enthusiasts and guides can be found floating the canyon on any given day.
The fishing in this stretch is fun and fast and Yellowstone cutthroats make up the bulk of the fish on this stretch. This typically means that on most days anglers will have plenty of fishing to dry flies, but the lack of many fish over 16 inches keeps many guides and locals from making this stretch a prime run. Browns, rainbows, and whitefish can also be found.
From Carbella Bridge/Outlet of Yankee Jim Canyon to Emigrant Bridge / Chico Hot Springs
As the river leaves Yankee Jim Canyon it opens up into a broader valley where anglers can view the Hyalite Peaks, Ramshorn Peak, and the Absorakas to the northeast. From here on out the river is easily wadeable and floating requires no special skills or worries. For floating anglers from here to Columbus there is only one tricky section in the town of Livingston which we will cover later.
Because the river emerges from a canyon wind is often a factor on this stretch. Add the geography of the surrounding mountains and the closeness of the Yellowstone Plateau and this stretch of water is often the windiest on the entire run of the Yellowstone. Nearly every morning the wind is blowing downstream until mid-morning where there is a slight lull, but then, as most guides will attest because they can set their watches to it, the wind will kick up again around 2 PM.
Fishing in this stretch is primarily for Yellowstone cutthroat, rainbows, and browns. Rocky Mountain Whitefish can also be found in abundance. The further one fishes downstream the number of Yellowstone cutthroats decline, due mainly to the dewaterization of the many tributary streams. Irrigators take out a lot of water from the small streams and these streams will often run dry by the time the cutthroat fry are ready to re-enter the Yellowstone.
From Emigrant / Chico Hot Springs to Livingston
For nearly 30 miles the river bends and braids at the foot of the majestic Absoraka Mountains. The river sits at around 4,000 feet in elevation and the peaks of the Absorokas, which rise quickly to almost 11,000 feet provide a jaw-dropping backdrop to this entire section of river. This beauty alone is perhaps the main reason this stretch is the most popular for floaters and anglers.
The Mother's Day caddis hatch here can be that of epic proportions brining to the surface some of the rivers biggest fish. But if the caddis are not full force the willow-lined banks and cottonwoods along the river's edge provide ample habitat for salmon flies and the salmon fly hatch on this stretch can also provide amazingly good fishing.
In the cooler fall months anglers looking for a trophy trout will certainly be stripping streamers anywhere along these thirty miles. Add to the possibility of twenty-inch trout the freshly snowed-upon peaks and changing cottonwoods and this is arguably one of the most desirable chunks of water in Big Sky Country.
From Livingston to Big Timber
The first 10 or so miles around Livingston is not as crowded as one would think. The main reason is due to one tricky turn the river makes at the 9th Street Bridge. Experienced boaters will have no problem and inexperience boaters, in most years, will be fine, however, it would be advised to float this stretch with an experienced floater before attempting this stretch on your own. More >
The fishing downstream of Livingston is fairly straightforward: long riffles, high banks with exposed cottonwood roots, and long medium fast moving runs. Anglers will find mostly brown and rainbow trout with the rare Yellowstone Cutthroat trout scattered here and there. But what you have below Livingston that can be hard to find above town is solitude, and for good reasons: access points are spaced farther apart, the wind tends to blow on a regular basis, and because there are less fish from Livingston down, many anglers opt for the beauty and higher fish numbers of Paradise Valley rather than the longer floats, less access, and less fish than the water downriver of Livingston.
Once the river crosses under US Highway 89 and the Shields River flows into the Yelly, the river turns almost due east. Lewis and Clark dubbed this "the big bend," and from here on out the river is out of the mountains and onto the high plains. Views of the Crazy Mountains and Beartooth Rangs are spectacular and the river feels like a large prairie river than a high mountain stream.
Once the river nears Big Timber it becomes less braided, widens, and is known for large brown trout and the occasionally rainbow. Breathtaking views of the Crazy Mountains and Beartooths often making fishing this stretch difficult - anglers watch the mountains instead of their fly!
From Big Timber to Columbus and Billings
Few anglers target this stretch on a daily basis. And most local anglers sort of like it that way - it keeps the river uncrowded, undeveloped, and relatively unknown. Most angling maps and books tend to leave out the information about the Yellowstone below the Greycliff access, about 10 or so river miles below Big Timber. There are a few reasons for this: local anglers like to keep that stretch to themselves, low late summer flows and irrigation draws don't offer a lot of cool water, and the dewatering of tributary streams offer little in the way of spawning habitat for younger fish. More >
However, for those anglers desiring solitude instead of more fish, the Yellowstone from Big Timber to Columbus offers a respite from the crowds of Paradise Valley and a beautiful float any time of year. The fall is perhaps the best time to be on this water-the cottonwoods are awash with color, big brown trout are on the move, and the water is much cooler than in the summer.
Near the town of Columbus, the Yellowstone is joined by the Stillwater River. The Stillwater is a fast flowing stream coming from the heart of the Beartooth Mountains. This influx of cold, clear water causes an increase of fish numbers for the Yellowstone around Columbus and downstream. However, it is no way provides enough cold water to sustain a great trout fishery for many miles below the confluence of the two.
From Columbus all the way to the Missouri, the Yellowstone is a warm-water fishery and often ignored by most fly anglers. However, as many fly anglers venture into pike, bass, walleye, and carp opportunities, the beauty and allure of the Yellowstone holds lots of future potential.
All-Around Tactics: The Madison Rivertop
- Home Base: Big Sky or Bozeman
- Seasons: Year-round
- Prime Tactics: Dead-drift nymphing, streamer fishing, matching the hatch
If ever a river defined a state, the Madison could do Montana justice. The sheer length of the Madison's fishable waters is over a hundred miles. The diversity of water on the Madison is an appropriate analogy to the massive abundance of trout water found in Montana - from meandering pools just outside of Yellowstone National Park to the 60-mile long riffle-run stretch between Quake Lake and Ennis to the gnarly whitewater in the Beartrap Canyon and finally the lower elevation bends and braids of the river before it joins the Jefferson and the Gallatin to form the Missouri, the Madison's course is much like all of Montana's waters combined. More >
Nearly all of the river for this first dozen or so miles from the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole lies in Yellowstone National Park. Anglers must have a Yellowstone National Park fishing permit. They can be obtained at nearly all of the shops listed at the end of this chapter.
Bozeman, Butte, and West Yellowstone (with seasonal service) are the nearest airports. Ennis is arguably the epicenter of the Madison's fly fishing community, however because the river runs for nearly 120 miles, there are lots of options for places to eat, drink, sleep, and fuel up the rig.
Sections of the Madison
From the confluence of the Gibbon River and Firehole River near West Yellowstone to Quake Lake
This stretch begins in Yellowstone Park and flows for about 12 miles before it enters into Hebgen Lake. Be sure to check the regulations as the fishing season on this stretch is different than in Montana. This water typically opens to fishing in late-May. At that point, hatches of BWOs and caddis will provide consistent fishing to good sized fish. Access is easy in Yellowstone Park and for the mile or so of river in Montana before the river becomes Hebgen Lake. Salmonflies also provide ample food for trout, and exciting fishing for anglers, one this stretch in June. More >
Areas such as Baker's Hole, Barns Hole, and Seven Mile Bridge all offer a little different type of water and brand of fishing. If you want to get away from some of the crowds that fish close to the roads, park near the River Trail Trailhead in the town of West Yellowstone and hike for not quite a mile before you get to the river. It is possible someone else wander down from the road, but the classis rule of most anglers fish 20 minutes from the nearest road is very accurate in Yellowstone Park.
The water from the Park Boundary, near the Highway 191 bridge, downstream is in Montana and doesn't require a YNP permit. There is not a lot of water in this stretch that is flowing before the river becomes Hebgen Lake, but what water there is meanders peacefully and provides some challenging dry fly fishing. In the height of summer the evening caddis will provide wading anglers ample fishing opportunities.
The short run of river between Hebgen and Quake, locally known as "between the Lakes" is not known for producing high numbers of fish, but it can produce the occasional trophy, as rainbows and browns from Quake Lake will move into the river to spawn. This short stretch is wade-fishing only.
From Quake Lake to Ennis Lake
This stretch of the Madison is the famous water you hear so much about. Characterized as the 50-mile riffle, the river tumbles from the outlet or Quake Lake to mouth of Beartrap Canyon at the outlet of Ennis Lake. Although the water appears the same for this entire stretch, a local outfitter or guide will tell you that is the farthest thing from the truth. More >
Anglers fishing this stretch will find willow-lined banks, pockets created by large boulders left by the glaciers, and plenty of seams and eddy lines to drop a fly. The bottom is medium to small sized rocks and fine pebbles, creating substantial habitat for a variety of aquatic life. Combine the cold, oxygenated water with a high quantity and quality of food and the Madison is the water from Quake to Ennis is world-class.
Hatches of Blue Winged Olives are prolific in the spring and fall, caddis and stoneflies dominate the fishes diets through the summer, and a hopper-nymph rig is sure to turn some fish when other hatches has subsided.
From Ennis Lake to the headwaters of the Missouri River
As mentioned above, the water directly below Ennis Lake and through the Beartrap Canyon is not to be taken lightly. Yes, there are plenty of big fish in the canyon and hiking anglers can access this water by using the Beartrap Canyon Trail on the east side of the river. The trailhead is accessed from Highway 84, between Bozeman and Norris. For intrepid anglers this is a fun hike with some great fishing, especially in April, May, and June. More >
For floating anglers, the water from the dam to Warm Springs access contains several rapids, the main one being Kitchen Sink which will wreck havoc on inexperience boaters and is even a challenge for exceptional boaters. Avoid this canyon stretch unless you are floating with a hired professional.
In the canyon, anglers will find fast, pocket water lined with great banks and the occasional diagonal riffle. For a truly exciting hiking and angling experience, walk the Beartrap Canyon Trail just before the salmonfly hatch and fish weighted nymphs very tight to the banks - you should catch some big brown trout chowing nymphs before the main hatch. Plus, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes that time of year as they are on hunt for newborn moles, mice, and other small critters.
Below the Warm Springs access, floating anglers will find several access points from here down to the headwaters near Three Forks. Nearly all of the floating occurs between Warm Springs and Cobblestone access. Despite this area having higher fish numbers - nearly 1500 fish per mile - than the river above Ennis, many locals and outfitters leave the water below Beartrap from July to mid-Septmber because of warm water temperatures.
Ennis Lake has filled in with sediment since the dam was built in 1900 such that the average depth is under 9 feet. In the intense summer sun, the water in the lake heats up to temperatures harmful to trout. Despite being in a canyon and the swiftness of the currents, the water below Beartrap Dam to the headwaters becomes to warm to regularly find actively feeding trout. Perhaps one day the powers-that-be will remove the dam or divert water. If and when this ever happens, the fishing through the canyon all the way to the headwaters would be world-class.
The spring hatches of caddis and BWOs on this stretch are prolific and there is a certain cult-following who love this piece of water in March, April, and May. Again in late September and October the BWOs hatch, not nearly as intense as the spring, but still in strong enough numbers to provide ample dry fly fishing. With salmonflies and a very healthy population of crawfish this stretch has plenty of food for big trout-and there are lots of them.
From the Black's Ford access down to the headwaters, trout numbers drop dramatically, there are few fish, and they are far between. However, every year a few diehard anglers report brown trout in the 25-inch-plus ranch coming from a deep hole below Black's Ford.
The section from Interstate 90 bridge and down to the confluence of the Jefferson and Gallatin (all three combine to make the Missouri) is a collection of braids, deep bends, and a few riffles. Floating this water requires local knowledge and the main channels change from year to year. Anglers in this stretch will find solitude and a few monstrous trout.
Walk-Wade Numbers Game: The Gallatin Rivertop
- Home Base: Big Sky or Bozeman
- Seasons: Year-round
- Prime Tactics: Freestone dry fly fishing and freestone nymphing
Beginning as a trickle in Yellowstone Park, in some of the most beautiful high-country in Montana, the Gallatin tumbles down the west-side of Ramshorn Peak and flows for nearly 90 miles until it joins the Jefferson and the Madison to create the Missouri River near Three Forks. In these 90 miles of free flowing trout water, anglers will fish in a deep canyon, underneath massive cottonwoods, and amongst ancient Native American buffalo jumps. More >
From the water in Yellowstone Park to Spanish Creek, near the mouth of the canyon stretch (a reach of water nearly 40 miles long) the fish populations hover around 2,500 to 3,000 fish per mile. In this swifter water the fish are not large, but what they lack in size they certainly make up for in spunk and desire to feed.
Below Spanish Creek to Cameron Bridge, fish numbers are similar to the canyon stretch, but below Cameron Bridge the numbers of fish decrease dramatically but the potential for a big brown trout increases. A few miles downstream of Manhattan the East Fork of the Gallatin, commonly called the East Gallatin, joins the Gallatin and the river offers solitude and few fish from the confluence to the headwaters of the Missouri.
The prime time for the Gallatin in the canyon, or above Spanish Creek, is June through October. The river is very cold, nearly too cold to find actively feeding trout, from November through March. In April and May anglers will find the occasional Blue Winged Olive hatching and on warmer days some caddis. But it is not until mid and late June when the salmonflies hatch in massive numbers do anglers flock to the Gallatin.
The river below the canyon has a little longer season than upriver, but the winter months still will produce the occasional whitefish and the predominate ice-in-the-guides.
Many anglers may recognize the scenery on the Gallatin as most of the fishing scenes in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It" were filmed on the Gallatin. Despite McLean's story actually taking place on the Blackfoot River two hundred miles west, Redford felt the Gallatin's scenery and fishing was more dramatic. He certainly choose a picturesque canyon and a river with lots of drama built into its swift currents and tight canyon walls.
The area around the Gallatin-Big Sky, Bozeman, and the Gallatin Valley seems to have been created specifically to cater to fly fishers. Anglers choosing to fish the Gallatin will spend more time deciphering the plethora of information than finding it. It is clear when one enters the area, via car or plane, they have come to the epicenter of Montana's fly fishing industry.
Generally speaking, on most of the Gallatin matching the hatch is not a prime concern. The water from Yellowstone Park Boundary to the mouth of the canyon is fast flowing with lots of hungry trout and exact imitation will not make or break your fishing. Does that mean you don't need to know about the hatches? Nothing could be further from the truth as despite their affinity to smack dries and nymphs, the Gallatin's trout feeding habits are tied directly to available food and that food is only available during periods of heavy hatches.
Beginning as early as March, but typically more into April and May, spring maylifes (mostly Blue Winged Olives) hatch on the entire Gallatin. Anglers will also see the occasional March Brown and in the lower reaches a few early season stoneflies bounce around in very specific locations. You can also see a few pnemora and skwala stoneflies bumping around. If the air temperatures are warm enough, caddis will also hatch and for a few weeks in late April, Gallatin River anglers could have some amazingly good dry fly fishing. However, this is always a dicey hatch to hit right as if temperatures are too warm, runoff will commence and the river will be high and muddy until mid- or late June.
Once runoff recedes and the river clears and drops, hatches of caddis resume and the Gallatin comes into its glory month - salmonflies, Golden Stones, Yellow Sallies, Pale Morning Duns, tricos, and even terrestrials dominate a trout's diet and on any given an angler may see any of the naturals and the fish may eat any of the offerings.
As with other freestone rivers, the salmonflies bring up the fattest trout up the year to the large dry flies. On the Gallatin the salmon fly hatch is certainly not to be taken lightly. Because floating is restricted on most of the river and the bulk of the salmon flies hatch from Cameron Bridge to the Taylor's Fork, anglers targeting the salmon fly hatch will have to wade to get in their fishing. Flows during this time are high and cold. The rocks alongside the Gallatin are often slippery and, in geologic times, the canyon is still very young and the banks are constantly eroding and shifting. During the salmon fly hatch, the bugs are close and to fish successfully wading anglers must scramble up and down the banks. This requires felt or rubber soled, non-slip wading boots, and a high level of experience in wading rocky rivers. In simpler terms: despite its easy accessibility the Gallatin is by no means an easy river to wade.
As the river continues to drop, the salmonflies taper off but trout will still continue to feed on the surface well into the summer. In August most of the hatches are done, save for the occasional evening caddis hatch and tricos in the early AM. Hoppers, ants, beetles, and other terrestrials provide the bulk of the action into September when Blue Winged Olives dominate the currents.
Blue Winged Olives will hatch well into October and November and a few areas of the Gallatin, mainly the water between Gallatin Gateway and the confluence of the East Fork of the Gallatin, a few October caddis can be seen fluttering around. These large caddis will often entice a few larger fish to the surface, but the hatch is not prolific and anglers would be better served adding a dropper nymph if fishing a large caddis imitation.
Late fall, October and well into November are times to be on the lower reaches of the Gallatin in hopes of a living-room worthy brown trout. As the hatches dwindle, the temperatures drop, and more anglers are in the hills chasing big game instead of big trout, dedicated streamer anglers may catch serious pig on the water from Gallatin Gateway to the headwaters of the Missouri. At the same time, a full day of casting big flies in hopes of landing a big trout may also leave you with nothing but a sore arm and a battered ego.
The big fish are there in the lower Gallatin. They are not caught on a regular basis considering how many anglers fish the river in the valley, but how many anglers truly dedicate themselves to catching only big fish by adjusting their entire fishing repertoire to include sink-tip lines, large weighted flies, and adopting a hunter's mentality?
In most years, December marks the end of the angling season on the Gallatin and most folks in the area are thinking ski slopes and powder days instead of drag free drifts. December through February is all-out winter angling on the entire reach of the Gallatin and midges are the only hatch of any significance. When the temps rise above freezing, you will find a few anglers getting some fresh air, but feeding fish are tougher to find.
Grand Slam Fishing and Tactics: The Bighorn Rivertop
- Home Base: Fort Smith
- Seasons: Year-round
- Prime Tactics: Streamers, dry flies, deep nymphing, and sight-fishing
Starting way up in high plains of central Wyoming, the Bighorn River enters Bighorn National Recreation Area and canyon just before the river enters Montana. Once in Montana, a massive dams creates a world-class tailwater fishery. But it wasn't until the early '80s when the federal government took over management of the river from the Crow Indian Tribe that the river's fishing became famous. Many angler make an annual pilgrimage to the Bighorn - many anglers coming more than once. More >
The rivers abundance of trout keep them coming back again and again. With more fish packed into each mile of its waters than any other river in Montana, the Bighorn boasts great numbers of browns and rainbows and consistent early season fishing beginning in March and going all the way through November. While nymphing tends to be the most productive technique on the 'Horn, fantastic dryfly and streamer fishing can be had, especially the summertime 'hopper fest that starts in August.
The Bighorn is located in southeast Montana, a bit 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. Billings serves as a good fly in and out spot for a Bighorn trip, but you'll want to stay on the river if you're doing anything more than a daytrip.
Smaller freestones, secret creeks, private lakes, and other waterstop
The Jefferson River
- Length: Confluence of Beaverhead, Ruby, and Big Hole Rivers to Headwaters State Park
- Seasons: Year-Round
- Favorite Stretch: Kountz Bridge to Cardwell
The Jefferson is the river that every Montana angler wishes were a better fishery. Formed by three of the state's best rivers, the "Jeff" never quite lives up to is potential. There are some very real reasons for this, mainly irrigation draw downs in the late summer that limit insect growth and trout habitat. Despite the deck already being stacked against the Jeff, anglers will find some brown trout in the lower reaches and some rainbows around Silver Star. The river is not known for any major hatches nor known as a great fishery for that matter. However anglers will to swap solitude for fishing action will find that on the Jeff. The scenery is beautiful as the Tobacco Root mountains are to the south and the river cuts through a tight canyon near Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park. Anglers fishing the Jefferson will certainly see deer, eagles, and other critters and for even more adventurous anglers wild asparagus grows in certain bankside areas of the Jefferson.
Ben Hart and Thompson Spring Creeks
- Length: A few miles on private property near Belgrade
- Seasons: Late-May through November
- Favorite Stretch: Water on the Milesnick Ranch
- Prime Hatches: Pale Morning Duns in June
Three miles of Ben Hart spring creek and one mile of Thompson spring creek run through the Milesnick Ranch. Tom and Mary Kay own the ranch and book the rods on these very challenging spring creeks. These creeks are only accessible by paying a rod fee and angler must check-in with them before fishing. They also have access to nearly five miles of the East Gallatin River. They are third generation Montanans are generous hosts. The creeks are similar in appearance and fishing: Meandering meadow streams with deep holes at each bend. There are several 20-plus inch fish in both creeks, but they are not easy to hook. For discerning anglers wanting a serious challenging, either of these two creeks are sure to fulfill your desires.
A small network of spring fed ponds near Big Sky allowing prime sight-fishing to cruising trout.
A large lake near Big Timber. Ideal for early season fishing. Big fish. Cruisers, deep nymping, and streamer fishing
Beautiful high mountain lake in Paradise Valley. Perfect for small dry fly fishing to rising trout.
Several lakes and ponds offering variety of stillwater options.top