There may not be any better fly fishing on the planet than what you’ll find in Montana.
Home to mighty rivers, slim creeks, blue lines, deep reservoirs, and every other body of water that monster trout – and a whole bunch of other fish, too – love to call home, folks come from all over the world to fly fish in this great American state.
And while there are plenty of “secret honey holes” that locals will never tell you about, riverbends holding trout of a lifetime, sometimes it feels like you can pull up to any stretch of water in Montana, check the hatch, and throw out a line and have yourself hooked in no time at all.
To help you plan your next fishing trip, though, we put together a quick list of the very best places to fly fish in Montana. Expect competition for spots on the river, though. These recommendations really are that good!
This river would be absolutely legendary anywhere else in the United States, but in Montana locals call it an “irrigation ditch”. A wonderful tail water that holds incredible trout, plan your trip to this river outside of Dillon, Montana in August if you really want to light up your fly rod.
Big Hole River
Situated in Southwest Montana (again near Dylan), the Big Whole River stretches from headwaters just south of Jackson all the way down to where it meets the Beaverhead. June fly fishing is unbelievable (the salmon fly hatch is world-famous), but locals know to wait until after the hatch is over to really have some fun.
Sometimes called the best fishery in the state of Montana (some consider the best in the world), more than 6000+ fish per mile call this river home. Unique compared to almost all the other big rivers in Montana, the Bighorn fishers well all year round. On top of that, monster trout – a lot of them 20 inches long or longer – are pulled out of this river more often than not. If you’re hunting trophies, this is a river to check out for sure.
The Root (how locals describe it) slips beneath the granite Bitterroot Mountain just south of Missoula, Montana. The springtime hatch (especially the stonefly hatch in March) is a right of passage for a lot of fly fishers, especially those looking to shake off a little bit of the “winter rust” they’ve accumulated between the fall and spring fishing seasons. Small flies, delegate presentations, and light lines are the way to go.
This river was made world-famous when Norman McLean wrote the book A River Runs Through It (later turned into an amazing movie directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt). A lot of folks consider this the “spiritual home” of fly fishing in Montana – and it’s not hard to see why. The scenery along every stretch of this river is unbelievable. It feels like heaven on earth. Dry fly fishing in the summertime is top-notch on the Blackfoot, too.
If you are visiting Montana for some flyfishing in the summer and are sick of feeling crowded on some of the “hotspot” stretches of water, check out the Boulder. This gorgeous tributary of the Yellowstone holds incredible rainbow and brown trout, some of them as long as your forearm (and a many a whole lot longer than that). One of the best wading rivers in all of Montana, it’s not hard to get sucked up in the atmosphere and landscape surrounding this river, either.
Clark Fork River
Stretching 200 miles from its headwaters up in Butte, Montana all the way down to Idaho, the Clark Fork River wasn’t always considered a great place to fish. In fact, for much of its modern history this river was absolutely atrocious as far as fishing went – mostly because of the toxins and heavy metals pumped into the river from Butte and big city life. A new dam finished in 2010 near Missoula changed everything, though. Today it’s considered the most improved waterway for flyfishing action in the state.
Fishing this river will create memories that last a lifetime. There’s nothing quite like casting a line inside Yellowstone National Park, especially as geysers go off in the background, elk and bison have lunch in front of you, and the beauty of Montana is on full display.
While the Blackfoot was the “real life” river A River Runs Through It was based on, it was actually the Gallatin that the Hollywood movie was filmed on. A great middle summer destination because the water stays cooler here than other places in Montana, the trout don’t get quite as big in this river – but the scenery is unbelievable.
Technically considered an Alpine Lake, there aren’t a lot of people that had to Montana thinking about doing some flyfishing that expect to spend time on a lake at all. Most folks want to pound the famous rivers of Montana as often as they can (who could blame them). Don’t miss out on the hatches in early spring and summer here, though. You’ll regret it for sure.
Another Alpine Lake, this 200 acre stretch of water sits at 6700 feet inside of the Gallatin Mountain Range (about 20 minutes outside of the city). You’ll have to wait until at least May to fish this reservoir, but it’s worth it once you see the native cutthroats and grayling flying through the water.
A bit of a hidden gem (most people like to go to the Big Hole or the Beaverhead instead), flyfishing on this smaller river is best in the early spring and the late fall. The blue winged olives hatch and great drake hatches are fantastic!
What kind of list of the best rivers to fish in Montana would this be if it didn’t include the Madison?
One of the most famous flyfishing “highways” in the world, millions of people come from all over the planet every year just to get a chance to throw some flies at trout along the Madison. Public access on this river is pretty fantastic, a bit of a rarity in Montana – especially on legendary rivers like this.
Even better news, though, is that the average fish pulled out of the Madison sits between 16 inches and 18 inches. 20 inch plus trout are not a rarity at all – and you can catch them on dry flies, something almost impossible to do anywhere else on God’s green earth.
An absolute monster of a river, the best way to get in on the action the Missouri has to offer is to setup shop in the town of Craig. A hotbed for flyfishing (and not much else), you’ll be able to pull out big trout pretty much all year round. All kinds of hatches pop throughout the year here, with more than 180,000 insects per square meter dropping into the water (on average) every day.
North Fork of the Flathead River
Fly fishermen looking to catch some of Montana’s famous cutthroats will want to check out the North Fork of the Flathead River for sure. The cold water of this river keeps things lively all year long (including in the dead of summer). Nymphing and dries work well on the cuttys, but if you want to chase bull trout you’ll need some streamers. Just make sure you release them ASAP after you land them – it’s the law!
South Fork of the Flathead River
The South Fork of the Flathead has plenty of great fishing, too.
One of the more remote and difficult to access rivers in the US (outside of Alaska, anyway), these waters are tough to get into any time of the year. But that difficulty only makes these waters more protected from overfishing, giving you a chance to haul out some monster trout without having to worry about sharing the water with every other angler on the planet. You’ll make some great memories here.
Smaller than most, this 50 mile “creek” is a freestone stream that you won’t want to sleep on. Because it’s so close to Missoula plenty of people fish it every year – but they keep coming back because the action is that good. The hatch in June of salmon flies is unreal. It’s almost difficult to breath on the water when the hatch goes off, in fact, all because of the amount of bugs in the air.
Fishing access on the Ruby is still somewhat new. Folks weren’t allowed to fish it at all until 1997, and even then only a couple of public sites have been opened up. Make sure to plan your trip for the late spring or the early summer. Those are when the hatches are going off and the waters really rushing. You might not grab gigantic trout from this stretch of water (they average 14 inches), but 18 inchers and longer aren’t all that uncommon, either.