Where to Fly Fish in Montana? A DIY Trip Guide - Part 1

Screen Shot 2022 03 10 at 112117 AM By Brian McGeehan

As a Montana fly fishing outfitter – the majority of my time from November through April is spent helping our guests plan trips for the following season. Montana is a very large target with a huge variety of fisheries so it can be a daunting challenge to folks visiting for the first time. When Dave Kile asked me to put together a guide for planning a trip our way I decided to break it into two parts do to the breadth and diversity of what Montana has to offer and what different people want out of their trip.

One of the aspects of trip planning in the Big Sky state is that we have such a huge variety of different rivers, streams, still waters and spring creeks. Each type of fishery has different peak seasons, different characters and different tactics that are best used. This post will focus on anglers that want to do the majority of their fishing unguided. Montana is arguably the best state in the west for planning a DIY trip for several reasons. Thanks to the stream access law, anglers in Montana have access to private land along streams and rivers. This means that as long as an angler gets to the river corridor from a bridge or other public access point you can fish on private property without trespassing. Secondly, we have a lot of public land in Montana and surrounding areas like Yellowstone Park so finding water to access legally is pretty easy. Finally, the huge variety of fisheries means that there are a lot of smaller waters that are ideal for wade fishing.

Where to fish?
Pick up any coffee table fly fishing book that showcases famous waters around the world and Montana rivers will be heavily represented. Anglers from around the world are familiar with the Yellowstone, Madison, Missouri, Bighorn, Beaverhead, Gallatin and many others. Where do you begin if you are planning on fishing on your own? DIY anglers need to be cautious about planning their trips around the most famous rivers which are generally also the largest. While the Yellowstone is one of my all time favorite rivers in the world – it is also a huge fishery that is very difficult to wade in most stretches of the river. Even smaller rivers like the Beaverhead can prove frustrating since it is a meadow style river and at higher flows is next to impossible to wade fish without a boat to hop from run to run (but at lower flows is manageable). Some large rivers like the Madison have sections that are wading friendly and other sections that are very challenging to read without prior river knowledge. Other fisheries are very hard to access without permission from ranchers and offer very little private access. Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few locations that an angler fishing without a guide should consider. They all offer good public access and manageable wade fishing.

Bighorn River
The Bighorn is a very large river, but at lower flows (spring and late summer) there can be very good wade fishing. This is also a very easy river to float and if you plan in advance you can rent a drift boat for a reasonable price. The Bighorn has astronomical fish counts and the trout are big – most in the 17-19” class. The downside is that it is also relatively crowded (at least by Montana standards) since most of the fishing is done in the section just below the dam at Fort Smith.

Gallatin River
The Gallatin is a small mountain freestone river with high trout counts. It starts just inside of Yellowstone Park and flows for about 30 miles through the Gallatin Canyon which is mostly public forest service land with easy road access. Fishing from boats is not permitted and the river is very easy to “read”. There are numerous pull-offs along the canyon section and the fishing isn’t very technical. Most of the trout are less than 15” but the population is very healthy. The only time that wading is difficult is during the run-off period in late May and June.

Rock Creek
Rock Creek is located about 45 minutes from Missoula and is similar in size to the Gallatin. Like the Gallatin, there is ample National Forest land with public access. Trout are medium-sized but the river is beautiful and finding public water is not a problem.

The Ruby River near Sheridan is a small mountain stream that turns into a medium-sized meadow river. The Ruby in the National Forest offers lots of public access for smaller trout. Below the reservoir, it enters ranch country and the only access is from bridges and a few state-owned parcels but fishing can be good for decent-sized trout at the lower access areas.

Screen Shot 2022 03 10 at 112102 AM Upper Bitterroot
The Upper Bitterroot and its tributaries offer good public access and some National Forest fishing but avoid runoff.

Upper Madison River
The legendary Madison River has some locations that are best floated but there are a few areas that attract out-of-state wade anglers. The first is the section between Hebgen and Quake Lake – this is an especially good fishery in the spring and fall. The next section is the wade only area from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge with good access at Reynolds Pass and Three Dollar Bridge. Finally, there is an access point to another wade only area called the Channels at Valley Garden. The Channels can be tough to get around, however, due to dense willow stands along the banks. The Madison from Lyons Bridge to Ennis and then again from Ennis Lake to Three Forks can be nondescript and difficult to read and fish without a boat.

Backcountry Streams and Lakes
For those that like to backpack – there can be terrific alpine lake fishing in remote wilderness areas. The most expansive area for hiking and fishing is the Beartooth Plateau near Red Lodge which offers thousands of mountain lakes and a few good streams. Other smaller ranges also offer good fishing for the adventurous angler. Most alpine lakes are stocked periodically by air but all streams and rivers in Montana are wild trout by law.

Yellowstone National Park
Although only a small portion of Yellowstone Park is in Montana, the Big Sky state is the main entrance to the park at locations like West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cook City. Yellowstone is wade fishing only by regulation and offers lots of great streams and rivers. Generally, spring and fall fishing is best in the West and Southside of the Park and summer fishing is best in the Northeast section (with numerous exceptions). Although there is ample road access – anglers that are willing to hike will be rewarded with lightly pressured trout.

Livingston Spring Creeks
The legendary spring creeks near Livingston include DePuy, Nelson and Armstrong. These are on private ranches and require advanced reservations. Rod fees are $100 in peak season and $75 in shoulder seasons. These technical waters are easy to wade and have thick hatches. They are similar to Pennsylvania limestone streams in many ways. Plan on booking rods a year in advance (or more) for dates in mid-June to July for the PMD hatch. DePuy has the most rods per day and is the last to fill up. You need to reserve a year in advance or more for Armstrong or Nelson for mid-summer dates.

When to Come
This is one of the most commonly asked questions that we receive from anglers planning trips to Montana. If you are planning on fishing on your own it is probably a good idea to avoid runoff when the snowpack is bringing levels up. This is a great time to book a guided trip but fishing on your own is much tougher in late May and mid-June if you don’t have a boat and don’t have intimate knowledge of the rivers or access to private water. DIY anglers can have great luck in the spring before runoff in late April to Mid May. Another nice window is just after runoff in late June and early July. Mid-August is tougher on the public waters because the fish have seen a lot of flies but is a great time to target the backcountry if you like to hike. Late September and October is also great for fishing on your own since the waters are lower and you can fish some of the public waters in Yellowstone and outside the park for fall-run browns.

Brian McGeehan is a Pennsylvania native and has been guiding Western rivers in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado for over 25 seasons. He is a licensed Montana outfitter and owner of Montana Angler Fly Fishing based in Bozeman, MT. Brian will follow up with some more advice in a follow-up post “Part 2: Planning a Guided Fishing Trip to Montana”. Here is a quick map of some of the streams.
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I recommend Missoula. It has the Clark Fork right in it, that is huge, but you can wade it and drive to several spots, The Big Blackfoot, the Bitterroot, which has lots of braids to wade up, and Rock Creek. In the times I went to Missoula, I never drove more than an hour to any spot on those waters. The Missouri is 2 hours away. I don't think there is more fly fishing in a smaller area outside of Yellowstone. There isn't as much tourism pollution as SW Montana.
just read the article in Fly Fisherman Mag, about fishing the "middle of Montana ".... sounds very interesting
I meet two sisters from Missoula when I went back to college in 1986 in Denver. They both graduated from Hellgate High School, I thought that was a great name for a school, and they told me that their brothers would always fly fish within ½ hour drive from Missoula. I visited Missoula while I was working at Colestrip with a friend who live there when she was not staying in Colestrip. The visit was in the winter, late January if I remember, and the thing I notice was all the smoke that hung thru the valley. She told me it was because of all the people who burn wood for heat and if the wind did not blow down the valley it just stayed in the valley. I think it is because of hell gate canyon. Driving down I90 down to Missoula the canyon is like a funnel with the bottom at hell gate. Nice people and town I just wish I got to visit in the summer and do some fly fishing. Going back to Montana and do some fly fishing is on my retirement bucket list.

I did some fishing on the Stillwater Creek all the way up to Nye and the Rosebud Creek when I worked in Montana in the early 1980s. Of course I was a lot younger and that was BBI.