National Parks 7 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing in Glacier National Park

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

August 9, 2020

St Mary Lake in Glacier National Park

In far western Montana, out beyond the legendary fly fishing streams of Yellowstone National Park lies Glacier National Park.

This 1600 square mile natural preserve provides sprawling high meadows, rocky snow-capped peaks, and cold water streams, rivers, and lakes that provide for some excellent fly fishing if you don’t mind hiking into the backcountry.

Depending on the waterway and the time of year, the waters of Glacier National Park can yield some surprisingly large rainbows, browns, and cutthroat trout if you match the hatch and pick just the right spot.

About Glacier National Park

Fly fishing for native cutthroat trout in Glacier National Park

As a general rule, the majority of the easy to reach and publicly accessible lakes within the boundaries of the park do not fish especially well. The high altitude and sparse aquatic plant life do not provide sufficient nutrition for large fish to grow in their waters. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s not worth the effort as Glacier has some truly beautiful backcountry that’s worth exploring.

There are a number of backcountry lakes that you can hike to and fish in a day’s time, provided the elevation on the way there doesn’t bother you. Hiking at altitude is not for everyone, and if you don’t have experience with it or haven’t acclimated the environment yet, you may find your journey a struggle.

Reaching those hidden gems of the backcountry means coping with the rarefied atmosphere and trekking over the forest, meadows, and valleys of Glacier National Park further out from civilization in order to find prime wild trout waters.

Most anglers visiting Montana to fly fish head to the fabled waters in central Montana like the Big Hole River, Beaverhead River and the Bighorn River, and all these fish very well depending on water conditions. Provided you do your homework first, however, Glacier National Park may become your new best kept secret for fly fishing in the American west.

Glacier National Park Fishing Map

map of fishing access spots in Glacier National Park

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish in Glacier National Park

There are many rivers, streams, and lakes where you can try your luck in and around Glacier National Park. Here are the top recommended fishing locations to visit:

Flathead River

Middle Fork Flathead River

The three branches of the Flathead form a unique glacial river created by the melting of the great glacier and annual snow runoff. Naturally, the waters of the Flathead are extremely cold pretty much year round, and the fishing is fairly good on all three forks of the river.

  • Middle Fork is popular with rafters and kayakers due to the extreme whitewater rapids that can be found there.
  • North Fork is a milder ride and provides superior fishing conditions compared to Middle Fork.
  • South Fork doesn’t run through Glacier National Park, and isn’t especially well known for its fishing.

Be cautious when traversing the wilds around North Fork and Middle Fork though, as both are grizzly territory and far removed from civilization. Despite the risks, if you are chasing wild trout the Flathead is where to find them.

See our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Flathead River for more information on this fishery.

Elizabeth Lake

One of the few bodies of water where an angler can catch both rainbow trout and arctic grayling in the same place, Elizabeth Lake is one of the best fishing lakes in the whole park.

Visitors to the lake will see large rainbow and grayling as large as sixteen inches prowling the crystalline waters. You’ll need to hike in on the western side via the suspension bridge on the hiking trail that starts at Gable Creek Campground to get there.

It’s not an easy trip to make in a day if you aren’t an experienced backpacker or hiker. Those who tough it out to the lake are well rewarded with some extra large wild catches to boast about back at camp.

Belly River

This is where the veteran anglers of Glacier National Park head to get their rainbows and cutthroats. It’s way up on the edge of the Canadian border to the extreme northeast.

You’ll need to hike a bit from the road to get there, and it can be rough going for the inexperienced, but if you’ve got bug spray and some determination you can find some real challenging river monsterson the Belly River

Honorable Mentions

Hidden Lake

For the most part, tourists hike the Logan Pass trail to Hidden Lake for the view at the overlook before heading back down. Anglers who stick it out to the end of the trail that leads down to the lake shore can find some truly excellent fly fishing conditions. The introduced Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout grow to large sizes in this seldom fished body of water. Go for the view, stay for the fishing!

McDonald Creek

The longest fishing stream inside of the confines of the park, McDonald creek is one of the easiest to reach fisheries in Glacier National Park that won’t require you to spend most of the day hiking to get there.

Running from Lake McDonald in the western side of the park, the Creek runs 25 miles south and west. You can park and hike the creek side trail from the Lake McDonald Lodge, or you can choose to start at the southern trailhead and make your way north towards the lake.

Either way, fishing is excellent here in the summer and fall, and rainbows, cutthroats and browns are usually plentiful.

Check the Glacier National Park website for more information on how to get to these lesser known fisheries.

Best Time to Fish in Glacier National Park

All lakes, rivers, and streams in Glacier National Park are open to fishing year round. The tricky part is gaining access after the snow is on the valleys and closes up the passes and trails until the thaw in between April and May of each year.

Peak fly fishing season in Glacier National Park starts in early June and runs through late October as a general rule, though brave souls who are immune to the cold can easily go fly fishing on the tailwaters of the rivers and streams, or try their hand at ice fishing on the lakes.

The best way to determine the timeframe for your visit is to check when the major hatches have occurred for your chosen destination within the park itself.

BWOs and Caddis are the big spring to fall hatches in Glacier National Park, but prevailing weather and water temperature typically differentiate the timing of the big population swells.

Check conditions with one of area fly shops when planning your trip. If you can’t stop in-person it never hurts to call a fly shop and chat up the locals about when to visit.

Plan on visiting when the hatches peak, and you will more than likely land that trophy river monster you’ve been looking for all these years.

Glacier National Park Fishing Tips

Everything tends to be bigger in Montana, so pack a 9-foot rod with a 5 or 6-weight trout line. Waders are a must for Montana rivers and streams, and you definitely want a net for safer handling of your catch and release fish.

Keep in mind that you will also be hiking above treeline at high elevation in many places that offer superior fishing in the park, so plan accordingly.

Wear layers, and pack both rain gear and warm outerwear like scarves/gaiters and insulated hats and gloves in the event you get caught in a sudden shift in the weather.

Best Flies for Glacier National Park

Here are some recommended flies that have proven effective for fishing in the Glacier National Park region:

  • Elk Wing Caddis (Orange #8)
  • Dark Hendrickson (#14)
  • Bead Head Caddis Pupa (#12)
  • Bead Head Hare’s Ear Flashback (#16)
  • Midge (Black or Olive #18-20)
  • Copper Johns (Copper, Green and Red #14-18)
  • Double Bead Stone (Peacock or Black #12-8)
  • San Juan Worm Bead Head (Red, Pink or Orange #12-10)
  • Dark Hendrickson (Mahogany #16)
  • Micro Egg (Orange #12)
  • Fly Formerly Known As Prince (Peacock #6-10)
  • Bead Head Rubber-Legged Orvis CJ (Tan or Brown #10-6)
  • Bead Head Flash Zonker (Black or Olive #8-6)
  • Sparkle Minnow (Olive/Gold #6)

Glacier National Park Fishing Reports

There are a number of area fly shops and guide services that can provide an update on current fishing conditions in and around Glacier National Park. A few to check out are listed below.

Glacier National Park Fishing Regulations

Montana and Glacier National Park regulations apply throughout Glacier National Park. A license is required to fish anywhere in the state, whether it is a one-day or one year pass.

Special regulations that apply to fishing in and near Glacier National Park include:

  • Lake fishing is open all year
  • 5 fish per day, no more than 2 cutthroat trout, 2 burbot (ling), 1 northern pike, 2 mountain whitefish, 5 lake whitefish, 4 kokanee salmon, 5 grayling, 5 rainbow trout, and 5 lake trout
  • No limit on lake trout west of the Continental Divide
  • No limit on lake whitefish in Lake McDonald
  • Park limit on brook trout is 20 fish per day
  • Waterton Lake follows Canadian season, catch and possession rules
  • Lower Two Medicine Lake fishing regulations are set by the Blackfeet Nation. Check the regulations posted on their site
  • Hidden Lake is closed during cutthroat spawning season to help increase the population and reduce the risk of bear-human conflicts over fish
  • Park catch and possession limits apply on the North Fork of the Flathead when fishing on park lands
  • Montana State Fishing Permit is required when fishing the Middle Fork of the Flathead River from bridges or on park lands
  • May 1-June 15 Bowman Lake fishing is restricted in the area extending 400 yards from shore between the Ranger Station and the outlet to protect the congregating of westslope cutthroat trout.

Trip Planning Tips

It’s easiest to fly into Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana. You can also catch connecting flights from Bozeman and other nearby airports fairly easily.

If flying isn’t your thing or you want to see Big Sky Country at a slower pace, you can also catch the Amtrak Empire Builder line that makes stops in East Glacier, West Glacier, and Whitefish.

Road trips or RV camping are also fairly simple to accomplish, as the park is a 10 hour drive from Seattle, 6 from Calgary, and just 4 hours from Spokane.

As for where to stay, there are many hotels and lodges where you can book a stay within the boundaries of Glacier National Park itself.

Lake McDonald has a large 100 year old lodge right on the shore about halfway through the park, and there are also cabins for rent nearby.

Glacier Hotel is also a short drive from the best fishing in the northeastern section of the park, and the Cedar Creek Lodge is another excellent location if you plan to spend most of your time in the southwestern reaches of the park.

Be sure to check local listings for private vacation rentals as well, as many an angler has scored a sweet bargain on their stay by checking out private rentals first.

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in America

Feature image by Ken Thomas