Montana Fly Fishing 6 min read

DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Montana

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

July 24, 2015

guide to fly fishing in Montana

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If you’re new to fly fishing and you’re looking for that perfect spot to learn some skills and enjoy the sport, then the state of Montana has plenty of opportunities for you.

Montana gives you the opportunity to build the exact kind of experience you want, at a price point that works for you.

As for the fish species that the state is known for, Montana is ideal for wild trout as they love the alpine lakes and rivers that are abundant in the state.

There are strict rules and restrictions in place so that wild trout is able to flourish and there is no need for fish born from hatchery.

How Montana Became THE Best Trout Fishing Destination

In 1974, Montana did something that stunned anglers across the state and the nation: it stopped stocking trout in streams and rivers that supported wild trout populations.

On the anniversary of this monumental decision, Wild Fish Conservancy presents The Montana Story: Forty Years of Success.

After decades of use and millions of dollars invested, hatchery production was not helping, and in fact was the leading cause of the collapse of the fishery.

Ground-breaking research on the Madison River in the late 1960s and early ’70s organized by fisheries biologist Richard Vincent led to that decision. His study results showed that as hatchery production increased, trout abundance decreased, and native stocks were displaced.

Nearly forty years after Richard Vincent’s study Montana is one of America’s premier trout fishing destinations. Focusing on habitat and discontinuing river hatchery stocking, trout fisheries have recovered and wild populations are self-sustaining.

Best Places to Fish in Montana

You certainly won’t be at a loss at finding a great fishing opportunity in Montana. If anything, you’ll have a hard time narrowing down the options. And as mentioned, because you can enjoy fishing year-round, you can really have some very unique experiences.

Montana Fly Fishing Destinations

Montana Trout Stream Map

map of the best places to fish in Montana

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

To make things easier, Montana breaks down its fishing into three main regions. These regions are the central district, western district, and eastern district. Let’s take a closer look at what each region has to offer.

Central District

The central district is made up of a number of rivers. These rivers offer true “back-country” type of fishing as there is nothing else around you other than the trees and the river. This is important to keep in mind because if you’re not crazy about remote locations, this district may not be for you. Be prepared to hike your way to many of the rivers as they aren’t always accessible by car.

The most remote and least frequented rivers tend to be the Sun River, Teton River, and Dearborn River. If you’re looking for less of remote feel, head to the Smith or Missouri River. All of these rivers are ideal for trout fishing. A good rule of thumb is that the closer you are to the mountains, the better the fishing will be. This is largely due to the water temperatures, as they are cooler near the mountains, which trout like.

You need to be comfortable with camping and a rustic experience when it comes to lodging. Options include state run campsites, camping on your own in the woods, or camping in your car. Remember, the temperatures get quite cold at night, so come prepared. As far as hotel lodging goes, you can look at Helena and Great Falls.

Western District

This particular region includes both the north and southwest areas of the state. Expect to find more stunning natural scenery and plenty of rivers to explore. When it comes to the northwest, the fishing isn’t quite as plentiful. Stick to Kootenai River and Yaak River for the best results when it comes to trout fishing. Both rivers are easily accessible so you won’t have problems getting to them. Where the northwest region shines is that there are plenty of accommodations in the towns of Kalispell and Whitefish, and you’re close to Glacier National Park.

The southwest is another story altogether as you can find plenty of fabulous trout fishing opportunities. Some of these rivers cross into the central district as well. Consider the Gallatin, Boulder, Madison, Yellowstone, Ruby, Stillwater, and Bighorn rivers just to name a few. Not only are these rivers great for fishing but they also offer stunning scenery opportunities.

Eastern District

Montana offers more than just trout fishing opportunities and the eastern district is a perfect example of this. You won’t find any trout here, but instead you can fish for smallmouth bass, catfish, and walleye.

The rivers in this region are much warmer, which trout want no part of. This area is easily accessible and you can get to most of the rivers by car. The area is known for its prairie landscape, which is a stark contrast of what you’ll find in other areas of the state. If you aren’t into crowds and don’t mind missing out on the trout, then this can be an enjoyable district to visit.

The state has a few international airports, making it easy to get in and out of if you choose to fly. These include Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Billings Logan International Airport, and Glacier Park International Airport.

Why Fly Fish in Montana

Renown fly fishing guide and author, Jenny Grossenbacher shares what fly fishing in Montana means to her in this beautiful video by the Montana Office of Tourism.

For many, fly fishing Montana is a way of life and for others it is a fly fishing trip of a life-time. And for good reason. Southwest Montana is blessed with over 700 miles of blue ribbon trout streams, crystal clear spring creeks, and productive lakes.

Best Time to Fly Fish in Montana

Montana is one of those states that offers year-round fishing opportunities, which means it can really work with your schedule. With that said, the weather from about November until March can be pretty cold and wet, so it may not be the most comfortable time to visit. As well, some times of the year offer much better catch rates.

Where the timing really starts to matter is with the insect hatches. These tend to happen in the early part of the fishing season each year, which means April to about mid-May. This makes for an excellent time to fish.

Another ideal time is from mid-June until early July. You’ll get some of the nicest weather of the season, you’re pretty much guaranteed good fishing, and the fish tend to be pretty hungry and read to bite. Opt for float fishing during this time period.

If dry fly fishing is what appeals to you, then you’ll want to visit in early July right into late July. There are plenty of hatches going on when it comes to aquatic insects.

Fly Fishing Gear Recommendations

When putting together your packing list, you’ll want to bring chest waders, a reel that is able to offer a good amount of drag, a floating line, and 9- or 10-foot rod. A 5-wt or 6-wt rod is recommended and tend to be quite popular among anglers in the area.

Montana Fishing Regulations

In the state of Montana, the fishing regulations depend on the region in which you’re fishing and the time of year. In the western district of the state, you can start to fish from the third Saturday in the month of May all the way until November 30. The central district is open to anglers all year long. The eastern district is also open on a year-round basis.

No matter where you fish in the state, you will need a valid fishing license. In fact, two are required. You’ll need the fishing license as well as a conservation license. Be sure to obtain these before you head out onto the water. You can get a license whether you are a resident of the state or not.

The state of Montana offers a great opportunity for those who are new to fly fishing and who might be working within a tight budget. There is no need to hire guides and join tour groups as you can head out on your own and easily find incredible places to fish. Lodging can be as simple as pitching a tent in the woods.

You’ll have the opportunity to enjoy quite solitude as you fish or head to the more popular spots and enjoy spending time with other anglers. It’s a relaxed and laid-back experience that can yield some pretty high catch rates when you come at the right time of year.

Recommended Reading

There have been more books written about fly fishing in Montana than probably any other state in the US. A few that come highly recommended are listed below.

Looking for more places to fish?  Check our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing Destinations in the U.S.