Montana Fly Fishing 5 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Shields River in Montana

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

February 3, 2024

Shields River flowing through valley near Livingston Montana

Are you looking for a new place to go fly fishing? Perhaps you want to find a river that doesn’t get fished quite as often to see whether you can hook a larger trout. There are plenty of fantastic rivers in Montana that can fit the bill, including the Shields River.

Below, you will find some important information about the river and what you can expect, so you can start to plan your next fly fishing trip. You will even find some information on items you should bring along with you for your excursion.

About Shields River

An aerial view of the beautiful Shields River Valley in Montana

The Shields River begins up in the Crazy Mountains and then flows some 60 miles down past the town of Wilsall and Clyde Park before joining the Yellowstone River. This small river is narrow and winding with lots of cross fences and downed trees making it nearly impossible to float.

The good news is these challenges, along with lack of public access make the Shields one of the least pressured rivers in southwest Montana.

What to Expect at the Shields River in Montana

The Shields River can be tough to fish because good trout habitat is a bit sparse in places. This means you might need to do a little walking to find great places to fish.

If you are stalking larger browns remember to not pass by the skinny water. You often will find surprisingly large fish holding in water that may only be 6-inches deep.

Of course brushy banks, undercut banks, logjams and down trees provide trout perfect places to hang out and ambush prey. Make sure to hit all these spots.

Look for areas of shade that also provide cover for the fish. Cloudy, overcast days and fishing during low-light conditions are typically better than bright sunny days.

Type of Fish in the Shields River in Montana

Most fly fishermen are going to be looking for trout, and you can find a nice variety in the Shields River. It includes rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout and cuttbows.

The upper river is where you’ll find more cuttbows and brookies, with some larger browns and rainbows mixed in.

Fish size tends to vary from small to medium—around 14 to 16 inches in most locations. As you move downriver below Wilsall you have a chance at hooking up with some larger browns, particularly in the fall.

The larger fall fish are likely fish that have moved up from the Yellowstone River during spawning season.

Shields River Fishing Map

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

Best Places to Fish the Shields River

Access to the Shields River is limited as most of the river flows through private property. The Grannis Access is the only official public access point, just upstream of the junction with the Yellowstone River.

Fortunately, there are a number of bridge crossings that provide access provided you stay below the high-water mark, including:

  • Shields River Road
  • Horse Creek Road
  • Brackett Creek Road

There is also public access to the headwaters’ short run in the Gallatin National Forest.

Access is best once the irrigation season starts and the river draws down a bit exposing more gravel bars. This makes traversing the river below the high-water mark easier for the wade fisherman.

Best Time to Fish the Shields River

When should you go fishing on Shields River?

Springtime can provide excellent fishing right before and after run-off.

The fall can be a good time to fish too, especially for brown trout. This is when they travel up from the Yellowstone River to spawn. You can often get some large browns during the autumn.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Shields River. The USGS stream gauge at Livingston, MT provide a good indication of current conditions.

The graph below shows the stream flow (discharge) for the past 7-days. If flows are considerably above or below historical norms (yellow triangles on the chart) then fishing conditions maybe not be ideal.

Shields River nr Livingston MT

  • Streamflow: 128 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 1.14 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for Shields River

If you are going to be fly fishing on the Shields River, the best flies to use tend to be streamers. You could try other options to see how they fare for different fish, but most anglers say they’ve had the best luck with streamers.

That said where you fish tends and identifying good trout habit tends to be more important than the fly pattern.

Here is a list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Shields River:

Dry Flies

  • Yellow Sally (#12 – 16)
  • Yellow Humpy (#10 – 18)
  • Parachute Sulphur (#14 – 18)
  • Parachute Adams (#12 – 22)
  • Light Cahill (#10 – 18)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (#8 – 16)
  • Yellows Stimulator (#8 – 14)
  • Chernobyl Ant (#8 – 12)
  • Griffith’s Gnat (#16 – 24)

Nymphs

  • Pheasant Tail (#12 – 20)
  • BH Hare’s Ear (#12 – 20)
  • Rainbow Warrior (#14 – 22)
  • Pat’s Rubber Legs (#4 – 12)
  • Golden Stonefly (#6 – 10)
  • Tellico Nymph (#12 – 18)
  • Zebra Midge (#16 – 22)
  • WD40 (#16-20)
  • Y2K Egg (#12 – 16)

Streamers

  • BH Wooly Bugger (#2 – 6)
  • Sculpzilla (#4)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod and matching fly reel with floating line is perfect for fishing for trout on the Shields River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Shields River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Shields River fly fishing report and update on current conditions are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The fishing season is from the third Saturday in May to November 30, following the typical schedule in many other parts of the state.

The state of Montana requires that all people who are 12 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available.

You can purchase a Montana state fishing license and learn about the most current regulations through the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Trip Planning Tips

The nearest towns are Clyde Park, Wilsall, and Livingston. You can find places to stay in and near these communities that are just a short drive from Shield Rivers and other fishing spots.

One of the things to note about this river is that access can sometimes be difficult because so much of the river flows through private property. Be careful about where you access Shields River.

Make sure that the areas you choose are on public land before trying to fish there. They will generally be marked.

The most-trusted place to access the river is at the Grannis fishing access site. This is located just northeast of Livingston on the Shields River east of Highway 89 and four miles north of Interstate 90. You will find a gravel parking lot and easy access to the river for fishing.

Another good option is the Shields River Dispersed Site, a campground in the western part of the Crazy Mountains that is near the river. It is a first-come-first-served campground with ample parking. It’s a good idea to arrive early to ensure there is space.

This campground is 24 miles northeast of Wilsall on Shields River Road. The campground is open from June 16 to December 2. Check for access areas near the campground.

Other than that, you can look for bridges and fish upstream and downstream from them.

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