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The 5 Best Rivers for Fly Fishing in Montana

Montana Outdoor
by Eben Diskin Jul 12, 2022

Compared to fishing from a boat on a lake, with your feet kicked back and your idle fishing pole all but forgotten in your hands, fly fishing is an entirely different experience. It’s the perfect representation of the struggle between man and beast or man vs. nature in all its glory, as fly fishers battle not only the fish, but the raging currents of the river.

Fly fishing offers a unique rush of adrenaline but also a bit of peacefulness to be out in nature. So it makes sense that Montana – a state known for its peaceful scenery and intense outdoor recreation – is one of the best states in the country to do it. Fly fishing in Montana is among the best in the country, with several rivers teeming with fish, framed by stunning mountain landscapes that’ll make you appreciate your time spent outside, even if you didn’t catch a dang thing.

The Bighorn River

fly fishing in montana bighorn river

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In south-central Montana, the Bighorn River is not just one of the best rivers for fly fishing in Montana, but the entire country. Brown and rainbow trout up to 16 inches in length have been caught in the Bighorn, especially in the 13 miles that flow from the Yellowtail Afterbay Dam. Summer is the best season to fish the Bighorn, though quality winter fishing is possible, too (it’s also less crowded). While the river is public property, the wild trout fishery flows through tribal lands, so be aware of accidentally trespassing.

The Madison River

Flowing past the town of Ennis, the Madison River is filled with an abundance of wild brown and rainbow trout. The river starts within Yellowstone National Park and flows through the park for around 20 miles. Summer and fall are the best times to fish the river if you’re planning to wade into the hydrothermally heated water. The river collects at Hebgen Dam outside the park, popular for stillwater fishing. And the section flowing past Ennis (known as the “50-mile rifle”) is also a popular fishing spot, accommodating both wade and float fishing.

The Yellowstone River

fly fishing in montana yellowstone river

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Widely considered one of the best rivers for fly fishing in Montana, the Yellowstone begins in Yellowstone National park and is the longest undammed river in the country. The 700-mile river flows steadily and uninterrupted before ending in North Dakota, and the landscape surrounding its mileage is some of the most beautiful in Montana.

The section between Gardiner and Livingston is called Paradise Valley and is one of the most popular for fly fishing in Montana. Trout are abundant, particularly in the area from Yellowstone to Billings. Fishing the river inside the park will also yield great results, but there are more restrictions, such as prohibitions against tubing or floating. You’ll also need a fishing license, but fortunately, it’s easy to buy in advance online.

The Gallatin River

fly fishing in montana gallatin river

Photo: Damon CallistoShutterstock

The Gallatin River begins in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park and flows through Gallatin Canyon and Gallatin Valley before joining the Jefferson and Madison rivers to become the Missouri River. The 25-mile section of the Gallatin within the park looks more like a meadow stream than a thundering river, and anglers often find brown and rainbow trout in the shallow waters.

Outside the park, the section of the river that runs past Big Sky and through Gallatin Canyon is some of the best for fly fishing in Montana, too. No float fishing is allowed, but the section is great for wade fishing. Some parts are even shallow enough to wade across the entire river. You may even recognize some of the scenery from the 1992 movie “A River Runs Through It,” as a few of the film’s iconic scenes were filmed nearby.

Clark Fork River

 montana autumn river

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Originating between Butte and Deer Lodge, the Clark Fork River flows past Missoula to the border of Idaho, widening dramatically en route to Missoula. With plenty of access points, the river is popular with fishers looking for trout.

The area below the confluence of Rock Creek and Clark Fork above Missoula is most popular among anglers. The lower section, which picks up other waterways like the Flathead and Bitterroot Rivers, is popular for float fishing, especially below Missoula.

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