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The sprawling foothills at the base of Montana’s jagged peaks have long been a source of fly fishing lore. From the hit novel and film “A River Runs Through It” to the countless stories about the untamed wilderness in Big Sky Country, there’s perhaps nowhere more coveted when it comes to hooking into a native cutthroat trout or a trophy rainbow.
Planning a Montana fly fishing trip? Take a spot or two from our list of the best places to cast out, whether you’re looking for casual dry-fly fishing or a fast water challenge.
Montana Fly Fishing: The Money Spots
1. Jefferson River (Willow Creek, MT)
Formed by the confluence of the Bighorn and Beaverhead rivers, the Jefferson River is an excellent spot to hit for those who want a little solitude while tapping into the want to the traditional Montana fly fishing that’s made the state famous. Since it’s in such close proximity to other, more popular fishing locales (the Madison and Gallatin are close by), the “Jeff” doesn’t get quite as much attention as its fishable cousins. Although its trout count is slightly lower than other areas, this large river is home to some of Montana’s most spectacular trout. Due to the river’s size, fishing here is best in the early spring before the runoff has really begun and again in the fall after the runoff season has crested. Most anglers set up near the end of the river where it joins the Madison and Gallatin rivers, but fishy holes and pockets can be found throughout the river’s length.
Camping near this river: Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is located in an open field speckled with large trees that borders the Jefferson River just west of the Three Forks, where the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers flow into one another to create the scenic Missouri River. The campground offers 35 campsites with full amenities, including restrooms, water spigots and a convenience store complete with gorgeous views of the surrounding area.
“We camped here with a group of families and the playground was nice for the kids. There aren’t many trees and the land is flat, but we were able to really keep a decent eye on the kids running around because of it and the views were still beautiful. Loved the caverns!” –The Dyrt Camper Heather P.
2. Stillwater River (Columbus, MT)
A trademark Montana fly fishing river, the Stillwater runs from the Beartooth Mountains all the way down to the Yellowstone River right near Columbus, Montana. Although the Stillwater can be swifter than some of the other rivers in the state, it is highly fishable and only an hour and a half outside of Bozeman. The river itself is more set up for dry fly fishing and is the most accessible via a watercraft. As a result, float trips are a popular way to experience the Stillwater while still getting a chance to hit the best seams within the fast-moving whitewater.
Camping near this river: Woodbine Campground is located right on the Stillwater River, offering anglers the chance to fish in close proximity to their campsite. The campground itself is equipped with excellent amenities, including vault toilets, drinking water and campfire rings and picnic tables at each site. Woodbine is home to 44 campsites available by reservation on The Dyrt.
“Site 6 is perfect: evening shade and near water and restrooms. Water pressure was surprisingly good and there are a few spigots around camp. At first our camper was in the sun so we prepared dinner in the shade at the picnic table. There’s a spot next to it for a tent. By the time we returned from a hike shade was everywhere. While our stay is short, others told us they had been there for a week. This is an unexpected find at the end of the road!” –The Dyrt Camper Art S.
3. Rock Creek (Clinton, MT)
One of the few streams on our list, Rock Creek is a bonafide Montana fly fishing paradise, boasting an array of boulders, runs and pools that play host to some of the most beautiful trout the state has to offer. It’s chock full of rainbows, browns and the native cutthroat trout that are especially known to chase salmonfly throughout the early summer months. That said, its year-round fishability is something that is coveted amongst local anglers and fish-friendly tourists alike.
Camping near this river: Norton Campground is an off-the-beaten path campground located in the Rock Creek drainage area. It’s the perfect campground for an angler looking to escape the day-to-day business and dive into a trout-filled outdoor paradise. Norton Campground offers two dozen campsites and is located adjacent to the trophy waters of Rock Creek.
“Had an amazing time: all the amenities!” –The Dyrt Camper Angie L.
4. Blackfoot River (Bonner, MT)
The famous stream from “A River Runs Through It” is home to the full gamut of Montana fly fishing. Featuring native cutthroat, rainbows and browns, this river is full of opportunities to fish, including choppy waters speckled with seams and large boulders that create ideal fishable holes. The dry fly fishing on the Blackfoot is particularly good, as the trout are prone to eating off the top of the aquamarine water’s surface. This is the perfect river for both new and advanced anglers alike, as its serene flow and gorgeous scenery make it an ideal destination with or without the prospect of catching fish.
Camping near this river: Thibodeau Campground is located right on the shores of the Blackfoot just outside of the town of Bonner, Montana. The campground offers just six organized campsites with decent shade in close proximity to the sounds of the rushing water. There are bathrooms, but no potable water. Anglers should plan to move upstream from their campsites for fishing opportunities, as tubers and rafters often put in near the rapid that borders the campground.
“Thibodeau is one of the largest runnable rapids on the Blackfoot River. Camping next to it is wonderful for the sounds of the river and for the excitement of swimming.” –The Dyrt Camper Amanda L.
5. Gallatin River (Bozeman, MT)
Located just outside Bozeman, the Gallatin is a great place for tourists and locals to wet a line without too much hassle in terms of transportation or remoteness. The section of the river near Bozeman is littered with deep pockets that hold bountiful trout, and undercut banks on its lower section provide even more variety to an already very fishable stream. This river is ideal for anglers just looking to get a taste of Montana fly fishing, as it offers nearly everyone the chance to hook into a nice-sized rainbow or brown trout without the need for excessive play in your casts or drifting techniques.
Camping near this river: Red Cliff Campground is set in the magnificent Gallatin Canyon just 45 miles from Bozeman. The campground offers prime access to the Gallatin River directly from the campground. The 61 campsites come with and without electric hookups, and vault toilets and drinking water are available. As a bonus for anglers with a desire to explore the natural scenery, Yellowstone National Park is located 45 miles to the south of this premier camping location. Book now on The Dyrt!
“Beautiful setting, easy access to hiking, cave exploration and rock climbing. Later in the summer, the Gallatin river provides good fishing opportunities. Yellowstone Park is about 40 minutes away. Tons of hiking options within Gallatin Canyon, all accessible via a short drive if you want something away from the campground. Great camp hosts, who check in with everyone, have firewood and ensure everything is good to go.” –The Dyrt Camper Tim H.
6. Smith River (Fort Logan, MT)
One of the more remote rivers on our list, the Smith River is highly sought after and only available via permit. Permits are obtained through a lottery system and offer anglers the chance to float and camp along 60 miles of some of the best Montana fly fishing water in the state. The river is best fished with streamers and nymphs, although during the spring and beginning of summer there are plenty of hatches that speckle the surface. Currently, the Smith is known for its vibrant and flourishing populations of brown and rainbow trout. Although there aren’t likely going to be any trophy fish in these waters, the experience and beauty of the area will make any angling experience complete.
Camping near this river: Camping is allowed on the Smith River by permit only. Visit Montana State Parks’ website for more details on permit windows and availability.
7. Clark Fork River (Superior, MT)
One of the premier dry fly rivers in all of the Montana fly fishing locales, the Clark Fork is one of the few places you can chuck a dry fly nearly all day long and expect to hook into something. The rising fish here are as constant as the current, and summertime offers a wide window for anglers looking to test their skills with a variety of flies. Most often, Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) are most successful in the early summer months, with Hoppers becoming a popular option come late July and August. Even in the fall you can expect to catch a hungry trout, just be sure to bundle up a bit.
Camping near this river: Quartz Flat Campground provides excellent camping near the Clark Fork River and Interstate 90, making it convenient for anglers and weekend warriors to make a quick stop off before getting their feet in the water. It’s a popular place for rafters to stay as well, so reservations are recommended.
“A couple of friends and I stayed overnight at Quartz Flat Campground the night before rafting the Clark Fork. Amazing stay overall. The camp hosts had firewood waiting for us when we arrived at no extra charge, and they had tons of options for tents or campers/RVs. The price was also unbeatable. If I ever end up in the area again I won’t hesitate to stay there another night!” –The Dyrt Camper Maddie L.
8. Missouri River (Wolf Creek, MT)
The locals call it the “MO,” either for Montana or because its M.O. is fish, fish and more fish. The Missouri is home to thousands upon thousands of trout and sits just below the Holter Dam outside of Wolf Creek. While they don’t get huge, the quantity of fish here make it a must do for dry fliers or nymph fishers seeking to hook into some quality Montana trout. What’s more, the Missouri’s status as a tailwater makes it fishable throughout the year; in fact, it’s not uncommon to hear of fish being caught in the middle of winter.
Camping near this river: Missouri Headwaters State Park offers an organized campground just feet from the headwaters of the Missouri River, giving anglers prime access to the shoreline as well as top-tier camping amenities. The campground offers 17 campsites along with a tepee rental, as well as 532 acres of scenic, forested land to explore and hike while you wait for the fish to bite.
“I just spent one night at this campsite but it was very nice. The camp hosts were helpful and friendly. It is well-maintained and clean. The headwaters of the Missouri River in the evening were absolutely spectacular.” –The Dyrt Camper Kim K.
9. Yellowstone River (Billings, MT & Yellowstone National Park)
As the longest free flowing river in the lower 48 states, the Yellowstone River offers more than 200 miles of fishable waters that include a wide variety of fish species and flow patterns. Whether you’re looking for a trophy fish, a bundle of trout or the chance to catch several different species, the Yellowstone is a premier Montana fly fishing destination. Unlike some of the smaller streams and rivers in the region, the “Stone” truly has it all: expansive views, big waters and tons of fish. Most anglers find success in this river with dry flies or large streamers, and the most successful groups are those that find a way to fish from a raft or drift boat, as the width and depth of the river doesn’t always lend itself to wade fishing.
Camping near this river: The Yellowstone River Campground is a rustic, no-frills camping area located right next to the Yellowstone River. Its style and layout is suited to both RVs and tents and offers very basic camping areas in exchange for a premier spot on the waters of the Stone. Anglers who are used to backcountry fishing and camping setups would do well to make their base camp at the Yellowstone River Campground.
“This is a single campground that has cabins, tent spots and pull-in RV and camper spots. This site would definitely be more suited for RVs but our tent fit in fine and we were able to escape to the nearby Yellowstone River. There is also gritty sandstone climbing on the rims that surround Billings and one of our favorite ranges in the lower 48, the Beartooths, is very close by and absolutely stunning!” –The Dyrt Camper Alan B.
10. Big Hole River (Divide, MT)
Perhaps the most diverse river in the Big Sky State, the Big Hole is home to five species of fish, including the rare yet coveted Arctic grayling. There are several areas where this river can be fished, but the four distinct sections sit around 30 miles apart, each boasting its own set of pools, runs and shallow edges where trout and grayling love to hang out. The river itself offers seasons for all anglers, including chances to fish with dry flies, streamers and nymphs. Anyone who is interested in experiencing vintage Montana fly fishing and (potentially) a rare grayling catch should visit this river as early as possible in the summer months.
Camping near this river: The Divide Bridge Campground is located just outside of Divide, Montana, and offers excellent campsites right on the Big Hole River. The campground also offers boat launches and self-serve registration that allows for anglers and campers to enjoy a more secluded camping experience. Water pumps and picnic tables are provided at this pristine campground tucked away in the Montana wilderness.
“Mostly RVs. I was the only one in a tent, though it was still pretty empty. Beautiful location, right on the river. There are boat launches there. It was self-serve registration when I was there, and only $10! There were some very cute bunnies hanging out. I couldn’t figure out the water pumps, but managed with what I had in the truck. A fine place to lay your head!” –The Dyrt Camper Krista R.
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