Fly Fishing the Missouri River

The Missouri River runs for more than seven hundred miles in Montana. For the angler pondering a visit to Montana to fish the Missouri River, trying to decide the best place to fish can seem overwhelming. Thankfully, this problem is easy to solve. Trout fishing is limited to just a few spots on the Missouri River. And just one thirty-mile section, between Holter Dam and Cascade, offers the prime trout fishing waters the river is famous for.

This section will cover the upper half of the Missouri River, from its origin down to Great Falls, Montana. The lower half of the Missouri River, which stretches from Great Falls to the North Dakota border, is covered in the Eastern Montana rivers section (more info about the lower Missouri River).

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Three Forks to Canyon Ferry Reservoir

Between Three Forks and Canyon Ferry Reservoir, the trout fishing is spotty. Most fish in this fifty mile section of the river are the result of migrating upstream from Canyon Ferry Reservoir or migrating down from a tributary.

Large brown trout are found this part of the Missouri. The problem is the numbers of fish per mile are low, especially when compared with trout populations further downstream.

The Missouri River is often somewhat muddy in this stretch, limiting top water fishing. Because of the murky waters, anglers should use streamers and nymphs. Use large streamers on heavy tackle, pulling them along the river bottom, focusing on the deeper areas of the river.

This stretch of river, particularly between Canyon Ferry Reservoir and Totson Dam, does have one peak fishing time. During the fall, large numbers of spawning brown trout migrate from Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Fishing wet fly attractors can work well when fished over the deeper waters.

For anglers who have never fished this part of the Missouri River before, consider stopping at the local fly shop to inquire about conditions and what flies are working. Doing so likely will prevent many hours or days of frustrating fishing.


Hauser Dam to Holter Lake

Prime Trout Waters on the Missouri River

The Missouri River only runs for three miles between Hauser Dam and the upper end of Holter Lake. The river is wide and the current fast. As this stretch of river is so short, floating is not popular, offering the wade angler good fishing possibilities. Rainbow trout are the dominate species in this stretch, although large browns are often found right below Hauser Dam.

Two techniques are popular when fishing this stretch of river. The real large rainbows are located right below Hauser dam, eating the various fish and other food that flow through the dam.

To reach these larger fish requires using large streamers on sinking lines, heavily weighted. By getting large streamers down deep (not easy with the fast current and the depth of the water), an angler has a good chance to land rainbows in the three to five pound range.

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As the river flows through the Missouri Breaks, the landscape is a beautiful mix of canyons, buttes, arid mountains and windswept prairie. While fishing isn’t especially popular along this stretch of the Missouri River, recreational floating this wild stretch of the river has become increasingly popular.

The second technique is using dry flies in the summer months, during the caddis hatch.


Holter Dam to Pelican Access FAS

This stretch of the Missouri River, which runs for thirty miles, receives most of the fishing pressure. Since pressure is heavy, the trout—a mix of rainbows and browns—are often picky about what they eat. Successful fishing requires delicate presentations of precise fly imitations. An average rainbow in this stretch will run between 14 to 18 inches, with the browns a tad larger.

Where Dearborn River Meets the Missouri River

Anglers seeking solitude will not enjoy his stretch of the Missouri River. A typical summer day finds rafts and drift boats stretching along the river for as far as the eye can see. Because of the many fishing access sites, wade angling is also popular. During the busiest periods on the river, expect some congestion between wade anglers and floaters.

Between Holter Dam and the confluence with the Dearborn River, the Missouri River offers quality fly fishing throughout the year since the dam regulates the river flows. Below the confluence with the Dearborn River, the Missouri River generally runs clear except for when the Dearborn is at high water. If the Dearborn is running high, expect the Missouri River to turn very turbid below this point, severely limiting fly fishing opportunities.

The Missouri River is of moderate width between Holter Dam and Pelican Access. The river is also deep, preventing anglers from wading across it. While wade fishing is popular and effective on the river, the size and depth of the river does limit a wade angler’s ability to reach some of the better fishing spots.

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Beginning at Holter Dam, the Missouri River first flows through a small canyon, with large hills on the eastern bank of the river. At the Wolf Creek Access Site, the river emerges into a small, agricultural valley which is flanked by small mountains in the distance.

A few miles later, the river enters another canyon. This canyon stretch has small mountains bordering the river, sometimes coming right to the riverbanks. The mountains are generally arid and sparsely forested. The banks of the river, however, are a mix of trees, brush, grass and fields. This diversity in habitat on the river is one reason for the splendid fishing on this part of the Missouri River.

Between Holter Dam and Wolf Creek Access, the Missouri River flows slowly. Although just three miles long, the the slow river flows and the frequent high winds might make the trip a slow one. Below Wolf Creek Access, the Missouri River slowly begins to pick up pace, and once the Missouri River reaches the canyon stretch, its flows are moderately fast.

During the winter months, for anglers willing to brave the often cold and windy elements, midges form the primary diet of the trout. Small dry flies as well as fishing sub-surface using small emerger patterns are effective this time of year. Popular flies include Griffiths Gnat for adult midges and the Midge Pupa for the emerger patterns.

Holter Dam

Spring sees the beginning of the Blue Wing Olive hatches, which typically begins in late April and lasts through June. These hatches can occur anytime between early mornings and mid-afternoon. Popular imitations include a Parachute Adams or a Baetis Parachute for top water fishing and a Bead Head Hare's Ear when fishing sub-surface. Sizes of these flies should be small, ranging from 16-24, on light tippets.

Beginning in June and lasting well into August, the Missouri Rivers prime hatch occurs, the Pale Morning Dun (PMD). The PMD hatch can happen at any time, and once it kicks off it usually lasts throughout the day. Effective top water patterns include the Parachute PMD, the PMD Cripple, Sparkle Dun, in sizes 16-22. The Hare's Ear Nymph and the Pheasant Tail Nymph, in sizes 16-20, are popular nymph patterns.

Montana Fishing Guidebooks Montana Fly Fishing Books - Browse helpful guide books that describe the fishing across the state.

The PMD hatch offers anglers an excellent opportunity to catch large trout on small dry flies. However, fly fishing the PMD hatch requires excellent presentation on light tackle. Drag free floats, a quiet approach and perfect casting are needed to catch the larger trout. As this is the primary hatch on the Missouri River, fishing pressure is heavy. This results in trout that are finicky eaters.

The Missouri River flows through prime hopper country. Beginning in late July and lasting for the rest of the summer, hopper fishing provides excellent fly fishing. Fish the hopper along the banks, occasionally giving them a good yank to imitate their struggle while on the water. Popular hopper patterns include Joe's Hopper, Dave's Hopper, and Henry's Fork Hopper, in sizes 6-8.

Fall sees the return of the PMD hatches. The fall PMD hatch generally runs from early September through mid-October, or until the first cold weather arrives.

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Pelican FAS to Great Falls

Near Pelican Fishing Access Site

Below the Pelican FAS, which is near the town of Cascade, the Missouri River leaves the mountains behind and begins its journey through the Montana prairie. The flows slow down, especially as it nears Great Falls. The waters of the Missouri River also begin to warm, limiting rainbow trout fishing.

Large brown trout care found throughout this stretch of the river, lurking in the deeper holes and along the many undercut banks. As this is primarily brown trout water, a popular fly fishing method is to use streamers on sink tip lines, casting them into the holes and along the many undercut banks.

The best time to fly fish for these brown trout is during the spring and again in the fall. During the summer, the high water temperatures can severely limit trout fishing.

Other fish species found in this stretch include carp and smallmouth bass. Fishing for smallmouth bass should not be ignored, as they are loads of fun to catch. When fly fishing for the smallmouth, use crayfish on a sink tip line, dragging them along the bottom and around obstructions or near undercut banks.

Additionally, this section of the Missouri River receives little fishing pressure.


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