The Kootenai River
Fly Fishing Information

Kootenai River

Fly Fishing the Kootenai River

Kootenai River upstream from Libby 
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The Kootenai River is a daunting river for fly fishing. The Kootenai River is so big, so broad, so deep and fast flowing that figuring out where to start is no simple task. The rivers characteristics also make wade fishing exceptionally difficult - except during very low flows, the Kootenai River is one of those rivers that float fishing is really the best way to go, particularly during the summer. Anyone wading the Kootenai River must also deal with the variable flows of the Kootenai itself - unannounced and frequent releases from Libby Dam can raise the water level and increase the flow rate in a heartbeat.

The Kootenai River jumped to prominence in 1997 when the state record rainbow trout was caught near Libby Dam - a monstrosity of a fish that was thirty-eight inches in length and weighed thirty-three pounds! The Kootenai River also holds the state record for mountain whitefish at more than five pounds, which was also caught just below Libby Dam in 1987.

As any angler can tell from looking at these numbers, the Kootenai River, besides being big and broad, holds some very large fish indeed. The trick, of course, is catching them on this massive and somewhat intimidating river.

The best rainbow trout fishing on the Kootenai River is found above Kootenai Falls, although the lower river of the Kootenai is making a comeback due to recent changes in fishing regulations. The true monster fish, for those with the patience to chase them, will generally be found within a mile or two downstream from Libby Dam where they feed not only on flies and other fish, but the chopped up remains of the various fish that get caught up in the turbines of Libby Dam. An additional bonus of the Kootenai River is that, since its flows are regulated by Libby Dam, the prime fishing portion of the Kootenai River generally runs clear even during spring run-off, although the feeder rivers can occasionally add some murk to the rivers clarity.

Unlike most Montana rivers that can frequently run low and slow later in the summer, the Kootenai River generally runs high and fast through the middle of August. Since the water is fed from Libby Dam, the water also tends to be quite cool. These two factors, along with no water diversions for irrigation, combine to allow the Kootenai River to avoid the "dog days of August" that can plague some other fine Montana trout streams.

Kootenai River : Libby Dam to Libby

This section of the Kootenai River travels for seventeen miles. The Kootenai River in this section is characterized by fast moving flows, is very wide and has a number of side channels and braids, along with many deep pools. During lower flows (during the winter, late fall and early spring), extensive gravel bars will also be exposed, while during the higher flows of early summer the shoreline vegetation can be flooded to a depth of several feet.

Kootenai River at Libby Dam 
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Access to this section of the Kootenai River is excellent. A fine boat ramp is found just downstream from Libby Dam, and several other boat ramps are also found between the dam and the town of Libby. Additionally, for the angler who lacks the boat, an easier major river to access than the Kootenai River will not be easily found. The Bureau of Reclamation has extensive camping and park facilities below Libby Dam, allowing for easy shoreline access. Additionally, Highway 37 closely follows the Kootenai River for much of its length to Libby, providing easy car access. Just park your car along the road and hop into the river. Just be careful where you hop.

The true monster rainbow trout of the Kootenai River - those fish reserved for space next to the fireplace - will generally be located just downstream from Libby Dam, as mentioned previously. The odds of catching these fish on a dainty dry fly, however, are very slim. Instead, massive streamers - up to five inches long, are the flies of choice when chasing after the trophy trout that are found below Libby Dam. Popular and successful flies include the Wolly Bugger and a Kokanee Salmon imitation, all heavily weighted and fished down very deep on a sink tip or full sinking line.

Any angler who values quality over quantity, and doesn't mind hefting very large streamers on stout tackle hour after unproductive hour, can score huge on the Kootenai River when chasing trophy sized rainbow trout. Just remember, to catch these monster trout, though, requires patience. Lots of patience. Don't pull up to the Kootenai River expecting to take home several large rainbow trout every day when chasing these trophy fish. Feel lucky and privileged if you catch one of these trophy-sized rainbows in a day, as many locals will fish all summer long near the dam without catching any of the Kootenai River trophies.

For anglers who aren't interested in chasing after the trophy-sized trout that are found in the Kootenai River just below the dam, the Kootenai River has excellent populations of rainbow trout that average in the 12-15 inch range. Being a big, fertile river with fairly strict fishing regulations (all trout between 13-18 inches must be released, 13-24 inches right below the dam), it is not surprising that fish counts are also very high - with rainbow trout populations running 2000 - 3000 per mile.

Kootenai River just below Libby Dam. Large photo not available 
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The Kootenai River, due to its location in the far northwest corner of Montana, does not receive excessive amounts of fishing pressure. The sheer size of the river also intimidates many anglers who lack a boat. As a result, fishing pressure on the Kootenai River is not excessively high - certainly nothing like what is found on the Missouri River or the Madison River. However, despite the relatively low fishing pressure, the rainbow trout in the Kootenai River are finicky eaters. Successful fishing requires very long, light leaders (12 - 15 foot leaders are the norm on the Kootenai River) along with excellent presentation. Smaller flies are also more effective in catching the larger rainbows than then large, bushy flies commonly used on other Montana rivers.

The Kootenai River is an interesting river for fly fishing. With its peak flows being during the summer,fly fishing tactics are somewhat different than found on other Montana rivers. Additionally, its sheer size makes finding prime fishing areas a challenge, especially for anglers lacking a boat. There are a number of areas to concentrate on when fly fishing the Kootenai River.

One area is around the many feeder rivers and streams of the Kootenai River. These areas provide a mix of current, allowing the fish to find from relief from the strong currents of the Kootenai.

A second area, if somewhat more difficult to spot and very difficult to reach without a boat, are the various "seams" in the rivers current. Like all rivers, the Kootenai River generally runs fastest in the middle of the river, with slower flowing sections found closer to shore. Due to these changes in the current speed, seams in the river form, with pockets of slower water surrounded by fast moving currents. Gingerly plopping a dry fly into one of these slow water stretches is an excellent way to catch a large rainbow.

A third area to look for are any noticeable deep pools. This is easier said than done, though, especially for someone who has never fished the Kootenai before. The river is just so large and fast, that often by the time you recognize a hole you have little or hope of rowing over to fish it in time. Unlike many other rivers in Montana, the holes on the Kootenai River are usually not all that obvious at a casual glance.

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