The Musselshell River begins at the confluence of the North and South Forks Musselshell, in a broad valley that lies north of the Crazy Mountains and to the east of White Sulphur Springs, MT. From its origin, the Musselshell River twists and turns slowly through windswept, wide-open and sparsely populated prairie. The river ends on the south shores of Fort Peck Lake, near the southern tip of the UL Bend Wilderness, 360 miles later.
Access to the Musselshell River can be difficult. The river mostly flows through private land, limiting access points to the various road crossings. Since roads are often few in the Musselshell River country, access points are widely spaced apart.
For an angler or floater who is seeking solitude, look no further than the Musselshell River. The river receives little fishing pressure except for the locals. While the upper twenty-five miles hold smaller numbers of large brown trout, the Musselshell River is mainly a warm water fishery. Besides the brown trout in its upper reaches, the river has strong populations of catfish and smallmouth bass, particularly near Fort Peck Lake.
Despite its length, the Musselshell is a small river. The river is easy to wade and is usually less than thirty feet wide. The river banks are brushy in its far upper stretches, while attractive cottonwood trees line the banks further downstream.
Although the vegetation can make fishing difficult on its upper stretch, the vegetation is helpful in other ways. Since most roads in this region are dirt, often in poor condition and usually not marked, finding the various bridges that cross the Musselshell River can prove an exercise in map reading and navigation skills. This is where rivers vegetation is helpful. When in doubt about the rivers location, look for a thin line of vegetation standing out among the generally treeless prairie.
Musselshell River receives heavy irrigation use. The irrigation use can be so intense that occasionally parts of the river run dry. During the summer, the middle section of the Musselshell River often turns into scattered deep pools connected by a trickle of water.
Fishing the Musselshell River
While the Musselshell River will never become the next destination fishery for anglers on a Montana fly fishing trip, large brown trout are taken from the river in its far upper stretches. The Musselshell River can also provide fine fishing for warm water species such as smallmouth bass near the rivers outlet at Fork Peck Lake.
Trout fishing is limited on the Musselshell River to the stretch between its' origin, near Martinsdale, downstream to the Highway 191 Bridge at Harlowton. Below Harlowton, the water is to warm to support productive trout habitat beyond the occasional lost brown trout. Along this stretch, the Musselshell has many undercut banks, bushy riverbanks, small riffles and a few deep pools. The river is also narrow and usually shallow. Brown trout in this section average around 12 inches, but many exceed five pounds. While brown trout are the primary fish, whitefish are plentiful and fun to catch. There are also limited numbers of rainbow and brook trout, too.
The best time to fish the upper Musselshell River is between April-June and in the fall. During the summer, irrigation takes a heavy toll on the river. High water temperatures and low flows combine to put a lid on productive fishing during July and August, and sometimes into September.
The best time to fish is early morning and the evening. Fishing for the brown trout in the Musselshell is similar to fishing other brown trout waters. Use streamers and nymphs, floating them along undercut banks, downed timber and into the deep pools.
The Musselshell River flows through mainly an agricultural area, with hayfields often lining its banks. While the river during the summer often shuts down because of warm water and low flows, unexpected cooler weather or higher water can allow for some productive summer fishing. For anglers who happen to be on the river during this period, the Musselshell River can provide fine top water action using hopper imitations. Float the hoppers along the undercut banks and other areas that provide cover for the trout.
The Musselshell River receives light fishing pressure in comparison to other Montana rivers. However, in some respects, the Musselshell River resembles a spring creek, with its narrow width, twisty nature, shallow water and its bushy banks. Because of this, anglers need to approach the river carefully. When wading, walk slowly and carefully. Other Montana rivers allow anglers to get away with noisy wading due to fast current and whitewater. The slow current of the Musselshell, complete lack of any whitewater, and the spooky nature of brown trout combine to create a more demanding environment for wading.
Related Article - Guide to Waders & How to Wade Safely Without Waders
As access in this upper stretch is thin at best, most fishing occurs around the Selkirk Fishing Access Site, the Two Dot Road Access Site or at the Highway 191 Bridge Access. The largest trout and best fishing is a short walk from these access sites. By leaving the access sites behind, and because float fishing is rare, an angler will find seldom fished stretches on the river.
Below Harlowton, the river begins to warm and the Musselshell turns into a warm water fishery. For the rest of its length, large catfish and smallmouth bass are common. The best smallmouth bass fishing is on the far lower portion of the Musselshell. For those who seek a new angling experience in solitude, there are worse ways to spend time than fishing for the smallmouth in the eastern half of the Musselshell River. The fish are often large, with three pound bass common. Fishing pressure is also next to zero along the lower half of the Musselshell River.
For those of haven't fished for smallmouth bass before, consider trying it. Smallmouth put up a heck of a fight on a fly rod, especially a 4 or 5 weight rod. While they generally don't display acrobatics like rainbow trout do, they can pull line off a reel just as quickly as the strongest trout.
Crayfish are a favorite food of the smallmouth bass and are common along the lower Musselshell River, particularly near the outlet to Fort Peck Lake. Although crayfish fly imitations are heavy, awkward, and rather ugly they work well for putting smallmouth bass in the net. Fish the crayfish along the shore, focusing on undercut banks and other areas that provide cover for the bass. Similar to brown trout, smallmouth bass seek cover wherever they can find it. Let the crayfish drop to the bottom of the river, pulling it back towards you in erratic motions.
Overall, don't plan a visit to Montana with the Musselshell River as the primary destination for fishing, except for perhaps the excellent smallmouth bass fishing found near Fort Peck Lake. Still, visiting the Musselshell River is a unique diversion away from the popular fishing spots in Montana.
Floating the Musselshell River
A float on the Musselshell River can be a wonderful trip or a frustrating exercise. The many diversion dams will test patience and sanity since most require portages. Throw in the slow water, frequent windy conditions, fences across the river and low water levels and the recipe is perfect for a frustrating if memorable float.
However, it is these frustrations that keep the river devoid of people. A floater who arrives during high water levels, before the beginning of intense irrigation use and who can live with the portages and slow current, will find solitude galore along Musselshell River. Even better, the Musselshell enters Fort Peck Lake near the tip of the UL Bend Wilderness, providing even more solitude.
Without question, a canoe or inflatable kayak is the boat of choice for floating this river. The river is to narrow, shallow and twisty for large rafts.
Floaters who want a longer trip on the Musselshell River without the hassles of portaging around the many diversion dams, a long “hassle free” float is possible. The last of the diversion dams on the river is more than 160 miles upstream from Fort Peck Lake, near the town of Queens Point. Downstream from Queens Point, except for an occasional fence that might block the way, no more dams, at least legal dams, should be encountered. This allows for a 160 mile float through a remote and lonely part of Montana.
Related Article - Guide to Inflatable Kayaks for Fishing
Timing is everything when floating the Musselshell River. By mid-summer, flows are generally so low the river becomes unfloatable. The combination of intensive irrigation use, occasional drought and periodic lack of snow can turn the middle portion of the Musselshell River into nothing more than a scattering of deep pools with a trickle of water running between them. Floaters should plan a trip on the Musselshell River by June, with May usually providing the best float conditions.
Gear Tips for the Musselshell
- For Floaters : Floating the Musselshell or other similar small streams? A kayak is the boat of choice, either hardshell or inflatable, although canoes work ok. More information about How to Choose an Inflatable Kayak.
- Flies : Standard trout flies if brown trout fishing. And for smallmouth bass fishing, pick up some warmwater flies - especially crayfish.
Listed below are selected river miles for the Musselshell River, from its origin to its end at Fort Peck Lake.
- Origin at North and South Forks: 362
- Selkirk FAS: 358
- County Bridge at Two Dot: 345
- Highway 191 Bridge in Harlowton: 326
- County Bridge: 318
- County Bridge in Shawmut: 299
- Barber Road Bridge: 287
- County Bridge in Ryegate: 277
- Cushman Road Bridge: 257
- Highway 3 Bridge in Lavina: 249
- Dean Creek Road Bridge: 232
- Goulding Creek Road Bridge: 217
- Highway 87 Bridge: 210
- 4 Road Bridge in Roundup: 206
- Parrot Creek Bridge in Gage: 196
- Fattig Creek Road in Delphina: 172
- Musselshell Bridge in Musselshell: 161
- Queens Point Bridge in Queens Point: 153
- Melstone-Custer Bridge in Melstone: 135
- Highway 12 Bridge: 129
- Highway 200 Bridge in Mosby: 72
- Blood Creek Road Bridge: 27
- Fort Peck Lake: 0