Fly Fishing Blog

A Simple Fly Fishing Guide to Montana

Posted by: Toby Swank
Date: 04/05/2024

Fly fishing Montana can feel intimidating. Numerous books detail intricate variables and complicated approaches to catching trout in this vast state...

Not to mention the magazine articles, blog posts, social media feeds, and YouTube videoscovering the subject. If you tried to consume all the resources explaining how to fly fish in Montana, you’d never actually get around to fly fishing.

Fly fishing in Montana (like anywhere else) can be as complicated as you enjoy making it. Some anglers relish this sport for the complexity, minutiae and, technical depth, but a rank amateur can have as much fun fly fishing as much as a 40 year veteran. If want a few leisurely hours on the water catching fish with a fly rod, I’m here to help.

Yellowstone River Fly Fishing in Montan

Where to Go

Most trout rivers cut through the western half of the state, but that still leaves about 450 miles of designated “blue-ribbon” water. Even if you spend the rest of your life fly fishing here, you’ll never experience everything Montana has to offer. So don’t try. Pick an area that looks interesting and focus. You’ll have more fun getting to know a couple rivers, a single river, or even a section of river, than running all over the place and constantly starting over. You can always come back.

A few particular regions offer relatively easy access and high concentrations of fishing opportunity.

Bozeman Fly Fishing

I’ve lived, fished, and guided around Bozeman for the past 32 years. I consider this one of the best fly fishing regions in the world. Within a half hour of Main Street, you can fish four iconic rivers: the Gallatin, Madison, Yellowstone, and Missouri, plus small creeks, mountain lakes, suburban ponds—just about every kind of fly fishing you could want. Bozeman offers a nice balance, plenty of water within an hour’s drive, plus the comfort and amenities of a mid-sized town—great restaurants, varied accommodation options, and plenty of family friendly, non-fishing activities.

Missoula Fly Fishing

I’m not going to wade into the turbulent Bozeman vs. Missoula argument. They’re both exceptional trout fishing towns surrounded by incredible rivers. Missoula’s local waters include the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot Rivers, as well as world-class smaller streams like Rock Creek. You can’t go wrong using either of these towns as a home base for Montana fly fishing adventures.

West Yellowstone Fly Fishing

If you want to blend a Yellowstone National Park vacation with a serious dose of fly fishing, West Yellowstone should be high on your list. With easy access to the Upper Madison, the rivers and creeks in America’s first National Park, and Idaho’s famed Henry’s Fork, a visit to West gives you exceptional fishing and even better scenery.

Craig Montana Fly Fishing

The Missouri River near Craig, Montana might just be the greatest trout fishery in the Lower 48 States. Its unique combination of fish density and average size means you can catch a lot of big fish on any given day. Boat fishing, wade fishing, dry flies, nymphing, streamers, trout spey—this stretch of the Missouri has it all. The only drawbacks are a lack of alternative fishing options nearby (except the Dearborn River early in the season or carp fishing on one of the nearby reservoirs in late summer), and the scant amenities in town (two bars, one restaurant). But if you’re looking for one river to fish in Montana, this is probably it.

Fort Smith Fly Fishing

This town sits at the literal end of the road, where the Bighorn River pours from Yellowtail Dam. The first few miles of the Bighorn below Yellowtail dam boasts the highest trout concentration in Montana. If your sole focus is catching a lot of fish, this is probably the river for you. The Bighorn doesn’t offer the breathtaking mountainous scenery you’ll find in other parts of the state, and Fort Smith has even fewer amenities (and fishing options) than Craig on the Missouri, but you can’t beat this river for numbers of trout.

Madison River Fly Fishing in Montana

When To Go

As with so many things in life, timing is everything. When you fish is often more important than where or how well you fish. If you find yourself on the water during one of those magical days when every fish is eating, just about any river in Montana can provide the day of a lifetime. I can’t predict exactly when those days will happen, but I can give some guidance to narrow down your timing and increase your chances.


March through May is a magical time in Montana. Warming water temperatures and increased insect activity cause the fish to feed more aggressively. Tailwaters (rivers that are dam controlled) come alive this time of year. Because they are less affected by runoff, Montana’s big tailwaters (Madison, Missouri, Bighorn) usually fish very well even when other rivers swell with snowmelt. Peak summer tourist crowds have not yet arrived, though fishing-specific destinations (Craig and Fort Smith) get busy. The first big hatches of the season usually start in May, but the tailwaters can see good dry fly fishing as early as late March.


June and July are prime fishing months in Montana, with prolific hatches on all the major rivers. These months often provide the rare combination of good fishing and comfortable weather. The freestone rivers (Gallatin, Yellowstone, Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork) offer their best fishing of the year. By August, water temperatures start to creep above the optimal range for trout, and mid-August can bring some of the toughest fishing conditions of the year. August can be dicey, but if you have cool weather, the trout can be focused on grasshoppers, which means aggressive fish on big dry flies.


September and October shine in Montana and give anglers the opportunity to experience exceptional trout fishing against the backdrop of glowing fall foliage. Just about every river in the state fishes well this time of year. September brings cooler weather and happier fish. Late season mayflies hatch, and terrestrials (grasshoppers, ants, beetles) still float around. October’s a transitional month, as the bugs dwindle and the fish start to prepare for winter. Late October and November usually bring good streamer fly fishing. The weather can turn quickly, though. One day might be mid-60s and lovely; the next morning you could wake up to snow on your windshield, so come prepared.

Yellowstone River fly fishing in Montana, near Livingston

What to Bring

Fly Rod

Most resource guides will tell you that a 5-weight, 9-foot, fast-action rod makes the best all-around fly rod for trout fishing in Montana. If you’re a small stream aficionado, a shorter, lighter rod will fish much better in tight cover and thin water. I would choose an 8-foot 6-inch 4-weight (or even a 3-weight). If, on the other hand, you’re planning to fish Montana’s big rivers, you should bring a 9 foot 6-weight. You’ll appreciate the added heft when casting a heavy nymph rig or punching casts into a stiff wind (pretty common here).

5-weight rods are popular because they work in most situations, but they’re rarely the optimal choice. Pick your rod (or rods) based on the waters you’re planning to fish. You don’t need the most expensive rod on the market, just something you’re comfortable with. Instead of getting the nicest rod you can afford, consider getting a couple mid-range rods. That way you have the right tool for different situations and a back-up in case one breaks.

Reel and Line

When trout fishing, your reel is usually just a line holder, so it doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. You should, however, buy the highest quality fly line you can afford and make sure it’s the correct weight for your rod.

Leaders and Tippet

A few 7.5 foot 3X tapered leaders and spools of tippet from 2X to 5X will allow you to rig for nearly every fly fishing situation in Montana.


Here are ten general patterns that will catch trout across Montana much of the time: parachute Adams, elk hair caddis, chubby Chernobyl, parachute ant, bead head hare’s ear, bead head prince, brown rubber legs, bead head pheasant tail, olive wooly bugger.

That’s a start, but I can’t give you a comprehensive list of every fly you might want on a fishing trip to Montana. Visit local fly shops to find out what flies are working on a particular river at that exact time.

Angler fishing in Montana, celebrating success on the river!

Seek Local Advice

Reading books, watching videos, and reading articles like this one will never give you the same level of knowledge you can get from area experts. Even if you enjoy DIY fishing, I recommend hiring an outfitter for a day or two of guided fly fishing in a particular area of Montana. That guide will help get you dialed in on the current conditions, what the fish are eating, and where they are in the river. That will make your solo fishing time much more productive and enjoyable.

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