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Where is the Best Fly Fishing in Montana

Posted by: Toby Swank
Date: 03/16/2024

Trout anglers have no shortage of great places to fish. The state of Montana alone boasts enough trout water to keep you busy for several lifetimes. What’s the best trout fishing destination?

The Best Fly Fishing in Montana is in Bozeman

I’d vote for Bozeman as the best place to fly fish in Montana. That’s why I started guiding here over two decades ago and why I still live here today. Fly fishing in Bozeman gives you access to more trout fishing options than any other destination I’ve found.

I’ll explain why I consider Bozeman to have the best fly fishing in Montana and give you advice on how to take advantage of local fishing opportunities.

Big Rivers with Big Names

The Yellowstone

Head east over Bozeman pass on Interstate 90 for 30 miles and you’ll reach the longest free-flowing river remaining in the Lower 48 states. From its headwaters in America’s first National Park all the way past the small town of Big Timber, the Yellowstone River maintains a world-class trout fishery. The size of this river makes it easier to fish from a boat than on foot, but experienced and intrepid wade anglers can find exceptional fly fishing here too.

The Gallatin

Travel less than a dozen miles west of town, and you’ll encounter the famed Gallatin River. This cold, highly-oxygenated freestone fishery originates in Yellowstone National Park and drops down a narrow canyon near the ski town of Big Sky before carving through a broad valley. The Gallatin is a wade angler’s paradise with ample public access. Fishing from boats is not allowed in the canyon, giving fly fishers who prefer to use their feet a distinct advantage. For those who prefer to float, raft and driftboat fly fishing is allowed on the lower river, near its confluence with the Missouri.

The Madison

If you cross the Gallatin and continue west, you’ll soon arrive at the Madison. Also originating in Yellowstone National Park, the Madison offers some of the most diverse trout fishing opportunities of any river on the planet. From the muscular wade fishing only water near Raynold’s pass, to the famous 50-mile riffle drifts between Lyon’s Bridge and Ennis, to the secluded whitewater of Bear Trap Canyon, to the fertile flats of the lower river, the Madison has just about every style of trout fishing in one system. There are even three lakes if you enjoy still water.

Madison River Fishing
Anglers fly fishing the upper Madison River during the summertime

Smaller Rivers, Creeks, and Lakes

While the well-known Montana rivers earned their reputations for good reason, Bozeman’s surrounding areas also offer plenty of smaller, less popular trout waters.

East Gallatin River

Right outside of town and just minutes from the airport, you’ll find the East Gallatin River. While not as large or densely packed with trout as the mainstem, the East (as locals call it) fishes extremely well and can grow surprisingly large fish. Access the river from any of the numerous bridges that cross it north of town, but be sure to stay in the streambed when wading to avoid trespassing on private property. The water tends to get warm in late summer, so check the temperatures if you’re fishing through the dog days. If it’s over 68 degrees, go elsewhere.

Hyalite Creek, Canyon, and Reservoir

Directly south of you’ll find Hyalite Canyon. This gateway to the Gallatin mountain range gets you into an outdoor playground beloved by locals and visitors alike. Myriad hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking trails snake off from the winding road that parallels Hyalite Creek. While not trophy trout water, the creek holds plenty of fish for a delightful day casting dry files on 2-4 weight rods. Further up the road, you’ll hit Hyalite Reservoir, which is full of cutthroat, brook trout, and the occasional grayling. While best fished with a boat, kayak, or paddleboard, you can also catch fish from shore. They consistently rise at first and last light. The creek upstream of the reservoir can also fish well, but does not open to fishing until the 3rd Saturday in July to protect native fish spawning.

The surrounding National Forest has numerous trails that lead to high-mountain lakes like Emerald (full of small grayling), Heather (good numbers of cutthroat), and others. Hyalite gives you the opportunity to hike, bike, swim, paddle, and experience some of the best fly fishing in Montana while immersed in a stunning alpine environment half an hour from downtown Bozeman.

Private Spring Creeks and Lakes

Within an hour of Bozeman, you can fish five different private spring creeks and dozens of private ranch lakes. If you enjoy the challenge of sight fishing to wary trout, consider booking a few days on some of the local creeks. Private lakes offer you the best shot at a truly giant trout—fish over five pounds are relatively common and many lakes have 10 pounders in them. Access fees vary depending on the property and time of year.

Find Your Own Spot

Just about every small creek and lake in this part of Montana holds trout. If you’re slightly map savvy and motivated, you can find water that isn’t explicitly named in articles like this one. Spend a little time looking at topographical maps of the area. Start with the major rivers and study the streams that feed them. Those streams hold fish. Just about anywhere a public road crosses a creek, you can legally access the water, just stay below the high water mark and respect private property. Look for small lakes in the surrounding mountain ranges like the Beartooths, Absarokas, Madisons, Gallatins, and Tobacco Roots. Those lakes probably hold fish. They also offer the opportunity for a day (or more) of stunning backpacking with a bent rod and a refreshing swim when you reach your destination.

Small stream fly fishing in Montana
Small stream fly fishing in Montana

Big Fish, Small Fish, Brown Fish, Whitefish—Catch All The Fish

Looking to catch a lot of fish? The Gallatin River or some of the smaller creeks will bring you joy. Hunting that onealligator-esque brown trout? You’ll need both skill and a bit of luck, but the Madison, Yellowstone, Jefferson, and Missouri all hold lifetime fish.

Beyond trout size, this area offers a variety of species. Non-native rainbow, and brown trout are plentiful in most rivers. Brook trout, introduced from the East Coast, can be found in smaller mountain creeks. In addition to imported trout, you can still find strong populations of indigenous Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the upper Yellowstone River and certain small creeks and high mountain lakes. Though harder to find, westslope cutthroat trout are making a comeback around Bozeman and can be found in the Lower Madison, Lower Gallatin, and Jefferson rivers. Though not trout, mountain whitefish are another native salmonid fly anglers can expect to catch here. They’re particularly plentiful on the Yellowstone River, and if you hook a big one on the Upper Madison, you might be surprised by how hard they pull. If you’re looking for a different experience entirely, the right guide can get you into some amazing carp and walleye fishing on the fly from mid to late summer.

Montana fly fishing near Bozeman
An angler enjoying the best fly fishing in Montana

Winter, spring, summer, or fall—All You Have to do is Call

Fishing remains open, and productive, on most of our rivers all year round. Summer is the best time of year for fly fishing near Bozeman. The days are long, the weather’s warm, and the fish are often active as long as the water temperatures remain below 68 degrees. This isn’t the best time for those who crave solitude, but summer is a popular season in Bozeman for good reasons.

Spring and fall can also be excellent. Prolific insect activity means feeding fish and opportunities for dry fly fishing. While not as quiet as mid-winter, most rivers remain relatively uncrowded. Just remember it’s still Montana, and pack warm clothes in case an early or late season blizzard shows up.

While temps cold enough to freeze fly line are common in winter, we also get stretches of mild weather with relatively warm afternoons. December through February can be some of the most productive of the year. The crowds are minimal and the fish are plentiful—if you know where to look.

No matter what time of year you come, you can always find great trout fishing near Bozeman. The diversity of seasons, waters, fish, and opportunities make Bozeman the best place for fly fishing in Montana.

We suggest hiring an experienced Bozeman fly fishing guide to help you take advantage of the exceptional fishing opportunities available here. We’re happy to custom tailor a Montana fly fishing trip using our expert knowledge to meet your particular preferences. No matter how many times you fish here, you’ll never see it all.

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