It is certainly presumptuous to name the best fishing spots in Montana, the fourth-largest state and one with more than two dozen big rivers. However, it’s still helpful for an angler planning a visit to know - of the plethora of places to fish in Montana - which are the iconic rainbow trout and cutthroat trout fisheries. While the best places to fish include hundreds of unheralded and smaller flows, the following twelve celebrated rivers provide a great starting point.
1. Beaverhead River
Meandering 50-some miles from Dillon at Clark Canyon Reservoir to its junction with the Big Hole River at Twin Bridges, the Beaverhead is swift, deep, and tricky to fish, best accessed via boat (with a guide), and known for large average-size fish.
2. Big Hole River
A famous, picturesque, and classic trout river, the Big Hole flows 150 miles through the southwestern part of the state, and makes every short list of best fishing spots in Montana. It offers both wade and float fishing opportunities for four trout species, plus Arctic grayling in the higher reaches. The spring salmonfly hatch is especially popular.
3. Bighorn River
The Bighorn flows from the dam at Bighorn Lake, southwest of Billings, to the Yellowstone River. It’s too large to wade across in spring and early summer, so fishing from a boat is often best.
4. Blackfoot River
Located in the western part of the state and featuring interspersed forested banks and open meadows, the Blackfoot flows from Lincoln to Bonner and runs cold, fast, and deep, offering diverse trout species.
5. Clark Fork River
Beginning essentially in Warm Springs and draining westward, the Clark Fork River eventually picks up volume from other rivers and becomes a big flowage. It’s a productive river with large fish, diverse conditions, and varied habitats.
6. Flathead River (North and South Forks)
The North, Middle, and South Forks of the Flathead River fill up the huge Flathead Reservoir in northwestern Montana. The South Fork is remote, especially it’s upper reaches, where bull trout and cutthroat exist. Also remote, the North Fork is in the shadows of Glacier National Park, and is likewise known for cutthroat fishing.
7. Gallatin River
Beginning near Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park, this lovely and generally accessible river flows 100-some miles and provides excellent wade fishing and good numbers of trout, especially from the park down to Gallatin Valley.
8. Madison River
Known as classic dry fly water, the popular Madison River begins in Yellowstone National Park and flows 100-some miles to where it meets the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers. Three diverse sections provide lots of trout amidst outstanding scenery.
9. Missouri River
Perennially one of the best fishing spots in Montana, the Missouri has a long run through Montana. Trophy trout fishing exists from its junction with the Gallatin River west of Bozeman to Canyon Ferry Dam near Helena. The section from Holter Dam to just above Cascade is renowned for dry fly fishing for trout. Below Cascade the river becomes a warmwater fishery.
10. Smith River
Testifying to its status as one of the best places to fish in Montana, the Smith has among the highest fishing pressure in the state. The number of float trips (via pre-booked permits) on this scenic, 60-mile-long blue-ribbon trout waterway in northcentral Montana is limited seasonally, to ensure the quality of the resource and the angling experience.
A venerated waterway often cited as one of the best fishing spots in Montana, this river has a coldwater fishery in its upper reaches from Yellowstone National Park to Billings, and a warmwater one further on. Trout fishing is world class, with anglers especially enjoying the late spring caddis hatch, the early summer salmonfly hatch, and late summer hopper fishing.
If you’ll be visiting Montana for a short or long-term fishing trip, remember to get a fishing license.