The Missouri River is formed with the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers near Three Forks, Montana. The blue-ribbon stretches of the river are generally considered downstream in the “tail-water” sections, which are formed below several reservoirs. The best trout fishing section of the Missouri River is the strecth of river downstream from Holter Lake that our guides fish in the spring and early summer. Closer to Bozeman is the stretch of the Missouri River around Toston Reservoir which is a great mid-summer Carp destination that also holds a few large trout seasonally.
As a true tail-water fishery, the Missouri River is rich in biomass of aquatic invertebrates but lacks the diversity of species typically found in the freestone rivers closer to Bozeman. Prolific hatches of Mayflies in all but the coldest months of the year attracts anglers from around the world. Caddis and terrestrials bring fish to the surface throughout the summer months. It is a dry fly fisherman’s paradise!
Our focus on the Missouri is centered around the town of Craig, MT, located about halfway between Great Falls and Helena along I-15. This is the well-known and heavily publicized tail-water section of Missouri River that flows out of Holter Lake. Long, lazy runs characterize the surface of the river while the fine gravel bottom constantly changes to create a seemingly endless array of textbook holding water.
There is roughly 50 miles of quality trout water in the stretch of river below Holter Lake where our Bozeman fly fishing guides regularly operate. The upper portions of the river hold the most fish and receive the most attention from anglers throughout the year. The middle and lower sections also see a fair number of both wade and floating anglers, but is generally lighter in traffic when compared to the first 10 miles.
We fish the entire Missouri River in this area and concentrate on the sections of the river with less traffic each day. There are great numbers of fish throughout the entire river so there is no need to follow the “armada” when it comes to choosing a stretch of the river.
The Missouri River is a year round wild trout river that can fish exceptionally well anytime of the year. We are always willing to head up to the Missouri for a few days of fishing with our guests that want to give it a try. There are a few times of year when it’s not the best choice, so we avoid going up there when conditions are not ideal. Our favaorite time of year is May and June on the Missouri as there are less people around, there are no weeds in the river, and warming water temperatures keep the fish feeding all throughout the day.
Rainbows spawn in March and April, typically make a mass exodus from the main river into a handful of smaller streams during this time of year. This is about the only time of year we avoid the river, but there are still plenty of fish that remain in the main river and fishing can be quite good, especially on cloudy days.
Late summer gets hot and the water temperature of the Missouri River is significantly affected by the long, hot days of late July and August. Water temperatures typically reach the upper 60’s and cool very little overnight. Trout feed less during this time of year and for shorter periods of time throughout the day. Good numbers can still be found, but it usually requires more work than the rest of the year. Add to that the mass of aquatic vegetation that seems to cover the entire river surface and bottom during this time year and just getting a clean fly to a feeding fish is the biggest part of the problem. Recreational floaters flock to the Missouri as well to enjoy the beauty and refreshing waters this time year, so it can be quite crowded.
Late spring is without a doubt, our guide's favorite time of year on the Missouri River. The dry fly fishing is typically not as good as other times of year, but the nymph fishing is as good as it gets. Rainbows are finishing up the spawn and return to the river once the tributaries get their first flush of the year. These fish are hungry, aggressive, and have not seen many flies the last few months so they are cooperative when it comes to eating flies. The weeds and crowds that plague the river throughout the warmer months are totally absent at this time of year as well. Finally, the river remains relatively clear throughout the runoff season thanks to the series of upstream reservoirs. A couple of our Bozeman fly fishing guides host our clients for the "Spring on the MO" event in Craig every year from April 15 - June 15, email our Bozeman fly shop for availability.
Summer fly fishing on the Missouri River is best suited for the experienced dry fly angler or novice angler that wants to learn more about “match the hatch” fishing. Weed growth starts to develop this time of year, but is generally very manageable for most fly anglers. Even so, PMD and Caddis hatches bring trout to the surface throughout the day. The patient and persistent dry fly angler can target rising fish all day this time of year and our guides like “hunting heads” more than just about any other type of fly fishing.
October is a great time of year to be on the Missouri River when the weather cooperates with cloudy, wind-free days and mild temperatures. BWO hatches can be as prolific as any hatch of the year on cloudy days and rising fish can be found in every back eddy and current seam in the river. Once the weeds of summer disperse, however, it is the streamer fishing that draws us to the river this time year. It’s an awesome combination for the experienced angler and one that our guides look forward to every year.
Rainbow Trout are the more common species that we tend to see most days on the Missouri River, but Brown Trout are also regular visitors to the nets of our guides. As a wild trout fishery, there is a wide range of different sized trout that are always present in the river. Unlike most of the rivers we fish in the state, the stretch of the Missouri, just below Holter Dam has a good number of hatchery-raised Rainbows that have come over the dam during times of increased flows. Overall though, the Missouri has some of the highest wild trout densities in the state and tend to average around 17” from year to year. Most of the fish we catch and see throughout the year will be smaller than 20”, but there is always a handful of Browns reaching 24” that find our guides' nets as well. Larger fish are present in the river for sure and a dedicated streamer angler can occasionally find a fish in the 25-30 inch range.
Carp fishng has gained in popularity the last few years and the upper Missouri River offers some of the best fly fishing for Carp around. Fish typically are in the 4-8 pound range - so not as big as some other place - but they are prolific to say the least. Notoriously difficult to catch, fishing this area is unique in that anglers can expect to get dozens and dozens of shots at feeding fish throughout the day.
The Missouri River trout water is about 2.5 hours from Bozeman and is a destination in itself. Our fly fishing guides spend a lot of time on the Missouri River throughout the year and know it’s various intricacies like a well-worn glove. The Carp sections are about 30 minutes from town and can be worth the trip during the mid-summer heat.
We operate a full time guided fly fishing service on the Missouri River from April 15 to June 15 as the fishing around Bozeman can be unpredictable during this period for anglers looking for more than just a day or two of guided fly fishing. We are available for single or multi-day trips on the Missouri during this time of year ony. As for the rest of the year, our guides are always willing to head up to the Missouri for a minimum of two days guided fishing. Carp trips are available throughout the summer months upon request.
Be sure to mention that you would like to fly fish the Missouri River when inquiring about the various options that are available through our Bozeman fly shop. Our standard guided fly fishing rates apply to Missouri River trips, with a $100 fuel surcharge on trips that are not between May 1 and June 15. All the gear, lunches, and flies are included and we’re happy to help with finding the right accommodations for your stay near Craig. Guests can either ride with the guide from Bozeman or rendezvous in the morning at a pre-determined spot. Email us with any questions about fly fishing the Missouri River with one of our Bozeman fly fishing guides or give us a call at 877-790-5303.