In addition to the well-known Montana fly fishing waters that surround Bozeman, there are dozens of smaller streams and rivers that are rarely talked about, yet offer some amazing fly fishing. Some of these rivers, like the Boulder and Stillwater, can be fished from a raft throughout much of the year. However, the majority of these types of rivers and streams are terrific wade fishing destinations and worth the trip when our guests want to get “off the beaten path” for a day or two.
These smaller bodies of water are typically freestone streams that hold good numbers of trout throughout the year. Although many of them are discussed in the various guidebooks on Montana fly fishing, it’s rare to come across anyone that gives out much information other than a name or two. These are special places in that they offer the chance at solitude while trout fishing in Montana during the peak of our season.
The general fly fishing season in Montana is from the third Saturday in May through early November. Most main stem rivers are open year round to fishing, so it is the smaller streams that are most affected by the general season rules. Small rivers like the Boulder, Stillwater, Shields, and East Gallatin remain open year round and can be great choices any day of the year.
It’s always wise to check the regulations before heading out to one of these areas between November and May. These smaller rivers and streams serve as important spawning area for the Rainbows, Browns and Cutthroat that live in the larger rivers for most of the year.
Our favorite time of year to fish these smaller rivers and streams has to do with the timing of the spring runoff. These waters generally clear before the large rivers and typically fish very well right after they start to clear. Much depends on the overall weather patterns of the season when it comes to fishing these places as they can quickly become “dewatered” during dry periods with heavy demand from agricultural irrigation.
Spring fishing around here is always pretty solid, whether you are on one of the big or small rivers the overall conditions this time of year are typically ideal. Most of our guided Montana fly fishing trips focus on the upper and lower Madison during the spring, but some of the smaller rivers are terrific options, especially during periods of high winds. Thick vegetation and varied topography offer some protection from the elements, which can make all the difference when the wind is blowing 30+mph this time of year. Little fishing pressure combined with warming water temperatures and increased insect activity all serve to add to the attraction of these types of streams during the early season.
June is probably the best time of year to fish any of the area’s smaller streams in our opinion. Water flows are decreasing and these rivers are the first to clear as the spring melt starts to slow. Salmon-flies, Golden Stones, Caddis, and various mayflies are often on the water throughout the month, yet very few local anglers pay these waters much attention. Once the runoff starts to slow on the smaller streams, they often become “dewatered” very quickly during dry periods and become less productive during July and August.
All of the small streams and rivers that we guide are wild trout fisheries, thus anglers can expect to catch a wide range of sized trout. Depending on which stretches we fish and the time of year, these fisheries tend to be primarily Rainbow waters with a few Browns caught most days as well. Typical sizes tend to run smaller than one would expect to find in the larger rivers and will be closer to 10-14” on average with the occasional fish over 18”.