Montana Fishing: Finding Gems in the Big Sky

late fall fishing on a less known stretch of river.

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Montana Fishing

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

early spring montana fishing
Fishing the early spring and late fall cuts down on the number of other anglers.

With the enormous population boom we are experiencing here in Montana; us Native Montanan’s are finding it harder and harder to find the isolation that has made the state home for us.  Many of us have left the state to more densely populated areas, to live, work or recreate, only to long to be back home where the commotion and noise would be replaced by the wind through the tree limbs or the sound of a river.  It’s hard to blame people for wanting to come and experience Montana and Montana fishing. The boom has done wonders for the job market and economy, but the packed trailheads and boat launches are definitely a drawback and a strain on the environment and resources.

We’re having to go further into the wilderness to get out of the crowds.  Fish are getting smaller and most have the tell marks of being caught numerous times.  This last weekend was the first time I’ve seen dead trout in the upper middle fork of the flathead.  Things will never be like they were.  Saying that makes me realize how old I’ve become.  It also makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been to grow up here, live here and raise a family here.  I know my kids will never experience the state or Montana fishing like I did, but they still can enjoy what it has to offer, and that great fishing, rafting, hiking and skiing is still out there.  You just have adapt.

There’s much more pressure on the fisheries now.  Aside from the flotilla’s of recreational drinkers and floaters, there’s much more fishing pressure.  Seems like every other boat out there is a guided trip.  The fish are getting fewer, smaller, and becoming more wary.  There’s nothing like the challenge of reach casting to a big spooky fish on a high pressure tailwater but having eager cutthroat racing each other to your fly has it’s allure too.  Especially when teaching your kids, the basics of casting and mending a line.

A few areas in the state have designated the weekends for non-guided trips.  Guides can’t operate during the weekend.  They can still fish for themselves but cannot have a paying client in their boat.  This has worked well in this area and is something I would like to see more of.  Instead of issuing permits to lucky lottery winners and giving 40% of the permits to outfitters (a proposal here on our local river).

Despite this pressure on the most popular stretches of rivers, there are still some great waters out there.  These are not “secret spots” by any means, but the traffic and pressure is much lower.  It used to be that going higher, switching from a drift boat to a raft, and dealing with class 5 whitewater and rock fields was a way to get away.  Not so much any more.  Maybe its something as simple as dragging your raft up a creek to a “launch only access” to pull out or getting a later start to avoid crowds and fish the cooler evening temps, or just looking at maps and recognizing trout habitat to find your sweet spot, there are ways to get your solitude.

Fall fishing
late fall fishing on a less known stretch of river.

Even though there is more pressure on Montana fishing, there still are some good fish out there. Fish are adapting and getting smarter, with seeing more flies presented and getting hooked and landed more.  Believe me, they are there, but maybe they’re just smarter than you?  Even if you’re an expert fly angler in your mind, fly fishing is only about 10% skill with 40% being timing and 50% being luck.  Put yourself in a good position enough times and it will pay off.

Montana Fishing and Crowds

If you go out, you’re going to have to deal with crowds.  The out of staters parked in the launch enjoying the view and their lunch.  The flotilla of drunk high school kids.  The kayak renting army of tourists playing bumper boats.  This is what public water and public access mean.  Especially in this day of social media.  Montana never was a secret, but it sure is the talk of the town now.  You’re just going to have to deal with it.  You can start super early or start late to help with crowds.  Even do a long stretch that will take the whole day.  There are ways to have at least some water, fishing and scenery to yourself, even if there’s three rafts around the next corner.  Enjoy it!

If the crowds drive you crazy, fish the late fall, winter and early spring.  There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.  Invest in some good waders.  You don’t have to spend a fortune, just something to keep you dry and will last.  Some of the best fishing I’ve had, even on top, has been with cold hands tying on size 20’s.  Trout don’t hibernate and midges can hatch 12 months a year.  Plus, there’s a fish in every stretch of river that will eat a fire bead any day.  If you don’t see anything on top, a deep indicator rig or swinging a streamer slow and low can bring a lot of success.

Even though almost every stream in the state has been featured in publications like “Northwest Fly Fisher” or “Fly Fisherman” magazines, there still are some great, little-known spots.  Look for trout habitat.  You’ll know what it is if you’ve caught enough of them.  There are plenty of USGS gauges and thermometers to check flows and temps.  Look for public access or lack thereof.  There aren’t very many guides, outfitters or their clients who want to bush-wack and fight mosquitos all day long after accessing a stream from a county right of way along a bridge.

My wife and I scouted a stream 12 years ago.  We really liked the looks of it and saw some big fish.  Always talked about dragging the boat over and didn’t do it until last year.  Now it’s got guides that operate on it all season long.  It’s everyone’s secret spot.  So, if you get an idea or a plan, put it in to action and do it fast.  Somewhere someone is probably thinking the same thing.  Odds are they’ll post about it and tag the location on social media and that will be the beginning of the end.  Good luck!


less known water bodies can offer great results if not just the fun of exploring

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