Big Sky Country was first in line when they handed out blue-ribbon trout streams, and the best of the lot might be Central Montana’s Missouri River.
Affectionately called the “Mighty Mo” or just “the Mo” by locals, this river is inked on every dedicated fly-fisher’s bucket-list . . . even if they have great offerings right out their own backdoor.
That’s the case with me: I live in Missoula where four excellent trout streams are located within a 25-mile radius. But several times each year I pack the truck and head to the Mo in Central Montana for these simple reasons:
- Its rainbow and brown trout are bigger on average than those found anywhere else in the state
- The Mo flows through a beautiful, arid, sun-drenched and canyon-riddled landscape
- And on days when the Mo’s fish (which commonly range between 14 inches and four pounds) cooperate, I catch them in spades.
Fishing “the Mo”
These are wild, naturally reproducing trout that capitalize on a variety of aquatic insect hatches. Dry-fly aficionados may find rising fish every day of the year. In addition, summer offers grasshoppers, ants and beetles, which bring the largest fish to the surface. When the trout aren’t looking up for bugs, smart anglers tie on streamers and cast to the banks. They aren’t after numbers of fish when they do so. Instead, they’re looking for a monster; meaning a brown trout stretching past 20 inches and occasionally edging towards the 10-pound mark.
Because fish in the Mo constantly push into the river’s substantial current, they are, arguably, some of the strongest fighting trout on the planet. The electrically charged rainbows make long runs and jump high and often while the browns fight doggedly, bending fly rods while avoiding the surface and sunlight as if they arrived from Transylvania. Some anglers travel all the way to New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and Alaska to catch these types of fish; the Missouri provides this opportunity in one beautiful package, all easily accessible from anywhere in the United States and Canada.
The Missouri begins in southwest Montana where the combined flows of the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers mix near Three Forks. It flows north to Helena where most anglers agree (and a population of 3,000 trout per mile confirm) the best fishing begins.
There are great places to catch large trout in short sections between the Missouri’s four major reservoirs—Toston, Canyon Ferry, Hauser and Holter—but the 30-mile stretch that runs from Holter Dam near Wolf Creek all the way to Pelican Point north of Cascade, offers consistent water temperature and mostly clear water, even when other Montana streams are running high and clouded with spring runoff. This section offers scads of trout that are called “footballs” because their backs are tall and their stomachs are deep, the product of eating their fill of freshwater shrimp whenever they choose.
While the Missouri is broad and deep in most places wading anglers often catch as many fish as those floating on top of the stream in drift boats. In fact, when a good insect hatch comes off, and the Mo’s trout take those flies off the surface, an angler might stand in one spot for five or six hours and always have a target rising in front of them. This can happen any day of the year. Trout gorge on small two-winged, mosquito-like insects, called midges, all winter while incredible mayfly hatches begin as early as March. An emergence of blue-winged olives and caddisflies come off in mass by May and provide great evening fishing through summer. Pale morning dun and Trico mayflies round out the summer hatches. During fall, when the river is mostly devoid of anglers, blue-winged olives return.
Tackle & Flies
While fishing the Missouri, or any other Central Montana stream, you’ll need a versatile fly rod that handles varying conditions and the methods you choose to fish. When matching hatches with dry flies a nine-foot long, medium-to-fast action five weight rod is ideal. This rod should allow you to fish a weight-forward floating fly line and large or small dry flies off delicate leaders and tippets . . . without breaking fish off on the take. Note: When fishing small flies, especially on challenging streams like the Missouri, you’ll want to fish leaders that taper to 5X or 6X, depending on how difficult the trout choose to be.
You can fish nymphs with this rod, too. And you can even cast streamers to the banks with a five-weight when needed. However, when fishing large nymphs and streamers you may want to add a little power to your game. It’s not overkill to fish a nine or 10-foot long, fast-action six-weight or seven-weight rod and a floating or sink-tip line, especially when fishing from a boat. This stronger rod allows you to easily cast heavily weighted nymphs and streamers to the banks and pools. Doing so gets a fly deep, right where most of the biggest trout live. When fishing large nymphs or streamers you’ll want to tie on a heavier leader in the 2X, 3X or 4X range.
Other Hot Spots
The Missouri isn’t the only great stream in Central Montana, however. You can pick from scores, ranging from small creeks flowing off the Rocky Mountain Front, to mid-sized streams offering surprisingly big trout and a dose of solitude.
Take Big Spring Creek for instance. This mid-size stream flows right through Lewistown, which is Montana’s geographic center. Its upper reaches, above town, offer some of the most challenging rainbows anywhere. Below town, where the creek meanders through lush agricultural fields and under the towering Judith Mountains, anglers find a mix of rainbows and browns—up to 2,000 a mile over 10 inches long.
Despite those numbers, catching fish here provides challenge. Anglers are often required to match hatches with specific imitations. Anything but a perfect cast and drift may get the cold shoulder. Even with the right cast, drift and fly, sometimes the trout win. But, when things are right and you fool a fish here, you’ll end up with a hard-earned jewel in your net, sometimes stretching 18 inches long, patiently waiting for release, all captured in one of the pretty places in Montana.
Speaking of pretty, how does a writer accurately describe the Smith River? Maybe they don’t. Maybe you just have to see this Central Montana gem and the country surrounding it with your own eyes.
The Smith is located near White Sulphur Springs and flows between towering yellowish-orange limestone walls for 60 nearly roadless miles. It’s only accessible to those who secure a limited-entry permit in a drawing that takes place each February, or to those who book this unique trip with an outfitter. Once you’re on the river you rarely see or hear the trappings of modern society (including cell phones) until you hit the takeout three-to five days later at Ulm. To cover that distance, anglers float in rafts and drift boats and pack essential camping items and food, along with their fishing gear. The Smith’s pretty browns and rainbows stretch to 20 inches and sometimes a little more. They are all wild and fight hard and when the fish come up to a good hatch, including salmon flies in June and golden stoneflies in July, anglers might bring a few dozen to hand in a day.
When the fishing is done, anglers pull into a dedicated campsite to set up tents, share a fire and food, trade stories and watch the night sky. Light pollution? Not here. Just a brilliant moon, the stunning Milky Way, shooting stars and, on occasion, the northern lights overhead.
To tell the truth, I don’t drive from Missoula to Central Montana just for the area’s abundance of large trout. The banks of these rivers are wildlife havens. Fish any of these waters and you’ll be serenaded by ducks and geese passing overhead. Chinese ringneck pheasants may blow a throaty rasp from the bankside grass. Higher on the hills you may spot a black bear, mountain lion or mule deer, or even hear a bull elk’s shrill whistle. Just stopping for a minute, to breath deep and lift my camera to soft light on an ever-changing landscape, provides great reward. Trout are the bonus. Thankfully, there are plenty of them to be had right here. And you can start planning your Central Montana fishing trip right now.
Editor’s note: Greg Thomas is the author of the Fly Fisher’s Bible: Montana