A Town of Fly Anglers and Outdoorsmen: Helena, Montana
May 04, 2018
Nestled amid the rolling national forests of the Rocky Mountains and not far from the edge of the Great Plains, Helena is a quintessential example of Montana at its best.
Halfway between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, Helena has a rich gold mining history and is home to a community of outdoor-loving folk. Surrounded by national forests, trout-laden rivers and broad, sweeping valleys, this is a world-class destination for outdoor recreation and the logical home base for fly fishing many of the region's great rivers — including the storied Missouri, Smith, Blackfoot and Clark Fork. Many smaller streams crisscross the local rivers, offering diversions for those more inclined to chase blue lines in the backcountry.
Garrett Munson, owner of Montana Fishing Outfitters, appreciates Helena as the "trout town underdog" that it is.
"Helena can fly under the radar in a state chock-full of trout mecca communities like Ennis and Craig, and hip hangout towns like Bozeman and Missoula, but its central location in Troutopia makes it a great choice for a Montana fishing adventure," Munson said.
It's a sentiment shared by other residents. For Mike Agee of Agee Outfitting, the community is the perfect home base.
"Helena is the perfect town for me, or any aspiring trout bum for that matter," Agee said. "Just out of the town we have three spectacular reservoirs impounding the mighty Missouri River: Canyon Ferry, Hauser and Holter lakes are filled with all kinds of fish to chase. To the north, we have immediate access to the famous, world-class fishery on the Missouri River. The legendary Smith River is just a quick journey to the east, and to the west are the beautiful Big Blackfoot, Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers. Finally, by driving south of Helena I can quickly be on the Jefferson, Madison, Big Hole, Beaverhead or Ruby River. Basically, in Helena I am literally surrounded by some of the finest trout water on the planet."
The Mighty Mo
For a long time, the rivers surrounding Helena have been home to healthy populations of sizeable fish. Thanks to impressive fish numbers and a year-round fishery (winter angling requires ambition, but it can be productive), the Missouri is on most anglers' bucket lists.
Helena-based Munson notes, "Our home water, the mighty Missouri River, is arguably the most productive trout fishery in the Lower 48. Thirty-five miles of blue ribbon drift boat water that is estimated to host 5,500 trout per mile in 2018, plus the Land of Giants jetboat section, make for lots of fantastic fishing days. As a tailwater fishery, our season is long and our trout grow fast — it's fun for new and experienced anglers alike. Many anglers consider the Missouri River to be top-shelf for its aquatic insect hatches and technical dry fly fishing, and we wholeheartedly agree."
The Missouri's most productive stretch of river is from Holter Dam to the town of Cascade. The diverse waterway offers a variety of backdrops — from rolling meadows filled with cattle to sheer cliff walls that are home to bighorn sheep families, and then eventually to the edge of the Great Plains — as the river winds through classic Montana scenery while offering classic trout fishing in riffles and long, flat pools. Without a doubt, the tailwater is a must-fish for any angler visiting Montana.
The Storied Smith
Perhaps one of the most storied regional floats is the Smith River. The multiday float trips have become legendary for anglers seeking adventure in the West. The river meanders through 60 miles and can only be floated through a strict permit system administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Due to this system, most visitors choose to float with a licensed outfitter; fly shops in the Helena area either run this trip themselves or have contacts to the best outfitters.
Due to the permit system, fishing pressure on the Smith is far less than many other waterways. Rainbow and brown trout are bountiful, and it's not unusual to see fish topping the 20-inch mark. However, for many anglers, the excellent fishing opportunities are secondary to the comradeship and unique experiences shared on the multiday float trips (most trips will run five days/nights).
Floating the Smith is highly seasonal due to water conditions. May-June and September are commonly the best months, though snowpack and runoff — along with seasonal weather — can challenge any plans. Lucky springtime anglers can hope to catch the golden stonefly or salmonfly hatches; outfitters can discuss fishing preferences and help anglers decide the best week for a trip. Though, as with all angling in Montana, the weather can change any well-made plans!
The Blackfoot River is easily reachable from Helena, often drawing anglers searching for a remote-feeling river with strong insect hatches and the opportunity for world-class terrestrial fishing. Made famous in Norman Maclean's writing, the freestone Blackfoot is home to a healthy population of brown and rainbow trout, as well as native westslope cutthroat trout and the rare bull trout. Pack your dry flies: the Blackfoot is a strong dry fly fishery and once runoff has subsided, the river fishes well with terrestrials, salmon flies and large indicator dries.
The Little Blackfoot, sometimes called the Upper Blackfoot, is smaller water suitable for wade fishing, while the lower river is better suited to rafts (it's still potentially technical water, and for those unfamiliar with the river, a guided trip is highly recommended). This small, almost creek-like waterway is often overlooked yet offers good fishing for cutthroat and brook trout above the town of Elliston (22.4 miles west of Helena), and surprisingly good brown trout fishing below Elliston. Several year-round springs dot the river, keeping water temperatures cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. For anglers seeking to escape the sometimes-hectic traffic of the Missouri, the Little Blackfoot is an excellent wading option
A seasoned Montana angler and a native of the state, Mike Agee knows his way around the waters of the Big Sky State. When he is asked to name his favorite river in the world, his response is come swiftly, decisively and — for many — unexpectedly: The Dearborn River.
"The Dearborn starts up in the mountains not far from Rogers Pass on Highway 200," Agee said. "It then collects momentum and flows easterly until it reaches the Missouri River just 70 miles from where it began. The scenery is top-shelf. If I had godlike powers to create the perfect trout river, I would just try to make a copy of the Dearborn."
But the river's beauty lies not only in the stunning scenery, but also in the fishery, though it is not as robust as it once was.
"The fishing on the Dearborn once upon a time would rival that of anything in South America or New Zealand," Agee said. "Today it is just average fishing. Thankfully I have evolved enough in my fishing career that catching fish is not always paramount in having a successful day on the water. The constant and abundant scenery on the Dearborn River, coupled with fond memories of amazing trout fishing makes it my all-time favorite stream."
The Dearborn is comprised of two distinct sections. The upper 20 miles are home to feisty, smaller rainbows and cutthroat, and the wilderness area is accessible by foot or horseback only. The lower section begins at the Highway 434 Bridge, then continues on for 40 miles until the confluence with the Missouri River. Levels can drop to unfloatable levels in the summertime, so most float trips on this section take place in the late spring and early summer months. Anglers can expect larger fish, including brown trout, the closer the river flows to its confluence with the Missouri. Consult with area fly shops or outfitters for floating information and trips; the river can be technical at certain flows.
Regardless of what river is within your sights, don't be afraid to stop and explore other water — and plan plenty of time to do so!
"If a traveling fly fisherman wanted to place himself at the epicenter of great trout fishing, I would highly recommend getting to Helena," Agee said. "One could stay near town and have at the infamous Missouri River and all of its reservoirs or hit the road in any direction to explore a seemingly endless variety of trout habitats. One thing is for certain: It's going to take you a while."
Helena is home to several quality fly shops ready to help visiting anglers find a guide. Good guides are booked upward of 150 days a year and spend nearly every day in season on the water, meaning they know where the fish are and what they're eating. Translation? A far more productive fishing day. Local shops can provide information on booking guides, though be sure to book early — many top guides are booked up to a year in advance.
CrossCurrents Fly Shop has a shop in Helena and one on the Missouri River in Craig, and The Trout Shop in Craig boasts a talented deli counter for breakfasts and boat lunches. Headhunters Fly Shop is another favorite shop in Craig, serving up fly-fishing advice (along with lodging and rentals) with a bit of island attitude. Wolf Creek Angler is located in the small town of Wolf Creek, just 36 miles north of Helena and eight miles south of Craig and, beyond its fly shop offerings, also provides guided trips, boat rentals and lodging options. Montana Fly Goods in Helena is also a local resource and equipment shop.
As most fishermen know, gear can make or break your time on the water. Anglers arriving in any season save for the peak of summer should plan to pack waders, wading boots and lots of layers. The Missouri River, in particular, is notoriously windy, and it's best to layer up and prepare for potentially significant wind chill. In the warmest summer months of July and August, most anglers can be found in wading boots or sandals, though a rain jacket should always be nearby for summer thunderstorms. Sun protection is imperative, both in the form of long sleeves and a hat, as well as high SPF sunscreen.
Most anglers will use 4- to 6-weight rods; 4- and 5-weights often for dry fly fishing, and 6-weight rods for nymphs and steamer fishing. Floating line is chiefly utilized, and bring along 3X, 4X and 5X leader and tippet. Stop in a local fly shop to see what flies are "hot," but it's always a good idea to pack a few boxes brimming with classic dry flies, nymphs and streamers ready to go. Many local shops feature special patterns tied by local anglers who know what works on certain waterways. And don't be afraid to call ahead — most fly shops and outfitters are happy to help you prepare for a successful trip to Helena's many trout-rich rivers.
Helena: A Proper Fishing Town
For those less inclined to serious fishing — or anglers merely needing a break from the river — Helena offers a plethora of outdoor adventures. From scenic, sweeping hikes to a historic tour of the Montana Capitol, the town is home to a variety of down-home experiences to help visitors make the most of their time in the region.
"Helena is a town small enough to have that friendly Western feel, but big enough to host the cultural attractions a traveler looks for: great restaurants, historic downtown walking mall, four brewpubs, an amazing hiking/biking trail system accessible from town, the state Capitol and a wide array of museums, galleries and other cool things to do off the water," Munson said.
One of the best ways to savor the Big Sky is to cruise down a hiking trail. Helena is home to the South Hills Trail System, with more than 80 miles of trails easily accessible from downtown. From downtown, explore Mount Helena City Park (try the two- to three-hour loop from the 1906 Trail to the Summit of Mount Helena then back down Hogback Trail/Prospects Shaft Trail). Also accessible from downtown, Mount Ascension boasts a summit of 5,282 feet and is a lovely hike for a summer afternoon.
Ideal for travelers seeking an unusual adventure that combines history and outdoor experience, the Gates of the Mountains is just 20 miles north of Helena. This series of breathtaking rock embankments, limestone cliffs and craggy mountainsides, with the storied Missouri River flowing amid it all, makes for memorable photos. Discovered in 1805 by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the area was dubbed the "Gates of the Mountains" by Meriwether Lewis and, in the days since, has intrigued visitors with its stark, craggy terrain. Take a two-hour cruise through the Gates, watching for local wildlife such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats while learning about the area's rich history.
Hauser Reservoir, a mere 15 miles from downtown Helena, is a 3,200-acre reservoir on the Missouri River. Popular with recreationalists, the lake is a convenient escape for boating, fishing, watersports and camping. Anglers can chase brown and rainbow trout as well as perch and walleye while non-fishing family members soak in the cool lake water and make the most of convenient cooking facilities.
Holter Lake, 40 miles north of Helena near the towns of Wolf Creek and Craig, is another favorite summertime escape for locals. Right next to some of the prime trout fishing in the area, Holter is home to a variety of well-outfitted campgrounds and boat ramps. Popular for swimming, recreational boating, camping, wildlife watching and fishing, Holter is another location to consider visiting for families with both anglers and non-anglers.
"We (Helena) are also home base for a world-class lake fishery system for trout, walleye and perch on Canyon Ferry, Hauser, and Holter Reservoirs, all part of the Missouri River system," Munson said. "We find that more and more anglers are interested in a mixed bag trip and exploring different styles of fishing. Plus, walleye are delish!"
Whether you are coming off the river and ready to share epic-level fish stories with friends or just want to relax after a day exploring Helena's many attractions, take advantage of Helena's many microbreweries. In the past decade, Helena has seen a boom in the microbrewery scene, dovetailing conveniently with the area's love for outdoor recreation. Explore Blackfoot Brewery, the Lewis & Clark Brewing Company and Ten Mile Creek Brewery — who brews their beers using water from local Ten Mile Creek, noting "the creek is in the beer." Whether you prefer ales, lagers or IPAs, Helena's craft breweries have you covered. It's hard to find a better way to wrap up a quality day in Big Sky Country than toasting with a locally made brew, crafted with local water — the same water those trout enjoy.
For Al Swanson, the owner of A.L. Swanson Craftsman Studios, where he handcrafts artistic wooden fly boxes, rod tubes, fishing nets and other creations, Helena is the ultimate destination.
"As a master furniture maker and avid angler, I'm fortunate to live near some of the world's more famous trout waters — these waters bring inspiration to my work," he said. "The bends in the channel of the Big Blackfoot have inspired tabletop designs, while the landscape surrounding the Mo, Madison, Smith and Gallatin was a source of design for the wooden fly boxes, rod cases and nets we craft in our Helena studio. There is also nothing better than sipping on a cold IPA at the Blackfoot River Brewery after a day casting to trout on its namesake."
Munson agrees, and enjoys the under-the-radar aspect of the community.
"Helena has strategically disguised itself by not having a river running through town and jagged mountain peaks on the horizon. Being understated is part of the secret of this town and what makes it quietly awesome. I have been fishing here for 23 years now, and I still love it as home base for my piscatorially-focused life!"