A River Runs Through It

Montana offers the best trout fishing in the lower 48 states.
Montana offers beautiful scenery, and the best trout fishing in the lower 48 states.

Montana Fly-Fishing is Tough to Beat

by Hartt Wixom

No region of the Lower 48 has as many top-notch trout streams as southwestern Montana. Western Colorado has several, as does northern New Mexico and central Idaho. But looking at the Treasure State from west to east we find these flowing waters: Bitterroot, Big Hole, Beaverhead, Big and Little Blackfoot, Clarks, Flathead, Madison, Gallatin, Jefferson, Yellowstone, Missouri, Bighorn, and lesser streams such as Ruby, Rock, Swan et al.

All prime reasons why so many angling writers focus on southwestern Montana as a vacation fishing site come summer/fall. Geography shows that the Treasure State is not as mountainous as many others. But Montana lies below surrounding highland watersheds such as the Bitterroot Mountains and Yellowstone National Park, collecting streams from higher terrain just about everywhere. Most are prime trout waters.

If planning a fishing expedition in 2016 to any of these Montana fishing holes, let me see if I can lend an assist in matching the right mood to moment. The Big Blackfoot is famous as Norman McClean’s novel A River Runs Through It ,made into a movie by Robert Redford. When this film had completed its rounds, fishing shops throughout the country reported a major upsurge in fly rod/reel sales. But it was only one of many trout streams in Montana. One of my favorites has been the Madison, probably the best known trout water in the world judging from references in the outdoor magazines. Yet, its “50-mile riffle” from Quake Lake to Ennis is still producing a good many brown and rainbow trout.

If I was deciding where to go fishing next summer, I would consider a less publicized trout water such as the Big Hole. I have caught many trout from the Beaverhead but it runs much like a canal in a tight channel and I prefer to wade or float a more riffled river. Ironically, the Big Hole is such a place. I have fished it a time or two above Divide up to Wisdom and liked it, although fish were not particularly big. It is touted as holding Arctic grayling, although I didn’t find any on my last trip, despite spending years diligently searching for these aristocratic fish with the sail-like dorsal fin from Alaska to Canada’s Northwest Territories. I will have to visit the Big Hole again.

One of my most productive outings was on the wide Bighorn River near Ft. Smith. A friend and I caught dozens of 16-18 inch rainbows and browns on a little pale morning dun fly. I have not had much luck on the Gallatin (easy access north of Yellowstone Park), or the Bitterroot, also easily accessed. Probably I could have done better hiking a mile or so off the roadway. I have taken a few giant rainbows after dark on the Missouri below Holter Dam. But these fish were fussy feeders, waiting to pounce on a caddis imitation when the angler is fishing “blind” in the dark. Still, the 20-inchers were willing if the angler struck the right riffle. Same on Silver Bow Creek, tributary to Clarks Fork, where I subdued a 7-lb. rainbow on an immature caddis fly I had tied myself. This pattern would have won no prizes at the county fair. But this rainbow liked it.

The Jefferson is a strange one. Most of the channel is open, and the trout, being easily spooked in sunlight, feed better on cloudy or overcast days. I know of a 10-lb. brown taken just below the confluence of Big Hole and Ruby rivers. You might stop at a fly shop (there are many in this part of Montana) at Twin Bridges to learn more about fly hatches of the moment.

I’m not necessarily partial to Montana. I’ve probably netted more big trout from New Mexico’s San Juan River than anywhere else, or Utah’s Green. But I like the Big Sky State because there is such a plethora of good fishing holes within close proximity to each other, all bathed in scenic terrain. There are also many small streams such as Grasshopper, Rock, or Sixteen Mile creeks. All can yield surprisingly large trout for such undersized waters. Frankly, I’ve found that many “celebrated” waters are like Idaho’s Silver Creek or Oregon’s Metolious, clear, smooth flowing, pristine and alluring…and very difficult to catch anything. They get such heavy publicity primarily because they are so challenging. I suspect the average angler would rather go to the waters mentioned above if actually interested in catching fish.

In summary, Montana has it all– tops as overall best stream trout fishing state in the Lower 48.

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