Montana is home to some of the best trout fly fishing in the United States. People come from all over the world to fish its legendary waters. Some fly fishermen seek the expertise of a Montana trout fly fishing guide while others are determined to go at it alone. Regardless of how you do it there are certain things that you must be prepared for. This is a quick guide to Montana trout fly fishing that is aimed at helping ensure a successful trip to one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Even if a person was to fly fish Montana for a year and never catch a fish, the trip would still be a success. You cannot believe the sheer beauty of this place until you have been there. The wildlife alone is enough to get people coming back for more; throw a few 20 inch trout into the mix and you are in for one of the best trips of your life. To make this trip as successful as possible, there are items that you will not want to leave behind and situations that you will want to be ready for. Read on to get a general idea of what you need to be ready for, the essential items that you need to bring, and ideas on how to make this a great trip, and hopefully a successful one at that.

Where to Fly Fish in Montana

Montana is one of the biggest states in the U.S. and is home to the Rocky Mountains and other massive mountain ranges that feed thousands of rivers, streams and lakes. With all of this water, it can be a daunting task to pick a particular body of water to fish. I have had to decide where to fish on several occasions, and I’ll tell you, it is not easy. For the most part, all you have to do is find some cold clear water and you can bet there are trout in it, probably big trout. From the northwest to the southeast corners, and everywhere in between, fly fishing for trout can be good. A good portion of the Montana is not so mountainous and more so desert, but even in this 2/3 of the state, an experienced fly fisherman can find big trout if he or she knows where to look. This is an area where a Montana trout fly fishing guide can come in handy.

Southwest Montana is by far the most popular part of the state for fly fishing. It is home to some incredible rivers that are fed from the numerous mountain ranges that can be seen in all directions. This area is unique in that a person can fish many different bodies of water in a short trip. From one blue ribbon trout river you can drive over a mountain pass and be fishing in another blue ribbon river in an hour or two. Here is a quick list of the rivers that you have to choose from in SW Montana:

  1. Madison
  2. Big Hole
  3. Bitterroot
  4. Ruby
  5. Rock Creek
  6. Beaverhead
  7. Jefferson
  8. Yellowstone
  9. Gallatin
  10. Missouri

All of these rivers hold a large number of big trout, but are just a few of the bigger named rivers that Montana has to offer. It takes many trips to Montana to really determine a favorite river. A person could fish Montana for a lifetime and still have new rivers to fish.

When to Fly Fish Montana

I have been to Montana and experienced both great and not so great fly fishing. Whenever the conditions are right though, the fishing has consistently been on the great side. A good way to better your chances of experiencing good fishing is to time your vacation around both weather and insect hatches. Most of the hatches are dependent on weather though, so if you come during the time of year that weather is most predicable (summer), your chances of having a successful trip will increase.

Here is a quick break down on each season and what can be expected.

  • Winter: Cold! This is the time of year to book a trip to do some tropical fishing. Many of the rivers in Montana freeze all the way across or are made up of big dangerous ice shelves. There is some fishing in some tail waters near the dams, but unless you are a local, the fishing is not worth going out of you war to be freezing. If you do come this time of year, bring your skis, the skiing is better than the fishing.
  • Spring: The fish this time of year are less fearful than they get once they have had a few hooks in their mouth a little later in the year, so great fishing can happen. The problem becomes the water flow and clarity. There is usually a small time frame when the snow and ice clear in the valleys, but remains in the mountains, making for clear water. This is a good time to fish but the window of opportunity is very small. If you can get away with short notice, as soon as you here the fishing is good, you’d better get on it because as soon as the snow starts melting and the spring rains start coming down, the rivers will rise and clarity will drop.
  • Summer: This is the most popular time to be fly fishing Montana’s trout rivers. The temperatures are comfortable and the river levels drop and become clear. The Salmon Fly hatch is the first hatch to really start off the season. It happens usually after June 10th. This is a busy time of year for a Montana trout fly fishing guide, but the trout love to eat these significantly sized insects. From the middle of June and throughout the rest of the summer, there will be hatches of either caddis, mayflies, hoppers and many more.
  • Fall: After the summer crowds leave, the fall gives way to cooler temperatures and less crowded rivers. This is a favorite time of year for many hardcore fly fishermen. The fish are ready to fatten up for the winter and some big insects begin hatching. The main attraction this time of year is the Fall Caddis hatch. These supersized caddis are a trout’s main entree and can be taken with ease off the top with large floating flies such as stimulators and caddis in size 6 – 10.

Being Your Own Montana Trout Fly Fishing Guide

For an experienced fly fisherman, Montana can be effectively fished without the help of a guide. This will certainly cut down on the budget, but is only advised for those that are proficient at casting and working flies. There is a huge learning curve in fly fishing and if you are not over that curve, then it will be beneficial to have someone to help you out, either a friend or a guide. Before you go, you will want to know what you will need as for as gear and fly patterns. At the link at the end of this article there is an insect hatch chart for Montana that can help you decide what flies to take. Another good way is to stop at a fly shop on the river you will be fishing and ask. Most of these people spend a lot of time on the river and will be able to steer you in the right direction. You may also want to ask them if they have any guides available as sometimes you can book a trip last minute for a discounted price if the guide has nothing else to do. If you are going to fly fish Montana on your own, then make sure you read the gear guide below to make sure you have all you will need.

Hiring a Montana Trout Fly Fishing Guide

One of the best ways to ensure a successful fly fishing trip to Montana is to hire a Montana Trout Fly Fishing Guide. It is amazing how much knowledge most of these guys have after putting fly fisherman on trout every day.

Here is a list of the benefits that a fly fishing guide can offer:

  • Knowing the insect hatches: Yes, Montana is full of big trout, but the way these trout get so big is because they are smart. They know which insects are hatching, the color and size they are, and how they float in or on the water. Knowing these key features is exactly what a guide is paid to do, so he or she had better be good at it or they will not make it in this business. When fishing these smart trout, you need to have everything perfect; a guide can definitely help to make this happen.
  • Where to Fish: Trout have certain conditions that they prefer. Fishing in the right spot is a crucial factor to success on any trout water. Insects and other organisms that trout feed on collect in certain areas and this is where you will find big trout. A good Montana trout fly fishing guide will be able to put you in the right place at the right time
  • Access: Getting to the trout waters is sometimes half the battle. Much of Montana’s trout fishing is best accessed by a boat or by walking through private property. Not everybody has a boat and even if you do, it may not be feasible or possible to bring it. A guide will get you where you need to be one way or another.
  • Equipment: Most guides will have a high quality fly fishing rod, reel and line set up for you to use that is designed to cast the flies you will be using and fight the fish you will be fishing for. It is very important that you use the right equipment as this will greatly improve you fly fishing efficiency.
  • Knowledge: A Montana trout fly fishing guide will be able to offer clients so much more than just fishing advice. A good guide also knows the history, geology, anthropology, and stories that make this part of the world so interesting and beautiful.

Gear to Bring:

Montana is a demanding place, both in fly fishing gear and clothing alike. To make this the best trip possible it is advised that you come prepared for anything that Montana can throw at you. I have seen it snow in July, and I’ve lost several fish due to size that I was not expecting. Let’s go over some items that you should not come to Montana without.

1. Fly Fishing Gear: Things you will need if not hiring a Montana Trout Fly Fishing Guide

  • Fly Fishing Rod: It is very important that you bring a fly rod that is of high quality. The Wal-Mart combo set is not recommended and will lead to headaches and a far less successful trip. A well made fly rod is much easier to cast, more accurate, and stronger leaving you much less likely to break it. Two rules of thumb are: 1. Buy the best rod you can afford. 2. Only consider rods that offer a lifetime warranty. For more information on buying a fly rod and all other fly fishing gear mentioned here, click the link at the end of this article.
  • Fly Fishing Line: Fly lines are a close second to the importance of a fly fishing set up right behind a quality fly rod. With fly fishing, you are casting the line which delivers the fly to where you want it. This means the line has to work with the rod. This is why it is advised to use a high quality line in addition to a nice rod. Also, you will want to be able to fish many different situations as the fish are not always willing to take an insect on the top. You may need to use a sink tip to get bait fish imitations to the fish so it is also wise to go with a line that has interchangeable tips of different sink rates from floating to fast sink.
  • Fly Fishing Reel: a fly reel is less important and receives far less use than the line and rod, but a smooth drag system is very helpful if you hook into any trout 16 inches or more. It is not a good experience to lose a fish of a lifetime over a cheap piece of equipment. Again, it is suggested to buy the best reel you can afford, but if you must skimp on either a rod, reel, or line, this is the place to do it.
  • Waders and Boots: These are an essential. Most Montana fly fishing is done at elevations well over 6000 feet making for cool mornings and cold water even in August. Having owned a couple pairs of cheap waders in my early fly fishing days, I can tell you how important a quality pair can be. Although they may cost twice as much, a quality pair can last 3 times as long before they start leaking in the seams and cutting in to your fun. Also, a good pair of wading boots is a must on the slippery rocks of almost all Montana Rivers. Good support and traction are what you should be after. There are many types of soles to choose from. A big push in Montana is rubber soles as opposed to felt in an effort cut down on transporting invasive aquatic organisms that can live in a felt sole that does not have time to dry out before using them in a second river system. Nearly all quality wading boot manufactures have come out with rubber soles designed to grip slippery rocks and many have removable cleats that can add a lot of stick to your traction. Check out the gear guide link at the end of this article to help you decide on all equipment you will need.
  • Flies, leaders, tippets, floatant, and line cutters: These are all necessary if you are going to be your own Montana trout fly fishing guide. It is important to know how to tie all this together and what types of flies are effective during the time of your adventure. One would think a trout would take any fly that it sees, but even the small fish are smart and will mostly only take flies that match the insects that are hatching at the time.

2. Things to bring guide or not:

Hiring a Montana trout fly fishing guide will definitely cut down on the amount of gear you will need to pack as far as fly fishing equipment. Still there are several items that you will not want to leave home without that your guide will not provide, especially if you are not hiring one. Here is a quick list of items that should not be left home.

  • Rain proof coat: have it ready too. The weather in these mountains can change in an instant from sunny and warm to cloudy, rainy, and sometimes even snow.
  • Binoculars: the areas are home to some incredible wildlife and you never know what you are going to see. Deer, elk, big horn sheep, moose, wolf, coyote, bear, and many more species are all possible.
  • Camera: Make sure you have one handy when you real in that fish of a life time. The surroundings are picture perfect as well.
  • Sun Screen: The sun is intense at these altitudes and the rays will reflect off the water.
  • Sun Glasses: Sunglasses are very helpful when spending all day on the river. Polarized sun glasses are recommended as they cut down on the glare coming off the water and enable a person to see through the water much better than with just regular sun glasses.

Handling of Montana Trout

All trout are very delicate. It is best not to touch them at all, but if you do need to take a picture, wet your hands before touching, take a quick photo, and get it back in the water. It is best to let it swim away as soon as it has the power to do so. Please do not caress it and rub its belly like you see them do on fishing shows. Get the trout out of your hand as soon as possible. Most of Montana requires Barbless hooks, but do it because it is the right thing to do as it is so much easier to remove the hook this way. Barbless hooks get a bad rap for losing fish. I think it is more of an excuse. Many times that hook is going to come out barb or not, the key is to keeping the line tight. Many experienced fly fishermen including many Montana Trout fly fishing guides will agree that the barb actually makes it harder to get a good hook set on a fish because it has a wider shank to seat it firmly in the mouth tissue. The final argument against barbed hooks is the fact that it is not smart to have a barbed hook flying around your head, or any part of your body for that matter. A barbed hook in your eye is not a pretty sight. Just hope there is still have sight from that eye when you get back from the hospital.


No matter how many big Montana Trout you do or don’t catch, you are sure to have a good time. Like I said before, the scenery alone is worth making a trip here. Typically my drive home to Idaho is spent planning out the next trip to Montana. Every time I make the trek to these legendary waters I am faced with not having enough time to fish all the water I would like to. That is because a lifetime is not enough time to fish all of this state. On the drive to Montana it always seems like I have more than enough time to be fishing, but before I know it, it is time to pack up and head for home. I guess time flies when you are having fun, luckily there are many more trips to come if I have things my way. I hope to see you all there, and please be respectful of the fish so we all can enjoy fly fishing Montana together for years to come.