Fishing in Montana: Blackfoot River, Fort Peck Lake, Bighorn Lake & More

Montana is located in the west of the US. The State enjoys a diverse landscape, including the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Part of its wilderness terrain includes the Glacier National Park that extends into neighboring Canada. The Park is famous for its 50-mile “Going to the Sun” road, that’s a must-see tourist stop – so bring your shades.

Montana is also known as the Big Sky Country and is a popular vacation destination for lovers of the Great Outdoors from all around the world. People come here for the hiking, biking, and for the wonderful fishing too.

Montana enjoys an abundance of rivers and streams. In fact, the State has 450 miles of designated blue ribbon trout waters, making the Big Sky Country a fly-fishing mecca. There’s some of the best still-water trout fishing in the world here too. The lakes in the State enjoy a mammoth callibaetis event during the summer months, when mayflies hatch, providing a veritable banquet for trout.

As well as several varieties of trout, including Montana’s designated State fish, the cutthroat, you’ll find many other species of fish living here too. Walleye are here in reasonable numbers, and in a few places, you’ll catch crappie and bass. However, Montana’s cool waters particularly favor the trout.

Fishing Licenses

To fish legally in any of Montana’s waters, if you’re aged over 15, you’ll need two licenses: a Fishing License and a Conservation License.

You’ll also need an AIS Prevention Pass (AISPP). This program was initiated in 2017 to help fund the fight against invasive aquatic species in the State. You’ll buy one of these passes for a modest $2 when you purchase your fishing license.

To obtain a license, you’ll need to present your social security number and a valid driver’s license or photo ID. You can buy fishing licenses and permits from any authorized agent or from the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Office.

Licenses are valid from 1 March through the end of February of the following year. You can also buy 2-day, 10-day, or seasonal fishing licenses.

Remember to carry your license with you when you’re fishing, and be prepared to show it to an MFWP officer if requested.

Top Fishing Spots

Montana is a location that’s right out of a trout fishing enthusiast’s dream! Crystal clear waters thronging with abundant trout of many species set amid stunning wilderness scenery where wildlife abounds; what better location could there be to while away a day filling your creel?

We’ve picked out some of the best trout fishing spots for you to try. Also, we’ve tracked down a few alternatives that cater for bass, walleye, and crappie fans.


1. Blackfoot River

Blackfoot River Montana

The Blackfoot River is located here in western Montana, close to Missoula. The River is famous for its use as a setting in the 1992 movie, “A River Runs Through It,” and as a result these waters are now popular as a location for whitewater rafting, tubing, and trout fishing.

The fishing here is best from spring right through into October, thanks to the extensive dry-fly hatches. Trout species you can expect to find here include:

  • Westslope cutthroat trout
  • Bull trout
  • Rainbow trout
  • Brown trout
  • Brook trout

The Blackfoot River can become a very crowded place during summer weekends, thanks to local fishermen or recreational floaters. However, if you visit the River mid-week, after Labor Day or before Memorial Day, you’ll usually find the water relatively empty.

There are excellent fly-fishing opportunities throughout the length of the Blackfoot River in a memorably pretty, scenic setting. Access to shore and wade-fishing is good, and, if you have the time, more hot fishing spots can be enjoyed at the nearby Bitterroot River and Rock Creek.

There are plenty of very good public, private, and RV campgrounds close to Missoula for those who want to extend their visit to this stunning place.


2. Madison River

Madison River

Madison River is located here in the south of the State and has been named as the very best fly-fishing river in North America.

The Madison’s deep pools and rushing riffles are home to high densities of trophy-sized specimens, and the fishing here is great anywhere on the river between May and October. To get the best from this trout fisherman’s treasure trove, it may pay dividends to hire a local outfitter to guide you. The land around the River is a combination of working ranchland, three spectacular mountain ranges, and Government-protected conservation easements.

This stunningly beautiful fishing location provides great sport for dry fly-fishermen, streamer fishermen, and nymph fishermen alike.

Stay for a few days at the nearby Madison River campground for a true outdoorsman’s experience.


3. The Big Hole River

Big Hole River

If you’re looking for brown trout, it’s the Big Hole River (located here) that you need to head to. The Big Hole is also one of the very last strongholds of the fluvial Arctic grayling. Why not try for the “Montana Grand Slam” by catching all these species in one single day:

  • Rainbow trout
  • Cutthroat trout
  • Brown trout
  • Brook trout
  • Arctic grayling

The Big Hole River is located (here) in Beaverhead County, southwest Montana. The river flows through a series of stunning mountain ranges on its way to the Jefferson River, a headwater of the mighty Missouri. Although this river can get crowded in some areas, you will find a dozen decent fishing access sites between the Jefferson confluence and the town of Wisdom.

The Upper Big Hole covers a 25-mile stretch that has plenty of access points. This part of the river is tailor-made for wade fishermen and offers some of the best fishing on the Big Hole.

The Lower Big Hole River is home to rainbows, brookies, browns, and the native grayling, making this slow-moving stretch of the river an ideal location for dry fly-fishing.

When you come to fish anywhere on the Big Hole River, you must remember that you’ll be playing at high elevation, so bring plenty of layers even during the height of the summer.

There are plenty of camping opportunities around the Big Hole River, including a very well-equipped RV campground.


4. Missouri River

Missouri River

The Missouri River flows through roughly 700 miles of Montana, but you’ll find the best trout fishing on the 30-mile stretch that runs from the small town of Cascade to the Holter Dam.

You’ll find plenty of fishing access points along the river for both floating and wading. If it’s rainbows or browns you’re after, this is a great spot to fish. If you want to make the most of your visit, it’s well worth taking a guided trip such as those run from many of the fly shops and outfitters in Cascade, Wolf Creek, and Craig.

There are lots of good campgrounds in the area that cater for hikers and fishermen.


5. Yellowstone River

Yellowstone River Montana

Yellowstone River (located here) is unique as the last undammed river in the West. Yellowstone is born in the park of the same name, and its waters vary in temperature and nature, providing the perfect habitat for a variety of fish species, including:

Close to the river’s headwaters where the flow is fast, you’ll find an abundance of trout. The eastern reaches of the Yellowstone are where you’ll encounter the other species listed above.

Focusing on the section of the Yellowstone that flows from the Cabella Access Site to the town of Livingston, the best time to fish here is during the late summer when the water has cleared, especially if your preference is for fly-fishing. Check out Paradise Valley and try hopper fishing; plop a hopper from the bank and wait for a feisty strike.

Extend your trip with a stay at one of the campgrounds in the area where you can take in views of the Gallatin Range to the west and the Absaroka Mountains to the east as you cook your day’s catch and enjoy a well-deserved beer or two.


6. Ennis Lake

Ennis Lake

Ennis Lake (here) near Bozeman is a medium-sized impoundment that splits the Lower and Upper Madison Rivers. If you’re planning a fishing vacation to Montana, Ennis Lake is well worth a visit. You can camp or stay at one of the motels in the towns of Ennis and Bozeman.

The lake is very shallow with the majority of the water being less than eight feet deep. Most of the action here involves sight-fishing for big cruising rainbows and browns.

Where the channels of the Madison drain into the lake, shallow flats with weedbeds are created, making perfect trout habitat and offering a happy hunting ground for wade fishermen. When prime hatches occur on the lake in the late summer, drift boats are used by local anglers to target the upper reaches of this productive body of water.

Fishing here is pretty good early in the season when the ice has melted. At this time, blind fishing around structure and drops is most successful. During the summer, callibaetis and tricorythode hatch in considerable numbers, providing the dominant food source for the various species of trout that inhabit the lake. At this time of year, there’s a veritable feeding frenzy, and you’ll never go home empty-handed!


7. Harrison Lake

Harrison Lake Glacier National Park

Harrison Lake (here) is a small reservoir that’s about 2.5 miles long. Harrison is located equidistant between Bozeman and Ennis. If you want to stay for a few days, you can camp or check out the accommodation in the two nearby towns.

Harrison is reputedly home to a particularly hard-fighting strain of rainbow trout, and they’re big too! Typically, Harrison Lake rainbows measure between 16 and 19 inches, and larger ones are common. These are heavyweight fish that will make reel-scorching, pole-bending runs!

Try dry fly-fishing during the sporadic summer hatches of mayflies, or fish for cruising trout with slow-twitching leeches, small nymphs, or crayfish. Fishing the many drop-offs around the lake is often a successful approach. While you’re in the area, take a short hike down into Willow Creek Canyon for some great small stream fly-fishing.


8. Fort Peck Lake

Fort Peck Lake

So far we’ve focused on trout fishing. But you can catch walleye in Montana too. Fort Peck Lake (here) is a major reservoir, extending for 135 miles and covering an area of around 17,000 acres. You’ll need a decent-sized boat with a motor to fish this huge body of water safely; it’s really more like an inland sea than a lake.  Kayaking is not really the best option for anglers on Fort Peck Lake.

Lurking in the depths, you’ll find walleye weighing-in at up to an impressive ten pounds! That’s because the size of the lake means it hasn’t been overfished, allowing mid-sized walleye the chance to live longer and grow to be trophy size. Also, Fort Peck Lake is home to a large, calorie-packed cisco population that provides an excellent food source for patrolling walleye.

The best time to catch Fort Peck’s trophy walleye is during the late spring and summer when the fish are feeding aggressively in shallower waters. As the weather gets warmer, the cisco head for deeper, cooler waters, and the walleye follow them. Along the shoreline of the reservoir, the vegetation is lush, creating excellent habitat for spawning perch, another important food for the walleye population.

As well as walleye, there’s a healthy number of channel catfish to be found lurking in the channels and murkier areas of the lake.

If you want to stay for more than just one day, there’s a well-equipped campground close-by. Here, you’ll find a boat ramp and a dock, providing excellent access to the lake. Also, Fort Peck Marina is nearby where you can rent a boat and buy fuel. They also have boat storage facilities and a fish cleaning station.


9. Gartside Reservoir

Gartside Reservoir

Gartside reservoir is located in Richland County close to the town of Sidney. Gartside is the place to come in Montana if you’re after largemouth bass. There’s a fishing access site that you’ll find just off Highway 16, one mile to the north of Crane, one mile west on County Road.

Here, your best bet is to fish from the water. Note that only manual or electric motors are allowed on the reservoir. Check out shady spots provided by overhanging vegetation, brush, logs, rocky points, and weed beds where lunkers may be lurking.

The best bass fishing in Montana happens in the late evening and early in the morning. In the summer, lunkers head for the deeper, cooler water, so fishing for them is usually more successful at night. Bass weighing up to five pounds are regularly caught here.


10. Bighorn Lake

Bighorn Lake

Bighorn Lake (here) has much to offer the angler. As well as some top-class fishing, you can enjoy some of the most stunning scenery in the northwest of the US. Here, you can fish from the shore or the water and enjoy the view while you wait for a bite.

Fish species you’ll find in Bighorn include:

  • Yellow perch
  • Walleye
  • Smallmouth bass
  • Shovelnose sturgeon
  • Sauger
  • Rainbow trout
  • Ling
  • Lake trout
  • Black crappie
  • Channel catfish
  • Bullhead
  • Brown trout
  • Common carp

If you’re planning on taking to the water to fish the Bighorn, note that if you have engine trouble, don’t risk trying to climb the canyon walls. Most of the shoreline in the southern reaches of the lake will accommodate beaching if necessary.

There’s a large floating fishing dock at Horseshoe Bend beach that’s equipped with benches, a handicap ramp, and pole holders. This is reputedly a brilliant spot to fish for every species that the lake has to offer, and you can drive right up to the dock for easy access.

Bighorn Lake has a large carp population that can provide some great sport if fly or bow-fishing is your thing. Try wading in the shallows or fishing with a push-boat setup. Carp can provide a supreme fly-rod challenge, and many carp fly-fishing tournaments are held here every year. Why not time your trip to coincide with one of these events and pit your skills against the locals!

There are plenty of RV and tent campgrounds around Bighorn Lake, all offering spectacular views of this idyllic and productive fishing spot.


Finding Your Spot

Montana is a trout fisherman’s delight!

There are so many beautiful places to practice your chosen art; it can be very difficult to know where to start. Fish from the shoreline of picturesque lakes, wade-fish the smooth waters of tranquil rivers, or cast from a boat surrounded by towering peaks and sparkling autumn colors; Montana has it all!

But it’s not all about the trout! There’s some great walleye, bass, and crappie fishing here too if you know where to look.

As a fishing destination that gives you a true taste of the wilderness, the Big Sky Country has to feature high-up on your angler’s bucket list.

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