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There are few rivers in the world more powerful than the Missouri River. In Montana alone it flows over 700 miles. For fly anglers, this can be seen as extremely overwhelming. How is it possible to break down 700 miles of water and know where to fish? Thankfully, Mother Nature takes it easy on us and provides only about 50 miles of prime water.
The Missouri River is one of those classic tailwaters that have books written about it. It inspires people so much that they put their feelings on paper and let others imagine themselves in similar situations.
Table of Contents
- Fly Fishing USA
- Fly Fishing the Missouri River: Why Go?
- Species for Missouri River Fly Fishing
- Fly Fishing Species
- Best Spots for Fly Fishing the Missouri River
- North of Canyon Ferry
- Above Holter Lake
- Best Flies for the Missouri River
- Fly Tying Tutorials
- Missouri River Fly Fishing Season
- Missouri River Fly Fishing Report
I’ve fly fished the Missouri River multiple times in my life on my many visits to Montana. There are so many other great rivers nearby, but I try to always make sure to save some time for this iconic river. I’ve greatly enjoyed the beautiful surroundings and caught plenty of impressive fish while there.
Admittedly, I originally saw fishing the Missouri River as a challenge. Now, the more I fish it, the more I see why people are so obsessed with the Missouri.
Don’t miss our full guide to Fly Fishing in Montana.
Fly Fishing the Missouri River: Why Go?
Think of the ideal Western United States fly fishing experience. Whatever you’re imagining is what you’ll have when you visit the Missouri River. The fish are massive and plentiful, and whatever type of angling you enjoy, you can experience there.
The Missouri can seem overwhelming, and many anglers don’t even want to try it out of fear of being skunked. Don’t be afraid of this river! While it can seem large and intimidating, it can provide you with some lifelong memories.
Species for Missouri River Fly Fishing
The Missouri River is full of fish. Since it flows through much of the north-central United States, you can find whatever you’d like! However, most fly anglers are searching for trout. In that regard, the Missouri doesn’t disappoint.
The average rainbow trout in the Missouri is between 14 and 18 inches. This length for an average is unheard of in many rainbow trout fisheries. You can find them well over 20 inches if you’re willing to put in the work and have a decent amount of patience.
There are nearly 5,000 fish per mile in the stretch of river below the Holter Dam to Cascade, MT. Spend your time here and you’ll find yourself in the midst of one of the best rainbow trout fisheries in the entire world.
Target them with stoneflies, caddisflies and a variety of streamers. At times it’s important to remember that the larger the fish, the larger the fly. These fish are large and hungry, so you need to feed their appetite.
The brown trout in the Missouri are even bigger than the rainbow trout. The browns can usually be found somewhere between 15 and 18 inches. Also, you have the possibility of landing a 25-inch fish as well. While they’re not extremely common, it’s possible to land a few of these.
Bring your 5 or 6-weight when you fish the Missouri. You’ll likely need it. Target these fish with any sort of PMD pattern. The Cripple, Sparkle Dun and Parachute are great options. Also, Pheasant Tails and Prince Nymphs will work great as well.
Target these in the section between Holter Dam and Cascade. This is one of the premier tailwaters in the world!
Carp are another common fish you can find in the Missouri River. Almost any section of this river besides the tailwater between the Holter Dam and Cascade holds these fish. If you haven’t targeted carp on the fly, you’re missing out on an exhilarating experience.
These fish are smart, strong and take quite a bit of you! Bring your 6 to 8-weight if you want to land some of them. Also, small spider and gnat flies work for carp in the Missouri River. But small nymphs are the best option. Carp are bottom feeders 90 percent of the time.
Best Spots for Fly Fishing the Missouri River
Similar to the Green River in Utah, the Missouri has a primary stretch that every angler needs to visit. However, you aren’t limited to this portion of the river! As you can imagine, it’s very busy. With a little research and creativity, you can find your seclusion.
Holter Dam and South
This section of the Missouri is what makes the river famous. It’s a Mecca for big, beautiful trout and pristine trout water. Being that it’s a tailwater, it’s cold and is a perfect environment for large fish.
The insect population is massive and the fish never go hungry. However, it’s important to remember that this section of the river is by far the busiest. On a summer day, you’ll see drift boats and wading anglers throughout the entire 30 miles.
If you don’t mind a bit of congestion, this is a great spot. It’s worth it! You can access this portion of the river in quite a few different areas. Be careful if you choose to wade fish. The river isn’t too wide, but it’s deep. You can’t wade across it. You’re better off fishing it from a drift boat.
I recommend you access this part of the river below Wolf Creek.
North of Canyon Ferry
This won’t be as productive as the Holter Dam portion of the Missouri, but you’ll still have access to some large brown trout. Brown trout are the most versatile trout. They can survive and adapt in a variety of situations. You’ll be surprised by where you might find some browns.
Depending on the recent precipitation levels, this portion of the Missouri might be a bit muddy. As a result, you’ll have to spend the majority of your time fishing below the surface. Bring your darker streamers. Again, the fish count isn’t as high, but the size of the fish makes it worth it.
Take advantage of the seclusion and less fishing pressure. You’ll be thankful when you land a 22-inch fish and no one is around to steal your spot.
Above Holter Lake
This section up to Hauser Dam isn’t always targeted by the local guide companies. Since the water is a bit wider and faster, boats don’t frequent this area. If the water levels are manageable, you can wade and catch massive rainbow trout.
This is often where the trout spawn and look to feast. If you’re into some heavy streamer fishing, the section above Holter Lake to Canyon Ferry will make you one happy angler. I like to take advantage of this area in the spring.
It’s not going to be pretty, and traditional anglers might not enjoy all that goes into this type of fishing. However, the fight that ensues when you hook into one of these fish makes all of it worth it. Stay safe and make sure you have high quality wading boots.
It’s a section for the tough! However, the tough get rewarded when they stick with it.
Best Flies for the Missouri River
There’s an extensive list of flies that will work on he Missouri River. Don’t hesitate to switch things up if your fly choice isn’t working after several casts. These fish are picky, so you need to make sure whatever you throw, it’s presented well.
Woolly Buggers are great flies to use in the Missouri River. They imitate anything you’d like them to. The fish have a hard time rejecting these flies. You’ll have the freedom to swing and dead drift these flies in the Missouri. Do some experimenting and see what brings strikes or flashes.
I always keep a variety of colors on hand. Olive and black are the most popular and often most successful. Use them between sizes 6 and 10.
The Czech Nymph is an extremely popular fly on the Missouri. Bring every color of this fly that you can possibly find. It’ll work well right before hatches. As the flies are starting to rise to the surface, the Czech Nymph can absolutely come into play.
It works great as a dropper in a dry-dropper rig. I suggest you use a somewhat larger dry fly to make sure the nymph stays where it needs to below the surface.
The Pheasant Tail nymph is a must-have in your box when you fish the Missouri. Not only is it able to be fished in a variety of waters, it can also be used year round. Most anglers use the Flashback Pheasant Tail.
You can either fish this in a dropper rig or tie it on with a few split shots. It’ll work either way, but it may take some experimenting.
The Parachute Adams is another classic pattern on the Missouri. Anglers from all over the world know this fly and look forward to using it on the Mo. The hatches on the Missouri are impressive to watch. The insects are so thick that you won’t be able to understand why a fish would take yours.
As soon as you start seeing a hatch, tie this one on and buckle up for a great ride.
The Zebra Midge is the final fly you need to have in your box. It’s a simple pattern, but extremely effective. This is the ideal fly to have on a dropper rig. Whether you’re throwing a terrestrial or a larger caddis, make sure this is underneath.
Missouri River Fly Fishing Season
Anglers can spend time on the Missouri year round. However, the river is best fished from late June through August. This is when you’ll find the most agreeable weather and water conditions.
Missouri River Fly Fishing Report
My favorite time to fish the Missouri River is in late June. The water levels are dropping and the fish are still innocent enough to not be extremely picky. The fishing below Holter Dam is exceptional. There aren’t too many people on the river at this point because the weather still isn’t ideal. Bring those Buggers and Pheasant Tails!
The Missouri River needs to be on the bucket list of every fly angler. Experiencing a true Western tailwater is something that not everyone gets, so be sure to take advantage of it if you have the chance.
There are plenty of places I love to fish in Montana, but there’s truly something special about the Missouri. I’ve experienced more anticipation of big fish here than on almost every other body of water in Montana.
You never know what will strike your fly. And more often than not, whatever it is will blow your mind!
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