100 Best: Missouri River
Type of stream: Tailwater
Angling methods: Fly, Spin
Species: Rainbows, Browns
Season: Year-round, but species specific regs apply
Supporting Services: Craig, Carter
Short take: Tailwaters that fish like spring creeks
Handicapped Access: None
Closest TU Chapter: Pat Barnes Missouri River
While the Missouri River from its headwaters at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers above Three Forks hold some interest for anglers seeking trout, the 35 miles from the tailwater flowing out of Holter Lake to Cascade is considered by many to be Montana’s premier trout river.
And well it should be. Hatches are phenomenal. Baetis open the season in March and thrive into May. Pale morning duns and caddis take over in June with the latter continuing into September. July adds tricos. The usual menu of terrestrials—ants, hoppers, crickets, and beetles—appear in late June and last until frost has nipped their buds. You can fish midges all year long as well as aquatic worms. If your arm is up to it, throw minnow and sculpin patterns in early spring and late fall.
The secret of the Missouri’s robust aquatic life is tied not just to the coldwater outflows from Holter, Hauser, and Canyon Ferry Dams but also to limestone formations in the Big Belt Mountains. Rainbow trout predominate in the tailwaters. According to some, they outnumber browns five to one. A typical ‘bow runs in the 15-inch to 18-inch range. Browns, when you catch them, tend to be larger and sometimes downright huge. Trout density is estimated at 4,000 per mile.
From Holter Dam to Craig, the Missouri skirts the fringe of the Big Belt Mountain through farm land. Access is plentiful here, thanks to kindhearted landowners. Wading is easy as the riverbed is predominantly made up of small pebbles. Downstream from Craig, the river cuts through the mountains carving a gentle yet scenic canyon. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has established nine fishing access sites in this stretch. Unlike the canyon runs the Madison or Yellowstone in Paradise Valley, there are no brawling rapids or deep eddies. Instead the river flows with almost majestic serenity, dividing around occasional islands.