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Our Kit Series: Montana's Upper Missouri River

Our Kit Series: Montana's Upper Missouri River

Fly Fishing in Four Seasons

The Missouri is open to fishing year-round in Montana, so you have four very distinct seasons to enjoy. We tend to frequent the section of water north of Holter Lake Dam and south of Hardy Bridge. That said, there’s plenty of great fishing elsewhere along its length.

This article will dive into what we like to have on hand for fishing north of Holter Lake. Regardless of the exact location you choose to go fishing, however, fly fishing the Mighty Mo will requires a season-specific bag of tricks.

Spring Fly Fishing

Early spring generally means low flows and cold-water temperatures… And that makes for sluggish fish in deep-holding water. Because they’ll be holding in slow water, they’ll also have plenty of opportunity to look over your presentation. Good quality fluorocarbon like Montana Casting Co. Conceal or Emerger tippet is essential.

Your fly box will need flies that get down into the deep water quickly. Perdigon patterns with a tungsten bead head will sink fast and are a must-have on the Mo. You’ll also want an arsenal of bright-orange or hot-pink, bead-head flies (Hot Heads), as well as scud or sowbug patterns. Adjust your strike indicator to get the correct depth, and use some non-lead split shots to help get those flies down fast.

Fly Fishing from a Drift Boat on the Missouri River
Fly fishing the Montana's Missouri River in spring. 

In late spring, we finally start to see glimpses of summer, but don’t be fooled; winter can (and will) rear its head at the drop of a hat. We often say that if you don’t like the weather in Montana, wait five minutes—it will change. This is especially true in the spring, so plan accordingly.

In between the occasional sleet-storm, warm, sunny days will start to increase water temperatures and runoff from snow melt. The runoff, in turn, further increases the water temperature, and the sleeping river comes to life. Aquatic insects will start to move, emerge, and hatch—mostly midges, mayflies, and baetis, so you’ll want to have some small black to dark olive dries on hand. Nymphing will still be the mainstay using Perdigons, Hot Heads, and scud or sowbug patterns. That said, don’t be afraid to try a Juju Baetis and similar patterns. The fish will be much more active, looking for food throughout the river.

Summer Fly Fishing

Hot days mean caddis and epic Trico (callibaetis) hatches, followed by a cold drink and dinner at Izaak’s restaurant in Craig. This time of the year, bring plenty of sunscreen and fly floatant (but remember that sunscreen should not go on your line).

Fly Fishing the Missouri River from a Drift Boat
The Montana Casting Co. family on a summer fishing trip.

During the heat of the day, use terrestrials: ants, hoppers, and beetles. Sinking a hopper just barely under the surface while running it through a fast, foot-deep riffle is often too tempting for a trout to pass up. That said, the real magic is worked with Tricos and caddis in the mornings and evenings—it’s a fish-wrangling marathon. Make sure to have plenty of sowbugs, scuds, jujus, and frenchies on hand as well. Summer is a great time to try out different techniques—you’ll likely find success with almost all of them.

Fall Fly Fishing

Days get shorter, the water starts to cool, and the browns start to move towards spawning grounds. Fall is still a great time to fish dries and nymph rigs, but the real star of the show is the streamer! There are many exotic streamer patterns to choose from—Mini-Dungeon, Balanced Leeches, and Wolley Buggers, to name a few. Make sure you have a good selection of Parachute Adams and callibaetis on hand in case you happen to hit a warm day with a good hatch coming off. If you’re nymphing, keep throwing the sowbug and scud patterns and try some worm patterns and a Copper Johns or a Pheasant Tail.

Woman Fly Fishing from a Pontoon
Fly fishing Montana's Missouri River in early fall.

Similar to spring, the Montana fall tends to vary widely in terms of weather. You might be fishing the 80-degree remnants of summer or squinting into the wind of winter’s first snowy spat. Layers and sun protection are a must!

Winter Fly Fishing

Once again, cold water temps mean sluggish fish in deep water. This time of the year, you’ll want primarily small wet flies for nymphing: scuds, Pill Poppers, sowbugs, and Zebra Midges. This time of the year, I like to allow my flies (along with some no lead split) to tap across the bottom of the river during the casting drift.

If you manage to time it right and hit a 40-degree day in December or January, don’t be afraid to take a short float. Bring a Jetboil for ramen and hot toddies and a Mister Heater for warmth. Heated socks and a good warm coat are also highly recommended!

Our kit for the Upper Missouri:

  • A 4 or 5 wt Montana Casting Co. fly rod for spring and summer AND a 6wt in the fall for streamers
  • The Lite or Elite Reel with the Dearborn fly rod OR Envy or Elite Reel with the Warm Springs fly rod OR the Lite or Envy Reel with the Craig fly rod
  • MC-40 Fly Line for dries OR MC-30 fly line for nymphs OR MC-38 fly line for streamers
  • 7.5 ft 5X leader for nymphs and streamers or 9 ft 5 OR 6X leader for dries
  • Conceal tippet for nymphs and streamers OR emerger tippet for dries
  • Micro swivels, non-lead split and some indicators for nymphing
  • Sunscreen
  • Warm layers (especially for fall, winter, and spring)
  • Flotant
  • Seasonal fly box
    • Spring: Perdigons, Hot Heads, scuds, sowbugs, black or olive dries, Juju Baetis
    • Summer: Flotant, Tricos, Caddis, terrestrials, sowbugs, scuds, jujus, and frenchies.
    • Fall: Streamers, Parachute Adams, callibaetis, Pheasant Tail, scuds, sowbugs, and worms
    • Winter: Scuds, Pill Poppers, sowbugs, and Zebra Midges

As ever, we encourage you to drop in at the local fly shops wherever you visit—they’ll have the most up-to-date information on what’s getting the fish to bite and they’re also a great resource for stocking up on any last-minute supplies. Happy fishing!

Don’t forget to leave your thoughts, questions, and fishing stories in the comments below!

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