Missouri River Fly Fishing, the Best in America


I have always had the distinct privilege of being able to say that I learned to fly fish on the mighty Missouri River, and last weekend I was once again reminded of why the river is still the best dry fly fishing in America.

Yeah… I said it. I have no problem making this claim after what I witnessed last weekend.

Missoula is about two and a half hours away from the famous trout town of Craig, so it is not hard to periodically overhear low murmurs around town about how good the fishing on the Mo’ is. Go in to any fly shop in town right now, and chances are you are going to hear some stories of big, hard-fighting rainbows eating caddis with reckless abandon.

We rolled over last Friday night for some evening dry fly fishing, and what we found was actually borderline disgusting. There are so many bugs right now that you have to wear a buff over your face to breathe properly. Don’t be surprised to find a few inside of your beer as well, or covering the inside of your sunglasses.

Rainbow wrangling at sunset on the Missouri River.

Rainbow wrangling at sunset on the Missouri River. Click to see larger.

When we finally got to the Wolf Creek access at about 8:00 pm, the hatch was already coming off with full force.

Clouds of caddis were covering the river, and fish were rising everywhere all the way across the river (by everywhere, we literally mean EVERYWHERE). We fumbled around as fast as we could to rig up, as our excitement far exceeded reasonable levels.

It was as though we traveled back in time to when we were 12 as we shoved the boat off of the trailer and got started. We were on the river for about four hours that night, and I don’t think we stopped giggling the entire time.

Our first fish was landed about ten yards away from the put-in, and I watched in amazement as a big 18-inch rainbow took flight over and over again desperately trying to spit the fly as the setting sun gleamed brightly off of his back. My brother’s smile could not have been bigger as we landed the fish only to turn around and see our good friend Kevin hooking up with another big fish in the back of the boat.

The Mighty Mo at sunset.

The Mighty Mo at sunset. Click to see larger.

The pace of the fishing never really slowed down from that point forth. It was basically a race against darkness to cast to every head in the river, and as we hit the takeout at about 1 am we all looked at each other and realized that we had probably just witnessed the best big fish dry fly fishing we had ever seen. In almost 20 years of fishing the Missouri, I can not remember a day that compares to it.

Except for the following day.

We were joined on Saturday by a couple of other friends, and quickly realized that you don’t even have to wait until the evening to fish the hatch. There are caddis coming off in huge numbers pretty much all day long. They are not as thick during the day, but it actually helps make the fishing better. You don’t have as many real bugs to compete with, so the fish will eat much more readily.

If you want to nymph, you can, and you can pretty much catch as many fish as you can handle, but you definitely do not have to.

A big rainbow from the big Mo

A big ‘Bow from the big Mo. Click to see larger.

You can fish a CDC caddis all day long, and you will constantly be running into ANOTHER pod of big rising fish that seem to just keep eating no matter what you do.

You can hook a fish, and watch fish rise all around as chaos erupts right in the middle of the pod. I literally watched a fish fly about four feet out of the water, and land with a huge splash as three other fish were rising within a foot of it.

Missouri River fish are famous for being some of the most challenging fish in Montana to catch on a dry fly, and in two weeks they will reach this level once again, but right now they seem way too easy.

If you want to headhunt for 20-inch trout all day long, go to the Mo’. You will not be let down.


Fishing for more tales from the river? Check out Matt and Bryce’s other posts: Spring Fly Fishing Highlights and the Pursuit of a Dream, Zen and the Art of Not Fishing At All, and An Ode to Brown Trout, or visit the Fish It archive.

Be sure to visit the Make it Missoula fishing page.


Photos of Missoula Fly Fishing Experts Matt Devlin and Bryce McLean

Matt Devlin (left) is originally from Annapolis, Maryland and learned to fool trout on the technical waters of the Gunpowder River. He has fished in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Indiana, North and South Carolina, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. He thinks about flies and fishing a whole lot.

Bryce McLean (right) was born and raised in Montana, and has been fly fishing here for almost 20 years. He first learned to fish on the Missouri River, but when he was ten, his family moved to the Bitterroot Valley. He’s been fishing the Bitterroot River ever since. This has been his second season guiding the Missoula area rivers, which he consider to be some of the best trout fisheries on planet Earth.

Their most recent fish-related project is BigSkyTrouting.com.