High Water Fishing Options in Western Montana


Die-hard anglers have been plying the waters since early March, but many fly fishers don’t think of dusting off their gear until the weather turns nicer.  That has taken a while this spring with colder than average temps for the past two months, but we are finally turning the corner with budding trees in the valley and green hints in the foothills.

The good weather may have you thinking of fishing, but a quick drive over the Clark Fork will give you second thoughts with its high flow and off-color water.  So if the fishing bug has finally hit you, where can you scratch the itch in the middle of run-off season?

This is one of the most challenging times of year for fly anglers.  The weather is tempting you to get out there, but there are still stream and even lake closures in effect and local river levels can be volatile which can make your whole trip a bust when you show up to find unfishable conditions.   The key to success this time of year lies more in your computer or smart phone than what’s in your fly boxes.

Cold weather fishing in western Montana. Photo by Tony Reinhardt.

Some cold days on the fiver this spring

Be sure to check Montana FWP Fishing Regulations to ensure that your destination is in fact open to fishing.  Most all of the main rivers in the state are open year round, but many of the smaller streams and creeks are closed until the general opener on the third Saturday in May.  There are even some lakes with special regulations so it is important to know before you go.  The two other important resources are the USGS streamflow website and local fly shops.  You can access both online, but it’s not a bad idea to throw a call into your favorite shop before you head out.

Lakes are the safest bet right now.  Brown’s and Harper’s up the Blackfoot are two of the most popular but there are others as well.  Those big rainbows are cruising the shore line after ice out looking to spawn.  They provide exciting sight fishing opportunities on calm, sunny days and you just might connect with your biggest trout of the year.  Stripping streamers or dropping nymphs in to the deeper water is a successful strategy as well.

Brown's Lake in Montana. Photo by Tony Reinhardt.

Sight fishing to big rainbows on Brown’s Lake

Local rivers are hit and miss this time of year, mostly a miss.  Watch streamflows carefully and your best chance at good fishing will happen when flows have been stable or dropping for several days.  It is mostly a nymph and streamer game in these conditions, but some of the side channels and back waters can give up dry fly fishing at times.  Local fly shops will have the most reliable reports and be aware that the rivers are extremely dangerous at these higher flows.  No trout is worth risking your life over.

The Mighty Missouri River, Montana. Photo by Tony Reinhardt

The Missouri is gorgeous right now

Of course, run-off is also a great time to visit everyone’s favorite tailwater, the Missouri river.  It’s only a two hour drive from town, it’s absolutely loaded with trout, and the first six miles remain fishable under almost any conditions.  At times you will find dry fly fishing on the Mo, but it is a consistently reliable nymphing river.  The Missouri is big enough to accommodate plenty of anglers without feeling crowded, and if you are looking to get your fly fishing fix during run-off there is really no better destination in the state.

Chrome bright rainbow trout on the Missouri River

Chrome bright rainbows on the Mo

Winter is finally coming to an end and this is a great time to tune-up your fly fishing skills before the main season arrives.  Knock the rust off during high water on your favorite lake or tailwater and you will be better prepared once the fishing really heats up around Missoula in June.

Tight Lines,

–Tony Reinhardt


Tony Reinhardt BioTony Reinhardt is the owner, outfitter for Montana Trout Outfitters in Missoula.  He has been a guide on the rivers of western Montana for 16 years and absolutely loves his job.  When he’s not working you’ll find him fishing with his two children or in the woods hunting.