The rivers of Central Montana are unlike those found elsewhere in the state. Flowing from the mighty Rocky Mountains and several island mountain ranges, the waterways then meander downhill, eventually meeting the Great Plains in their gradual journey eastward. This diversity of terrain lends itself to a variety of streams and rivers—from smaller rivers such as the Sun and Judith to the sweeping expanse of the trout-laden Missouri. Central Montana is tailor-made for adventurous anglers seeking a bit of solitude away from busier rivers.
When most anglers think of fishing in Central Montana, the Missouri River comes to mind. This storied river first came to true popularity in the 1990s, when editorial coverage began to draw visitors from across the U.S. and abroad, seeking to experience "Trout Town U.S.A."
The most productive fishing section of the river flows from the small town of Craig to Cascade, just south of Great Falls. In this 35-mile section, the river sweeps through craggy cliffs and canyons before opening into the lower section where the river greets the Great Plains, both widening and slowing before reaching the community of Cascade.
The Missouri is a prolific fishery, with as many as 2,000 rainbow trout per river mile in some sections. Despite the high numbers of fish, it can be a technical fishery with "educated" fish; visiting anglers are best served by connecting with a local guide and outfitter service to help find the best spots and techniques. Intent on heading out on your own? Stop at a local shop, chat with the staff, and buy a few recommended flies.
In Cascade, check out the Trout Montana shop for gear and guides. You’ll also find lodging options in town along with groceries, restaurants, and bars. Great Falls, just 25 miles from Cascade, has a wide variety of lodging and dining options as well. North 40 Outfitters and Montana River Outfitters are based in Great Falls and can assist anglers seeking to set up trips and learn more about local waterways. Visit with the locals and they’ll point you to some lesser known streams like the Judith near Stanford or Big Spring Creek near Lewistown. The fishing community in Central Montana is tightly knit and eager to help.
Looking for something other than trout? As the Missouri winds northward and then east past Great Falls, it acts as home to a variety of species, including sauger, pike, walleye, and catfish. Other rivers and lakes throughout Central Montana host everything from perch to whitefish and carp.
Most anglers venture to Central Montana dreaming of trophy trout, be it a colored-up brown or a football-like rainbow. Those seeking classic dry-fly action will find the best times to visit are mid-spring (April/May), in July for terrestrial fishing, or in October. (Terrestrial lovers will find themselves happily occupied July through September; the river’s grassy banks are ideal for tossing big, foamy hoppers.) Nymph fishing, productive for those seeking high numbers of fish, is most productive in late spring (May/June) and then again in the early fall. Streamer anglers should visit in the early spring and late fall, though many seasoned Missouri River anglers are taking on the winter season with streamers to great success. If you’re planning to visit in the winter, reach out to Headhunters Fly Shop, which has established itself as the region’s leading Switch and Spey (two-handed fishing) resource and can offer both instruction and guided trips.
Many of Central Montana’s smaller rivers and streams are best fished on foot, allowing anglers to take their time and really work sections of water. However, for larger rivers such as the Missouri, it’s easy and effective to cover large sections of water via boat. Most local guides prefer hard-sided "drift boats," specially designed to allow anglers comfort and range of motion, and low-sided to not be pushed about too much by the wind. Rafts, pontoon boats, canoes and kayaks are also suitable for angling use—just make sure you have a savvy rower.
Whatever your angling style, Central Montana offers plenty of stunning waterways. Want to explore on foot and hike into small streams? Check. Keen to float down the famous Missouri River and chase fat rainbow trout? Check. Or maybe you want to get the kids out on Fresno Reservoir and simply let them experience their first fishing trip. That’s available, too. Central Montana is home to a high number of passionate anglers, eager to share their love for both sport and place.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated in partnership with Central Montana and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because the intricacies of a stream can tell you more that just where the fish are
Clapotis. That is the word I’ve been trying to scrape off the tip of my tongue for an hour, and it comes back to me as I cast a Purple Haze dry fly along a rock-walled stretch of Montana’s Spotted Bear River. The wall gives out where a boulder squats on the shoreline, pushing a bulge of clear flow into the middle of the channel, and it’s about the troutiest-looking 20 feet of creek I’ve ever seen. The leader straightens, the fly drops, and I ready myself for what will surely be the jolting strike of a serious cutthroat trout. Only a big fish could manage life in the clapotis.
The word comes from a French phrase meaning “lapping of water,” and it describes a standing wave train that neither moves nor breaks, created by waves that bounce off a hard surface—like a rock face—and stack up against more incoming waves. I mend the fly line to keep it out of the tall whipped-frosting waves, giving the parachute fly a drag-free drift in the slick between the rock and the chop. When the big cutthroat slashes, I am so smug and proud of myself for sticking the fly in its face that I miss the strike entirely.
Which, of course, is not the point. The point is that I figured out ahead of time where a trout might live in this stretch of water, so I could drift a fly to its precise location in the current. Trout tend to feed in narrow lanes, unwilling to expend the energy to move out of their comfort zone no matter how tempting the fly. When you miss a fish in a tough lie like that one, you tell yourself that the important thing isn’t that you screwed up the strike. It’s that you were smart enough to read the water.
Like the act of fly-casting itself, reading trout water has taken on near-mystical associations. The practice of carefully studying the flow of water in a trout stream, and divining the most likely spots where trout hold, has been likened to some sort of performance art. But at its core, it’s nothing more than a studied understanding of how water reacts to stuff like gravel bottoms and weedlines and rocks—and how water that has reacted to that kind of stuff is going to affect the fish, fly line, and fly. You don’t need to know what a clapotis is to catch a trout. You just need to know that a fish is likely to be in the calm lane of water between the rock and the choppy place.
Reading trout water isn’t voodoo. It’s a skill. And like any skill, it takes a while to get really good at it. Like a lifetime.
Putting the Pieces Together
The Southern Appalachian streams of my native North Carolina have been my longtime trout-water-reading class, and there’s hardly a better laboratory. These creeks might be 3 feet wide or 30, but they’re rocky, steep, and twisty—and all small enough that the various sorts of trout water are right there at your feet: pools, glides, runs, riffles, pocket water, holding water, current seams, eddies. Clapotis galore.
The best anglers deconstruct the creeks for long, quiet moments before even thinking about a cast. They watch bubble lines to learn where swifts seam into calmer water. They push polarized glasses up to get a better sense of what stream glare suggests about surface flow. Before they ever look for fish, they look for the places where they should look for fish. You work the problem backward: If I think a fish is there, I’ll need to drop my fly to the right of the foam so the force from the riffles pushes the fly into the throat of the current seam. And more likely than not, the place where it seems simply impossible to put a fly is the place where I’d live if I were the boss trout of the pool. That brings on more study. More calculation. Can I sidearm skip a fly under the branches if I crawl out onto the gravel bar? Could I worm through the rhododendrons and dapple the fly along the undercut bank old-school style? Maybe the best cast is no cast at all.
All trout anglers have tied themselves up inside these Gordian knots of fishing strategy. It’s one of the things that makes trout fishing so much fun. But in untying these knots, water pulsing around my legs, fish just waiting to be caught, I’ve found a surprising benefit—one of the other reasons that make trout fishing such a surprising pleasure. I bet any trout angler—or every angler, for that matter—has experienced this. It’s often said that we fish to escape the real world, with its tangled webs of responsibility and challenge. But more often than forgetting about reality, this is what happens to me: I step into a stream with a head full of stress—what to do about two family cars with the CHECK ENGINE lights blinking, how to win the next round of Deadline Whack-A-Mole—and hours later, on the trail back to the truck, solutions begin to bubble up in my mind. By focusing so tightly, time and again, on the riddle of where a fish holds in a single seam of current, my brain seems to break free of all the torque that’s locked up the gears.
This might seem like dime-store philosophy, the sort of grist you’d pick up in a self-help book, but I guess I’ve been fishing—and living—long enough to look at the upstream reaches of my life and recognize that there’s just about always a way to float a solution down into the sweet spot.
But first you must ask yourself: What are the pieces? How do the parts fit together? Solve the little puzzle inside the larger one, and watch what happens. The sweetest moments of life aren’t necessarily void of turbulence. They’re just holding in the calm places on the edge of the riffles. The ones you can’t see until you step into the river.
Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
Why a brewer of fine beers is fighting to keep our water sparkling, our trout frisky, and our brews crisp.
Way back when, about 11 years ago, long before quality craft beer in a can was much of a thing, Upslope co-founder Henry Wood was catching up with his old NOLS instructor colleague and pal Tom Reed—Trout Unlimited’s Angler Conservation Program Director—over a beer. Reed wanted to take the conservation group’s 1% For Rivers program national. And Wood was gearing up to do the same with their new Colorado born Craft Lager. If you’re envisioning some affirmative head-nodding you have the right idea. The gist of it? Buy a Craft Lager and one percent of the gross sales goes to the Trout Unlimited chapter in the state where you bought it. That’s “gross” not “net,” which translates to no small sum. Since just 2015, Upslope has donated $60,000 to the cause. “Beer and trout have a lot in common,” says Reed. “They both depend on clean water.”
Fishing and Craft Lager, A Great Pairing
What you drink matters. That’s true regardless of your passions, but if you’re into fly fishing, it’s especially relevant. Why wouldn’t you buy a beer that helps restore and protect rivers? Also, Craft Lager comes in cans, which are the perfect vessels for your vessel. Cans are lighter to ship, reducing the carbon footprint, and they’re easier to recycle than glass. There’s almost no waste: If Americans recycled every can, 96 percent of that aluminum would get repurposed. As for pairing, it doesn’t hurt that this crisp, straw-colored lager is sessionable. “It’s an easy drinking, 4.8 percent alcohol, American made all grain lager,” says Wood. “It’s tough to crush higher alcohol IPAs and steer a driftboat.”
The Upslope Crew Walks the Talk
Just as it’s hard to find a mountain biker or hiker that doesn’t see the value of spending an afternoon standing in a cold stream with a rod in hand, it’s hard to find an Upslope employee that isn’t willing to wade into river conservation work. “Beyond our donations to Trout Unlimited, we’ve physically done stream restoration as a company for years,” says Wood. “We coordinate with Rocky Mountain Anglers here in Boulder on Boulder Creek, and on South Boulder Creek in Eldorado Canyon State Park pulling out weeds and rebuilding banks. Our employees get two paid days off a year to donate their time to nonprofit work.”
The Smith River Thanks You
Like the Grand Canyon is to whitewater boaters, the Smith River in Central Montana is to fly fishers—one of the crown jewels. As such, it’s the only float in the nation that requires a permit—which you draw for much like choice elk habitat. To call that float “coveted” would be an understatement. But now a proposed hard rock copper mine on Sheep Creek near the put-in for the Smith is jeopardizing that storied waterway. With money that comes in part from Craft Lager sales, Trout Unlimited is paying lawyers to fight the Australian company pushing the mine and hiring an educator to travel the state singing the virtues of the Smith. “There’s a checkered history of hard rock mining in the state of Montana,” says Reed. “But even though Montana’s mining laws are friendly to international corporations we’ve given them a good fight. We don’t think that’s an appropriate place for a mine. And we aren’t alone. We have good grounds for a lawsuit. I’m hopeful that with continued support t we’ll win.”
Upslope’s Commitment Has Only Grown
Upslope is now one of only two certified B Corp breweries in Colorado, and one of only about 30 worldwide. What’s that mean for the average fly fisher in search of malted beverages? A lot actually. B Corp status depends on a commitment to three overarching promises to take care of employees, the community that the business touches, and the environment. Because Upslope has been committed to such goals since day one, it earned B Corp certification on the first bid. Now the challenge is to constantly improve to meet B Corp’s evermore exacting standards. Much of that challenge falls on Upslope Sustainability Coordinator Elizabeth Waters—who started out at the brewery in the tasting room as a bartender with an environmental degree. “Our biggest blind spot was our supply chain,” says Waters. “Unlike employee benefits and environmental initiatives, we didn’t have any set policy around how we source materials. Now we’re chipping away at it vigorously. It’s the little things that add up. And those little actionable initiatives get identified by our employees. Like when a hops supplier recently switched from non-recyclable paper bags lined with plastic to full paper. That simple move keeps tons of waste from the landfill. We hope to be 85 percent to our zero waste soon.”