Runoff rainbows and browns, summer carp, and a lot of windshield time from Livingston
The Missouri River begins near Three Forks, only about an hour from Livingston. This isn’t the part of the Missouri that makes the fishing magazines and gets all the traffic, though. In its upper reaches between Three Forks and Canyon Ferry Reservoir, the Missouri is a broad, warm slightly murky prairie river. It holds a few big trout year-round, but more carp, walleye, and pike. This is the only reach of the Missouri within range of us here in Livingston, and the only one we guide in midsummer.
Between Toston Dam at the midpoint of this stretch, it also gets seasonal runs of rainbow and brown trout from Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Some of these trout can be monsters, but they remain rare.
The situation changes downstream of Hauser Dam, roughly 2.5hr from Livingston. Chilled by Canyon Ferry and Hauser Reservoirs, the river now edges towards being the famous trout river that makes the calendars. There’s only a short 3-mile tailwater here before the river enters Holter Lake, but it’s a good one. There are lots of 20-inch fish here, but also lots of both wading anglers and jet boats. This is about the only place in our operations area that’s actually more crowded from March through May than it is later.
Downstream of Holter Dam is where the real action is. This 30ish mile tailwater is one of the West’s world-class rivers, and it is typically wall-to-wall boats in May and early June, when anglers need to work around the spring melt that makes things too high elsewhere. We join the party, but strictly for multi-day trips with repeat clients since this water is all 3+ hours from Livingston.
The remainder of this Missouri River fishing guide will provide info on the Headwaters and Hauser Tailwater sections of the Missouri, both of which are within reasonable day-trip range of us. For fishing info below Holter Dam, we suggest consulting with fly shops in Wolf Creek or Craig.
Three Forks to Toston Dam
Three Forks to Toston Dam is probably the least-trouty and least-fished section of the Missouri River except for some stretches in remote eastern Montana. This stretch is cut off from the deep, cold water in Canyon Ferry Reservoir by Toston Dam, so it doesn’t get any spring and fall migrants, and it is simply too warm for too long in the middle of summer for it to hold many resident trout.
That’s not to say there are none. But this is a big river that’s usually 100 yards across or more, so a couple hundred trout per mile isn’t many. Most of these will cluster near springs and the mouth of 16-Mile Creek, by far the largest tributary on this section and one that stays fairly cold. (Side note: this creek is almost entirely private, which is a shame, because back in the 90s and early 2000s it could be accessed for a fee and was apparently amazing.)
Most of the fly fishing here is for carp, with a few pike also in the mix. At night, bait fishermen catch a few burbot (also called ling), which fill a similar niche to catfish but actually resemble and are related to cod. I’ve never heard of one caught on flies.
As far as angling tactics, they’ll be described in more detail in the next section, which is generally better.
Access is available at a few spots. Drift boats, canoes, and even jet boats provide more reach than wade-fishing.
Missouri Headwaters State Park, Fairweather FAS, and Toston Dam provide boat access. Note that floating from Fairweather to Toston is not recommended except in a canoe or power boat, since you need to cross Toston Reservoir to reach the dam. This is a small reservoir, but rowing across a lake in a drift boat is no fun at the end of a long day.
There’s abundant wading access through the entire stretch, but most of it is tied to the boat ramp public lands or is undeveloped BLM land. A web app such as onXmaps will help find these property boundaries so that you know where you can stand.
Any of this water would be a fun remote float for a couple days, but the trout fishing in particular is strictly a secondary pursuit. I suggest avoiding it unless you want to fish for carp. If you do want to carp-fish, this stretch sees less pressure than the next, so the carp might not be quite so spooky.
Toston Dam to Canyon Ferry Reservoir
This stretch of the Missouri is a bit of a sneaker bet. By no means unfished due to easy access, it sees far less overall traffic than stretches of the Missouri further downstream or the other rivers near Livingston.
While this is a mixed-bag fishery, with sight-fishing for carp the dominant draw and reasonable numbers of pike and walleye also present, the trout numbers are higher here than from Three Forks to Toston Dam. Runs upstream from Canyon Ferry are one reason (rainbows in March and April, browns in October and November), but there’s also a wealth of small springs that pour into this section. While they aren’t enough to cool the main flow below 70 degrees, they do create pockets of colder water where trout can survive the summers. Overall numbers are still low, but more like 500 per mile vs 200. Both resident and migratory trout are very large; they average around 20 inches. Some of the migrants exceed 10lbs.
While it can be possible to target trout in the summer, this is difficult. The best bet is to find them rising. The difference between rising carp and rising trout is usually obvious. Big lips mean carp. The trout are most likely to be found eating Tricorythodes (Trico) mayfly spinners on July and early August morning before the water gets too warm.
In spring and fall, the trout can be targeted with large nymphs, San Juan Worms, and streamers. If fishing streamers, steelhead-style swinging techniques are best, in the long runs and riffles. Spey rods are not out of place, even full-size six-weight and seven-weight models.
Because this area is at low elevation and warm, rainbow runs start early and brown trout runs extend late. March and November are probably better bets than April and October, respectively. Note that certain sections of river are sometimes closed in the spring to protect the rainbow spawn, so be sure to check current regulations.
The Carp Fishing
No special regulations whatsoever protect the carp. There are vast numbers of them here, and while they seldom get huge (a 12lb carp is a very big one), they are all big, especially by trout standards. 4lbs to 8lbs is average. The best conditions to target these “golden bonefish” occur when trout fishing is at its worst: during the hottest, brightest late summer and early fall days (July 20 through September 20, at the latest), especially when the water is low.
If fishing on foot, it’s best to stalk slowly upstream at the water’s edge, looking for fish. If you have a partner, have them walk the high bank above you acting as a spotter. Once you spot a fish or pod of them, creep into position and execute perfect casts in front of the fish.
The above technique works best on shallow flats and in backwaters, especially when you find carp “mudding,” kicking up plumes of muddy water as they pick nymphs and crayfish off the bottom. It can also work on fish simply holding position. It seldom works on moving fish, whether they’re spooked or just moving from place to place as carp seem to do.
Similar tactics work out of a boat. I usually float the middle of the river, standing on my rowing seat, looking for pods of fish to either side. Once I spot them, I pull over downstream and get out with my clients to sneak up from below. It is also sometimes possible to target carp in shallow water from the boat, especially if the current is slow enough to anchor, but the carp usually spook if you try to get close to them with the boat.
A more likely bet for fishing from the boat is to target the large, slow, foamy eddies. Often carp can be found rising in these eddies. They eat mayflies, grasshoppers, cottonwood fluff, and just scum. On the surface, a hopper or attractor dry is usually a reasonable bet.
Subsurface, regardless of structure, I like squirrel tail Clouser Minnows on this stretch. I tie them in #2–6, with weight ranging from brass bead chain eyes on up to lead eyes, to provide different sink rates. Clouser Swimming Nymphs and unweighted Hare’s Ears are also good choices. I fish these on a 9′ 3X leader including a fluorocarbon tippet.
Pike and walleye are harder to target than carp and trout. To target the walleye, fish Clouser Minnows and similar baitfish imitations in the deepest, rockiest structure you can find. Gear anglers tend to do best on jigs right on the bottom, so get as close to this tactic as you can with flies.
Pike numbers are increasing here. They are most commonly found near tributary stream mouths, especially when these are spring creeks. These areas are slow and weedy. The pike hold in the weeds looking for baitfish to ambush. Fish large bucktail streamers such as Lefty’s Deceivers in red and white or in carp or whitefish color combinations. While I’ve never caught one, I have seen pike in the three-foot class caught from this water.
Access is excellent on this stretch, particularly from Toston Dam downstream several miles to the town of Toston. Both Toston Dam and the town of Toston have good concrete boat ramps (the latter at Toston FAS), and though the distance is short, a float between the dam and the town makes for a good day of float-wade fishing, especially when targeting carp. The next boat ramp is at York’s Islands FAS midway between Toston and Townsend. There’s another rough boat launch in Townsend. If floating in pursuit of trout, this lower water is generally better than up tight to Toston Dam.
Wade fishing is easiest between Toston Dam and Toston. More than 2/3 of both sides of the river in this reach is public. BLM land dominates, but there is also some state land. It’s also easy to stay below the high water mark if you want to continue onto areas of private property from the public land. York’s Island and the highway bridge in Townsend also offer some public wading access.
Canyon Ferry Reservoir Tailwater
There’s a short tailwater between Canyon Ferry Reservoir and Hauser Reservoir, but it’s no more than half a mile long and frequented by bait anglers. This stretch just east of Helena is worth hitting if you can manage it on a spring or late fall day with bad weather, but probably not otherwise. Fish streamers.
Hauser Tailwater, aka “Land of Giants”
Tailwaters produce lots of fish and big ones. Lakes produce lots of fish and big ones. The short stretch of river below Hauser Dam is a short tailwater feeding into a lake. The equation is pretty simple. That’s how this water got its nickname, Land of the Giants.
I should note that a guide friend of mine instead calls it “Land of No Ethics,” due to crowding and bad behavior. Bear that in mind. This is not a place to fish if you want a wilderness experience or solitude.
Fish here run huge. 18 inches is nothing. The first trout I caught here back in 2007 was 23 inches. I have had clients catch fish to 26 inches and know guides who have personally caught 10lb brown trout. There are also very large numbers of fish, particularly in spring when spawning runs of (mostly stocked) rainbows from Holter Lake bolster the resident population.
In addition to the dominant rainbow and minority brown trout, there are also some whitefish, walleye, pike, carp, and kokanee salmon in this water. While I’ve had clients catch small walleye on streamers while chasing trout, only the trout are nowadays a fish that are reasonable to target (though the rest are targetable downstream in the lake).
With lots of big trout come heavy crowds. Wading crowds are intense on both sides of the river for about half a mile downstream from the easy access at Hauser Dam. These crowds continue on the east side of the river down to and shortly beyond the Beaver Creek confluence. Easy trails follow both sides of the river in these sections, and it’s not uncommon to find five or more anglers lined up in every good run at the peak of the rainbow spawn in April. This is combat fishing and in all honesty is neither aesthetic nor fun, even if the trout are large.
Boat crowds are little better. There is no boat ramp at Hauser Dam, so accessing this water requires a power boat, generally a jon boat equipped with oars and preferably a jet outboard motor. I used to guide this water with such a craft. If you have one, motor up from the private marina at Gates of the Mountains on Holter Lake, then make repeated drifts of good runs over and over again. The nicer the weather, the heavier the boat crowds. The marina now limits the total number of approved guides to keep things sensible, but even casual boaters can clog things up here. In fact the casual boaters are a bigger problem than the guides. The guides all generally fish “on the move,” drifting through runs and then motoring back to the top. This allows multiple boats to cycle the same stretch without getting in each others’ way. The private boaters are just as likely to anchor in good spots, causing everybody else to have to detour around them.
The above scenario is most prominent in the latter half of April and first half of May. The further you get from the rainbow spawn madness, the lower the crowds. Wading crowds in particular drop off quite a bit shortly after Memorial Day except for bait anglers right below the dam.
The reason for this is somewhat harder fishing. Whereas from March through early May the fish tend to fixate on eggs, San Juan Worms, and assorted pink nymphs (which are probably taken as eggs most of the time), by late May the fish populations are lower (many fish go back to Holter Lake) and more particular. They may focus on any given day on sow bugs or scuds, mayfly nymphs, or caddis pupae. Rising trout are most common in late June and July, when PMD and caddis bring the fish to the surface (though subsurface fishing is almost always better). Streamer fishing can also be very good here. In addition to standard fare like Woolly Buggers and sculpin imitations, unusual flies such as Clouser-style streamers imitating perch and intended for bass work well. This is due to the abundant perch populations in the reservoir downstream.
The fishing gets steadily more technical through summer, but then gets slightly easier again in fall. While limited kokanee salmon runs sometimes get the fish interested in eggs in late September and October, the better draw is fall BWO hatches (nymphs are usually better) and streamer fishing in late October and early November for brown trout. Crowds are far more manageable at this point, though unless the weather is awful you are unlikely to be completely alone.
Important weather note: If you are boating up from Holter Lake, pay close attention to the wind forecast. North or northwest winds can cause dangerous waves where the river meets the lake. The wind and waves funnel into the river inlet, resulting in flat-fronted whitecaps that can reach three or four feet in magnitude. While nothing in ocean or Great Lakes terms, these waves can be deadly to boaters in the small jon boats and power drifters (drift boats with flat sterns and jet motors) that are suitable for the river. Several years ago a couple clients died when guides went out when they shouldn’t have during a late April snowstorm and flipped their boats. Don’t become a statistic! In general, forecast or actual winds over 20mph suggest heading in before the waves have time to build.
Besides boating from Gates of the Mountains (exit 17mi north of Helena on I-15), wade access is available from either Hauser Dam or from the mouth of Beaver Creek. Since Beaver is only a mile or so below the dam on a good trail and the drive to the dam is much shorter than the roundabout rough gravel road to Beaver Creek, I always start at the dam. From Livingston, take the Hauser Dam Road from US-287 in East Helena. The trail on the west side of the river is rougher and therefore sees slightly less wade-angling pressure. The trail on the east side (walk across the dam first) extends down to Beaver Creek and beyond. In general, big pools right below the dam on the east side, about 1/2 mile below the dam on the west side, and near and below Beaver Creek are the most crowded sections during the spring rainbow spawn.
This water is about 2.5hr from Livingston. While a long haul, it’s no further than much of the Upper Madison or the Madison Drainage within Yellowstone Park, or many portions of the Yellowstone River in YNP that require hiking. As such, this is a worthwhile day trip, particularly in June after the crowds have dropped but the fish aren’t super-spooky yet.