Joe on the Mo!

America’s longest flowing river starts it’s 2300 mile journey just west of Bozeman where the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers converge to form one of this nations most important rivers.   The Missouri river watershed drains nearly 1/6 of the country and encompasses an area of over 530,000 square miles.  The “Mighty Mo” gets it’s name from the Missouria Indians that called the mouth of the river home.   The english translation of the name Missouria is “One who has dug out canoes”, which is very fitting since Lewis and Clark relied on dug out canoes to carry them up the river above the Great Falls of the Missouri.  The historical significance of the Missouri is very well documented through the travels of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  I still find myself questioning the sanity of the entire party as I float down this great river thinking about what it must have been like to see the country before it’s development.  The Missouri is far from the wild place that it once was, as west ward expansion ate up the river changes took place that forever made the land a different place.  Some of these changes are beneficial today, especially for anglers, but it would have been amazing to see some of the places that now sit under 80 feet of water in the many reservoirs that have been built along the river.

The need for flood control and water storage placed many dams along the path of the once free flowing river.   Today these reservoirs provide plenty of recreational activities for people as well as one of the nation’s greatest tailwater fisheries.   My journey’s on the river run from it’s headwaters to the town of Great Falls, which happens to be the area where trout reside.   One day I hope to make the journey below the Great Falls but this adventure would be more about history than it would be about fishing.

Hatch information and Seasons on the Mo:

There are several different sections of the Missouri River which I fish on a regular basis with two main areas that draw most of my attention.   The area near the Headwaters State Park does provide some fishing opportunities, however floats are limited and the fish populations are fairly low due to the warm water conditions that don’t promote great trout populations.   The first section of river that draws attention from most anglers is directly downstream of the small irrigation dam at Toston.   From Toston the river flows about 20 miles to the first major reservoir on the Missouri River, Canyon Ferry.   Canyon Ferry Reservoir is a huge body of water that holds many different species of fish that use the river as a migration corridor for either spawning or an escape from the lake during specific times of year.   This section of river is not well known for being a great trout fishery but it does hold large lake run fish during specific times of the year.  It also holds several other species of interest which hold some controversy for the die hard trout angler.   Carp, Walleye and Northern Pike have been found in these waters and their numbers are increasing each year.   The Pike are the only fish that really concern me but the Walleye are also a species that could cause problems for the trout in years to come.   There are a few hatches of note on this section of river including Baetis, Caddis, Terrestrials as well as a short lived and hard to hit hatch of Efron Leucon Mayflies that provide some interesting fishing if your timing is right.   This section of river really lends itself more towards fishing large streamers and baitfish patterns either on a stripped retrieve or dead drifted under a strike indicator.  You can run into some dry fly fishing but it is usually a bonus, rather than the norm.

High water secret weapon!

The section of river that draws the most attention from trout anglers is located downstream of both Hauser and Holter Reservoirs.   Below Hauser the fish are primarily migrating out of Holter lake into the short 5 mile stretch of river and fishing it during the appropriate time of year can produce some very large fish for the trophy hunting angler.  This section has gained much fame in the past few years and has been referred to as “LOGS” or the “Land of the Giants”.  There is some hatch activity in this section but it is primarily a place to throw nymphs searching for the large migrating fish from the lake.   Once you get below Holter Dam, the true Missouri trout fishery takes shape.   This is the area that provides the best opportunities for trout anglers on a year round basis.  Hatches below Holter Dam are monumental and they are known to make anglers shake in their waders as they watch wolf packs of fish feeding at the same time.

The true tailwater section of the Mighty Mo provides both fish and the angler with a lot of different hatches that provide food for the fish both on the surface and below.  This is a great year round fishery!  The season starts off with midge hatches that keep the fish happy throughout the winter months.   Sow bugs, worms and scuds also provide the fish with a constant food source year round.  As the winter chill starts to be pushed away by the warmth of spring we start to see epic hatches of Blue Winged Olives.  The spring hatch is not as great as the fall emergence but when conditions are right the river can come alive with a mix of midges and Blue Winged Olives.   The midges can be found throughout the winter, the Blue Wings typically start to show up in March and will generally last throughout April depending on weather and water flows.   Water flows are the single most influential factor in the dry fly fishing on the Mo.  If the flows stay some what low in Late April and early May the Mo has a good hatch of “Mother’s Day Caddis” but they can disappear just as fast as they start if the ” Ouija Board” water managers decide to bump the flows.   The river remains fishable throughout spring runoff thanks to the dams and the clean water that comes from the bottom of them.   There are a couple of tributaries that can dirty up the river, but generally when the rest of the state’s rivers are running high and dirty you can at least find a few miles of clean water below Holter Dam.   May and early June are primarily times for long leaders and lots of weight as the flows can jump to 15,000 C.F.S. or greater depending on the elevation of the upstream reservoirs and the inflow coming into them.  These high water flows don’t slow the trout’s eagerness to feed, it actually enhances it with the amount of bugs that drift below the surface of the river.   Nymphing can produce phenomenal days of fishing that produce some of the largest catch rates of the year.  Dry fly enthusiast will be disappointed but if you want to bend your rod a lot this is the time of year to visit the Mo.

Typical Psuedo Hatch on the Mo!

The heavy hatches of summer start once the water managers start to drop the flows on the river.   The magic number for dry flows is near 6000 C.F.S and these flows can happen in late May or in early July depending on how the water needs to be sent down the river.   There are many factors in the flow regiment on the Mo and many of the decisions are based on the need for water downstream for barg traffic on the river from St. Louis into the Dakota’s, so fisherman take the back seat in water management.   This past year I had clients coming to fish the Mo with hopes of timing the dry fly hatches just as they started.   It looked promising as the flows were steadily decreasing in the week prior to their arrival and the flows were just below 6500 C.F.S. two days before their arrival.  The bugs were starting to hatch and the day before they arrived new snow in the high country forced the water managers to bump the flows back to 16,000 C.F.S, which killed our dry fly fishing.   It didn’t ruin the trip because the high flows sent worms and scuds down the river in huge numbers and the guys landed 20 to 30 large fish on each day of their trip, we just missed out on throwing PMD’s in the am and Caddis all evening.   Once the flows get down between 5ooo to 6000 C.F.S. you can expect to start seeing tremendous hatches of Pale Morning Duns in the morning with Blizzard hatches of caddis in the evenings.  These hatches usually last well into July and provide some the finest dry fly fishing in the world.   As the heat of summer approaches in Mid July and into August there are still hatches of bugs but they can be a bit more sporadic.   Weeds also come into play during the heat of summer which makes the fishing much more challenging.   The PMD’s and caddis continue to hatch throughout the summer but they become less consistent as we move into August on the Mo.  Terrestrials and Damsel flies produce some good results during August as the river gear up for the great Trico hatches late in August and through September.   Trico’s hatch in huge numbers on the river and they challenge the angler with selective fish and lots of floating weeds.   You can have some great fishing during this time but you will have to become good at slapping the weeds off your fly and making a good cast to keep the weeds from ruining your drift.   By late September the weather begins to cool and we see the start of Psued Cleon hatches, small baetis look a likes.  October and November is the prime month for some of the best Baetis hatches you will see anywhere.   Cloudy cool days will bring fish to the surface in great numbers and provide some very good end of the season dry fly action.   Once the snow really starts to fly and the weather is more condusive for duck hunting anglers switch back to nymphs and streamers in search of large brown trout that put on their Sunday best looking for a partner to dance with.

The Mo provides some of the best hatch activity in the world.   This is a great fishery that provides plenty of opportunities for anglers of all skill levels.

Now lets take a journey down the river from it’s headwaters to the town of Cascade.

Headwaters State Park to Toston Dam:

The headwaters of the Missouri starts in Three Forks Montana when the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers meet.   All three of these rivers have made a journey through ranch land which takes up plenty of water for irrigation.  By the time the water reaches headwaters state park the flows are reduced and sediment loads create less than ideal trout fisheries.  The lower ends of the rivers do hold trout but not in the numbers that make it attractive to traveling anglers.   This section is a good place to get away from people but your fishing can be a bit slow on many days of the year.  The other limiting factor to fishing below Headwaters State park is the lack of access.  There is an access point about 10 miles downstream of Headwaters State Park but it requires a ride down a very bouncy gravel road and you generally have to run your own shuttle.   The access at Fairwether has a boat ramp that often is in disrepair due to major ice flows during the winter.   About 3 miles below Fairwether you run into the slow water that is backed up behind Toston Dam and if you don’t have a motorized boat you will spend most of your day rowing down the lake to the take out at the Toston Dam.   Folks with jet boats do frequent this stretch of river due to the limited access and there are some decent fish to be caught if you are willing to take the gamble while putting in all the work to access this section of the river.

Toston Dam to Canyon Ferry Reservoir:

This section of river does provide anglers with some decent fishing for trout, but it has become more widely popular with anglers in search or large carp that migrate into the river from the reservoir.   Trout also migrate up the river during their spawing periods, but not in great numbers.   The fish in this section are typically decent sized but they do not take much interest in coming to the surface to feed on most days.   With the right conditions you can find some dry fly fishing but you never go expecting to fish dries all day long.   There are also two other fish species that inhabit this stretch of river, both are a bit controversial and come from either planting in the reservoir below or from a pond above that has been a bone of contention for some anglers in the area.   Walleye were introduced into Canyon Ferry Reservoir in the 80’s and their populations are thriving.  The walleye are using the river at times so you may never know what the pull on the end of your line really is, oh wait there Walleye, you definitely know when you hook one because they feel like a clump of moss rather than a fish.  The Northern Pike have slowly been surfacing in greater numbers with a couple of reports of some large fish coming to both the fly and to anglers fishing spin tackle.   The pike most likely have come from a farm pond in the Gallatin Valley and they have taken up residence in the slow waters behind Toston Dam.   Once they wash over the dam they work their way down to Canyon Ferry, eating whatever gets in their way.   Personally I don’t think they have a place in the river but we will have to see what they do as time goes by.

River Walleye on the Fly!

My primary pursuits in this section of the river are the Carp in the heat of summer and a strain of rainbows that migrate into the river in both the spring and the fall.   There are also some browns that migrate into the river but they are harder to find and usually just a bonus when I am fishing for the Rainbows that come out of the lake.   The carp fishing is world class as the fish are easy to see and very hard to fool with a fly.   They are very picky feeders and they will challenge even the most skilled angler.   The carp can get into large packs that will feed on the surface or you will find individual fish sitting in shallow water rooting for nymphs and crayfish that inhabit the river.   The carp range in size from 6 pounds all the way up to fish approaching 20 pounds or more.   There are not to many fish in Montana that you can target in that size range, especially sight casting.   The shallow water does give wade fishing anglers a shot at catching them and it is a great place to go when the water on the other rivers is a bit to high for productive fishing.   I typically look for fish that are “mudding” with their tails up out of the water and a trail of mud flowing downstream as they root for food between the rocks.   The carp that are sitting stationary typically don’t eat and if you do hook them they come off because you stick the fly in a scale and the scale comes back without the fish when you reel your line in.

Carpe Diem!

For targeting the trout in this section I primarily dead drift streamers and minnow imitations with a large bead head or worm behind.   There are a couple of age classes of fish in this section and most of them are bright silver lake fish that fight very hard.   There are three main floats on this section of river.  The first float is from the Toston Dam to the Bunkhouse Bar.   This is a fairly short float of about 4 miles that has some good runs and faster water that are great for getting out of the boat and wade fishing.   The next float is from the Bunkhouse to the York’s Island access.   This is a nice day float of about 8 miles and it provides some good holding water for all species of fish.   The last float is from York’s Island to either the Townsend Bridge or a little further to the Cottonwood access located about 1/4 from Canyon Ferry Reservoir.   This float has some nice water and tends to hold the most fish because of it’s proximity to the lake, especially if you want to try and catch a walleye or two.   You need to know where the Cottonwood Access is or you will miss it for sure.  The ramp is located back up stream in an old ox bow slough so if you miss the channel you will wind up in the reservoir with a very long hard row to get to anywhere that you can get your truck backed to the water to take out.

Lake fish up the creek!


Canyon Ferry Reservoir:

Canyon Ferry Reservoir is a huge body of water that averages 5 to 6 miles in width at the South end and runs South to North for about 23 miles.   This lake is a great fishery for Walleye, Trout, Perch and Ling.   Most anglers use power boats and employ the proper techniques to catch their targeted species.   However there are some opportunities for anglers looking to use their fly rods and their drift boats.   In the spring and fall rainbows move into the shore lines to false spawn and fly guys and gals can target these fish as they move into shore.   Access along the shore between the Dikes and the Silo’s provide some good fishing with leech patterns and mayfly nymphs fished under a strike indicator.   There are also some great spots closer to the dam that provide some great action in the spring.   There are several access points near Kim’s Marina that have fish move into the shore.  You need to check the regulations because some bays are closed to fishing in the spring.   Winter is when I spend most of my time on Canyon Ferry.   Ice fishing for perch and ling occupy the slow cold winters and provide us with a nice fish fry when the fishing is good.

Hauser Reservoir:

Hauser reservoir is a beautiful lake that has lots of great camping and fishing for anglers with a power boat.  There are a few spots to fish with a non motorized boat but they are limited and don’t really provide a ton of fly angling opportunities.  The lake is a great place to troll for brown trout, jig for walley or slip bobber up perch.   The scenery on the lake is great and if you are looking for a break from the fly game it is a great place to visit.

Land of the Giants:

This short 3 mile section of river has come back into the spot light after a decline in the fishery through the 80’s.  This section of river has been a huge science experiment over the years because of the short distance of moving water between two large reservoirs that provide other angling opportunities.   Holter Reservoir sits below the river and Hauser reservoir is the source of the flowing water.   Holter reservoir has traditionally been a Rainbow and Walleye fishery with the first stocks of rainbows being planted back in the 1940’s.   In the 1950’s the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks decided to try and establish a Kokanee Salmon fishery in both Hauser and Holter reservoirs with close to 800,000 kokes being stocked over a 6 year period.   The original stocking of the Kokanee’s were not successful in Holter and it wasn’t until the the mid 1980’s that the kokanees started to be a viable population in Holter Reservoir.  It is believed that the fish that did finally take in Holter were flushed from Hauser lake where populations were successful.   This was the start of the downfall of the brown trout fishery which was popular with anglers in the 1970 and into the early 80’s.   The Kokanee used the same areas to spawn as the brown trout and there success eventually pushed the brown trout out.  Through the early 90’s the Kokanee populations thrived with angler harvest numbers between 1990 and 1992 averaging 22,000 fish per year.   In 1993 the kokanee harvest fell by half due to flushing flows that brought creel survey’s down to 12,000 fish.  The high flows did replenish Holter with zero age class fish and the numbers again rebounded in 1996 with record creel survey numbers once again.  Than came 1997, 98 and 99 when high flows again whiped the kokanee numbers from the river which has led to a very low population of kokanees in Holter and the river.   In 2007 there were only 296 kokanees reported to the department.  Stocking of the kokanees has only been done a few times since then, when the department has extra kokanees available for stocking.  The Kokanee’s have not rebounded since then which has given the brown trout another chance at success, which they are apparently taking full advantage of once again.


The rainbow trout of Holter also have an interesting story and we have seen a significant amount of Rainbows using the short section of river as well.   The initial stocking of rainbow trout was done in the 1940’s and from the 1970’s to 1995 the department supplemented Holter reservoir with 325,000 Arlee Rainbow trout annually.   The department continued supplemental stocking because natural wild reproduction was only accounting for about 14 % of the fish, which was not enough to cover the demand.   In 1984 the department replaced the Arlee strain with the McConaughy strain of rainbow which tend to use the river more for spawning than the Arlee’s.   They continued with the McConaughy strain until 1986 when they determined the fish were unsuccessful in spawing in the river as well.   They continued to stock the Arlee’s and then in 1996 they decided to try the Eagle Lake strain of Rainbows, which are also known to use the river to reproduce.  The department decided to try stocking different age classes of these Eagle lakes to find out what would be the most cost effective plant.  In 1996 and 1998 they stocked 100,000 year one age class fish and in 1997 they stocked 371,000 year zero age class fish.  Unfortunately high flows in 1996 and 1997 provided them with little data.  Through the 2000’s they have continued to stock Eagle Lakes in the spring and Arlee’s in the fall to supplement the fishery.

Even though there is no data to date that supports the finding of the Eagle Lake age classes I can tell from my 20 years of fishing this section of river that it appears to be working.  My catch rates are far better in the last 5 years than they were when I began fishing this section of river in 1990.   It could be the lack of Salmon or it could be the strain of rainbows but the trout fishery is definitely better today than it was when I first made the trek into this section of river.

Holter Reservoir:

Holter Reservoir is an amazing lake that I have spent very little time fishing on.   Most of my experiences on the lake have been sight seeing through the Gates of the Mountains.   The gates are steep in history from Lewis and Clark to being the site of one of the worst U.S. Forest fighting disasters to ever take place.  Mann Gulch lies in the heart of the Gates of the Mountains.   On August 5th 1949 thirteen fire fighters were killed by an out of control forest fire that was started by a lightning strike.  12 of the men were smoke jumpers and the incident led to a great book written by the author of a “River Runs Through It” called “Young Men and Fire”.   The disaster changed the way the U.S. Forest Service fought fires and the disaster remained the worst disaster in the Forest Service history until the Storm King Mountain Fire on July 6th 1994 that killed 14 fire fighters in Colorado.  I was guiding on the Roaring Fork river on the day of the Storm King Mountain fire and I will never forget watching the wind blow up forcing the fire fighters to scramble the mountain as myself and other guides were forced to pull our clients, rafts and gear up a very steep bank because we could not get downstream in the heavy winds.   It was a sad day, which comes back to me each time I take the ferry boat into the Gates.

Mann Gulch


The Mighty Mo Trout fishing Mecca below Holter Dam:

Below Holter dam is where the famous fishery lies and it will rival any fishery in the world.   The trout are big and plentiful with amazing hatches that will leave you in awe, just don’t hold you mouth open to long.   The Mo is a very large intimidating fishery that at first glance won’t give you any keys to where to begin.   There are few riffles and runs that most anglers are accustom to seeing in a trout stream.   Many of the fish are located on underwater features that can only be found with time and experience fishing the river.   The fish will sit in the sexy looking water, but there are not sexy looking holes all over the river.   Dry fly time will move the fish nearer the banks which makes fishing them from outside of the boat a very viable opportunity, however the fish can be picky and approaching them from upstream while drifting your fly down to them tends to be more productive.  A boat is not a necessity but it sure helps a lot.   There are a half dozen solid day floats on the river directly downstream of the dam with the most popular float starting at either the Dam or the Wolf Creek bridge and floating to the town of Craig.  Craig is the hub of all things on the Missouri.   Two Bars, a very good restaurant, one lawyer and 3 fly shops pretty much make up the entire business district of Craig.   With less than 50 year round residents you will be amazed at how hoping it can be in the summer.   From live music at Izzac’s on the weekends, late nights at Joes Bar and plenty of games and fun times on the deck and Headhunter’s flyshop you will find more than enough good times to last you a lifetime.

The Damn Dam!


The section of river from the dam to Craig has some of the most readable water and thus see’s the most angling pressure.   From Craig downstream the river starts to enter into an beautiful canyon that is only spoiled by the interstate that must travel through it as well.   The river is close to Great Falls Montana which is home to our only military base in Montana.   This brings on an interesting crowd of floaters on the weekend which sometimes are wearing clothes and other times not.  The float through the canyon is spectacular and one of my favorite floats in Montana.  The Dearborn River enters into the Missouri about 5 miles downstream of Craig.  This is the largest tributary to the Mo on this section of river and it can at times pump enough dirty water into the Missouri to make the river unfishable below the confluence.   The Dearborn itself is my absolute favorite float in Montana, and not because of the fishing.   Below the confluence of the Dearborn is the heart of the canyon and it’s towering red walls.   The fishing can be great down through the canyon but the water is not nearly as easy to read for a first time Missouri river visit.   The river meets the Prairie below the famous Prewitt Creek Bridge, which was the site of the famous fight scene between Elliot Ness and the Capone gang in the movie “The Untouchables”.   Once the river breaks into the prairie the gradient decreases and channels become more numerous.   This section can provide a bit more solitude than the area around the dam but conditions need to be right for the fishing to be productive.

Untouchables Bridge!


A trip to the Mo is fantastic experience and anglers should give themselves at least a couple days to fish this great river.  Lodging is limited so advanced planning is definitely a must if more than one day is going to be spent on the Mo.  I spend most of my time fishing the Mo in the spring and into early summer, as well as in the fall once the weeds clear off a bit.  A trip to Mo is a great experience, especially being a trout bum in Craig!


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