The Mighty Missouri River

Montana offers unparalleled fishing with some of the highest density wild trout waters in North America.  The vast variety of wild waters and hundreds of miles of blue ribbon rivers and streams makes Montana home to some of the best fly fishing in the US.  Fly fishing for trout in a mountain river among beautiful, unaltered scenery is a dream of many anglers.  That dream becomes a reality in Montana.  While some waters are quite popular, fishing pressure on most of the rivers and streams in Montana can be surprisingly low.  In 1974, Montana stopped stocking trout in streams and rivers that supported wild trout populations, meaning hatchery born fish were no longer introduced into these waters.  Once stocking was discontinued, wild trout numbers doubled and tripled on many rivers.  Protection of habitat along with catch and release restrictions are strictly enforced to protect and sustain Montana’s natural beauty. I visited Helena for a week in February.  It was unseasonably warm, with sustained day temperatures in mid 50’s.  While exploring historic downtown Helena early one evening, I popped into the local Orvis store just to have a look.  The store owner and I got to talking and one thing led to another and there I was, renting a full fly fishing outfit for the next day.  Giddy, I left the store grinning ear to ear. Like many other towns in Montana, Helena began as a small gold mining town.  In the mid 1800’s, 4 desperate men searched throughout western Montana for gold and found nothing.  On July 14th, 1864, the men stumbled into the area that is now Helena and decided to take one last chance in mining the nearby creek.  As fate would have it, the men found gold that night and named the creek, Last Chance Gulch.

Built along the creek as housing means in the fall of 1864, the Pioneer Cabin stands as one of the last remaining structures that represents early Helena.  It is the oldest log building in the city.  The creek no longer flows today, having been stopped by an earthquake in the 1930’s.  Before it disappeared, the creek produced over $60 million in gold.  Today the cabin is furnished to reflect the first three families who lived there; visitors can tour the cabin during the summer.  It is the only one of its kind in the state of Montana.  It also serves as the gateway to Reeder’s Alley, the oldest part of Helena.

The Mo, as the locals call her, is a broad tail-water river and is considered by many to be a true Montana trout fly fishing mecca.  Rainbow trout grow fast and strong, the brown trout become stout and bulky, and the scenery is just as gorgeous as the fish.  The Missouri River is a year round wild trout river and can fish exceptionally well anytime of the year.  The best time of the year is May and June, as there are no weeds in the river, and warming temperatures keep the fish feeding all throughout the day.

Rainbow trout are the most common species on the Mo, but brown trout are also regular visitors.  As a wild trout fishery, there is a wide range of different sized trout.  Most rainbows tend to average around 17″ from year to year, but there is always a handful of large, stocky browns in the 24″ range.  Dedicated steamer anglers can occasionally find fish in the 25-30″ range.

My 45 minute drive out to the Missouri river was spectacular.  It took me over mountains, hills, valleys and high plains.  All unaltered.  All natural.  All breathtaking.  Lewis and Clark once described Montana as “scenes of visionary enchantment.”  I made sure to stop along the way to spot the wildlife. When I arrived at the Mo, I was the only one there.  The realization of fishing miles of undisturbed wild trout water alongside the gorgeous Montana countryside was about to become a reality.  The river was massive, beautiful, unlike any water I’d ever seen.  It even smelled great.  I started with nymphs, but quickly switched over to a large white streamer.  A local joined me after a short while.  He was an older gentleman, and we shared fishing stories between casts.  For us two anglers that day, it wasn’t so much about making contact with the fish as it was about meeting each other.  Our time on the river that day was a pause from life’s noise and clutter.  Two complete strangers, fly fishing the mighty Missouri river in Montana on a crisp, winter day.  A truly memorable experience.

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