Fishing tips on the Missouri River

Elwell Missouri River Fish.jpg
Posted at 2:21 PM, Jul 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-25 17:00:22-04

CRAIG — The Missouri River is one of the more iconic fly-fishing destinations in Montana and a destination for anglers from all over the world. One of the most popular stretches of the river runs from the area beneath Holter Dam to Craig, Montana. That area is considered a tailwater and is a very technical portion of the river. It also is the home of some of the largest trout in the Missouri River.

If you have never fished that portion of the Missouri river, it may be in your best interest to hire a guide. The flies are tiny and are primarily fished below the surface of the water. It was my first time fishing the river, and the goal was to catch some nice fish and to get some tips to share with the average angler. My guide was Lee Coyle out of Sunrise Fly Shop in Melrose, Montana. Lee is an experienced guide with ten years behind the oars and has guided fishing trips all over the state. He has seen about every condition on the water. “High water, low water, hot water, and cold water,” Coyle said when asked about the conditions he’s seen in Treasure State. The summer of 2020 has been unusually hot. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has been constantly monitoring water conditions around the state has closures and hoot-owl restrictions out across the state. The key right now on the Missouri is to get started early not only to avoid crowds but to protect the fish in the river. ” It's low and tough,” Coyle said about conditions this season. “We are working hard and figuring them out and getting them in the boats.”

Coyle explained that this season has been busy. For him, it has been the busiest summer of his career. Even starting as the sun was heading over the horizon, you could see boats dotting the water with more boats dropping into the water through the morning. As we fished, Lee gave my mother-in-law and me lots of tips that ranged from strategies to fishing this river to advise on our personal fishing technique.

Since we are fishing below the surface of the water, Coyle explained that we needed a nice natural drift. That meant that it was going to mean mending the line or adjusting the line drifting on top of the water to reduce drag on the fly. “Mend.... keep it in the water, maximize your time in the water, and work your drift” Coyle explained as we started fishing. “You probably can’t mend too much.”We picked up plenty of fish thanks to Lee’s coaching and all the fish were big rainbows. We missed plenty of fish as well. “Set it or regret it,” Coyle said constantly to us. Here are a few of the key tips Lee gave us about fishing the Missouri River.

  • Mend your line for a better and longer drift
  • Keep the line in the water as much as possible
  • Set it or regret it
  • Small flies and big fish
  • Some strikes are subtle so if your indicator moves you should set it
  • You do not need a lot of long casts

Lee was also very conscious of water temperatures. He checked the water temperature just about every stop we made to make sure we were not endangering the fish and it also gave a que to move to deeper and colder waters in different parts of the river.

This portion of the Missouri has plenty of landscape to see as well. As a fly-fisherman, you often are focused on the fish and miss the scenery. My advice: Take a few moments to look around. Lee pointed out several interesting aspects during the float. “If you've seen the movie The Untouchables” Coyle said, “the gunfight scene was filmed right down on the bridge.”

If you do decide to fish the Missouri River, or any river or stream in Montana right now, you should check to see the latest fishing restrictions from Montana FWP on their website.