Montana – A Fisherman’s Paradise & my New Happy Place

I have been dreaming of a fly-fishing holiday in Bozeman ever since I heard about it. A fly-fishing Mecca combined with the wilds of cowboy country. Right up my street. In 2020 I was finally ready to fulfill this dream. Unfortunately, Covid saw to that, but I was finally headed Southwest to explore this fishing paradise.

My first challenge was getting there and after some consideration I chose to drive. This meant a 1308km drive taking me from Vancouver, through Washington, Idaho and into Montana. Having barely been to Washington, and never to Idaho, I was excited to see what they had to offer and drive through the Rockies.

There was little to report for the drive to Seattle and into the foothills of the Rockies. The only thing of note was after turning left at Seattle the directions were head straight on I-90 for 1071km, a little soul destroying! The Rockies though were actually a little disappointing, still cool, but I was underwhelmed. The coolest parts were the high mountain lakes, and a small ski resort called The Summit at Snoqualmie.

After a descent the road levelled out and I was on the plains between Ellensburg and Spokane. I couldn’t get my head around how big this area is. It is farming on a scale I have never seen before. It just goes on and on and on!! Around Vantage I came across a forest/grass fire. It appeared to be burning through a wind turbine field but was being fought hard. I saw 3 choppers and 4 water bombers; they were in bombing formation lined up one behind the other. As a side note there was a cool bridge over the Wanapum Lake.

I continued on and as the sun was setting, I stopped for a quick break on top of a hill. The views were stunning and despite it being 9PM, it was so hot with a strong warm wind. The farmland continued all the way to Spokane where the terrain turned to forest.

The sun set as I entered Idaho, but I continued on. I am driving through Idaho in October, so I wasn’t too worried about seeing it. However, I did want to see all of Montana so at the state border I pulled over for some shut eye.

Continuing at the crack of dawn I continued with the remaining 4 hrs. Montana didn’t disappoint. It has the most awesome combination of mountains, beautiful rivers, meadows and farmland. My excitement grew as I crossed each of the famous rivers, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin.

I am not one for towns but driving through the historic mining town of Butte I really wanted to stop to take a look. You could see all the old mining gear on the hill as I imagined from Wilbur Smiths books of Johannesburg. As much as I wanted to stop, I had been driving for 12 hours and I just wanted to arrive!

Finally arriving, I headed to the fly shop I booked my guides with to check in and pick up a couple of things. I was fishing with a guide on 3rd, 4th, 7th and alone on the 5th and 6th.

All set I checked in to my hotel and had a lie down. Later in the afternoon I went for a ride as Ironman Canada is only 3 weeks away. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in the Montana wind. It was blowing hard. I persevered for 15 minutes before turning back as I was just getting tired shoulders keeping the bike upright. It was so bad on the way back tumbleweed actually blew across the road!!

For dinner I popped into town to a recommended brewery, Ale Works. It was excellent and I enjoyed a couple of local beers and a bison burger. Turns out I like bison!

It was then back to the hotel to prepare for what would hopefully be a spectacular 5 days fishing.

Day 1 – Upper Yellowstone

Yellowstone River – 1,114km, principle tributary of the Missouri River, longest undammed river in the US

Morgan, my guide, collected me at 7am and we drove to Livingston and up the Yellowstone to Paradise Valley to launch. The scenery and weather were beautiful as we started our drift.

There are four species of fish in the Yellowstone: Cut-throat trout, Whitefish, Rainbow trout and Brown trout. I have caught them all before but not in Montana and not on rivers like this!

The primary method of fishing is using a double nymph with an indicator. Not my preferred technique but Morgan had promised me we would get the dry flies out soon. After a little while we stopped at a little side channel to have a crack with the dry fly. I missed a couple of rises but finally I got one to stick. A beautiful little Cut-throat.

From there we drifted with the occasional attempt from the shore if it looked good. I was getting a little interest but struggling to make anything stick. As we passed a tree on one of the banks that was screaming fish. Morgan and I were both in the middle of saying it looks fishy when bam! A lovely whitefish.

The drifting with an indicator wasn’t really working for me. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it but for the rest of the day I only got 1 more take and it quickly escaped.

The dry fly was more successful. There was pretty consistent action but smaller fish and really hard to get a good hook set. I got lucky around lunch when a brown trout took the fly when I couldn’t even see it. In the afternoon I got a more classic dry fly take to catch a nice rainbow.

That was it on the fish front for me as the river went quiet around 2 as the river warmed up. While not an action-packed day I was able to complete the slam of all 4 available fish (with only 4 fish, very efficient).

The fishing had been great, if a little quiet, but the one thing that had been spectacular through the day was the scenery. The photos don’t do it justice, but I did my best and so far, Montana was living up to expectations.

I was meant to ride in the evening, but I was so tired I returned to Ale Works for an excellent dinner and collapsed. Tomorrow was the big one, the Madison, probably the most famous of Montana’s rivers.

Day 2 – The Madison

Madison River – 295km, tributary of the Missouri river, Blue Ribbon river – highly productive.

Next up was the Madison River, arguably one of the most famous trout rivers in the world. Famous for its fishing and its appearance in the Oscar winning film A River Runs Through It. Of all the rivers available this is the one I had insisted on fishing during the trip, excited was an understatement!

The drive revealed a very different landscape to the Yellowstone, more farmland/grassland and more gentle terrain. The river itself is completely different, it’s effectively one continuous riffle for around 50 miles. This means it fishes very consistently and Morgan, maybe an error, told me it holds 2000 fish per mile of river. That should be a lot of fish in a day!

We passed some dream houses along the river, although they would be pretty bleak in winter with the wind and snow howling down the valley. Today the wind was blowing seriously hard but at least it was warm.

Our launch spot was under a ‘jump cliff’ – a cliff they used to chase buffalo off when hunting. We drifted away under the cliff with the dry fly.

There were no takers and so started mixing it up. Droppers, dry flies with droppers, double nymphs. Nothing was working. The only consolation was I couldn’t see anyone else catching either. All we could do was keep switching it up.

After a couple of hours, we pulled over to change it up. Morgan dropped the anchor and stopped the boat. The line just hung slack while I turned to discuss the change and bang!! A solid trout hit the fly hard, hooked itself and started splashing. Unfortunately, because we were anchored, the weight of the water against the fish was too much and it came off. It had in fact bent the hook open.

This was frustrating in so many ways. It had been by far the biggest fish I had hooked. Nothing was happening on the river and what if was going to be my only shot. I had fished hard all day and nothing, but just letting the fly sit had worked. Not how it’s supposed to be!

At least it was a sign of fish and morale was up. This didn’t last long as we were straight back to nothing happening. To break up the monotony we stopped on a corner to climb a small cliff for some pretty spectacular views.

During our lunch stop we switched to a double dry fly set up. A grasshopper followed by a flying ant. This was an instant success. There was a lot of interest but clearly small fish as they were struggling to take the fly. I had one on very briefly, but it came off. It was at least better watching fish have a go at flies than watching a bobber bounce around.

We even tired stopping at a couple of back channels. I loved this. It is the same type of fishing I learnt on the English chalk streams. Wading upstream fishing a dry fly. The wind made it pretty challenging and unfortunately the same result. On we went.

I eventually got a rise to the ant, I struck hard and thought I had lost it. However, the next thing I knew a tiny fish came flying past my head. He was little and been foul hooked on the strike. Doesn’t count but given how things were going it was nice to just get a Madison fish on the boat.

We continued the drift, and I was finally rewarded for my persistence. A rise and this time the strike stuck. It was essential to land this fish, but Morgan wasn’t able to help as we were at our boat exit, and he had to row, or we would be off down river!

I took the net and landed him myself. Just in the nick of time as when I lifted the net the fly had come out. He was small but a fish is a fish. There was still time for one last bit of bad luck at the end of a tough day. I was keeping it in the net till we landed for a photo. However, being only a little fellow, he managed to wriggle through the net. A shame not to get a photo but at least I had caught a fish. Even better as it turned out to be my last cast of the day.

I hadn’t seen anyone else catch a fish and another boat came out as we finished. They had caught two nice ones before 7am and then nothing till 2:30. It had been a slow day for everyone. So much for those 2000 fish per mile!!

Not the day on the Madison I had hoped for but at least I hadn’t drawn a blank.

We stopped at the Gravel Bar in Ennis for a drink on our way back and chatted with some other guides. There had been some success on the river but they agreed it had been one of the hardest days to row with the wind. The fishing gods hadn’t been kind but at least I had more opportunities.

In the evening I went downtown as they have Music on Main every Thursday throughout the summer. They close the main street and have street food, live music and drinks (normally you can’t drink outside). I walked up and down a few times, grabbed a beer and an ice cream while enjoying the sun. I had fallen in love with Montana. The scenery is spectacular and untouched, and the people are friendly, outdoorsy and laid back.

Day 3 – The Gallatin

Gallatin River – 193km, tributary of the Missouri, parts are blue ribbon fishery

Without guide for the next two days, I was on my own. First thing I went for a ride. I found a good route but appeared to struggle with the altitude as breathing was quite hard. Exercise done I returned to the hotel to relax for a few hours, watch some footie, before taking myself off fishing.

I went to the lower Gallatin. It’s a walk and wade river and beautiful. I started to walk up but on the second pool I snagged a stick and trying to free it my rod snapped. I didn’t even pull that hard.

This created a dilemma. I had a day and a half to kill and no rod. The options available: 1) not fish for 2 days 2) try and rent a rod 3) buy a new rod 4) try and get a guide for the next day.

I ignored 1 as I didn’t come to Montana to not fish. 4 was ruled out very quickly as impossible to get a guide at 1 day’s notice. Some shops rented rods but given I needed a new one I decided to buy one instead. It is a really nice rod, a good upgrade from my travel rod, but just an extra cost this trip didn’t need!

Armed with my new rod I set off for the Gallatin Canyon (upper river). As I drove up, I wasn’t feeling confident but given my rod purchase I had to give it a go.

I started with a hopper but no luck. I asked a guy leaving, who had caught a couple, what worked and he pointed me in the direction of a Parachute Adams. It didn’t work for me, so I then did the trusty switch to smallest brown fly I had.

Instant Success!!

After 5 fish I lost my fly so tried the last small brown fly. I had seen a fish rise close to the bank a couple of times. I stalked up and worked the fly up river and got him! This is the best type of fishing and a great confidence boost to have won the encounter.

I can’t underestimate how rewarding it was to catch fish on my own. Great for my confidence and had made the decision to buy a new rod 100% worth it.

It started to rain, and combined with the thunder, I decided to call it an evening. It had been an awesome couple of hours and always good to quit while ahead. It was a great call as 5 minutes later the heavens opened. It has been so dry they needed some rain so not a bad thing that it quickly become a torrential storm!

Day 4 – Gallatin River

I woke up to a strong wind and the same torrential rain. I headed into town to consider my options and found the temperature had changed. Every day so far had been in the 30’s Celsius, today it was 11c.

That morning Bozeman was having its Sweet Pea Parade. Talk about bad luck, not a cloud in the sky for weeks and then the day of the town parade it’s cold, wet and windy!! This didn’t deter the locals from coming out in force to cheer along. Serious credit to the floats as well as they all managed to keep smiling. The poor flautist had to pour water out of his flute, but he played on.

Due to packing mostly shorts and fishing tops I had to buy myself a fishing jacket. Another good purchase but again something I could have done without buying.

To start I returned to the same spot from the night before as I knew there were fish. This time I fished streamers rather than dry flies due to the weather and quickly caught 3. Annoyingly I lost the biggest one but still a good start. With some fish banked I got a little more adventurous and set off for new water.

First, I tired the next pool up as had been told it held some big fish. It was challenging wading with a strong flow combined with difficult casting with trees behind. I only got one on and it was a really nice cutthroat. It was probably the biggest trout of the trip so far. I got it close enough to see the red marks on the gills (meaning cutthroat) but lost it while I was messing around with my net. Ahhh!

Next, I continued up the canyon in search of a new spot as the rain eased off and the temperature rose with the sun burning through.

By now I was guessing, although there appear to be so many fish, I don’t think you can go too wrong. I found a lovely stretch of river to myself and set about fishing. I had lost my killer fly by this point so was making it up as I was going along. I was in heaven just wading my way down the river and the fish just left me to it, everyone was happy!

I eventually called it a day, settling for my 3 early fish, but another cracking day.

Day 5 The Jefferson

Jefferson River – 134 km, tributary of Missouri, geologically diverse – some of the youngest and oldest rocks in North America.

On the final day I would be fishing the Jefferson with Carter. This completed the set of the main rivers around Bozeman: Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson. I had hoped to fish them all but hadn’t heard much about the Jefferson. The Jefferson is also Carter’s local river so while we turned out to be the only people fishing there, he would know the spots!

Because of the warm weather the Jefferson was on Hoot Owl – can’t fish after 2pm. This meant an early start, meeting at 6am in Three Forks, half an hour west of Bozeman. The location and early finish actually worked well for me as I was heading west after fishing.

We launched with a pause to let some of the mist burn off before heading upriver to the first pool.

The river was very different to the others I had fished. Very slow moving and surrounded by farmland. Carter told me the key on this river was to fish the fishy spots hard and then just skip through the slower water.

At the first pool I caught a nice rainbow on about my 5th cast. Always a great way to start the day as you know you have one on the bank. That was all we got from there, but the second pool was a lot more productive and took two rainbows and two browns out, mostly on the dry fly.

The fishing then went quiet for a while. Despite being the least remote river we saw the most wildlife. One mink in particular was running and swimming around while fishing. Eagles had been common through out the trip and today was no different, seeing Bald, Golden and Ospreys. We also saw a couple of beavers splashing around, I initially thought they were monster fish! Always one of the benefits of remote fishing is seeing the local wildlife.

On the fishing front it went quiet through the middle of the day as the weather transitioned from cold to warm. By 11 it was toasty, and the fishing came back on the grasshopper fly. Through the next couple of pools, I had quite a bit of success including some hard hits and feisty little fish. This didn’t always end once in the boat (see below)!

Another unique thing with the Jefferson is it holds some monster Carp. I couldn’t believe how many or how large some of them were. Carter mentioned it was possible to catch them on the fly and slowly throughout the day, with the trout success, I turned my attention towards sight fishing for carp.

I had lost one quite early on while fishing for trout when the line snapped but that had been on the nymph, now I was targeting specific fish. It was really hard as had to get close without spooking them from the boat. It was very reminiscent of Redfish fishing in Florida.

We were into the last hour of fishing purely focusing on the carp. My first interest was a monster who came up to the fly but at the last second pulled away. In the next pool I finally managed to get a take, but the hook didn’t set and straight after another but this time the line broke. These are sizeable fish for a trout fly rod!

We were closing in on the end and I was getting more agitated. There were so many carp. 20-30 in each pool and I could see them all, but none were in positions we could easily target. We had just given up on one piece of water and moving across to look for fresh fish when I saw a fish following my line. I couldn’t see my fly but saw its mouth open and close. I slammed the rod up hoping it had been my fly… it was! Boom the carp set off towards the far bank screaming line from the reel.

For the next 5 minutes Carter rowed us around the pool following the fish. I was just praying it wouldn’t come off, but the hook was well set. It was a decent size and made my arm work hard. During the fight it swam past some other carp and it was clear there were some at least double the size lurking down there.

Finally landed, photo taken and released. I checked my watch, it was 1:53. With only 7 minutes left I decided to call it a day. My dad always says finish on a high and it wasn’t going to get higher than my first carp on a fly and a 20lb fish at that. I would not have believed anyone who told me the final fish of the trip would have been a carp. It was the cherry on top of an absolutely stellar day on the trout.

We drifted out to bring an end to an amazing 5 days fishing.

Montana and Bozeman

I have rarely been as excited about a trip as this one. I was praying that it didn’t disappoint as it was somewhere I really wanted to love. Having such high expectations makes it hard to deliver but Montana did in spades. I don’t even know where to start:

The scenery/rivers – one of the most spectacular places I have been. I was lucky enough to be able to fish 4 rivers and while different, each one had its own beauty. Mountains, wildlife, clear water, fast water, slow water, clear water. I fished everything.

Montana is called ‘Big Sky Country’ and I can see why. The sky and horizon just seem to go on for ever. You could spend months here exploring and you would only just be getting started. Even outside the area I stayed and fished it is more of the same. Just grassland, rivers and mountains as far as you can see. 11/10

The people – both my guides were great and gave me top fishing, but the locals were also amazing. From people sharing their fishing spots, advice on flies, chatting while watching the parade in the cold pouring rain. Without fail they were all friendly and welcoming. 10/10

Bozeman – a nice town although slightly different to what I expected. A bit larger and more industrious than the quaint fishing town I had hoped for. Ennis was more like it, but I still enjoyed staying in Bozeman. 8/10

The fishing – the entire reason I was here and another 11/10. I didn’t catch a large brown which are what people look for but beyond that I had a ball. Lots of rainbows, browns and cutthroats – a whitefish and carp. I figured I would catch fish with the guides but struggle alone but I succeeded alone as well. Beautiful healthy fish and 100% see why this is a trout fishing Mecca.

I left completely content and knowing in another life this is where I would have been happiest. Montana is full of easy-going outdoorsy people, I fit right in. Alaska is the most impressive place I have visited but Montana is a close second and has more character to win my heart!

Very much a happy place for me and I will definitely be back many many more times.

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