Have a three-day weekend in Montana? Here’s the perfect fly-fishing road trip.
By Patrick Straub
You’ve read the hype: Paradise Valley and the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout eating dry flies bigger than silver dollars. Ennis and Three Forks with their real-time cowboys riding bareback on Main Street and rainbow trout in every riffle. Craig’s hip fly-fishing culture and the Missouri’s thousands of trout per mile.
Fishing the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri in three days is not your parent’s fly-fishing road trip. It’s a lot of windshield time but the rewards are vibrant local color and plenty of trout to gobble your flies.
Our lives are cluttered with cell phones, Facebook and Netflix. Finding time to solve our problems, or to enjoy our good fortune, is at a premium. You might have to hire-out some help with the kids, but make sure you prioritize a long weekend to fish this summer.
Renowned fly-fishing author John Gierach said it better than anyone: “The solution to any problem – work, love, money, whatever – is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
Where is the number for that life coach? I need to send a text saying I’m unavailable for the next three days.
The Yellowstone River and Livingston
Authentic as it gets. Fifty miles upstream or downstream of Livingston, the Yellowstone River is ideal for the floating angler. The upper stretches near Gardiner and Emigrant serve the best chance of catching a native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and the river below Livingston and past Big Timber is home to trophy browns.
May and June often see the water too high and muddy due to spring runoff, but when the river begins to drop and clear, salmon flies dominate and hatches of stoneflies and caddis continue into late summer. Fall anglers will find Blue Winged Olives and brown trout eager for streamers.
Livingston is a town full of eccentrics, but they appreciate quality lodging and good food.
A.M. catch: Pinky’s Café: Locals’ breakfast joint. Think eggs, biscuits and gravy.
P.M. catch: Montana’s Rib and Chop House: Stellar meat, fishbowl Margaritas and wine list.
The Madison River and Ennis or Three Forks
There are two distinct sections of this famous river to choose from. The “Upper” refers to the water above Ennis Lake near the town of Ennis, and you should venture here between mid-June and early September. The “Lower” is the river downstream of Ennis Lake, and in play anytime of the year, save high summer when water temps warm and recreational floaters dominate.
Both river sections produce mainly rainbow and brown trout, with a rare Westslope cutthroat brought to hand. The Lower cuts through a canyon then a broad valley and meets the Jefferson and Gallatin rivers to form the Missouri near Three Forks. It’s notorious for big browns, but doesn’t harbor high fish numbers or grandiose scenery. The Upper is fished more, home to more trout, and flanked by snowcapped peaks. Salmon flies hatch in June, caddis shortly after, and Blue Winged Olives in fall.
The towns of Ennis and Three Forks serve these rivers, and bank on Western charm and service.
Stay: Sacajawea Hotel (Three Forks): Beautiful and comfy boutique digs.
A.M. catch: Yesterday’s Soda Fountain (Ennis): Friendly, affordable café with stick-to-your ribs brekkie.
P.M. catch: Gravel Bar (Ennis): Montana classic for drinks and hearty dinner.
The Missouri River and Craig
Affectionately called “The Mighty Mo,” this tailwater fishery emerges from Holter Dam about seven miles south of the small drinking, big-fishing town of Craig, arguably the most happening spot in Montana fly-fishing circles. This is the big finish. If catching fish supersedes the act of “going fishing,” the Mo is in your wheelhouse.
The Missouri’s fish count hovers in the 4,000- to 6,000-per-mile range and most are over 14 inches. Pale Morning Duns and caddis hatch in June and run through summer. The trico hatches are sporadic and begin in late July. Fall brings small Blue Winged Olives, October caddis, and brown trout looking for a meal, not a morsel.
Fly-shop owners and outfitters primarily run Craig, but don’t be fooled. There are some gems for lodging and good grub.
Stay: Missouri River Ranch: The best lodging and food to match the fishing quality. Period.
A.M. catch: Missouri River Trout Shop: Hot coffee, breakfast burritos and sandos.
P.M. catch: Izaak’s Restaurant: Wagyu beef burgers, delicious pasta and drinks.
Patrick Straub is the author of six books, most of them on fly fishing. When he’s not seeking the next hatch or a decent cut of red meat, he’s running his three businesses: Gallatin River Guides, Montana Fishing Outfitters, and the Montana Fishing Guide School.
This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.