I’m going seriously out on a limb by naming the top 10 trout rivers in the country. I will doubtless leave out some rivers that are worthy of mention. But when it comes to a list like this, you have to eventually pick the streams, and I’ll apologize in advance if I don’t put you’re favorite river down. I’m sure these aren’t actually the ten very best streams around-there are dozens of backcountry Alaskan streams and private trout waters that are probably better than any of these. But these are all rivers that are easily accessible and provide awesome trout fishing. These are all well known streams, and they’ll be crowded from time to time. Still, they’re all long rivers and there is room to spread out. It’s no coincidence that Montana is well represented in the list;it is full of long, beautiful trout rivers.
1. Gallatin River (Yellowstone National Park and Montana)
This will come as a bit of a surprise that I’m listing this as #1. It’s one of those streams that everyone loves, but usually plays second fiddle to other famous rivers in the Yellowstone area. Most folks spend most of their trip on the really “classy” trout streams, like the Madison, Yellowstone, Firehole, or the Paradise valley spring creeks. The Gallatin is just that friendly little river that courses through gorgeous mountain territory and produces some small trout. The beautiful mountain meadow water in Yellowstone National Park, and for a few miles below holds several hundred small rainbows and cutthroat in it’s plentiful riffles. You won’t find the thousands of trout per mile that you’ll find on the Madison, or the 20″ browns, but it doesn’t get any more beautiful and the fish usually aren’t at all fussy. Access is easy and ample. Downstream, it gains power and roars through a whitewater canyon. It’s no longer an easy going meadow stream, but the trout numbers, and size of the fish, get steadily better. Below the canyon, the stream spills out into a wide sagebrush valley populated by elk and moose. Especially below the mouth of the East Gallatin, big browns begin to show up in good numbers under the undercut banks. This is good float fishing water, although waders can do well also. Finally, the Gallitin finds it’s way to Three Forks where the it helps form the mighty Missouri. The Missouri itself is an awesome trout stream, and it’s the next stream on our list.
2. Missouri River (Montana)
The Missouri River begins as a high plains river at Three Forks, Montana. From the river’s headwaters downstream to Holter dam, the river flows slowly, both as a free-flowing river and as reservoirs. This portion of the river has some excellent trout fishing during the spring and the fall. The fish here are almost all browns, although a few rainbows come up from the lakes that are located on the river. During the summer, whitefish form most of the action. Browns can still be caught, but they mostly become sluggish, or even move to the deep waters of the lakes.
Below Holter Dam, the Missouri becomes a tailwater stream. This is where most people go to fish the Missouri. The cold outflow from Holter Dam creates a habitat where trout can survive well throughout the year. Rainbows are much more common than further upstream, but browns are also present. The fishing remains excellent downstream to Cascade;it fishes decently all the way to Great Falls.
3. Madison River (Yellowstone National Park and Montana)
The Madison River begins as an odd spring creek in Yellowstone National Park. The reason it is so odd is that it is fed by both cold and hot springs that make their way into it’s two feeder streams, the Firehole and Gibbon. It fishes best in this upper portion in the late spring, early summer, and fall. During the summer, the water often grows too warm to allow the trout to feed, because of the hot springs. Rainbows and browns in the 10-14″ range are the IPTV primary residents,but in spring, large rainbows move up from Hebgen Lake. In the fall, large browns, also from Hebgen, do the same. Dry flies are standard fare for the residents. The migratory rainbows and browns prefer gaudy streamers and wet flies fished deep.
Below Hebgen Dam, there is a run of a few miles before the Madison slows back down into Quake Lake. There is a resident trout population in this stretch which is augmented by spawning runs from Quake Lake during the spring and fall. The summer fishery is somewhat better than the river above Hebgen, but the spring run of rainbows, and the fall run of browns are still the main event. Below Quake Lake, the Madison becomes a beautiful freestone trout river. It begins a run to Ennis Lake known as the 100 mile riffle. This is all fast water, but serious rapids are rare. Rainbows and browns hold in the slow water along the banks, as well as behind the many mid-stream boulders. The scenery is breathtaking, with the lush Madison valley in the foreground, and the towering mountains of Yellowstone in the background. This is the 100 most fabled miles of trout water in the country, and possibly in the world. It can be floated or waded.
Below Ennis Lake, the river drops into Beartrap Canyon. The canyon is full of big rainbows and browns, but it’s a long hike to get to the river. Still, it’s probably worth it, as this relatively unfished water provides nearly as good of fishing as the water above Ennis. Below the canyon, the river drops into an arid valley, where it meanders from one undercut bank to another. This is excellent brown trout water, but it gets too warm in the summer. Spring and fall are good times to target the good numbers of browns here.
4. Yellowstone River (Yellowstone National Park and Montana)
Yes, this is the fourth Montana stream on the list. The Yellowstone simply can’t be left out of any list of top trout waters, as it provides 250 miles of some of the most beautiful and heartstopping trout fishing in the world. The fishing begins deep in the Thoroughfare region of Wyoming. There’s no easy way to reach this water. It take’s a long hike and a dedication of a week or so to fish this water the way it should be fished. This is cutthroat water, with both resident fish and migratory trout from Yellowstone Lake. This is as deep in the wildnerness as you can get in the lower 48, and you must be sure you can be totally self-sufficient. In the case of an accident, you’ll be on you’re own. Also, Grizzlies, black bear, moose, and other dangerous creatures are common. That can be a deterrent or an attraction. You decide for yourself.
The river is much more civilized below Yellowstone Lake. Although it flows through country that has been left in it’s natural state by Yellowstone National Park, it’s far from wild. The park water is heavily fished, especially in the popular Buffalo Ford area. Cutthroat trout fishing isn’t as glorious as it used to be, but it’s still quite good. The river drops into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and then the Black Canyon. Those stretches are essentially unfishable. When it enters Montana, it once again becomes a great trout stream. It is a very readable mountain stream just below the park, with many pools and riffles that hold both rainbows and cutthroat. Below, it enters yet another canyon, this one called Yankee Jim. The canyon is hard to hike into, but the pocket water holds some rainbows, and they aren’t fished very often.
Below Yankee Jim canyon, the Yellowstone settles into the character it will hold for another hundred miles or so. It flows through a beautiful valley (although you can see the beautiful Absaroka Mountains most of the time), and the river has a steady, but not rapid current. This is rainbow and brown trout water in the main, although cutthroat are pretty common as well. The water around Livingston is most famous, but the fishing is very good for many miles up and downstream from that popular western trout town. The trout fishing holds up all the way downstream to Billings in Eastern Montana. Below there, it is a massive prairie river home to pike, smallmouth bass, and catfish, but few trout.