The Missouri River

Driving north on I-15 out of Helena, Montana and the anticipation builds – catching that first glimpse of the Missouri River as it flows toward Craig always brings a smile and excitement about the trip. We’ve made this journey many times – sometimes to fish with great friends, sometimes to meet with clients, and sometimes to just fish together with our pups, Belle and Pi.

The highway winds through the Big Belt Mountains, a wind-worn, subrange of the Rocky Mountains. Then, the horizon extends over grassy meadows and the big river comes into view. Driftboats with anglers in both front and back rhythmically cast their lines while the rower gently lifts oars only to plunge them into the blue-green waters of the ‘Mo once again.

Holter Dam to Cascade

The Missouri River is the longest river in North America, but for trout anglers, the focus is a 34-mile section of river below the Holter Reservoir to Cascade, Montana. Here the river twists and turns through a rugged canyon of Precambrian mudstones before gliding through ranchlands on its way to the now dammed Great Falls.

Spring Creek Fishing on a Big River

Anglers concentrate on this section of the river for the hatches and large population of hefty rainbows and browns. Often referred to as a big spring creek, the slow-moving Missouri has spring creek qualities such as trailing weed beds, similar aquatic life, a consistent flow (usually), and a smooth surface. The trout can be selective. The smoother the water, the more precise your cast needs to be and your leader needs to set your well-matched bug softly in the surface film. Presentation counts here.

Missouri River in Cascade, Montana

Missouri River at Cascade

Missouri River Access in Craig Montana

Craig Fishing Access and Boat Launch

Fabled Rivers Form the Missouri River

Visit the Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana and you’ll see where the Missouri River is born. Formed by the Gallatin, the Madison, and the Jefferson River, the Missouri flows north and through a series of reservoir lakes before flowing through the gates of the Holter Dam and becoming some of Montana’s finest, blue-ribbon trout fishing.

Step into the river anywhere between Holter Dam and Cascade, inhale deeply; yes – that’s the smell of a fishy river. I don’t mean that in a negative way, quite the opposite, it’s the smell of fertile trout waters.

Missouri River Google Map

Missouri River Hatches

Insects hatch on the Missouri River year-round. In winter months, large numbers of midges keep the trout looking up. Howling winter winds and inclement weather keep angler days low December through March.

In mid to late April, Baetis and March Browns hatch, while anglers again become a frequent sight on the river. Caddis begin to hatch in May and continue through August. In mid-June, it’s PMDs that last through mid- August. Next up are Tricos. The bug life is profuse.

In late July it’s time to tie on a hopper/dropper rig and pound the river banks. Trout are looking for that big bite of protein. Hoppers work well up to the first hard frost in autumn. Then, midges and Baetis reappear on the menu.

Make a call to a local shop, or better yet, subscribe to a shop’s blog to keep up with hatches and conditions.

Catching rainbow trout on the Missouri River in Montana

Tim with a Rainbow 

Missouri River Brown Trout caught near Cascade Montana

Dave Sewak with a Brown Trout

Fishing the River

Given the size of the water, the Missouri River can be a little intimidating at first. Our favorite way to fish the river is from a driftboat. It’s easy to row and glides well across the smooth water. We have fished it from a raft, and while that definitely works, we found it harder to get around as the raft makes much more surface contact than a driftboat so it makes it a little hard to row. It’s not as smooth as a fiberglass, hardbottom boat.

For wading, I made mention of the spots and fishing accesses we like to wade. Once the water warms a bit in June, its wet wading for me. The river is big but if you find some soft water just off a current seam that is a conveyor belt of bugs, you’ll find fish to cast to.

We fished Spite Hill to Prewett and Prewett to Pelican Point on this trip. Spite to Prewett is a longer float but very doable, especially in June as daylight lingers toward 10 pm. Prewett to Pelican is a shorter float that should be savored and fish thoroughly. There are islands with fishy braids, gravel bar shelves, and soft water edges that hide deep buckets that fish feed and hide in. And there is one nasty rock, river center, under the highway bridge. Avoid that, and it’s an easy float.

Missouri River Fishing Accesses

HOLTER DAM FISHING ACCESS – This is a very popular place to start a Missouri River float. From the put-in, guides often row clients up to the wire to begin the day of fishing. Fishing is closed from the wire across the river upstream to the dam. Holter Dam access has campsites and is a good option for wade fishing.
River Mile 0.0

BELL PASTURE FISHING ACCESS – I have wade fished from this access successfully several times. It does get boat traffic and foot traffic from boaters who get out and wade, but this is real fishy water. Fishing the braids here is always good. There is no boat launch or campsites as this access.
River Mile 0.8

WOLF CREEK BRIDGE FISHING ACCESS – Here you’ll find a boat launch, campsites, and some wading fishing opportunities. Downstream from the bridge on the Recreation Road, the river comes close to the road. You’ll find turn-outs for more wading opportunities here.
River Mile 2.3

CRAIG FISHING ACCESS – Pretty straight forward – fishing access by the bridge. There are campsites and limited wade fishing opportunities. Cross the bridge to the Recreation Road and head downstream for better wade fishing spots along the road.
River Mile 7.8

STICKNEY CREEK FISHING ACCESS – At this point, the canyon is beginning to get smaller. The road, river, train tracks, and rec road are all pretty close. The rock walls and cliffs along the river are interesting. Have a camera for more than just the trout. At Stickney there’s a boat launch, campsites, and some wading opportunities.
River Mile 11.5

SPITE HILL FISHING ACCESS – Similar to Stickney, Spite Hill has a launch, campsites, and wading opportunities. During spring run-off, you’ll find most of the guides fishing from here up as the Dearborn River can mess up the clarity.
River Mile 12.2

DEARBORN FISHING ACCESS – Here you can access the river for wading and camping. There is no boat launch here but there is a ramp upstream just a bit.
River Mile 14

MID CANYON FISHING ACCESS – I really like Mid Canyon. The campsites are nice, the boat launch is easy, and if the river is not high, there are good wading opportunities here.
River Mile 15.2

MOUNTAIN PALACE FISHING ACCESS – OK, so I don’t know why they call it Mountain Palace. I’m guessing it has to do with the rock formations here. And they are stunning – just see the video we made to go along with this post. This a boat launch. You can wade some here – but it’s limited. Best wading is right at the boat launch and around the small islands.
River Mile 21.2

PREWETT CREEK FISHING ACCESS – Here’s a great launch with nice campsites right on the river. There is limited wade fishing. If you are looking for a half-day float, here to Pelican Point is a good bet.
River Mile 22.4

PELICAN POINT FISHING ACCESS – If you follow us on the ‘Gram or Facebook, you know I love photographing Pelican Point. It’s so lovely here with the rolling hills and flowing water. The rocky canyon has ended and the flat prairie opens before you. The horizon extends to the East and seems limitless. There are 4 really nice campsites here. There is a boat launch, ample parking, and a borrow pond that folks fish and paddleboard on. Wade fishing is very good at the point, upstream and down. While the idyllic spot, there are two drawbacks – howling winds and rattlesnakes. When the Missouri is in high wind mode, there is nothing stopping the punishing winds as they roll off the mountains and scream across the high plains. Spring can be the worst.  I can recall trying to open the door to our SUV, pushing with all my might, and then jumping back as the wind slammed the door shut. Yowser! And then there was the day I let the dogs run down the path ahead of me. As I caught up to Pi, I heard the unmistakable rattling – a coiled and rising rattlesnake was looking straight in the eye of my oldest Brit. The dog was frozen with fear, I grabbed him by the collar, and we ran for the car! Just beware. The snake was sunbathing along the river and was probably a bit pissed at my careless dogs running past.
River Mile 25.9

NORTH PARK FISHING ACCESS – Located just north of the small town of Cascade, the town has built a lovely park with a boat launch and picnic tables. Very picturesque. Not a great option for wade fishing.
River Mile 35

Gearing up for an afternoon float on the Missouri RIver at Prewett Creek

Preparing for an afternoon float – Prewett Creek Fishing Access

Mid Canyon on the Missouri River in Montana

Mid Canyon on the Missouri River

Lewis and Clark

Float along the river and imagine what the experience was like for Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the men of the Corps of Discovery. Tower Rock looms large above the river where Lewis wrote of immense herds of buffalo on the vast plains below.

In Great Falls you’ll find the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and in Helena, an outdoor exhibit in the Great Northern Town Center dedicated to the expedition.

A Missouri River guide's secret fly box

A Missouri River Guide’s Secret Fly Box

 Missouri River Video

Things To Know If You Go

LODGING – You’ll find a range of accommodations on the Missouri River. From motel units such as Prewett Creek Inn and Trout Montana in Cascade to vacation house rentals on VRBO or through local fly shops.

CAMPING – We like to stay at Prewett Creek RV Park when we are fishing the Missouri. It’s next door to a bar/restaurant and a fly shop and friend Phil and Joan Camera at Prewett Creek Inn. Owners of the RV Park are friendly – but as a blogger, I appreciate the WiFi and electricity. The location is sheltered from the punishing winds that can blow of the Rocky Mountain Front. If amenities are not needed, nearly every fishing access has campsites available right on the river.

CELL SERVICE – Cell service in the canyon is non-existent. For cell service, you need to be above or below the canyon for service.

FUEL – If you need fuel, the market in Cascade has pumps and there is a small convenience store in Wolf Creek. Beyond that, it’s either Helena or Great Falls.

FOOD – Finding a place to eat can be dicey. We’ve been going to the ‘Mo for more than 20 years. Restaurants open and restaurants close. As I write, Covid-19 dominates the headlines – so if you go, get up-to-date info on restaurants. Two I will mention are Izaak’s in Craig – YUM! and the Angus Bar in Cascade – FUN!

Local Experts

There are some amazing fly fishing guides on the Missouri River. We’ve been blessed to get to know several. Greg Falls, Dave Sewak, and others spend their season on the river and surrounding waters.

In spring during the run-off, many outfitters bring clients to the ‘Mo to keep their oars in the water.

We’ve been in every shop at one time or another. We enjoy them all. Friendly, fishy folks, well-stocked shops (especially in Craig), and forthcoming with timely information.

Craig, Montana

Headhunters Fly Shop – Best Blog/Fishing Report, Guides, and Fly Shop

The Trout Shop – Fly Shop, Deli, Guide, Shuttles

Cross Currents – Fishing Schools, Guides, Fly Shop

Cascade, Montana

Prewett Creek Inn – Driftboat Rentals, Shuttles, Lodging, and Shop

Trout Montana – Lodging, Fishing Report

Nearby Fly Fishing Waters

Here are some close places to fish should conditions be right. The Sun and the Dearborn have very little public access and flow in summer can be low for irrigation needs. The Land of the Giants is a location on Hauser Lake, upstream of Holter, that is accessed by motorboat. And as the name suggests, it is home to huge rainbows. Prickly Pear is a sweet little creek, a tributary to the Missouri, that is good for an afternoon of fishing should your tire of the big river.

  • Dearborn
  • Sun River
  • Land of the Giants
  • Prickly Pear Creek

Current Stream Flow

USGS Water-data graph for Missouri River Below Holter Dam

The Necessities

Our picks for fishing information, food, and places to camp.

For This Adventure

We stayed at Prewett Creek RV Park for the entire stay. Only half of our time on the Missouri was fishing, the other half was sight-seeing and exploring as the winds howled and a record-breaking rain event, along with the dam keepers flushing the river, curtailed the bite.

We took several less-traveled roads and marveled at the beauty of Central Montana. We drove over to the Sun in Augusta and then to Baker’s Bridge on the fabled Smith River. Just beautiful country. Almost as fun as fishing.

Flies That Worked For Us

It’s always wise to check in with the local experts. Here’s what we used during our trip from June 4-10, 2020.

  • Pale Morning Duns (dry and emerger variations)
  • Caddis
  • CDC Caddis (olive bodies)
  • Jig-head nymphs
  • Pheasant Tail
  • Sow Bugs

Side Trips

Fishing is fun, but it’s good to take a day or two and look around. And there is much to see! The Rocky Mountain Front from Augusta to Browning is pristine and beautiful! Closer you’ll find a buffalo jump where Native Americans ran bison off a steep incline to harvest many animals efficiently and quickly. In Great Falls you’ll find parks and a bar where mermaids swim.

Fishing Guidebooks

Go with knowledge! We keep guidebooks in the camper and the state atlas in all of our rigs. If you’re serious about fishing, here’s our recommended reading for this water.

*The link takes you to Amazon where you can read more about the titles and purchase the guidebooks if you choose. We do receive a small portion of the sale for providing the link which helps to support this site. We appreciate your support!

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