Fly fishing in Montana is at the top of most anglers’ bucket lists, and for good reason. This state sort of “owns” the renaissance of fly fishing, thanks to Robert Redford’s movie A River Runs Through It, that revitalized the sport in the early 90s.
While the big waters of Montana get most of the attention – and deservedly so, as the Madison, Yellowstone, Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Big Hole, and Beaverhead Rivers are all world-class trout fisheries – northern Montana is often overlooked. This part of the state is far more remote, but what it lacks in creature comforts, it more than makes up for in – well, actual creatures.
The fly fishing up in the Glacier National Park area is some of the best in Montana, and the entire Lower 48. If you’re in search of solitude, grand, sweeping peaks, Rocky Mountain valleys, and crystal-clear water that takes your breath away, then Glacier National Park is the place for you to visit.
But just where should you start on your Glacier National Park fly fishing journey? Read on to find out where you should go. And remember, these aren’t listed in any particular order – they’re just seven of the best places to throw flies in Glacier.
1. Flathead River – Wild and Scenic
The Flathead River is the crown jewel of the Glacier National Park area. It’s famous for its crystal-clear water and surprisingly robust trout population. Throughout its reaches, you’ll find Westslope cutthroat trout, rainbows, whitefish, and maybe a few bull trout if you look hard enough. The Westslop cutthroat is native to the Glacier area, and is one of the prettiest, hard-fighting cutthroat subspecies you’ll find anywhere in the West.
Most outfitters in the area break the Flathead up into a few sections, but the North and Middle Forks of the river are the ones that draw most of the angling attention. These rivers form two of the borders of Glacier National Park, and you can choose to spend either a half or full day floating stretches of either water.
If you opt to go it on your own, then you’ll want to fish the section of the Flathead that’s most easily accessible by wading – the section right after the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead meet up, right near the town of West Glacier, Montana.
The fishing through here can be tough if you’re not used to tackling big water by foot. The trick is to not try and fish the entire river at once. Look for the pockets, pools, riffles, and glides where you’d normally find trout, and you’ll likely find plenty of fish willing to rise to a well-drifted dry fly.
Where to Fly Fish on the Flathead River
As I mentioned above, if you opt out of getting a guide and drift boat for this river, then you’ll be locking yourself into wading the stretches of river that are most accessible via foot. This includes the main stretch of the Flathead downstream of West Glacier, or any of the North Fork of the Flathead that runs along Highway 486 to Canada. Going this far north is a guarantee to get away from people, but you’re also pretty far away from much of anything. Be prepared for rough weather and solitude.
With all that said, the Big Creek Campground area could be a great base camp to start your explorations of both forks of the Flathead.
Recommended Flies for the Flathead River
While the Flathead is incredibly unique in its composition, water clarity, and how remote it is, the trout aren’t that foreign. The cutthroat and rainbow trout readily takes flies that are in season, and if you’re looking for bigger fish, you can always throw streamers for pike and bull trout.
With that in mind, I’d always have these flies at the ready for a day on the Flathead:
- Elk hair caddis, size 12-18. This is a staple on trout rivers across the world, for good reason – it just works. And you’ll see it work incredibly well on the Flathead.
- Frenchie, size 12-18. This nymph seems to just get the job done for me wherever I am. Be it in the desert of Oregon or the high country of Wyoming, the Frenchie is one of my go-to flies year-round.
- Black bunny leech, size 4-10. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love bunny leeches. The way they move in the water just can’t be beat, and they’re naturally heavy flies. Throwing one of these is a great way to move bigger fish.
If you would like to read about more locations to fish in Montana, check out my article on 21 Best Places to FLY FISH in Montana.
2. Yaak River – Native Rainbows for Days
Rainbow trout are seemingly everywhere, even though their historical native range isn’t as widespread as they currently are. However, the Yaak River is one of the very few places in Montana where rainbow trout are actually native. Rainbows are native to drainages of the Pacific Ocean, and the Yaak eventually dumps there.
The Yaak is a tributary of the Kootenai River, which is one of the more famous rivers in the entire world. The Yaak fishes best below the Yaak River Falls, where you’ll find plenty of eager fish willing to eat your dry flies. The fish don’t get terribly big here, but they’re plentiful. If you’re looking for a river that doesn’t require as much remote hiking to traverse, like parts of the Flathead, then this section of the Yaak is perfect for you.
You can fish the Yaak all the way up to the border with Canada, and obviously down to the confluence with the Kootenai River. You’ll likely catch rainbows, cutthroat, and brook trout.
Where to Fly Fish on the Yaak River
The Yaak River Campground is the best place to start the adventure on this river. It’ll give you a taste for what to expect on the Yaak the closer you get to Canada, and if that’s not to your liking, then you can go ahead and fish the Kootenai River.
Recommended Flies for the Yaak River
Again, I’m not trying to be redundant here, but these flies just flat-out work, especially for hungry, easy cutthroat, bows, and brookies.
- Elk hair caddis, size 12-18. A must-have for any fishing that’s not on a match-the-hatch style tailwater
- Zebra midge, sizes 14-20. This little midge just puts fish in the net for me, regardless of where I am.
- Chubby Chernobyl, size 8-12. This is the best grasshopper pattern around, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise.
3. Stillwater River – More of Montana’s Big Water
The Stillwater River in this part of the state isn’t supposed to get confused with the more famous section in the south. This Stillwater River runs along most of Highway 93, which heads northwest out of the Glacier National Park area, towards Canada. If you can see the river from the highway, you can bet on being able to stop and fish.
The fish you’ll find in here is a mixed bag, thanks to all the lakes, streams, and creeks that dump into the Stillwater. Cutthroat, rainbows, pike, bull trout, and even bass aren’t completely out of the question, although the last few are rare.
This river is a quintessential Montana big water, so if you’re really hankering to get a taste of what it is that makes these big Montana waters so fun, then I’d suggest stopping off to try and fish the Stillwater. And don’t overlook its tributaries. These little streams often have huge populations of smaller fish, which provides great fishing when you need to just put some trout in the net.
Where to Fish on the Stillwater River
You can fish the Stillwater nearly anywhere along its length that you can see it from the road. However, you’d be best served by stopping off at a designated camping site or boat launch, and working from there.
You can set up shop here above Upper Stillwater Lake, one of the lakes on the river.
Recommend Flies for the Stillwater River
This river is a bit different, because it’s home to so many other fish. While I’d keep your menagerie of stoneflies, caddisflies, and mayflies, I’d also add the following:
- Sex Dungeon, size 2/0-6. This fly was built by a Montana native, and Kelly Galloup knows his stuff. So it only seems fitting to use his fly on a Montana river.
- Chubby Chernobyl, size 4-10. I’d use this primarily as an indicator when fishing a dry fly with two droppers.
- Pat’s Rubber Leg Stonefly, size 6-12. These stonefly nymphs are just some of the best that I’ve ever found, and I know you’ll find success with them in the Stillwater River.
4. Flathead Lake – The West’s Largest Natural lake
Flathead Lake is the crown jewel of the Glacier National Park area, and is located just minutes south of the park’s boundaries. The lake is home to all the fish species you’ll find in the Flathead River, along with kokanee salmon. The big draw here is trolling for lake trout, although you can easily find success fly fishing for them, as well. Flathead Lake produces a lot of good-sized lakers, and you’ll want to fish either early or late in the season for a chance at these fish on the fly.
Other than that, you’ll want to stop in by a fly shop, or hire a guide, to really figure this lake out. It’s the largest natural freshwater lake in the West, so tackling it on your own is a bit daunting. But, it is just another lake. Find structure, fish off points, and use flies you know catch trout, and you should be into fish in no time.
5. Trout Lake – Aptly Named
Montana isn’t just all about fishing rivers, as evidenced by the litany of lakes in Glacier National Park. Trout Lake is one of the more difficult-to-access lakes in the Park, which keeps fishing pressure low. The draw here is for native Westslope cutthroat trout, and you’ll find plenty of them in that 8-13 inch range – perfect for the frying pan, or a few pictures to share later on Instagram.
You get to Trout Lake via the Trout Lake Trail, which starts at Lake McDonald, located smack in the heart of the park.
6. Logging Creek – Off the Beaten Path
If you really want to get remote and fish a part of Glacier National Park that receives little, if any, substantial fishing pressure, then Logging Creek is the place for you. Getting to the creek itself is enough of an adventure, because it involves long drives on bumpy dirt roads. Then, you’ll hike a few miles before getting to Logging Lake itself.
The creek below and above the lake will fish well, although you’re more likely to find smaller bull trout above the lake. This area has burned a lot in recent years, so you’ll want to fish in areas that don’t look to be negatively impacted by burn scars.
7. St. Mary River – More Hidden Gems
To cap off this list, you should seriously look at the St. Mary River. Located on the east side of the park, just inside Glacier’s boundaries, is the gorgeous St. Mary Lake. This lake doesn’t get a lot of pressure at all, because it’s too big to fish from shore, and boating it requires a strong motor and stomach.
You can fish the lake for whitefish, and do well for those from shore. But if you’re looking for trout, then you’ll want to fish either where the St. Mary River dumps into, or flows out of, St. Mary Lake. While the fishing here won’t blow you away, you’re sure to have consistent action all day long for nice-sized cutthroat and rainbow trout. And, if you’re lucky, you might just find some bull trout tucked away.
Recommended Fly Fishing Gear for Glacier National Park
Given the wide variety of fishing options in Glacier, I’d go with a 9’ 6wt rod, disc-drag reel, floating and sinking lines, along with waders and good boots. I don’t know that you’d want to use anything else other than the 6wt, to help fight the bitter winds that can blow down from Canada.
Recommended Flies for Glacier National Park
The best flies you’ll find to use are going to be similar to what we’ve already listed. But as a general rule, you’ll want:
- Elk hair caddis, size 12-18. These flies get the job done, period.
- Black bunny leeches, size 4-10. These flies will be great if you plan on fishing for lake trout, bull trout, or pike. You’ll want bigger flies for bigger fish.
- Zebra midges, size 14-20. You can use larger sized midges to imitate chironomids on the larger lakes, and then the smaller ones are perfect for midge imitations in the rivers and streams of the Glacier area.
Fly Shops and Fly Fishing Guides for Glacier National Park
There are plenty of fly shops and outfitters in the Glacier National Park area. Some of them include:
Lodging and Campgrounds in Glacier National Park Area
If you’re looking for a room with a view, you’ll want to choose one of the hotels located within Glacier National park. Those include:
Fishing Resources from the National Park Service
The National Park Service, in association with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, has quite a few regulations set for fishing in Glacier. You can review all of them here.
Fishing Licenses and State Regulations for Montana Fishing in Glacier requires a state license, and some rivers also cost more to fish (such as the user fee on the Flathead). Read all about the Montana state requirements and regulations here.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, bamboo rod builder, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor to Hatch Magazine. Spencer has also written a book Learning to Fly. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.