rainbow trout on missouri river

In case you haven’t heard, Montana received a lot of snow this winter…and we’ll probably get more this spring. As of April 12th, the Missouri River drainage is at 129% of average for precipitation…and it’s snowing as I write this. As a result, the all-knowing folks who operate the dams have bumped up the flows in anticipation of all that water, which at present, is still keeping the skiers busy in the higher elevations. Here in Craig, below Holter Dam, we’ve seen a significant increase in flow. A few months ago the river was meandering at a calm 3,000cfs. Today it’s cranking at 7,200cfs and will likely continue to rise.

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For those of you like me, who don’t own one of those fancy fiberglass boxes that float, we have to alter our game plan a bit in these conditions. Many of those secret spots that we knew held hungry trout at 3,000cfs are now under a few feet of water. Wading out to that island isn’t an option anymore…oh wait, where did the island go? The river has changed, and so must our approach. Here are 5 tips that will improve your wade fishing on the Missouri this spring.

Brad Hansen's Rainbow Trout

Brad’s Rainbow Trout on the Missouri River


  1. Don’t be a hero. Sorry GoPro. Play it safe out there on the river. That water was frozen yesterday and is a balmy 40F today. If you get baptized in the Missouri this spring, you are going to need more than the Holy Spirit to save you. Leave the thermals on under the waders and stay above water.
  2. The trout are close. On many sections of the river (especially between Holter Dam and Craig) the faster current has pushed the trout from the middle of the river to the banks. This is ideal for wade fishing. You don’t need to cast a mile to find them. The trout are right under your feet, sometimes literally. Look for sections of river with structure along the bank. Trout will be holding in the pocket water and slower runs a few feet under the service.
  3. Nymph…and then nymph some more. This time of year nymphing is the name of the game. Like usual, pink and orange are the colors of choice. However, not everyone who ties on a fire-bead or lightning bug will find the trout. You have to get those flies in front of the fish, which can be a challenge. If you tie your own flies, use tungsten beads size 10, 12, 14, and lead wire. Use a 4x fluorocarbon tapered leader with 4x fluorocarbon tippet instead of 2x and 3x. Your flies will get down in front of the trout a lot quicker. If you use split shot, play with the placement of the weights until you get a decent drift under your indicator. Have you ever tied a jam knot and put the split shot 8 inches below your last fly? Try it. You want your flies to drift as naturally as possible. One of my favorite combinations is a size 14 black scud with an orange bead dancing below a size 12 rainbow Czech. If you are not having success, get those flies down deeper. They should occasionally kiss the riverbed.
  4. Learn to Czech Nymph (a.k.a. high sticking or Euro-Nymphing). The fish are close to the bank right now, only a few feet away at times, in deep water. Czech Nymphing is a technique perfect for detecting strikes in deep, fast moving currents. The traditional thingamabobber will work, but under the right conditions a proper Czech Nymph setup can out-fish a thingamabobber. The Missouri River isn’t known as being ideal Czech Nymphing water, but don’t fool yourself.  Get a hold of a 10ft 5wt and take a day off of work. You won’t regret it. Below is a diagram of what your Czech Nymphing setup might look like.

check nymphing

Image courtesy of Gilbert Rowley,www.gilflyfishing.com

  1. Move Around. Finally, keep moving until you find the fish. If you find one, there will be more. Access on the Missouri is fantastic. Do some exploring. Take along a camera. When you do land that chunky rainbow or brown stop by the shop and tell us about it. We love a good story.

Missouri River Rainbow Trout

2 Responses to Spring Wading Tips for the Missouri River
  1. Those are some great looking fish! Beautiful colors.

  2. […] much more difficult river to wade fish and most places are a no no.  Be careful out there.  (Read Brad’s post about wading the MO)  If you have a boat (or hey, rent one from us!) then you’ll do fine.  It’s a deep […]


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