The “Land of Giants” stretch of the Missouri River where we run our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips is a unique Montana fishery in which a short tailwater downstream of Hauser Dam leads into Holter Reservoir. This stretch has no boat ramp at the top, meaning access is via hiking or motoring up from the reservoir below. Tailwaters create large fish and lots of them. Reservoirs create large fish and lots of them. When you combine a short tailwater and a lake immediately downstream, close enough its fish can run up into the tailwater to feed and back again over a matter of days, you get lots and lots of large trout.
Simply put, our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips provide the best opportunities for lots of large trout of any of our trips.
Introduction to Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips
- Season: Ice-out in March through November, with the best overall experience in March and early April and from mid-May through early July.
- The Fishing: Primarily nymph fishing deep slots from the boat, but some streamer fishing, wade-fishing good seams, and dry fly fishing are also possible. The dry fly fishing is best in late June.
- The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout that run BIG. The average rainbow runs 14 to 18 inches, the average brown a couple inches longer. 20-inch fish don’t raise any eyebrows and we see quite a few in the 22″ to 24″ class each season. The largest fish on average in our operations area live here.
- The Boat: Because this area lacks a boat ramp at the upstream end, access requires an aluminum jet boat modified for fly fishing. We use a 2000 Tracker Pro Team 18 Jet, an inboard model with a 120hp engine.
To fish the “Land of Giants,” we launch the jet boat at Gates of the Mountains Marina north of Helena, Montana, then run southeast across Upper Holter Lake into the Missouri River proper. Once in the river, it’s a short 3-odd mile run up to the base of Holter Dam. Most days, we do most of our fishing in the bottom mile and a half of this stretch, since no-wake rules and heavier currents upstream make fishing close to the dam less efficient. That said, most days we do wind up fishing up close to the dam, sometimes anchoring up to fish deep boulder fields in this area.
The season here is very different than on most of our fisheries, which is one reason we run these trips. While it’s possible to wade-fish this area all through the winter, Missouri River jet boat fishing trips begin sometime in March when the ice goes off Holter Reservoir. The fishing can remain good all the way until the end of November, when the ice starts forming again. The largest numbers of fish are available from late March through mid-May, during the rainbow trout spawn, but this is also when the largest numbers of anglers are present. This water can be obscenely crowded at this time, with 20-30 guides and as many as 100 bank anglers present on a bad day. There’s fish enough for everyone, but if you’d rather have a less-crowded experience, fishing either right out of the gate in March or waiting until at least mid-May is better.
From mid-May through early July is peak season here, in our opinion. The trout are coming off the spawn and feeding aggressively, which causes them to get fat, healthy, and hard-fighting very quickly after the rigors of spawning, but they spread out some and get a little harder to catch. The crowds therefore drop sharply, with 10 guide boats and 20 or so bank anglers or less much more common than the hordes earlier in the season. This is much more manageable. The fishing gets more varied, too. Whereas during the spawn the best way to catch fish is to free-drift egg imitations and assorted pink mayfly nymphs and scuds (which are probably taken as eggs), on Missouri River jet boat fishing trips in late May we usually fish scuds and Blue-winged Olive nymphs, whereas in June we fish a lot of PMD imitations. In late June and early July, good dry fly fishing on PMD cripples and caddisflies is possible. We also do some streamer fishing, particularly with clients looking for a big brown trout or two.
By late July it’s back to nymphing. From now through early October the fishing is harder than it is earlier in the season, though crowds are almost nonexistent. Because of heavy aquatic weed growth down towards Holter Lake, we do most of our fishing up close to the dam.
When the weather turns in the fall, the brown trout begin running up from Holter Lake. While this is not the “massive numbers” fishery it is in the spring, this is the time to take a Missouri River jet boat fishing trip if you want to fish streamers for big brown trout. The browns continue chasing streamers all the way until Thanksgiving, at least, making this our best option for LATE season fishing, long after everything else has gotten too cold to fish consistently.
Introduction to the “Land of Giants” Stretch of the Missouri River
The “Land of the Giants” stretch of the Missouri begins about 15 miles northeast of Helena, Montana, at the base of Hauser Dam. The river twists its way through a couple short canyons before expanding into Upper Holter Reservoir. This is a stunningly beautiful stretch of river. We launch for this trip at the south end of the “Gates of the Mountains,” so named by Lewis & Clark back in 1805. This narrow, deep limestone canyon has played host to a lot of history, from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 which claimed the lives of many wildlands firefighters, an event immortalized in the book Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean, who’s far more famous for his other book, A River Runs Through It, which you may have heard of…
The run across Upper Holter Reservoir is pretty in and of itself. The lake is shallow and in a wide bowl-shaped valley. It’s typically home to a wide range of bird species, including oddballs like Caspian Terns. It’s also home to a lot of trout; if the wind is calm (which it often isn’t), we’ll often fish the lake as well as the river upstream.
Once into the Missouri River itself, the canyon walls close in, falling sheer into the river and occasionally shedding a boulder. The boulders are why we need to run jet boats here; hitting a car-sized rock with a prop motor would ruin everyone’s day. We’ll often see deer, ospreys, eagles, and a range of songbirds here in the river canyon, occasionally joined by black bear.
In the lower 1.5mi of the Land of Giants, the river flows wide and fairly shallow, though the current is often swift. Upstream of the small meadow near tributary Beaver Creek, the canyon walls close in, the river narrows and deepens, and flows get faster and faster as you approach Hauser Dam. This upper reach of the river is deep, fast, and turbulent, and is arguably the prettiest water on the trip, though also the hardest to fish.
Fishing the Land of Giants
This stretch of the Missouri is home to a vast amount of trout food, ranging from tiny mayflies and midges on up to crayfish, sculpins, and–believe it or not–perch. Because of the smorgasbord, even the largest rainbows can sometimes demand flies as small as #22. The vast amount of subsurface food also explains why dry fly fishing is seldom good here. Basically, dry fly fishing requires high water temperatures and heavy hatches. Occasionally you’ll find small pods of trout rising to midges of BWO, but the PMD and caddis hatches of late June and July are much better opportunities for dry fly fishing. Otherwise, expect to fish nymphs and streamers.
Early in the season when the water’s cold and high, most fish are caught nymphing deep with eggs, pink mayflies, and pink scuds. All of these flies are probably taken as rainbow trout eggs. The deep, walking-speed seams in the middle of the river are best at this time. Out of the boat, we usually free drift, cutting the engine and drifting with your strike indicator through good runs, then jetting back up to the top and repeating the performance. For shore-bound anglers or when our clients want to get out to fish on foot, the best tactic is to make a 15-25 foot cast slightly upstream, then stack mends as the flies drift past and downstream, feeding line into the drift as long as possible before pulling in the slack and starting over. This takes some practice, but it’s an extremely effective tactic whenever the trout are stacked in a few deep midriver seams.
As the water begins to drop and especially warm in May, the deep bouldery slots can still be top spots, but some fish begin moving into cobble-bottomed riffles to eat scuds, sowbugs, and BWO nymphs. Streamer fishing can also be effective, particularly if you’re interested in capping off a day of solid 14-20″ rainbows with one big brown trout. Perch-pattern streamers are often just the ticket in late May and early June, and may produce walleye as well as trout. Instead of midriver areas, we’ll often target smaller targets along the bank or behind midriver rocks at this time. Sometimes we’ll drift. Sometimes we’ll anchor up or even use the trolling motor to hold in good areas. Bank fishing is less effective except in a few specific areas at this time, since the fish are more spread-out than earlier.
In June and especially in July, the fish shift to faster and often shallower areas, such as boulder fields and riffles. Nymphing deep in the morning, shallower in midday, and often hanging tiny nymphs below dries is often the ticket at this time of year. Except when fishing dry flies, we’ll usually do all fishing from the boat at this time, but anchoring up to pound specific boulder piles or riffles is often the name of the game.
For the remainder of the season, the fish move back out into the middle for the most part, often in fast, turbulent seams up close to Hauser Dam. Sometimes we’ll target these fish on the drift, sometimes anchored.
Except when fishing streamers, when bigger is often better, fly size here should be on the small size. While we get some fish in spring on “gob of protein,” flies like #10-12 Caviar Scuds and AMEX Czech Nymphs, #16-18 is better the rest of the year. #20-22 are occasionally required in late summer and early fall. Except in spring, when pink attractor nymphs of various sorts are good, these flies should generally match the food the trout are focused on: BWO and scuds in late May, PMD nymphs and caddis pupae in June and July, midges much of the time. Since “LoG” often isn’t crystal clear, small bugs with hints of flash are often excellent choices. Hatch-matching dry flies are better than attractors. Last Chance Cripples are excellent mayflies, while the Corn-Fed Caddis is a top caddisfly.