The smartass answer? The most expensive rod we can sell you is the best fly rod for Missoula!! But you already knew that, and were probably hoping for something a little more informative. We can do that too.
Let’s start with some basics. Missoula fly fishing is primarily a trout fishing destination. While our largest trout will go over 10 lbs, there’s a good reason you don’t see many pictures of them- they don’t get caught very often! Just as a pint’s a pound the world around, 20 inches is a BIG trout anywhere you go, especially in freestone rivers, which is what Missoula has for fisheries. All our rivers are fed with a combination of rainwater, snowmelt and springs. Some years the water can be high through July, other years the water can be so low by mid-summer that we have restrictions in place to safeguard the trout. We are like every trout destination in the world (other than New Zealand, and no one knows why!), the average size trout you’re going to catch is about 12 inches long. Average! Some will be bigger, and some will be smaller, but that’s the average trout for the Missoula area and pretty much across Montana. Instagram and all the fly fishing magazines don’t lie, but they don’t show all the fish. There’s a good reason those fish got to pose for a picture!
The Clark Fork River, Rock Creek, the Bitterroot River and the Blackfoot River all have separate and distinct personalities, but they share many of the same hatches, and these hatches are incredibly diverse. The Salmon Fly can be up to 54mm long (2.1 inches), while the Tricos and Baetis (Blue Winged Olives) can be as small as 5mm long. That is a tremendously diverse insect population, demanding a lot from the angler and their tackle. Add fluctuating water flows into the mix, and you could find yourself reaching for many different fly rods in the same day!
Missoula’s fishing season is divided into three distinct categories. Pre-runoff fishing, post runoff fishing and late summer/Fall fishing. Post runoff fishing is the most demanding of your tackle. The biggest flies in Missoula come off from mid June through mid July, just when the water is highest. The 54mm adult Salmon Fly doesn’t come from a ½ inch nymph- it’s as big as the dry! If you’re fishing a dry/dropper in high water, a 6 or even a 7 weight rod is not inappropriate. With all trout fishing, accuracy is paramount, and a heavier rod will help put that big rig exactly where you want it. The larger rod also helps you fight fish as they enter into what can be a massive current- get a 17 inch fish sideways in the river on June 25th and you’ve got a tussle on your hands! A bigger rod can help turn the tide in a positive direction.
Pre-runoff fishing, and late Summer/Fall angling often requires a little different approach. The water is as low and clear as it gets on March 25 or September 25, and the BWO’s can be out in force. Fishing a size 22 on a 6 wt rod can be a challenge. The heavier line definitely makes more of an entrance into the water, with the potential to spook fish as it lands, especially with an errant cast (not something WE do, we’ve just heard of it from others!). For smaller flies in skinny, clear water, you can use a 4 weight, or even go as low as a 3 weight rod to match the conditions. But Pre-runoff fishing has Skwala stoneflies, which can be 30mm long, and later season fishing includes hoppers, so the lightest line may not always be the most perfect throughout the day.
Calculating all the variables- extremes of fly size, high or skinny water, wind and the distances required to fish effectively, we think you’ll find the 5 weight rod for fly fishing Missoula to be the most versatile rod for this area and throughout Montana. It can handle a large fly with a bit of effort, and can be scaled back to take on the smallest flies in the shallowest water. You don’t need 22 fly rods to fish Missoula- the bread and butter 5 weight will do most of the work most of the time!
Missoula, MT fly fishing also offers up some excellent streamer fishing, as well as pike fishing in the Bitterroot River, Clark Fork River and a handfull of lakes. While the pike is an invasive species, they are there, and a 38 inch fish is nothing to sneeze at! If you want to try your hand at pike fishing, or throwing out a few giant flies like the Beast Master to see if you can move the big boys, a 7 or 8 weight rod can be just the ticket. Many of the best Missoula fly fishing guides carry sink tip fly lines for these rods, in order to get the fly right where the bruisers live. If you’re fishing for pike, we highly recommend a wire or 80-100lb bite tippet to keep those razor-sharp teeth from slicing your fly off on the strike.
You’ve read this far and heard us talk about fly rod weights, but you haven’t heard anything about fly rod length for. The standard fly rod in Missoula is 9 feet long, and very few anglers head out to our larger freestone rivers with anything shorter than an 8 ½ foot rod. There are excellent reasons for this. A longer rod is a more powerful lever, more capable of casting longer distances with more accuracy. Wade fishing in Missoula often requires a longer cast to get the job done. Add the large size of some of the flies we throw, and the extra power generated by the longer rod comes in very handy.
Anyone who has fished with a guide has heard this word- MEND. Getting a drag free drift is THE most important skill to master when trout fishing. Line control, or the ability to manipulate the line, leader and fly so it floats with the current, not against it, is the key to successful dry fly and nymph fishing in Missoula, in Montana, and around the world. It is not by chance that Euronymphers use a rod that may be anywhere from 10-11 feet long. Euronymphing relies on pinpoint drift and depth control for success, and the longer the fly rod, the more line you can keep off the water, where it’s not affected by current. Additionally, the longer rod is a better mending tool, allowing for more reach on a reach cast, and more line to be lifted off the water when you water mend. Some of our Missoula fly shop staff have been using 10 foot rods for over 30 years for just that reason. The 10 foot rod also has the power to really step up and make a long cast when needed, because the additional length brings additional power. Not going to lie, casting a 10 foot rod all day is more tiring than casting a 9 footer, but it is worth it to many Missoula fly fisherman.
Time for a bit of a tirade! The long cast always looks impressive, and can make an angler go oooh and aaah like they were watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Your dry fly or nymph rig goes buzzing out 65 feet, and you think I’m really doing something. All we can say is you had better have a perfectly balanced leader, (building leaders) or that cast is going to start dragging pretty much the moment it hits the water. It’s been said that drag is like garlic, there’s no such thing as just a little! The moment you cast beyond your ability to mend, you’ve lost control of your drift and therefore 90% of your chance at catching a trout of any consequence. While the 9 foot rod is the standard across the fly fishing world, it’s worth thinking about a longer fly rod for all the reasons we’ve just listed.
You can come to Missoula with 7 fly rods, ranging from 2-8 weight and know you have the correct tool for any situation on our freestone rivers. Or you can arrive with a single 9 foot, 5 weight and be able to handle 90% of the fishing 90% of the time. Fly fishing in Missoula, like anywhere else, can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. Some anglers collect fly rods like others collect matchbooks, so if you got ‘em, bring ‘em. But if you’re an angler with one fly rod and a box of flies, don’t let that be a deterrent. Fly fishing in Missoula is as diverse as you will find in Montana. If all you have is an 8 foot 3 weight rod, then the Missoulian Angler will direct you to places where that rod will work! You might be 6 miles up a tributary, or waist deep in a glide on the Bitterroot River, but the fly rod you have is going to get the job done!