I’m going seriously out on a limb by naming the top 10 trout rivers in the country. I will doubtless leave out some rivers that are worthy of mention. But when it comes to a list like this, you have to eventually pick the streams, and I’ll apologize in advance if I don’t put you’re favorite river down. I’m sure these aren’t actually the ten very best streams around-there are dozens of backcountry Alaskan streams and private trout waters that are probably better than any of these. But these are all rivers that are easily accessible and provide awesome trout fishing. These are all well known streams, and they’ll be crowded from time to time. Still, they’re all long rivers and there is room to spread out. It’s no coincidence that Montana is well represented in the list.
1. Gallatin River (Yellowstone National Park and Montana)
This will come as a bit of a surprise that I’m listing this as #1. It’s one of those streams that everyone loves, but usually plays second fiddle to other famous rivers in the Yellowstone area. Most folks spend most of their trip on the really “classy” trout streams, like the Madison, Yellowstone, Firehole, or the Paradise valley spring creeks. The Gallatin is just that friendly little river that courses through gorgeous mountain territory and produces some small trout. The beautiful mountain meadow water in Yellowstone National Park, and for a few miles below holds several hundred small rainbows and cutthroat in it’s plentiful riffles. You won’t find the thousands of trout per mile that you’ll find on the Madison, or the 20″ browns, but it doesn’t get any more beautiful and the fish usually aren’t at all fussy. Access is easy and ample. Downstream, it gains power and roars through a whitewater canyon. It’s no longer an easy going meadow stream, but the trout numbers, and size of the fish, get steadily better. Below the canyon, the stream spills out into a wide sagebrush valley populated by elk and moose. Especially below the mouth of the East Gallatin, big browns begin to show up in good numbers under the undercut banks. This is good float fishing water, although waders can do well also. Finally, the Gallitin finds it’s way to Three Forks where the it helps form the mighty Missouri. The Missouri itself is an awesome trout stream, and it’s the next stream on our list.
2. Missouri River (Montana)
The Missouri River begins as a high plains river at Three Forks, Montana. From the river’s headwaters downstream to Holter dam, the river flows slowly, both as a free-flowing river and as reservoirs. This portion of the river has some excellent trout fishing during the spring and the fall. The fish here are almost all browns, although a few rainbows come up from the lakes that are located on the river. During the summer, whitefish form most of the action. Browns can still be caught, but they mostly become sluggish, or even move to the deep waters of the lakes.
Below Holter Dam, the Missouri becomes a tailwater stream. This is where most people go to fish the Missouri. The cold outflow from Holter Dam creates a habitat where trout can survive well throughout the year. Rainbows are much more common than further upstream, but browns are also present. The fishing remains excellent downstream to Cascade;it fishes decently all the way to Great Falls.
3. Madison River (Yellowstone National Park and Montana)
The Madison River begins as an odd spring creek in Yellowstone National Park. The reason it is so odd is that it is fed by both cold and hot springs that make their way into it’s two feeder streams, the Firehole and Gibbon. It fishes best in this upper portion in the late spring, early summer, and fall. During the summer, the water often grows too warm to allow the trout to feed, because of the hot springs. Rainbows and browns in the 10-14″ range are the primary residents,but in spring, large rainbows move up from Hebgen Lake. In the fall, large browns, also from Hebgen, do the same. Dry flies are standard fare for the residents. The migratory rainbows and browns prefer gaudy streamers and wet flies fished deep.
Below Hebgen Dam, there is a run of a few miles before the Madison slows back down into Quake Lake. There is a resident trout population in this stretch which is augmented by spawning runs from Quake Lake during the spring and fall. The summer fishery is somewhat better than the river above Hebgen, but the spring run of rainbows, and the fall run of browns are still the main event. Below Quake Lake, the Madison becomes a beautiful freestone trout river. It begins a run to Ennis Lake known as the 100 mile riffle. This is all fast water, but serious rapids are rare. Rainbows and browns hold in the slow water along the banks, as well as behind the many mid-stream boulders. The scenery is breathtaking, with the lush Madison valley in the foreground, and the towering mountains of Yellowstone in the background. This is the 100 most fabled miles of trout water in the country, and possibly in the world. It can be floated or waded.
Below Ennis Lake, the river drops into Beartrap Canyon. The canyon is full of big rainbows and browns, but it’s a long hike to get to the river. Still, it’s probably worth it, as this relatively unfished water provides nearly as good of fishing as the water above Ennis. Below the canyon, the river drops into an arid valley, where it meanders from one undercut bank to another. This is excellent brown trout water, but it gets too warm in the summer. Spring and fall are good times to target the good numbers of browns here.
4. Yellowstone River (Yellowstone National Park and Montana)
Yes, this is the fourth Montana stream on the list. The Yellowstone simply can’t be left out of any list of top trout waters, as it provides 250 miles of some of the most beautiful and heartstopping trout fishing in the world. The fishing begins deep in the Thoroughfare region of Wyoming. There’s no easy way to reach this water. It take’s a long hike and a dedication of a week or so to fish this water the way it should be fished. This is cutthroat water, with both resident fish and migratory trout from Yellowstone Lake. This is as deep in the wildnerness as you can get in the lower 48, and you must be sure you can be totally self-sufficient. In the case of an accident, you’ll be on you’re own. Also, Grizzlies, black bear, moose, and other dangerous creatures are common. That can be a deterrent or an attraction. You decide for yourself.
The river is much more civilized below Yellowstone Lake. Although it flows through country that has been left in it’s natural state by Yellowstone National Park, it’s far from wild. The park water is heavily fished, especially in the popular Buffalo Ford area. Cutthroat trout fishing isn’t as glorious as it used to be, but it’s still quite good. The river drops into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and then the Black Canyon. Those stretches are essentially unfishable. When it enters Montana, it once again becomes a great trout stream. It is a very readable mountain stream just below the park, with many pools and riffles that hold both rainbows and cutthroat. Below, it enters yet another canyon, this one called Yankee Jim. The canyon is hard to hike into, but the pocket water holds some rainbows, and they aren’t fished very often.
Below Yankee Jim canyon, the Yellowstone settles into the character it will hold for another hundred miles or so. It flows through a beautiful valley (although you can see the beautiful Absaroka Mountains most of the time), and the river has a steady, but not rapid current. This is rainbow and brown trout water in the main, although cutthroat are pretty common as well. The water around Livingston is most famous, but the fishing is very good for many miles up and downstream from that popular western trout town. The trout fishing holds up all the way downstream to Billings in Eastern Montana. Below there, it is a massive prairie river home to pike, smallmouth bass, and catfish, but few trout.
5. Green River (Wyoming and Utah)
The Green River is a stream with many faces. In it’s upper reaches in Wyoming, it’s a high plains river home to large brown trout. This is western ranchland country, and all through the summer trout hug the undercut banks in search of hoppers. That’s where you should be casting, with a Letort Hopper and maybe a Hare’s Ear dropper for good measure. The access isn’t great here, but there are places where visiting anglers can get on productive water for free.
The upper Green finally flows into Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The reservoir is home to big rainbow, brown, and lake trout, but it’s deep waters are hard to handle with conventional tackle, especially if you prefer to fly fish. The tailwater (which is actually in Utah), however, has some of the best trout populations on Earth. Some estimates show nearly 20,000 trout per mile in the first 7 miles below the dam. The tailwater is best known for it’s cutthroats, but it also fishes well for rainbows and browns. This river flows through a beautiful desert canyon. The water is air-clear, and site fishing is very popular. Further down, there are a few less trout, but the browns and rainbows can grow much larger. If you don’t have a boat, we recommend hiking in to some of the lesser known areas. You’ll find wilderness fishing on one of the most productive trout streams in the country. Local fly and tackle shops will be able to point you in the right direction. Just watch out for Rattlesnakes! There are also formal accesses where you can fish, including one right below the dam. You can catch fish in these areas, but the wilderness experience is mostly lost. Most people who are new to the Green float it in a driftboat with a guide. The guide will safely bring you through the whitewater and put you over fish. Just don’t expect it to be cheap.
6. White River-Bull Shoals Tailwater (Arkansas)
Arkansas’s White River is the only Southern stream on our list, and it’s also the only one that’s mostly put and take. This tailwater flows out of Bull Shoals Dam high in the Ozark Hills. The cold plume from the bottom of Bull Shoals Lake, combined with the cold flows of the North Fork River allow trout to survive for nearly 100 miles below the dam. It’s a tailwater with rapidly fluctuation flows, and it can be downright dangerous. It can be waded at low flows, but bank and boat fishing are the only options when there the dam is releasing a lot of water. Your first time floating, a guide will be helpful.
There are about 5000 trout per mile on the river, and the majority are rainbows. Rainbows are stocked by the millions by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Rainbows swarm almost all parts of the river, and they never seem to be difficult to catch. These trout average about 13 inches, so they’re fun to catch. Still, the browns are what draw many anglers to the White. The browns are mostly wild, although their numbers are supplemented by stocking. A new 24″ minimum insures larger browns, and there are also several catch and release areas on the river. A White River brown isn’t considered large until it hits five pounds; it’s not a trophy until it hits 10. To give you a frame of reference, on our last trip to the White, a fly shop owner showed us a picture of an honest, weighed and measured brown that he had just caught that weighed 29 pounds. He didn’t seem all that excited about it.
7. Manistee River (Michigan)
Michigan’s Manistee River is one of the best in the world. It starts deep in the lower Peninsula of Michigan as a small, spring-fed brook trout stream. This isn’t the place to come for trophy trout, but the brookies are beautiful and jewel-like, always ready to provide a wonderful experience. A few browns do make their way into this section, and they can grow surprisingly large. While most people fly fishing, spin fishing is both legal and productive.
From the M-72 Bridge downstream to the CCC Bridge, the river is fly- fishing only. There are good numbers of both browns and brookies here, and trophies are much more common than further upstream. This is famous trout water, and the hatches, as well as the fish are plentiful. The restrictive regulations insure top quality fishing. The fishing remains good for a few miles downstream from the special regulation stretch (mostly for browns), before the river forms Tippy Pond.
Below Tippy Pond, the river is a mixed fishery. While smallmouth bass and pike are the main species during the summer, migratory trout, salmon, and steelhead form the cool-weather fishery. King Salmon and brown trout are present in good numbers during the fall. As a matter of fact, a brown trout caught in the lower Manistee last fall is the current world record. Steelhead are in the river mid-fall- mid-spring, and they are quite plentiful.
8. Connecticut River, (New Hampshire and Vermont)
The upper Connecticut River is an Eastern stream with a western feel. Coursing through the beautiful Appalachian country of Northern New England, the scenery will not be beat. The headwaters portion of the river flows through 3rd Connecticut Lake, 2nd Connecticut Lake, 1st Connecticut Lake, and Lake Francis. This portion of the river is full of eager brook trout, and in the spring and fall, Atlantic Salmon run upstream from all of these lakes, and provide excellent sport in the river. There is some water that is legal to fish with a spinning rod, but it’s mostly fly fishing only.
Below Lake Francis, the river mostly becomes open to spin fisherman, although fly fishing is still most popular. The Connecticut provides excellent fishing for rainbow and brown trout for many miles downstream. You can wade, fish from the bank, or float this water. This area gives you your best shot to catch large trout. The fishing is good along the New Hampshire/Vermont border all the way down to Hanover, the home of Dartmouth College. It should be noted that there are several slow, dammed up sections of stream in this part of the river that are warm-water fisheries, but where you find good current, you’ll find some trout.
9. Niagara River
Did you know that below Niagara Falls, this mighty river is an excellent trout and salmon stream? This is a totally migratory fishery with good numbers of steelhead, brown trout, and various species of salmon. As you may have guessed, this is not an easy river to fish. There are probably some areas that can be fished from the bank, but it would be safe to say that wading is out of the question. There are many guides in the area that will help you out on this beautiful, dangerous river, and we recommend their services to insure a safe trip. This isn’t a summer fishery for the most part. Any time during the spring and fall, you’ll find some sort of salmonid running up the river. In summer, switch your attention to smallmouth, which are abundant and large.
10. Beaverkill River
Is this one of the 10 best trout streams in the country? Well admittedly, it probably isn’t. It’s just that the tradition on this stream is so rich that it would seem a sin to leave it off. This famous Catskill River begins as beaver flowage high in the mountains. It’s full of eager brook trout up there, and few folks fish it. This water is on public land, so if you’d like to hike in, you may be pleasantly surprised. The first place most people begin their fishing is at the Beaverkill Campground. Browns and brookies both reside in the beautiful fast water environment here, and it’s always a pleasant place to fish. Also, it doesn’t get nearly as warm in the summer as the lower reaches, so you can probably expect to catch a couple if you have to come in July or August.
The river is mostly private, and therefore off of our radar screen all the way down to Roscoe, New York (also known as Trout Town USA). At this point, the Willowomec (also a nice trout stream) flows in to form the Junction Pool. Many people come all the way out here just to fish that pool;it’s synonymous with American dry fly fishing. After this pool, the river remains mostly accessible and has many other areas, such as Cairn’s Pool, Horse Brook Run, Cook’s Falls Pool, Horton Pool, and the Acid Factory that are legendary in the minds of fisherman. This is all famous trout water, and it fishes well whenever the water temperature is below 70 degree. Sometimes it will be in good, fishable shape all summer long, and at other times the water is so warm it is both irresponsible and unproductive to fish it.
There are only about 300 trout per mile on the Beaverkill, and given it’s fairly large size, that’s not a terribly high number. Neither is it much of a trophy stream, although admittedly some fine browns are caught from time to time. And therein lies the mystery to it’s fame. It’s real value lies in the fact that it was one of the streams where American dry fly fishing was pioneered. A trip here is more a lesson in history than an excursion to world class trout water.
These are just ten streams that for one reason or another, we think are worthy of mention. As we said earlier, it’s highly debatable whether these are really the ten best. But it is true that these are ten fine trout streams, and they all have some aspects to them that are beautiful.