Eastern Montana's Best Lake for Amazing Angling
May 01, 2017
Some of Montana's best angling opportunities can be found more than a hundred miles east of the trout streams of the Rocky Mountains in Montana's Missouri River Country. Truth be told, more real estate in the Treasure State is found on the eastern plains than in the western mountains. The big prairie country of the East is also home to the Missouri River, the longest river in North America. Its volume is considerable as is the diversity of fishing opportunities it supports for walleye, pike, bass and more, which is why fishing in Montana's Missouri River Country is such special adventure.
Planning a trip here is easy. Visit the Montana Missouri River Country web site to order your free travel planner or order by phone by calling: 1-800-653-1319.
Here are some of the highlights you'll find when you visit this hidden gem destination.
Fort Peck Reservoir
Completed in 1940, Fort Peck Reservoir impounds some 134 miles of the Missouri River in eastern Montana. The highly irregular shoreline of the lake spans nearly 1,600 miles. Much of the mileage was gained in the innumerable bays created when the badlands along the Missouri River were flooded when the reservoir fully filled in 1947, seven years after the completion of the dam. Dozens of fish species now fin the waters of this massive lake. Among them are some of the most treasured sport fish in the nation, species with appeal to seasoned adult anglers as well as kids excited to land a panfish for dinner. Anglers on Fort Peck cast for lake trout, chinook salmon, black crappie, northern pike, smallmouth bass, walleye and other species.
Walleye are the fish of choice for regional anglers, as much for the delicacy of their fillets as their prowess as game fish. The reservoir holds excellent numbers of these cherished fish, with a robust population of walleyes in the two- to four-pound range—the perfect size for eating. June and July are prime months for walleye fishing. Each year, anglers tangle with walleyes exceeding 10 pounds—tough, burly specimens challenging the skill of the most seasoned anglers.
Bass and Pike
Smallmouth bass and northern pike are also Fort Peck favorites, and the challenge of choice for a small-but-growing contingent of fly fishers on the reservoir. Both species are abundant in shallow water in spring and early summer. One summer over the 4th of July weekend, a friend and I fished the south side of the lake from Hell Creek State Park. We took numerous pike and smallmouths on flies (along with a walleye), the largest of which was an 18-pound northern that came to the boat after a knuckle-whitening fight. Fishing by day and cooking the cream of our catch under a canopy of verdant cottonwood trees in the park's campground remains one of my most memorable weekends as an angler.
According to management contacts at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP), the reservoir's smallmouth bass average 12 to 14 inches, with fine numbers of larger fish, a few of which may reach 20 inches. Bass fishing is great all summer, with the best odds of outsized specimens occurring during the spawning period from around mid-May to Memorial Day weekend. Northern pike average around 35 inches. One biologist interviewed notes that "we've seen a lot of bigger pike in recent years." Action for pike picks up in late April. Trophy-minded anglers often hit the water during May, but broad, toothy northerns in the 10- to 20-pound range are hooked throughout the season.
Some anglers opt for fancier rigs, but simple fishing tackle works well whether fishing from a boat or the bank. Walleyes, pike and smallmouth bass all take spoons, spinners, crankbaits and minnow plugs. Jigs dressed with soft plastic twister tails tossed toward structure or twitched at the edge of weed beds also incite strikes. Some anglers also favor bait in the form of nightcrawlers, suspended under a float or used to tip jigs. Eight- to 10-pound line is considered heavy enough for large pike and walleye, but some anglers opt for heavier filaments when targeting trophy fish and working weed beds. Steel leaders are used by the majority of pike fishers.
Fly anglers also find excellent success with simple fare. Minnows are the food source of choice for pike and bass. Match the meal with your favorite minnow pattern (Clouser minnows are deadly) with flies from three to six inches long. Chartreuse, white, yellow, red and olive, or combinations thereof, are the best places to start. Sinking line, or weight added to the tippet is needed in most areas to get flies down to the fish. An 8-weight rod and 2x or heavier leaders are recommended. Some fly fishers use steel leaders, but I've found good success substituting around 10 inches of 30-pound fluorocarbon bite tippet.
Marinas and Camping
Three marinas and nine boat ramps provide boating anglers with services and access to the lake. Camping is available at several public and private campgrounds with facilities ranging from primitive tent-sites to RV-friendly accommodations with full hook-ups. Informal access is also possible via primitive roads on the abundant public land surrounding the lake. In spring and early summer, and again in the fall, fishers tossing lures or bait from the shoreline find plenty of success on Fort Peck. The countless coves and bays created by the lake's wandering shoreline are also attractive to anglers who favor fishing from a kayak or canoe over motorized craft.
On a waterbody as big as Fort Peck, visiting anglers are confronted with an age-old fisherman's question. Where should I go? Although fish may be found almost anywhere, a state fisheries biologist assigned to Fork Peck recommends several areas for first-time visitors.
Hell Creek State Park (and marina) on the south side of the lake is a great base for anglers. Fishing for northern pike, bass and walleye is good in this area, especially in early summer. Pike favor the weed beds and back bays. Smallmouth bass are often congregated around rocky points and other natural structure near the shoreline.
The lake's "Dry Arm" extends southward from the main body of the reservoir. Its many coves and bays make it a great place for anglers in small crafts. The Dry Arm offers fine fishing for pike and bass throughout the season and is home to one of the lake's marinas.
The dam area of this massive reservoir boasts a museum dedicated to its structure and operation, as well as campgrounds, a marina and lodging. Northern pike frequent this portion of the lake, where anglers find plenty of places to fish from shore. Lake trout are also found around the dam and are generally targeted in the spring and fall of the year. Salmon fishing also occurs in the fall. Both lake trout and salmon are best targeted with specialized equipment and drop to the depths of the lake during the summer.
Other Hot Spots
Although Fort Peck is the dominant fishing destination in eastern Montana, there are dozens of other attractive places to wet a line. Medicine Lake, the namesake of the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, holds a population of sizeable northern pike. The refuge is also a birding hotspot and as pristine a location as you'll find anywhere on the prairie.
Near Malta, Nelson and Fresno Reservoirs sprawl over 4,320 and 5,757 acres respectively. They're home to larger-than-average walleye and northern pike, along with smallmouth bass, crappie and yellow perch. A short jaunt from Highway 2, the primary east-west route in northern Montana, both claim superb fishing in spring and early summer. They also represent the opportunity to combine fishing with the area's excellent bird hunting in early autumn.
Landing a 25-pound pike from a lake in Missouri River Country might seem the zenith for big-fish aficionados, but much larger game inhabits the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Paddlefish, an ancient smooth-skinned species, inhabits both rivers. A fishing season with special regulations gives anglers a shot at paddlefish each spring. The state record paddlefish, taken from the Missouri River, weighed 142 pounds. Shovelnose sturgeon (up to 15 pounds) and the endangered pallid sturgeon (up to 75 pounds) are also residents to the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Anglers can catch (and keep) shovelnose sturgeon, but all pallid sturgeon must be immediately released if accidentally caught while fishing for other species.
Intrepid anglers or those seeking to wed bird or buck hunting with fishing have literally dozens of intriguing options in northeastern Montana. Nearly 100 ponds and lakes across the region have self-sustaining or stocked populations of rainbow trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie, pike, walleye and other species. These range in size from a few acres to several hundred acres. A directory, complete with maps and detailed driving directions is available from the region 6 office of MDFWP. Look for the link to the "Public Pond Fishing Guide."
Montana's Missouri River Country also holds lots of activities for the whole family. This is dinosaur country with an excellent museum in Malta that kids will love. History buffs will find lots to interest them here as well. And wildlife viewing in this region is some of the best in North America.
Montana's nickname, "Big Sky Country," hearkens to the breathtaking expanses of blue sky and open prairie on the state's east side. But there's more to the region than atmosphere and plains. Rivers, lakes and ponds sparkle in the folds of Montana's Missouri River Country, offering a fishing experience that's as "one of a kind" as the country itself.