State of the Missouri

The Pat Barnes Missouri River Trout Unlimited Chapter  hosted the annual State of the Missouri earlier this week at Montana Wild in Helena.

FWP Region 4 Fisheries Biologist Jason Mullen once again presented summary data for both the Missouri and Smith Rivers as well as updates on various special projects in the region.

This is always a highly anticipated and generally well-attended program which covers everything from fish counts to flow data to angler days.
A big thanks to Jason Mullen for his willingness to share this data with us. All data and graphics are pulled directly from his presentation.

Fish numbers were slightly down last year in both the Craig and Cascade sections. The Craig section is the 5.5 miles from Wolf Creek Bridge down to Craig while the Cascade section is from the power lines above Pelican Point down to Cascade.

The figures indicate fish greater than 10” per river mile. Craig rainbows came in at 2,860 while browns totaled 390 per mile. Both are slightly down from 2018 as well as slightly below the average of 3,391 rainbows and 568 browns per mile.

Cascade rainbows came in at 1104 with browns coming in at 238. These numbers were roughly on par with 2018 and below the averages of 1588 and 390 respectively.

Size wise we’re still looking at pretty incredible average size with the majority of fish in the 16” – 19” range. In 2018 we saw an abundance of 12” and 13” browns in the Craig stretch, not much for those in 2019.

One of the most encouraging slides of the presentation every year is the one indicating Relative Weight or overall weight in relation to length and while I’m not exactly sure what comprises this figure the healthy target according to Mullen is in the range from 95-105 and as you can see the Missouri supports a very healthy population, and has for some time. This Relative Weight, more than anything, is what keeps you coming back. It’s what makes that 16” bow take you into your backing.

Switching to flows – we had a good water year in 2019 with flows peaking at around 11,500 CFS in April and holding nicely between 5 and 6,000 CFS throughout the summer season. The only thing that could have made this better would have been a couple of days of flushing flows at 15K plus but we’re not complaining. 5-6K throughout the summer is just about as close to perfect as you can get.

How busy was the MO?

170,736 angler days (2017 data) ranked the Missouri River number two in the state behind the Madison which reported 207,334 angler days. Busy for sure but down from the 183,479 angler days in 2015 which ranked us number one in the state.


This was roughly a 50/50 mix of resident and non-resident anglers and generated an estimated $61,082,010 in revenue for trip-related expenses.

Fishing is, and will continue to be, a HUGE part of Montana’s economy and we feel incredibly blessed to be a part of that economy.
That is why we take none of it for granted and we work overtime to protect and conserve the resource. We are so thankful to FWP and DNRC for the work that they do and we encourage everyone who enjoys and takes advantage of this incredible resource to join or contribute to organizations such as Pat Barnes Trout Unlimited, Missouri River Flyfishers and UMOWA.

State of the Missouri 2018

The Pat Barnes Chapter of Trout Unlimited hosted FWP Fisheries Biologist Jason Mullen at Montana Wild in Helena Tuesday night for the Annual State of the Missouri presentation.

We eagerly anticipate this report each spring. It’s a snap shot of the previous year which gives us stats on fish populations as well as river flows and tells us where those stats fall in the historical record.

The takeaway from 2017 is that we saw a slight increase in the fish counts over 2016 in the Craig section and a decrease in the Cascade section. The real highlight though was the river flows which in 2017 were the highest they’ve been since 2011.

The Craig section yielded just over 5500 trout per mile of which 4,936 were rainbows and 576 were browns. This was pretty much on par with what we saw in 2016 for rainbows though it’s close to double the brown trout we saw in 2016. The rainbow population in the Craig stretch is still well above the 3394 average while the brown trout population is close to the 563 average.

Size wise, we’re still looking at a lot of big fish on the MO’ with over 2000 of those 4,936 rainbows per mile  in the 18″ – 20″ class and almost 150 browns in the 19″ – 24″ class per mile. Also of interest is the abundance of brown trout in the 6″ class as well as the 14″-15″ class.

The numbers in the Cascade stretch are very close to historical averages with 1592 rainbows per mile and 387 browns per mile. Historical averages are 1616 and 398 respectively.

Flows on the MO’ peaked at right around 12,000 cfs last year which we would expect to see again this spring but only time will tell.

A couple of interesting points that highlight just what an amazing resource we have in the Missouri are the relative weight of the fish and the water temps below Holter Dam relative to those in the Toston section which is not dam controlled.

This graphic shows the relative weight of fish in the Craig section from 1982 – 2016. FWP describes Relative Weight as the “plumpness” of the fish. The reported ideal relative weight is in the 95-105 range, which as you can see is pretty much where these fish have been most of that time. Our fish are well fed and consistently healthy.

The other graphic I found interesting was this water temp chart which shows temps holding steady in the 60 to 64 degree range throughout the heat of the summer, well below the 73 degree temp which triggers closures due to the stress those temps put on trout.

Once again, the great thing about the tail water is that temps are controlled. Take a look at Toston temps and you can see what happens absent of controls.

Perfect temps, controlled flows, an abundance of food….this is one special fishery, but you knew that already.

Here’s to a great 2018 on the Missouri.



State of the Missouri


4500 trout per mile, an abundance of 18″ rainbows and 17″ browns, well below average flows and plenty of opinions via the 2015 Creel Survey.

The annual State of the Missouri program was presented last Thursday night at Montana Wild Education Center in Helena by FWP Fisheries Biologist Jason Mullen.

This is always a great program and definitely worth your while if you get a chance to check it out. There was a wealth of information presented not only about the Missouri but about the Smith, the Sun and Belt Creek as well. Following are some of the highlights we know are of interest to you.

Fish Per Mile

This always seems to be the most popular topic of the presentation and while we’ve become accustomed to the numbers over the past few years the amount of trout in the Missouri River is truly mind-boggling. The numbers have been on the decline for the past couple of years following the 2012 peak of >8,000 fish >10″ per mile in the Craig section which is to be expected.

2015 saw Rainbow populations still well above the 3300 average at 4,073 per mile while Brown Trout came in slightly under the 572 average at 433. That’s still over 4,500 trout over 10″ per mile! Like I said…..Mind Boggling!

Screenshot (33)While the numbers of fish are amazing it’s the average size of the fish that surprise a lot of first time visitors to the Missouri and keeps them coming back. More than 900 18″ Rainbows and close to 100 17″ Brown Trout per mile….this is the Missouri River!

Screenshot (34)Screenshot (35)The river section from Holter Dam to Craig is by far the most popular stretch but take a look at what’s going on in the Cascade stretch. We’re looking at above average trout populations and while there are certainly more fish up high we’re still talking about over 2300 trout per mile in the Cascade stretch. There is no reason you shouldn’t be fishing the lower river!

Screenshot (36)

Screenshot (37)Screenshot (38)The fish population statistics are interesting and exciting but equally as important, if not more so, is the flow data. 2015 was not a great water year for us with average flows well below average. The Missouri certainly fared better than many other rivers in the state which saw Hoot Owl Closures for much of the season but we would definitely like to see more water this season.

Screenshot (39)Screenshot (40)Screenshot (42)Many of you may have been interviewed last season by FWP while you were out fishing the MO’ as part of the Creel Survey which began in March of last year and just wrapped up. The data are still being processed but the preliminary results are in. A few points of interest – 43% of those surveyed were non-resident anglers on par with 44% in the last creel survey in 2002. Of the resident anglers 24% were from Cascade County, 13% from Lewis and Clark and 20 % from elsewhere in Montana.

22% of those surveyed were being guided compared to just 11% in 2002. Interestingly, preliminary results show that those surveyed believe that 45% of those fishing the river are being guided. Anglers were generally satisfied with the average numbers of fish being caught and overwhelmingly satisfied with the average size of the fish being caught.

The survey also indicated that while many feel the river usage is too high the consensus is that crowding is not a problem. Also of interest is that those surveyed strongly oppose limiting use by both non-residents and guides and outfitters.

Once again, in summary,  plenty of big fish, less water than we would like and  interesting preliminaries from the creel survey.

Upcoming Events

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from folks calling to book their spring and summer dates is “so what do you do in the winter?”  Well, there is always plenty to do in the fly shop. There are orders to place, reservations to confirm, new items to check in, blogs to write,  parking lots to shovel, rooms to clean, laundry to do… And then of course there’s the fishing. I try to do plenty of that all winter long and then there’s a bunch of off-season engagements to attend.

Here’s a list of some upcoming events that may be of interest.


February 5th, Fly Fishing Film Tour – Helena


Tonight, February 5th at 6:30 pm at the Grandstreet Theater.

Sponsored by Cutthroat Creek-Elk Mountain and Wolf Creek Angler this Independent Screening is hosted by the Pat Barnes Chapter of Trout Unlimited. $15 Discount Tickets available at CrossCurrents Fly Shop, Elk Mountain Sports, Montana Fly Goods and Wolf Creek Angler. Tickets, if availablle, at the door at $20.

2016 marks The F3T’s 10th lap around North America and this year’s lineup of films is without question the best the Tour has ever presented. From Bolivia to the Seychelles, British Columbia and Patagonia, from Saskatchewan to Zambia and Virginia to Montana, the notable characters, unique storylines and unparalleled fishing in these films will lead you on an adventure around the globe!

February 16th – Travelogue: Fly Fishing in Cuba (Hosted at the Montana WILD Center, 7:00 PM, FREE)


Brought to you by Pat Barnes Trout Unlimited. Come explore the hottest fly fishing destination,  Cuba.

February 24th – State of the Missouri – Montana Wild Center Helena , 7:00 PM


Fish counts, water flows and much more. Presented by FWP and hosted by Pat Barnes Trout Unlimited.

February 29th, Community Pint Night to benefit Pat Barnes TU at Blackfoot River Brewing Company

BR-logo_copyCome enjoy a pint or four at Blackfoot River Brewing Company in Helena with $1 from each pint going to benefit Pat Barnes Trout Unlimited.

March 11th and 12th – FOAM Annual Membership Meeting, Missoula Holiday Inn Downtown

Screenshot (28)

Join outfitters and guides from around the state for the annual membership meeting of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana.  Two days of great sessions and speakers. Check out   for more information.

March 12th, Pat Barnes Trout Unlimited Annual Banquet – The Gateway Center, Helena MT

topbannerJoin us in support of the Pat Barnes Missouri River Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The annual banquet is a great opportunity to get together with friends and colleagues  and enjoy an evening of raffles, silent and live auctions and great food. There are some tremendous items up for bid as well as the opportunity to enter various raffles including one for a Hyde Pro Series Drift Boat. Banquet tickets and Boat Raffle Tickets are available for purchase at Wolf Creek Angler.

For more information check out

As you can see there’s a lot going on in the Montana Fly Fishing World, even in the dead of winter. We hope to see you at all of these events.