On the Water in Montana: Fish, Sail, Paddle, Float … and Even Surf

fly fishing montana
Experience all the freshwater activities that Montana has to offer. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

This piece was produced with support from Visit Montana. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

While widely known for its mountains, Montana is also home to stunning rivers, lakes and streams – you’ve seen “A River Runs Through It,” right? Even if you don’t aspire to reel in record trout, Montana summers will quench any thirst for watersport fun: rafting, canoeing, paddleboarding and so much more.

Here, we break down the best spots in the “Big Sky” state for freshwater adventures, including recommendations for gear rental shops, outfitters to guide your way and the best watering holes for celebrating after a full day spent on the, um … water.

Splash Around Seeley Lake

seeley lake
Morning fog lifting off of Seeley Lake on a crisp morning. Photo: Courtesy of Cody Edwards

Located in the beautiful Clearwater River Valley, the town of Seeley Lake is one of Montana’s epicenters for water-based recreation. Town center is a stone’s throw from its eponymous 1,025-acre lake (which is very popular among fishermen), and with five other nearby lakes rounding out the valley’s “Chain of Lakes,” Seeley is also an excellent spot for waterskiing and wakeboarding, jet skiing, SUP and many other water sports. Rent fishing boats, jet skis, pontoons, SUP boards and a whole lot more at Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear.

salmon lake
Only about 10 minutes from Seeley is another epic place to spend a summer day: Salmon Lake. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Blaser

For guided fishing in the Seeley and Swan Lake Valley, give Swan Mountain Outfitters a call. There are several established campgrounds with water access and boat ramps, and the town of Seeley Lake has a grocery store, restaurants (don’t miss Lindey’s Prime Steakhouse) and anything else you might need for a week of relaxation.

For a quick afternoon adventure, check out the 3.5-mile Clearwater River Canoe Trail. Whether by canoe, kayak or paddleboard, it’s a beautiful two-hour float. The best part? It’s an easy 1-mile hike back to the parking lot so a vehicle shuttle isn’t even necessary.

Surf Missoula

surf missoula
Yep. Surfing is a thing in Missoula. Photo: iStock

For a wildly different take on river-running, try surfing. That’s right, Montana has river surfing – and it’s no joke. Standing waves in a river are just that: standing. The wave remains in the same spot, so you could technically surf a single wave indefinitely (although your legs would likely be burning after only a few minutes). If endless waves sound groovy to you, Missoula is home to some excellent river surfing waves, including the Clark Fork’s famous Brennan’s Wave right in downtown Missoula, so you can show off (or provide comic relief) to passersby.

alberton gorge
Paddle your way through the beautiful Alberton Gorge. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

Alberton Gorge is minutes away, and home to several excellent waves as well, and Zoo Town Surfers will provide you with surf gear and teach you how to catch these stationary waves. They’ll also take you rafting or kayaking, if that’s more your style. However, surfing river waves isn’t the easiest thing to do, so after your fresh water session, be sure to visit Montgomery Distillery for a refreshing cocktail – try the Loki Daiquiri, made with Monty’s aquavit. It’s Montana-meets-Waikiki, all the way.

Sail Flathead Lake

flathead lake
Set sail on Flathead Lake and make everlasting memories. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

At more than 200 square miles, with 185 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 371 feet, Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi. Boating of all kinds is common, as is fishing, wind surfing and kite-surfing. Besides its sheer size, the mountain views are spectacular, and with consistent wind and plenty of space, sailing is very popular – there’s even a private yacht club in Somers, Montana.

You can charter a sailing experience (complete with wine and cheese) aboard one of two restored 1960s sloops at Flathead Lake Sailing and Charter, or jump in with both feet (pun intended) and learn to sail yourself at Flathead Lake Sailing School. Certified American Sailing Association instructors will make sure this is not your usual Montana adventure.

After earning your sea legs, sip a pint of Fair Winds Scotch Ale at Flathead Lake Brewing Company in Bigfork and start planning your trip around the world.

Mad Mile of the Gallatin

gallatin river
Get your adrenaline fix river rafting the Gallatin River. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

If whitewater is what you’re longing for, southwest Montana has you covered. With churning stretches of the Yellowstone, Madison and Gallatin Rivers all within easy striking distance, Bozeman is home to some of the best whitewater in the state.

But if you want the most bang for your buck, head to the “Mad Mile” of the Gallatin sometime in June during peak snowmelt. This stretch of river is continuous whitewater for (you guessed it) more than a mile. The guides at Montana Whitewater will show you a great time in a group raft, or set you up in an inflatable kayak for a more intimate adrenaline rush.

Not quite ready for the madness? Check out a mellow inner tube float down the lower Madison with a cooler full of cold beverages. Finally, after running rapids all afternoon, grab a burger and an Eddy Out Pale Ale, and retell the story of every river drop and bow splash.

Fish the Kootenai River

kootenai river
Get after some trophy trout — or just sit back and relax — on the Kootenai River. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Montana

Regionally notorious for huge rainbow trout, cold water, stiff current and beautiful scenery, the Kootenai River is a bit lesser known outside Montana and can provide a welcome respite from the company of more commercial rivers. Starting below Libby Dam (the terminus of massive Lake Koocanusa), the Kootenai cuts a path to the Idaho border, 50 miles downstream.

The state record rainbow trout – 38 inches long and 33 pounds – was caught just below the dam in 1997, and monster trout are still caught every year. The Kootenai is a large river best fished from a raft or driftboat, and Dave Blackburn’s Kootenai Angler can put you in position with guided trips and offer sage advice, or simply set you up with all the right gear.

Stay in historic Libby and experience authentic small-town Montana, where there’s great food and beer to be found. After a long day chasing trophy trout, sip a Ross Creek Red Ale at Cabinet Mountain Brewing. Be sure to check out the swinging bridge over Kootenai Falls for a spectacular view – right outside of town.

Horsepack Beartooth Alpine Lakes

twin lakes montana
Twin Lakes, a pair of alpine lakes along the Beartooth Highway, on the Montana/Wyoming border. Photo: Alamy

Leave the raft on the trailer and your paddleboard on the rack; to access these lakes you’re going to need sturdy hiking boots, a backpack and food for several days. The high alpine lakes of the Beartooth Mountains – some of which lay at over 10,000 feet above sea level – are not only arrestingly beautiful, but they also harbor some of the rarest trout in Montana – Golden Trout.

Imported from California’s High Sierra in the 20th century, Golden only survive in the coldest water, in the highest elevations. In Montana, there are only about 20 lakes that support stable populations. Fishing for them is more of a backpacking or horsepacking trip than traditional fishing trip – but that’s half the fun. Let Beartooth Plateau Outfitters carry your gear on their horses, and they’ll show you where the fish are, cook your meals and even set up your camp.

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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