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Go Fish!!
Fishing the Missouri River photo.Jim Voeller fishing the
Missouri River

by Dave Hagengruber, FWP Angler Education Coordinator

Whether you're a long-time angler, or someone who has only dreamed of pulling in their first big one, there is a lot of information on fishing available out there. Here are just a few tips to help you get started, and improve the skills you already have:

Why should I go fishing?


Fishing is one of the most popular sports in America, for lots of different reasons. You can challenge yourself to catch more or bigger fish than your last trip, or you can just sit back and enjoy being outdoors and not worry about catching any fish at all. You might decide you like the excitement of fishing in a tournament and competing against other anglers, or you may decide that hiking into a remote mountain lake with your best friend is your favorite thing to do. One of the best parts about fishing is that it gives you time to sit and relax, and think about other things that are important to you.


Most anglers were taught to fish by someone in their family. Ask your Mom, Dad, Grandparents or other relatives to teach you to fish. If they do not already know how to fish, you can learn together. Once you learn how, spending time together outdoors with your family will become an important part of your life.


Many anglers like to release the fish they catch, but fishing is also a good way to bring home a tasty meal. As long as you follow the fishing regulations and are not wasteful, there is no reason not to enjoy eating what you catch. It can be fun to try different ways of cooking your fish, and for many anglers, the best meal they have ever eaten was fresh- caught fish cooked on the shore of a lake or stream.

What do I use?

Rod & Reels

There are a huge assortment of rods and reels from which to choose. This is a good place to enlist the help of a friend or relative who fishes. Tell them what you would like to catch, and they can probably steer you in the right direction. Don't be fooled into spending too much money at first; a good basic set of fishing tackle can be acquired for around $50.


Fishing line is that almost-invisible link between you and the fish. It is measured by how much effort it takes to break the line, usually from four to twenty pounds of pressure or pull. Most fishing in Montana is done with six to ten pound line. Buy the best line you can afford—spending a few cents more may help you land that fish of a lifetime. Most sporting goods stores will wind the line onto your fishing reels for you.


Sinkers are important to get your bait down to where the fish are, and also to help you cast. There are lots of different kinds of sinkers to choose from, but one of the most common and easiest to use types is called the "split-shot" sinker. You can get these in lots of sizes, and attach or remove them from your line as you need more or less weight. It is important to use enough weight to get your baits to sink quickly, but not so much weight that it hampers the action of your bait.


What could be more important in catching a fish than your hook? Hooks are available a wide variety of sizes and shapes. They are given a number to identify their size; this number increases as the hook size decreases. For example, a size 10 hook is much smaller than a size 2. You will need to match your hook to the fish you are trying to catch and the bait you are using. A common mistake here is to use a hook size that is too large.

Other Equipment

There are a few other items that will make your fishing easier and more productive. A knife or nail clippers makes cutting the line easier. A small pliers or forceps is helpful in a number of ways, especially to remove the hooks from the fish's mouth. You may want to carry a small net to help land your catch, and a stringer or cooler to store your fish if you decide to keep some for dinner. Sunscreen and insect repellant are things you should not forget either.

Live bait

For many beginning anglers, live bait is one of the easiest ways to get started fishing. Of course the most common fishing bait has got to be worms. It seems like there are very few out there who can turn down a lively worm. Maggots and mealworms are popular baits for ice fishing. Leeches and minnows are popular for certain species, but check your regulations carefully, since live minnows cannot be used in certain areas of the state. Even grasshoppers are popular to use as bait in the summer, and sometimes catching them is almost as much fin as catching the fish!

Artificial Lures

An artificial lure is designed to imitate something the fish might normally feed on, or just to look like something they want to try and eat. There are so many types, colors and sizes of different lures that it is sometimes hard to imagine. Spinners are popular lures for trout; jigs are popular with walleye and sauger fishermen, and bass anglers like to use plugs which imitate small minnows and baitfish. This is another good place to ask for help—ask around to find out which lures work best where you will be fishing.

What do I do now that I caught one?

Keep it or let it go?

Once you have caught your fish, you have a decision to make. You can either keep the fish and eat it, or release it. Releasing a fish allows it to survive to be caught again another day by another angler, or maybe even yourself. With a little luck, the fish will grow larger, and it also may have a chance to reproduce. Fish are good to eat, and there is nothing wrong with keeping a fish to eat if the law allows. Fish tatstes it's best when fresh, so don't try to fill your freezer. Keep the amount of fish you will need for one meal, and eat it right away.

Letting it go

It does not do any good to release a fish that will die from improper handling. It is important to handle a fish quickly and correctly to be sure it will live to thrill another angler some day in the future. Follow these steps:

  1. Land the fish as quickly as possible
  2. Do not remove the fish from water if possible
  3. Wet your hands before touching the fish
  4. Hold the fish level in the water, and move it gently back and forth to move water across it's gills
  5. If fishing in a river, release the fish into an area of slower water
  6. If the fish is hooked deeply, cut the line and do not attempt to remove the hook

Keeping it

If you wish to keep your fish to eat, you have a responsibility to the fish to kill it quickly, and take care of it well. You can kill fish by hitting it on top of it's head with a rock or stick. Keep the fish as cold as possible. A cooler full of ice is one of the best ways to preserve the flavor of your catch. Fillet or clean your fish as soon as possible, but be sure to follow the regulations about when & where you may clean your fish.


There are lots of different ways to prepare fish after they have been cleaned or filleted. Most fish in Montana taste so good, especially when fresh, that you do not need fancy recipes to cook them. You can fry them quickly or broil them, and all that is needed is a little seasoning. Or wrap them in foil, add a dab of butter and some salt and pepper, and cook them in your campfire. No matter how you cook them, fish are a great meal.

Where do I go fishing?


Montana rivers and streams are famous for the fishing they provide. Whether you like to catch walleyes, trout, carp, or almost any other fish, chances are you can find it in a river or stream. Even the smallest creeks that are no more than a trickle of water can hold big fish, so don't pass them over. Be sure to ask permission if you need to cross private land to reach your fishing hole.


Most lakes in Montana have a place where you can fish from shore. Just look for a Fishing Access Site sign. Explore around the lake, since certain spots may be better than others. Best of all, find someone with a boat to go fishing with you. That way you can fish almost anywhere.


They may not be as large or as popular as some of the lakes in the state, but Montana has lots of small ponds full of fish. For many anglers, a pond near their home was where they first learned to fish. Many ponds are private, so you will need to ask permission before fishing. Don't overlook anything—just because you may have never seen anyone fishing on a pond does not mean it doesn't hold fish. It could turn out to be your own private fishing spot!

How do I fish safely?

Basic Rules

No fish is worth risking your life. Although fishing is an extremely safe activity, there are a few important safety rules for everyone to follow.


Some people say the fish bite better when the rain falls, but paying attention to the weather is important to the safety of the fisherman too. Lightning is the biggest danger related to weather. Never fish when there is lightning nearby. Sun and heat are important considerations to remember too. Take plenty of sunscreen, and apply it often. At the other end of the scale, danger from cold weather (hypothermia) is always an issue in Montana, when snow can fall during any month of the year.

Fishing from shore

It may seem strange to see someone wearing a life jacket when fishing from shore or the bank of a river, but it's never a bad idea to wear a life jacket. Always let someone know where you are going fishing, and when you will return. And try not to fish alone. It's more fun to fish with a good friend, and safer too.

Fishing from a boat

The number one most important rule to follow when fishing from a boat is to always wear a life jacket. Keep it on even when the boat has stopped. In fact, children anyone in a boat who is under 12 years of age must wear a life jacket or PFD at all times.

Ice fishing

A good rule to always follow when ice fishing is to never be the first person to step out on the ice. Wait until you have seen someone else out fishing first, never take a chance on thin ice. Wait for 4-6 inches of clear, solid ice before venturing out. Carry a few safety items, like a whistle, ice picks, and a length of rope, and never fish alone.

What kinds of fish can I catch?

Most popular Montana fish

The most common fish caught by anglers in the state is the rainbow trout, although walleyes, northern pike, perch, and other trout species are also very popular. Many of the fish in Montana are wild- which means they were hatched and raised in the wild. In fact, Montana is world famous for it's wild trout fisheries. However, hatcheries are important to help sustain fish populations in many bodies of water. Hatcheries operated by the state of Montana produce over 40 million fish to be stocked in state waters each year. About 3 million of these fish were rainbow trout, 2 million were kokanee salmon, and about 34 million are walleye.

Other species

Montana has 85 species of fish, and nearly all of them can be readily caught by anglers. Other popular species in the state include bass, whitefish, other trout species, catfish, sturgeon, paddlefish, crappie, burbot, and suckers. No matter where you live in Montana, there is some kind of fishing nearby. It's up to you to get out and find it!

The natives

Of the 85 species of fish in the state, about 55 are considered native. That means that the species was found in Montana before European settlers arrived. Our state fish, the Cutthroat Trout is native, as are many other popular species. In some places though, introduced fish species have taken over and hurt populations of native fish.

What else do I need to know?

Where can I learn more?

There is so much to learn about fish and fishing that you could spend a lifetime at it. Many people do spend their entire lives learning and studying about fish and how to catch them, and they never grow tired of it. You can learn more about fish in lots of different places. Check out your local library, look on the internet, and ask your teachers to teach about fish in your classes at school. You can also visit your nearest Fish Wildlife & Parks office to pick up information about fish. Children who like to fish can join the Montana Angling Youth, or MAY Club. It is a free club, with no meetings to attend, and you receive a newsletter about Montana fishing several times each year. You can join by sending your name, address, and age to:

Montana Angling Youth
490 North Meridian Road
Kalispell MT 59901


In Montana, a fishing license is required for most people before they can go fishing. There are different types of licenses required for different people, depending upon how old you are, and whether you are a resident of the state. Check a current copy of the Montana fishing regulations for more information.

Pass it on!

Once you have gotten good at fishing, it's your job to teach someone else how to fish. Invite a friend along who has never caught a fish before. Ask someone else in your family to come out and share the experience that you have learned to enjoy so much.