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Boating on the Missouri & Yellowstone Rivers


Dean Culwell's "Before You Go" Tips

Culwell is commander of the Montana Coast Guard and has floated more than 2,000 miles of Montana waters and the routes of Lewis and Clark. Culwell has also written:

  • Wear a properly-fitting life jacket. There really isn’t a good excuse not to wear one. Newer models, like inflatables, are comfortable and, although costly, they’r e cheap if they save lives.
  • Check the weather before you launch and periodically during the day. A waterproof weather radio is a great investment. If the weather is bad, a prudent choice might be to stay on shore. If you’re out and the weather turns foul, seek safe harbor. If a thunderstorm develops, your best option is to get off the water.
  • Learn to operate your boat, whether it’s a canoe, kayak, raft, rowboat, drift boat, sailboat or powerboat. Practice on calm water in good weather.
  • Don’t drink alcoholic beverages and boat. Be like Lewis and Clark. After their traumatic near loss of the white pirogue on May 14, 1805, Captain Lewis wrote, "we thought it a proper occasion to console ourselves and cheer the spirits of our men and accordingly took a drink of grog and gave each man a gill of sperits." This was after they were off the water.
  • Learn to swim, especially on canoe and kayak trips where you may end up in the water. Swimmers and non-swimmers should wear a life jacket.
  • Know the waters. Find some good maps, do some scouting, consult a guidebook, talk to someone who is familiar with the area or, better yet, take your first trip with someone who knows the area.
  • Plan your trip. Have a checklist of gear and safety equipment.
  • Review the Boaters Checklist, which identifies required and optional items.
  • Let someone know where you’re going to be and when you expect to return. That way, anyone looking for you if you don’t return as scheduled, will know where to start looking.
  • Have some form of communication with the outside world in case trouble brews or your return will be delayed. VHF or citizen band radios, cell or satellite phones may be appropriate depending on local coverage.
  • Carry basic safety equipment on your boat for self-rescue or for assisting others. Your most important safety item is your life jacket.
  • Learn basic self-rescue techniques. Knowing how to recognize river hydraulics (riffles, pools, eddies, holes) and hazards (strainers, sweepers, sawyers and planters), how to swim defensively or cross a strainer could end up being a life saver.
  • Know how to survive if you end up in cold water. If you’re alone, draw your knees up to your chest and cross your arms across your chest. This heat-escape-lessening position (HELP) reduces heat loss from the armpit and groin area. If you’re in a group, huddle together. Face each other in a circle and wrap your arms around the person on each side. Position the most vulnerable person (child, elder, coldest person or non-swimmer) in the middle. In shallow moving water, lay on your back with your feet up pointed downstream and your head looking downstream. This allows you to see where you are going, fend off rocks and keeps your feet from becoming entangled or trapped. Work your way to shore with backstrokes.
  • Wear a drysuit or wetsuit. If there is a chance you might end up in cold water (and the water in Montana is cold most of the year), wear a drysuit or wetsuit, depending on conditions.
  • Don’t panic if you or someone else in the boat gets dunked. Sounds easier said than done, but panic only makes a bad situation worse.
  • Take a first-aid kit along. Tailor the first-aid kit to yourself, your crew and the area you’re boating.
  • Know where diversion (low-head) dams are located and where portage or bypass routes are located. At all costs, never go over a diversion dam.
  • Get in shape. On long canoe and kayak trips, it's helpful to have some strength left when strong paddling becomes necessary to avoid an obstacle or to reach shore. And you’ll feel better at the end of a long day.
  • Don’t overload your boat. Overloaded boats handle poorly and swamp more easily.
  • Keep a lookout for other boats and hazards and maintain a safe speed. A proper lookout is a basic boating requirement, and plain good sense. A safe speed is a speed that you can avoid accidents or damage to other boats.
  • Read the "Montana Boating Laws." Get a copy can from any Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office. The laws cover rules for boat operation, required equipment, registration, closures/restrictions, safety tips, and other topics.
  • Take a boating safety course. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers great courses.

Missouri River Tips


Headwaters to North Dakota border

Boat Restrictions:
  • Lewis and Clark in Montana—Rivers, Boats, and Hazards
  • Closed to motorboats in Great Falls area
  • Closed to PWC from headwaters to Prewett Creek except reservoirs
  • No-wake speed from Hauser Dam to Beaver Creek
  • BLM restrictions on wild & scenic portion
  • No water skiing in Gates of Mountains area on weekends
  • Closed to all watercraft from Oct 15-Dec 15 at Canyon Ferry Dam to Brown’s Gulch

Caution: Nine dams

Yellowstone River Tips


Gardiner to North Dakota border

Boat Restrictions:

Closed to motorboats over 10 hp above HW 89 near mouth of Shields River.

Caution: Several irrigation diversion dams.

BOW canoe class.

BOW canoe class. (2003)

Swiftwater Rescue.

Game wardens practice swiftwater rescue. (Blackfoot River, 2003)


  • Boating on the Missouri. Make sure your watercraft is appropriate for the area you plan to boat.
    Note: All motorboats, personal watercraft and sailboats (over 12’ and longer) must be properly registered and display numbers and decals.
  • Life Jackets—the most essential piece of safety equipment to wear on or around the water. If you fall overboard or off the dock, your chances of survival are greatly improved when wearing a life jacket.
    Note: Life jacket must be the proper size, in good condition, and US Coast Guard approved.
    Note: Montana requires children under 12 years of age to wear a life jacket when on board a boat less than 26 feet in length. Anyone riding a personal watercraft must wear a life jacket.
  • Throwable rescue devices—should be on hand to assist others.
    Note: Coast Guard approved Type IV throwable PFDs are required of vessels 16 feet in length and longer
    Note: A throw rope or rescue rope can be used to assist others without putting yourself in danger.
  • Operators Certificate—Montana requires youth 13 & 14 years of age to possess a motorboat operator’s certificate when driving a motorboat over 10-horse power or PWC.
    Note: Boating Courses—many are available on-line, through home-study, or from boating organizations or colleges .They provide a good foundation for learning the boating laws, safety requirements and "rules of the road."
  • Fire extinguisher—required on some motorboats.
  • Whistle or horn—all boats must carry something to produce sound signals.
  • Navigation lights—required when operating at night or in reduced visibility.
  • Bilge pump, coffee can, or cup—to bail water.
  • Anchor and line
  • Tool kit
  • Extra paddle or oars for small craft.
  • Radio—for weather reports.
  • Visual distress signals—though not required in Montana, it’s a good idea to have flares, strobe lights, or smoke signals in case of an emergency.

Boats on the Missouri

  • Water conditions change considerably along the Missouri River.
  • Three Forks—at the headwaters of the Missouri, water is shallow and clear. It is floatable by canoes and rafts.
  • Fort Peck Lake—Near Glasgow, water forms a deep large lake, suitable for sail boats and large motorboats.


  • Weather—In Montana, the weather can change very rapidly. Boaters should monitor weather developments throughout their trip.
    • Thunderstorms can roll in quickly, often with high winds and sometimes hail and lightening. Watch the weather to the west, the direction from which most bad weather arrives in Montana.
    • Sun and exposure are big concerns in the summer. Drink plenty of liquids, but avoid mixing alcohol and boating. Wear sunglasses and apply sunscreen frequently. Sunburn and heat exhaustion are dangerous.
  • Hypothermia—occurs when your body’s core temperature drops below normal level. Hypothermia can happen in Montana all year round. Water that is colder than your normal body temperature can rob you of heat 30 times faster than the air.
    • Protect against hypothermia by always wear a life jacket. If stranded in the water don’t try to swim, remain still to conserve heat. Protect the areas that lose heat quickly—head, chest and groin.
  • Remote areas—Although much of the Missouri river and its reservoirs have well maintained access points, campgrounds, and some food and gas services, other stretches of the river look the same as when Lewis & Clark were here. Access roads can be impassable when wet. Food, water and gas services may be infrequent. Emergency assistance may take hours to reach you. Pack extra supplies and plan accordingly when boating in remote areas.
Storm clouds.

Storm clouds in Spring.

Reading the Water

  • Water levels—may change in just a few hours, particularly downstream of a dam. Water speed averages 4 to 7 miles per hour under normal conditions.
  • Hazards—may lie just below the water surface.
  • High water—(especially spring run-off) can bring cold, swift moving water and floating debris.
  • Floating debris—Trees, fence posts and trash can be found floating in the river. Be aware of these hazards and steer clear of them.
  • Strainers and sweepers—often fallen trees, snag or logjams that create a hazard for boaters. Strainers are in the water with part of their structure below the surface; snags and logjams can cause a boat to capsize, puncture a hole or cause major damage. A sweeper may be a tree that has fallen over the waterway with branches extending down, which can "sweep" a passing boater into the water.
  • Sandbars—As water levels change, sandbars can form just below the waters surface. They can appear and disappear overnight.

For more information about boating in Montana visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Montana Boating Laws.

Gallatin River.

Gallatin River's banks arefull with spring snow melt and rain.

Portage Rights

  • Streams—Landowners may place fences and other barriers across streams for purposes of land or water management, livestock management, or to establish land ownership, as permissible by law. If a landowner puts a fence or other structure across a stream, such as a float-over cable or a float-through gate, and it does not interfere with the recreational use of the water, the public does not have the right to go above the ordinary high-water mark to portage.
  • Barrier—is defined by the law as an artificial obstruction (like a fence or a bridge), which totally or effectively obstructs the recreational use of the surface water. Under the Montana Stream Access Law, the public may use rivers and streams for recreational purposes up to the ordinary high-water marks. Although the law gives recreationists the right to use rivers and streams for water-related recreation, it does not allow them to enter posted lands bordering those streams or to cross private lands to gain access to streams. Complete rules are available at any FWP office.
  • Private Land—Montana’s trespass law states that a member of the public has the privilege to enter private land only:
    • with the explicit permission of the landowner or his agent, or
    • when the landowner has failed to post a no-trespassing notice.
    The recreationist must obtain permission from the landowner before entering posted lands. Recreationists are urged to obtain complete rules about this law from any FWP office.

(Source: Montana Fishing Regulations 2002-2003 first printing, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks)

A complete copy of the Montana Boating Laws is available from any FWP office or by calling (406) 444-2535. You may wish to contact the county sheriff’s office or the federal agency for the area where you will be boating to find out if any additional regulations are in effect.

Fence on the bank of Gallatin River.

Fence the bank of Gallatin River.