Top Montana Catfish Waters

By Brenner Flaten


Musselshell River

Musselshell River

Catfish Information: Channel Catfish, Stone Cat, and Black Bullhead swim the waters of the Musselshell River. The river has always been, and continues to be a premier spot for the catfish angler. Because of private land ownership and lack of road access, this river is relatively untapped. The last 100 miles before the river dumps into famous Fort Peck Reservoir is one of the top hangouts for Mr. Whiskers in the entire Midwest. Other than periods of heavy runoff, fishing from a boat is extremely difficult, but offers the shore angler a great shot at a true trophy Channel Cat. The action heats up in early spring, when Channel Catfish look to move from the reservoir and head upstream for a place to spawn. The average Channel Cat is in the 6-7lb. range., with a good shot at a cat in the mid-teen range on a typical trip. Catch-and-release or "selective harvest" is essential in helping keep this river plentiful with large catfish. 

Basic Information: The Musselshell River begins with the headwaters of the North and South forks in the Little Belt, Castle, and Crazy mountains in central Montana. Converging near Martinsdale, Montana, they form the mainstem, which flows east and north through a landscape varying from mountains to rolling plains and badlands. The upper, coldwater region of the Musselshell supports five species of game fish, including native cutthroat and mountain whitefish. Abundant brush cover, good gravel bars, and clarity characterize the habitat of the South Fork. The North Forkís excellent willow cover and undercut banks provide favorable habitat for brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Averaging 60 feet wide at the juncture of the forks, the Musselshell draws extra water downstream for irrigation. Three storage reservoirs add to its flows, Bair Reservoir on the North Fork, Martinsdale Reservoir on the South Fork, and Deadmanís Basin, a mainstem diversion. For the 50 miles from Barber to Roundup, the Musselshell widens, a number of irrigation diversions reduce stream flows, and the water becomes warmer. Riparian vegetation is commonly honeysuckle, wild rose, willow, and isolated groves of cottonwood trees. For its last 90 miles, the river broadens to 100 feet, accompanied by a rapid increase in turbidity. Vegetation adjacent to the river thins due to the arid climate, livestock grazing, and unstable and saline soils. However, the warm-water portion of the Musselshell supports a substantial resident fish population and provides spawning areas for sauger and channel catfish from Fort Peck Reservoir. The Musselshell River empties into Fort Peck Reservoir north of Mosby, 342 miles from its sources. Information from

Milk River


Catfish Information: Channel Catfish, Stone Cat, and Black Bullhead are present in this body of water. The Milk River is the home to the current state record Stone Cat, and a previous state record Channel Cat. The Stone Cat, a 0.54 lb. beauty, was caught by Dale Bjerga on 6/16/96. The Previous state record Channel Cat, broken in 1984 was a 23lb. 4 oz. giant. caught by Larry Hamilton. Although, you will be hard pressed to see fish like that everyday, it is reasonable to catch a dozen cats in the 2 to 3 lb. range, and have an outside shot at one near 6 lbs. on a typical afternoon outing. It is safe to say that the average Channel Cat is about 2.5 lbs., a 6 lb. Cat is really nice, and a 10 lb. Cat is a trophy. The river is more accessible above Vandalia diversion dam and navigable with a prop boat, below Vandalia dam, a jet boat is almost a necessity. This river is also host to the annual Milk River Catfish Classic held in Glasgow, MT in early June. 

General Information: Nearly 700 miles long from its sources to the mouth below Fort Peck Dam, the Milk River is one of the Missouri Riverís longest tributaries. Beginning on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park the North and South forks of the Milk River flow northeast through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to merge just over the Canadian border. The mainstem Milk River continues 171 miles through Alberta, Canada, re-entering Montana north of Rudyard. Fifty-three miles farther southeast the Milk River runs up against Fresno Dam, completed in 1939. Above Fresno Reservoir, limited woody vegetation, highly fluctuating flow, and extremely high turbidity characterize the river. The channel is mostly shallow and highly braided. Turning due east below the dam, the river carries less sediment and runs within a single incised channel with vertical banks. From Fresno Dam down to Vandalia Diversion Dam, 318 miles, the river is fragmented by four diversion dams and one municipal water weir. East of Havre, the river winds through the pre-glacial-age valley of the Missouri, paralleled by U.S. Highway 2, and marking the northern boundary of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Below Vandalia Diversion Dam, for its last 120 miles, although still a single-channel river, the Milk has well-developed riparian stands along its banks, deeper habitat, and cobble riffles. The present-day Milk River results from a history of dams, channelization, flow modification, and expansion of land use, as well as natural development. Since the 1880s, the Milk River Basin has provided water for agricultural communities. The Milk River replenishes the wetlands and prairie habitats of the 16,000-acre Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge where over 250 bird species and other wildlife families flourish. Perhaps the riverís most important contribution to the areaís fishery resource is its alliance with the Missouri River. In its lowermost 73 miles, the Milk River provides critical spawning and rearing habitat for migratory and resident fishes, including native species of the Missouri River, such as blue sucker, channel catfish, freshwater drum, paddlefish, sauger, shorthead redhorse, and shovelnose sturgeon. Information from

Yellowstone River

Yellowstone River

Catfish Information: Channel Catfish, Stone Cat, Black Bullhead, and Yellow Bullhead inhabit this river system. Home of the previous state record Yellow Bullhead (0.72 lbs.), caught by Wade Fredenberg in 1987. The Yellowstone is by far the most popular catfish river in the Big Sky state. The section of river stretching from Huntley to Miles City receives the most pressure from the catfish crowd. Catfishing is exceptional throughout the year in this area, but tends to peek in the pre-spawn (early April to early June). An average Cat tips the scale at nearly 7 lbs. , but fish in the 10-15 lb. range await on every bend in the river. This river is host to the Annual Savage Fire Dept. Catfish Tournament held out of Savage, MT in June.   

General Information: The Yellowstone River originates in Wyoming and flows through Yellowstone National Park before entering Montana at Gardiner. From the park boundary to Livingston, the river flows north through Paradise Valley, flanked by the Absarokee Mountains on the east and the Gallatin Range on the west. It continues in a northeasterly direction from Livingston and meets up with the Missouri River just across the North Dakota border. The Yellowstone has survived as one of the last, large, free flowing rivers in the continental United States. Lack of mainstem impoundments allows spring peak flows and fall and winter low flows to influence a unique ecosystem and aesthetic resource. From the clear, coldwater cutthroat trout fishery in Yellowstone National Park to the warmer water habitat at its mouth, the river supports a variety of aquatic environments that remain relatively undisturbed. The adjacent terrestrial environment, through most of the 550 Montana miles of river, is an impressive cottonwood-willow bottomland. The river has also been a major factor in the settlement of southeastern Montana, and retains much cultural and historical significance. Information from

Fort Peck Reservoir

Catfish Information: Channel Catfish and Black Bullhead lurk in the depths of the Fort Peck Reservoir. Remaining in relative obscurity, the Channel Cat grows to enormous proportions in this body of water. With little to no fishing pressure directed towards them, the opportunities are endless. Fort Peck has long been known for their world-class Walleye, Sauger, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass, however, Catfish should join that elite list.  There is a unique opportunity to boat a state record at any given moment. Home to a state record on more than one occasion (25.89 lbs. -1984 and 25.89 lbs. - 1989), planning a weekend trip in early spring could be well worth your while. Recent drought conditions and low water levels have made life more difficult for the serious catfish angler. It is now tougher than ever to target cats if youíre a shore angler. If you are planning on attacking the cats, plan on getting an early start at it (Mid April to Early June), and concentrate your efforts in the big dry arm or the upper reaches of the lake. 

Basic Information:Located 17 miles south-east of Glasgow, MT and 120 miles north of Billings, MT. Fort Peck Reservoir is the largest earth-filled man made dam in the entire world. It has more shore line (1,500 miles) than any other body of water within the United States, and if stretched out, its shores would be longer than the entire west coast line of California. At the current time (2007) it is experiencing major drought conditions and is at an all-time low water level, however it will only be a matter of time and this beauty will be back in full force. It covers 250,000 acres of land in secluded north-eastern Montana and continues to be a top tourism destination. It is home to over 60 species of fish and is pressured throughout the entire open water season as well as through the ice. There are twelve fully functioning boat ramps during normal water levels, and access to the lake is surprisingly easy. 

Nelson Reservoir

Catfish Information: Channel Catfish and Black Bullhead can be hauled out of here. Until recently the Channel Cats in Nelson Reservoir had been one big mystery and the pro staff could only think about the possibilities of what could be on the bottom of this Reservoir. In 2005, a cat weighing in at over 25 pounds was hauled out of here and the excitement began! In the summer of 2006, a new state record Channel Cat was caught by a local angler and tipped the scales at an unbelievable 29.71 lbs., crushing the old state record by over 2.5 pounds. The catfish is now the sixth current state record fish caught out of Nelson, joining the Big Mouth Buffalo, Carp, Goldeye, Small Mouth Buffalo, and White Sucker. Given Nelsonís reputation of growing very large fish of all species at an alarming rate you can see why this body of water is quickly becoming a bulls-eye for all serious catfish anglers. 

Basic Information: The Milk River is what makes this baby kick, if the river was drying up so would go Nelson Reservoir. It is strictly an off stream storage unit for irrigation. Located 10 miles west of Saco, MT and 19 miles north-east of Malta, this beautiful get-away is 4,320 acres of fishing heaven. Over 25 different species swim Nelson Reservoir, and the majority of them approach trophy status. This body of water is often overlooked because famous Fort Peck Reservoir is only an hour drive away. Nelson is known for its tremendous fishing, but also as "the mosquito capital of the world". If you are planning a summer trip up to Nelson, make sure you pack plenty of bug spray. Sleeping Buffalo, a hot springs resort, is located just a short drive from the shore and offers food, lodging, and other entertainment. High quality boat ramps and a flat terrain surround the lake providing easy access for the boat or shore angler.

Future reviews: Missouri River, Tongue River Reservoir, Powder River, Castle Rock Lake.   

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