11 Best Catfish Fishing Rivers & Lakes in Montana

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Catfish have long been known as one of the best-tasting freshwater fish in Montana, and they are surprisingly strong and fun to catch.

The key to catching one involves knowing the right bait to use as well as the best places to go. I’ll give you some good ideas on both fronts.

In quite a few places in Montana, you will find fishing spots that offer good chances of catching some catfish. Even giant catfish.

If you’re looking for a fun day out on the water with your family or friends, the spots we suggest might be perfect for you.

This article will list the top places to fish for catfish in Montana, but first, it will provide some valuable information on where, how, and what type of fishing equipment you will need.

With all of these great resources available in Montana, it should be fairly easy to catch your catfish meal. So now, what’s stopping you? Get out there and start fishing!

Montana Catfishing

In Montana, like much of the United States, the favorite species of catfish that you will find are channel catfish.

While there are some others such, including smaller bullheads and much smaller stonecats, channel cats can grow to excellent size and are widely considered the best eating among common species.

Montana also isn’t home to the United States’ two larger cousins, blue and flathead catfish, so channel cats really deserve the full focus.

The maximum size that a channel catfish can reach is about 40 inches long, and larger specimens typically weigh between 5 to 20 pounds in Montana, and the state record catfish topped 35 pounds, but the very best eating catfish are the smaller ones.

A fair bit of the information contained in this article is from the Montana Catfish Association, whose members are among the most avid and knowledgeable catfishes in the state.

Board member Brenner Flaten said their organization promotes catch, photo and release with larger catfish. Those are the breeding fish that keep populations strong.

Anglers who wish to harvest some catfish are encouraged to focus on fish that are 1 to 3 pounds, which taste the best anyway, Flaten said.

How to Catch Catfish in Montana

So how do you catch catfish?

First, you can start out with some fairly basic equipment. This would include a rod and reel and probably a landing net, and in some locations waders are very helpful.

You will also need a fishing license, which can be purchased at any sporting goods store or online through Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

The best ways to go about catching catfish all start with good bait. This along with fishing in the right spots is key.

Minnows, crawfish and nightcrawlers can all be excellent choices for catfish bait, as will a variety of cut-baits such as pieces of other fish you caught or even grocery store fish, shrimp or prawns. Quite a few companies make “stink bait” concoctions for catfish fishing.

Be sure to follow rules regarding bait use, in particular with using live fish or cut-up fish for bait, which can lead to problems such as spreading invasive fish species or diseases.

It’s a good idea to bring a few different baits in adequate supplies until you find what is working best.

Catfish Rods and Tackle

Before you start your fishing adventure, you want to make sure you have the right equipment.

For catfish, it often pays to have a sturdier rod and heavier line than you’d use for average trout fishing. This is doubly true if you plan to battle big cats in river currents.

Your heavier bass or walleye rod is likely sufficient for some locations, but probably best to avoid the ultralight rod and reel unless you want to see a big cat bust it. Heavier equipment is warranted in areas with more current or larger fish.

Decent catfish rigs don’t have to be fancy or expensive, and even purchasing a gently used setup may fit the bill, especially while you’re getting started.

Hooks will also be among your most important tackle when it comes to catfish. Look for strong hooks in relatively large sizes that roughly match the baits you’ll use.

Treble hooks can work well for dough baits while circle hooks and more standard bait-holding hooks are better suited to natural baits. You should have a few different sizes on hand, preferably heavier gauge.

Lunker-catfish hunters will often use extra large circle hooks with large baits, because they are strong and hook up the jumbo cats effectively.

Catfish aren’t typically line or hook shy, and their big mouths can take in a large hook, so you’re generally favoring strength over stealth.

Catfish are known for finding food that is sitting on the bottom of a river or lake.

This means you need to make sure you also use enough weight to both cast out and get the bait down to the bottom.

Some anglers also use slip bobber systems that drops the bait to the fishing zone while the bobber helps keep the bait in the fishing zone while allowing anglers detect a bite.

Catch More Catfish

To learn more about catfish fishing techniques, the best baits and other fish-catching tips, see our guide: Catfish Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.

Where to Catch Catfish

We have readied the top places where you will find excellent spots for catching catfish in Montana.

While these are all great places to start fishing if you are new and just learning the ropes, catfish also are available in other waters as well, so check out the lakes and rivers near you.

Before you go, make sure that you know the fishing regulations and have the appropriate license for wherever you fish.

Yellowstone River

A man in a boat holds up a nice sized channel catfish he caught fishing in the Yellowstone River in Montana.
Photo courtesy of Montana Catfish Association

“Most would consider the Yellowstone River the finest cat fishery in Montana,” Flaten said.

You have a legitimate, if occasional, shot at catching a 15-pound or larger channel catfish anywhere on this river from Billings to the North Dakota border, a distance of around 340 river miles.

That’s a lot of catfish water.

To narrow it down a bit, the section of river from Huntley (near Billings) downstream to Miles City is particularly popular for catching catfish. Even that area is a two-hour drive on the interstate and almost countless bends in the river.

U.S. 94 loosely follows the river through this area, with other roads often providing the final access.

Downriver areas also are full of channel catfish. For example, the Savage Fire Department in far eastern Montana hosts an annual catfish fishing tournament.

You can catch catfish virtually all year on this river, although spring (roughly April to early June) tends to be the very peak of the season as catfish go through pre-spawn and spawn.

Flaten said on average, channel cats from the “Stone” are in the 4- to 5-pound range and 7- and 8-pound cats are very common.

Remember that those common sizes already are a bit large for prime eating, so consider releasing the larger fish and keeping some pan-sized catfish for dinner.

As with many waters in Montana, there also are some small stonecats and bullheads that get little angling attention but will pick up your bait at times.

Missouri River

A man holds up a large catfish caught in the Missouri River in Montana, with a black night background.
Photo courtesy of Montana Catfish Association

This is a large river headwaters in central Montana and flows eastward to start a journey of thousands of miles before joining the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

As with much of the Mississippi River system, including major tributaries, the Missouri River is home to channel catfish from Missouri far upstream into Montana.

Several middle and lower sections of the Missouri where catfish fishing is excellent don’t have major cities along the banks, so you should do some research and stock up on harder-to-find supplies before heading out.

If we pinpoint an area, we’d look at the section upriver from Fort Peck Reservoir, with some of the best catfish fishing is in the vicinity of the Missouri Breaks National Monument.

If you are looking for a good campground that offers excellent catfishing opportunities, the James Kipp Campground between Malta and Grass Range is a good spot. It’s also one of Montana’s best spots for snagging paddlefish.

Channel cats that live in the massive Fort Peck Reservoir will head to this part of the river (including near Fred Robinson Bridge)  during the spring spawning season.

The concentration of catfish in the area can be impressive, and the catches follow along.

Some anglers use set lines to avoid casting along the heavily tree lined banks.

Anywhere on the river with channel catfish, these fish can often be found alongside one another when they concentrate in deep water below dikes, in dam tailwaters, or near tributary streams.

During the summer months, they are more commonly seen around dams and other areas of significant current such as at the mouths of rivers and by woody structures like trees.

Because channel catfish are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, their diets vary extensively depending on what is readily available and easiest for them to capture. 

Therefore, their hunting strategy is a combination of both active pursuit and ambush tactics, in which they will either actively pursue their prey or simply wait for an easy meal like a wounded fish or crayfish to come by.

Nelson Reservoir

Nelson Reservoir is an irrigation storage unit that is filled mainly by the Milk River, which is in itself one of Montana’s best catfishing spots.

The reservoir is just north of U.S. 2 roughly between Malta and Saco. It covers more than 4,000 acres and is home to about two dozen different types of fish, including several record-breaking specimens over the years.

Nelson Reservoir can fall under the radar because gigantic Fort Peck Lake is only about an hour away and draws many anglers.

But Nelson offers an extremely good fishing opportunity and is widely known as a walleye hot spot, but don’t neglect its catfish fishing, as so many anglers do.

Nelson has produced some past state-record channel cats, including one just ounces under 30 pounds caught in 2006. Although since eclipsed, the reservoir remains one of the better places in Montana to catch a catfish over 20 pounds and possibly over 30.

Keep in mind to bring your mosquito spray because it can get nasty here at times!

Milk River

The Milk River is around 700 miles long, with stretches flowing through both Canada and Montana before joining the Missouri River below Fort Peck Reservoir.

While trout streams get much of the glory in Montana, the Milk River is on the upswing these days for catfish, becoming one of the premier catfishing rivers in the state.

The average size of catfish generally has been increasing but still below that of some larger rivers and reservoirs. No matter, there are plenty to catch and the occasional double-digit monster ready for battle.

Each year in Glasgow, anglers can enter the Catfish Classic tournament and test their luck!

The tournament is scheduled in June, which along with the Glasgow location on the lower reaches of the river should give you some pretty strong hints of when and where to fish this river for channel catfish, but we have some more specific suggestions for access.

The Milk River is accessible above the Vandalia diversion dam upriver from Glasgow and can be navigated with a boat during average stream flows. There is nearly 30 miles of river fishable by boat in that reach.

There also is a concrete ramp at Milk River Park up in Hinsdale. There’s also public dock access for anglers, water skiers or boaters who want to enjoy their time on this free-flowing Missouri tributary. 

Below Vandalia Dam (one of three dams along the river), it becomes difficult to navigate without a jet boat. You have limited options: navigating by farmland crossings between irrigation pump sites below Fort Peck Dam; going upstream from near Lowes Ferry Landing; traveling downriver via ramps located downstream past Fort Buford State.

The fish here love using deep holes in the river to their advantage, so this is where you should be fishing for a whiskered fish.

Powder River

The Powder River is a tributary of the Yellowstone, flowing north through the town of Broadus and joining the Yellowstone near Interstate 94 southwest of Terry.

This river is a great place for catfishing because it has good numbers of fish and excellent fishing access around a few towns and adjacent roads. In other spots, it’s well off the beaten path.

The Powder River can be accessed by bank or boat; there are plenty of areas to find a spot to suit your fishing needs, and enough spots are easy to reach and family friendly.

The water levels change seasonally, so if you’re not sure what to do, there might be someone around who can help. The Powder River is a great place for families because it’s so easy to access and catch rates can be good.

The river has lots of different species that can be fished for, including catfish and bass in the lower river and trout farther upstream.

Fort Peck Reservoir

An angler in a boat holds up a mammoth catfish caught in Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana.
Photo courtesy of Montana Catfish Association

The Fort Peck Reservoir on the Missouri River is simply massive at more than 130 miles in length and nearly a quarter million surface acres when full.

This lake offers a wide variety of fishing opportunities for people, including angling for smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike and, of course, catfish.

If you are looking to fish for larger catfish in Montana, the Fort Peck Reservoir is a great place.

In fact, Fort Peck has produced a state-record channel catfish pushing nearly 35 pounds, so this reservoir is certainly capable of growing giants.

You can catch plenty of catfish in this body of water, but it’s so big it can be tough to know where to start.

Boat anglers definitely have an advantage here, although it’s possible to catch cats from the bank.

The upper reaches of the main reservoir as well as up into the huge Dry Arm part of the impoundment harbor plenty of catfish, especially from the middle of April on into early June, when the fish are staging to spawn.

Figure on spending your time from the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge area and to the west as catfish will head up the Missouri River to spawn.

Crooked Creek Bay is another good spot to locate channel catfish, which also attracts catfish that will spawn in the Musselshell River.

Walleye fishing is very popular at Fort Peck, and anglers fishing with worm harness rigs, jigs and other presentations are quite likely to eventually hook a few catfish.

The Musselshell River ​

The lowest 100 miles before the river dumps into Fort Peck Reservoir is one of the best fishing locations for channel catfish across Montana.

Unfortunately, the river is notoriously hard to access by boat, leaving most anglers to fish it only on foot. Be aware of private land ownership as you look for river access.

The upper Musselshell River is largely known as a trout stream, but after it passes through various reservoirs, its lower reaches meander through board valleys and warm up enough to be ideal habitat for catfish and several other game fish such as sauger.

Early springtime is one of the best times to catch catfish on the lower Musselshell, as they look to head upstream above Fort Peck Reservoir.

Many catfish in the 6- to 7-pound range are caught here, with some larger specimens. Remember that catfish are best to eat in smaller sizes, so consider releasing the larger fish to be the breeding stock for future generations.

Honorable Mentions

Here are three more spots that don’t always quite measure up to the top seven above, but these can be solid options for good catfish fishing in Montana.

Bighorn River

This river flows out of Bighorn Lake (mostly in Wyoming but also a catfish fishery) and heads north until it joins the Yellowstone River near I-94 east of Custer.

While better known as a world class tailwater fishery for trout below the dam, this tributary offers some pretty good smaller stream fishing for channel catfish that move between Yellowstone River and the Bighorn.

Tongue River

This Yellowstone River tributary joins the larger river at Miles City, between the Bighorn and Powder rivers, with good access near the mouth.

There are some city parks and other access along Dike Road in the very lower river at Miles City, which is plenty large enough to offer a variety of amenities.

Highway 59 and then Tongue River Road follow the river upstream in more remote country.

Judith River

This is a Missouri River tributary that joins the river in the Upper Missouri Breaks area, just upstream from the PN Bridge (Highway 236).

The river shares a channel catfish population with the Missouri River and may be a good place to try during the spawning run.

There is a small campground nearby at Judith Landing, located between Big Sandy and Winifred.

Cow Creek Reservoir

This small reservoir (85 acres) in southeastern Montana has at various times been stocked with channel catfish to provide a fair to good fishery when numbers are up.

Cow Creek Campground offers just a handful of first come, first served sites.

Channel Catfish Stocking List

Another great way to find good spots to fish for channel cats is the stocking list on the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website.

The list will give you a feel for where catfish were stocked in previous years and may now be large enough to harvest.

For example, at last check, Cow Creek and Nelson reservoirs mentioned above were recent recipients of thousands of stocked channel cats.

Sources

The Montana Catfish Association provided many of the details for the best cat fishing spots in Montana. Visit their Montana Cats website for more information.

Additional information came from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Montana freelance writer Patrick Davis contributed to this article.