Free embryos of wild pallid sturgeon Scaphirhynchus albus were released in the Missouri River and captured at downstream sites through a 180-km reach of the river to examine ontogenetic drift and dispersal processes. Free embryos drifted primarily in the fastest portion of the river channel, and initial drift velocities for all age groups (mean = 0.66–0.70 m s−1) were only slightly slower than mean water column velocity (0.72 m s−1). During the multi-day long-distance drift period, drift velocities of all age groups declined an average of 9.7% day−1. Younger free embryos remained in the drift upon termination of the study; whereas, older age groups transitioned from drifting to settling during the study. Models based on growth of free embryos, drift behavior, size-related variations in drift rates, and channel hydraulic characteristics were developed to estimate cumulative distance drifted during ontogenetic development through a range of simulated water temperatures and velocity conditions. Those models indicated that the average free embryo would be expected to drift several hundred km during ontogenetic development. Empirical data and model results highlight the long-duration, long-distance drift and dispersal processes for pallid sturgeon early life stages. In addition, results provide a likely mechanism for lack of pallid sturgeon recruitment in fragmented river reaches where dams and reservoirs reduce the length of free-flowing river available for pallid sturgeon free embryos during ontogenetic development.