One of the most common questions we are asked is when is the best time to fly fish in Montana. This is a difficult question to answer since great fishing can be had over the course of the long season. The fishing seasons from year to year follow an annual pattern. The early Montana fishing season is dominated by aquatic insect hatches and the timing of these hatches varies a few weeks from year to year based on water flows and temperatures. Regardless of the year the sequence of aquatic hatches is always the same. Check with us on early season trips to get an update on the snowpack, but the following guide is pretty accurate on most years.
Montana fishing trips in the spring before runoff can produce great fishing with little competition. This is a great time of the year to fish some of the best hatches we have to offer including the blue winged olives that hatch prolifically on cloudy days during April and Mid May, the March Brown (large mayfly that moves big fish in late April and early May) and the Mother's Day Caddis (early May). The Mother's Day Caddis is a complete blanket hatch and can produce the best fishing of the year if you catch it right (end of April, early May). The Livingston Spring Creeks are on fire this time of year since rainbows by the hordes have moved into the smaller waters for spawning. A favorite season of our expert Montana fly fishing guides, this is the only time of the year where you have a real shot at 20+ fish days on the ultra technical spring creeks.
Late May-early June
Some of the big freestone rivers are blown out from snowmelt. This is still a good time to fish if you want to set up a trip to the Missouri or Big Horn Rivers which are dam controlled, have astounding numbers of fish and always run clear. On normal water years, this is also the best time of the year to catch the monster browns in the lower Madison River (also dam controlled). Some of the private spring creeks as well as the private ranches like the Sitz Ranch ponds are on fire during this transition time from spring to summer. Bozeman fishing opportunities are also good at some of the spring creeks in the Gallatin River Valley.
Mid June-early July
Once runoff subsides on a given river there is often a two to three week window of magical fishing where the fish are dumb and hungry and we get to throw big ugly flies on heavy tippet. This is a very popular time because the weather is good, the fishing is consistent, and big trout are still easy to fool. These dates tend to go faster than others as a result. This is a better time for float fishing because of the amount of water in the rivers although some wading opportunities still exist like the walk and wade section of the Madison River, private spring creeks, etc. This is also the time of year to try chasing the giant salmon fly hatch if you want to spend a day or two swinging for the fences and be one of the lucky few that get to watch a 28" brown eat a size 6 dry fly.
Early July-Late July
This is another very popular time of the year. The weather is ideal and the rivers are in great shape. This time of year is dominated by the hatch cycles of aquatic insects including caddis, golden stones, yellow sallies, and pale morning duns. Dry fly fishing really kicks into gear at this time of year when conditions are right and there are a lot of fishing opportunities on just about all of the fisheries. This is one of the best seasons to target the Boulder and Yellowstone Rivers. The Madison River is also a winner in the early summer.
Late July-Mid September
The rivers start dropping and developing a lot of definition. Aquatic hatches wind down in the rivers but ramp up on the lakes. Terrestrials like ants and hoppers become important. Fish begin to concentrate into specific areas like seams below gravel bars, around rocks, in gravel depressions and shelves, etc. This is the time of the year when less experienced anglers struggle more to get fish to the net. Our Montana fishing guides love this time of year because you get to really work the water and pick the pockets of the best buckets. This time of year we like to mix in a lot of float assist fishing where we float fish but also get out and wade a lot of the prime spots to hit runs with higher concentrations of fish. The lake fishing also gets good when callibaetis mayflies begin hatching like clockwork late in the morning on Ennis and Hebgen Lakes, as well as some private reservoirs providing sight fishing opportunities to very large trout. Dry fly fishing is often very good, but we also like to take advantage of the lack of aquatic hatches and drag or strip sculpin patterns looking for big fish. Some very big fish succumb to both hoppers as well as sub surface sculpins in late summer. This is another popular time of year because of the nice weather and diverse fishing opportunities.
Like to swing for the fences? Don't have a picture of a truly monster trout on your desk? October is the time of year to go big or go home. The browns start getting aggressive as they prepare to spawn in early November. As a result, large fish that have been either too smart or too hidden the rest of the summer suddenly become less wary and more aggressive. A lot of big fish also run out of reservoirs and into rivers like the Madison and Upper Missouri Rivers allowing a few lucky anglers to tangle with 10-15lb. browns each fall. Fly fishing the Yellowstone River also produces massive browns during the fall run. Catch rates aren't necessarily any better than other times of the year, in fact they are sometimes lower since we often are purposely targeting trophies with big flies. The rivers are nearly empty because lots of us locals are chasing hoofed critters in the hills and the tourists have gone home for the summer. This is a beautiful time to fish with snow on the peaks and yellow leaves on the aspens and cottonwoods.
During some years good fall fishing extends into November, and other years winter arrives around Halloween. We don't recommend booking trips between November and March because the weather can get pretty nasty. We do have great winter fly fishing on the Gallatin River and the spring creeks on nice winter days. We do quite a bit of fishing in the off season so don't leave your rod behind if your travelling our way for a ski or snowmobiling trip.