Montana Fishing Report

General Overview

Fishing area waters has settled into a very predictable winter pattern. Days are short, water temperatures are cold and trout are now largely on maintenance diets and are primarily focused on conserving energy. Ice shelves and slush in rivers can be an issue during cold snaps but there are still plenty of options when temps are in the upper 20s or above (colder temps result in guides icing rapidly and make fishing difficult). The best options now are on a few of the bigger rivers as well as the spring creeks. The smaller freestone streams are cold and tough to fish at the moment.

Trout are now in the mode of a maintenance diet and their metabolism is directly tied to the water temperature which means it is slow. Most of the fish in our local rivers are well entrenched in their winter runs. This time of year you need to be have laser focus on where you fish and target the deeper runs with slow to medium currents. Trout will no longer be found in the fast riffles or bustling pocket water that was so productive in the warmer months. The good news is that once you find some of these winter time honey holes they will be packed with trout.  Fish densities in the best winter runs can be staggering with dozens upon dozens of trout packed together.  

Nymphing is hands down the most effective technique in the cold weather months (although streamers and even dries can still be an option). The fly selection doesn’t have to be fancy but will vary from fishery to fishery. On the bigger freestone rivers such as the Yellowstone and Gallatin it is nice to still fish something larger as the top fly such as a stonefly nymph, crayfish pattern or sculpin trailed by a smaller nymph. For small nymphs shoot for something in the 18-20 range. Patterns that produce include small baetis emergers, pheasant tails and midge larva. San Juan worms and eggs are also good patterns to try and if you are fishing a tail water or spring creek a sow bug can produce (especially pink). The reality in the winter is where and how you fish is more important than the pattern. On spring creeks the big/small rule for nymphing can still apply but the “big fly” might be a size 14 sow bug trailed by a size 22 midge larva. Takes in the cold weather months are always very “soft”.  The fact that trout are not moving much for flies along with the slow water that they are found in produces a very light reaction on a strike indicator. It is important to experiment with weighting to ensure flies are right on the bottom. Many of our guides also prefer a yarn indicator in the winter which makes it easier to see subtle ticks and changes of speed. If your indicator tilts, slows down, speeds up, or looks “funny” set the hook and ask questions later.

On a mild winter day you might be lucky enough to run into some rising trout feeding on midges. Even freestone streams like the Gallatin will produce some sporadic midge hatches, especially on mild days. If the hatch isn’t too strong dries that imitate single midges are more productive such as a palomino pattern. On tail waters like the Bighorn the midge hatches in the winter can be thick in the late morning and the insects will cluster together so many of the patterns such as the Griffiths gnat that imitate these “rafts” of insects can out produce single insect patterns. Time of day is also important this time of year. Early mornings can be very tough fishing. The magic window in the winter is from around 1pm until 4:30 or so each day when water temperatures are peaking. As we progress farther into the winter months it will pay to seek out waters that have some thermal protection from frigid air temperatures. Waters that are great producers even during cold snaps include the spring creeks, tail waters and certain freestone waters that have significant spring fed influences. Big freestone waters like the Yellowstone River will develop large ice shelves resulting in dangerous wading conditions.

Winter time water levels are always on the low side and there is a lot of definition to the water. The key to winter fishing is finding slower holding water and fishing in the afternoon when water temperatures are at their peak. 

Midge hatches can be strong in some locations in the late morning and early afternoon when warmer mild weather settles in. Otherwise the fishing is a nymphing game.

Fly selection
Fly selection is simple in the colder months. If there is a midge hatch choose your favorite midge dry or cluster pattern. Palomino midges and Griffith’s gnats are good enough. For sub surface try a rubber legs, egg or worm pattern on top and a smaller midge larva or baetis nymph on bottom.

Reading water
Water temps are cooler and trout have moved out of the heavy water and riffles in favor of softer holding water. Trout will be very heavily concentrated in large, slow runs and nearly absent everywhere else. It pays to skip a lot of water and only focus on these slower runs. Fish slow and deep in the peak afternoon hours.

Yellowstone River Fishing Report

- Fair
Yellowstone River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The river is still a good option closer to Gardiner but the lower river develops a lot of ice shelves and becomes difficult to fish. Plan on fishing the after lunch hours with nymphing being the staple. Rubber legs trailed by a prince is as fancy...Read more

Upper Madison River Fishing Report

- Fair
Upper Madison Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Upper is not our favorite mid winter option. The lower river near Ennis often experiences large ice flows. The upper river closer to Hebgen Lake can be good but access is tough with the snow banks. Trout are avoiding the fast water that makes up...Read more

Lower Madison River Fishing Report

- Good
Lower Madison Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Lower can be a great mid winter fishery when the weather is on the mild side and the wind forecast is tame. During or just after cold snaps slush in the water can make fishing tough and wind can often rip through bear trap canyon. The trout are...Read more

Gallatin River Fishing Report

- Good
Gallatin River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Gallatin is low and clear and is fishing well in the upper half of the Gallatin Canyon. The ice shelves are an issue on the lower water closer to Four Corners. On cold days slush in the river also causes challenges. Upstream of Big Sky also...Read more

Montana Spring Creeks Fishing Report

- Good
Spring Creeks Fishing Report Current Conditions: The spring creeks are a great winter option. The water that percolates from the springs are always at Montana’s mean annual temperature of 48 degrees which is much warmer than surrounding freestone rivers. This produces a higher metabolism in spring...Read more

Stillwater River Fishing Report

- Poor
Stillwater River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Stillwater River is low but trout are moving into the deeper slots and nymphing has been productive. This is a colder river ice shelves can make wading treacherous. Other fisheries tend to be a better bet but if you find some clear water on a...Read more

Boulder River Fishing Report

- Poor
Boulder River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Boulder is low and the trout are spooky so making longer casts helps to reduce sending trout in the wrong direction. Access can be difficult and travelling up and down the river treacherous with ice shelves and slipper boulders. The good news is...Read more

Jefferson River Fishing Report

- Poor
Jefferson River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Jeff is running low and slow right now and large ice shelves make access difficult. Concentrate on the bigger runs below riffles and experiment until you find the right water speed and depth. Nymphing will be the best producer and as a rule...Read more

East Gallatin River Fishing Report

- Good
East Gallatin River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The water on the East is low right now and trout but the fishing has been good. Nymphing the deeper runs is definitely the ticket. The trout are highly concentrated in these buckets and not found in the rest of the river so if you aren’t...Read more

Missouri River Fishing Report

- Good
Missouri River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The fishing on the upper waters is slowing down but the tailwater section near Craig is still a great choice. The temperature moderation provided by the dam near Wolf Creek produces ice free waters all winter. The key when fishing the Missouri is to...Read more

Ruby River Fishing Report

- Good
Ruby River Fishing Report Current Conditions: The Ruby is a nice option in the winter months. The smaller valley doesn’t produce as strong of winds as the Madison and the dam protects the waters a bit from ice shelves. Nymphing can be pretty good most days and you will often be surprised to find...Read more

Montana Lakes Fishing Report

- Poor
Lake Fishing Report Current Conditions: Not a good option until spring The Month Ahead: Not much Long Term Fishing Forecast: Ice out is from April until June depending on the elevation of the lake and is always a great time to site fish to cruising trout or strip streamers for trophies.Read more

Other Waters Fishing Report

- Poor
Small Stream Fishing Report Current Conditions: The smaller streams around Montana are cold and difficult to fish in mid winter, spring creeks and the larger waters are a better option. The Month Ahead: The smaller streams around Montana are cold and difficult to fish in mid winter, spring creeks...Read more