Montana Fishing Report Overview
Fishing is definitely on the upswing around Southwest, Montana. Good hatches of midges are often bringing trout to the surface on the right days. The spring baetis hatches are just getting started and will become much more important in the weeks to come. The streamer fishing has also been very good – not always a lot of action but for those willing to stay with the big bunny patterns some big browns are coming to the net. Small streams are cold and not worth bothering with the exception of the spring creeks, but most larger and medium sized rivers fishing very well. Rainbows are in spawning mode and are filling up some tributaries and the spring creeks so be careful to stay away from fish on their redds in the spawning gravel. Redds are easy to spot and you will see “clean” gravel and often active fish.
Trout metabolism is tied to water temperature and as rivers and streams slowly warm they are becoming more and more active but still plan on using some winter tactics. Trout are still in their winter runs and will be there for most of the early spring. 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 not move into the fast riffles or bustling pocket water until much later in the spring and early summer. The good news is that once you find some of these cold water 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. Time of day is also very important. Morning water temperatures are cold and the fish don’t start moving in earnest until the late morning. Slow stripping streamers in deeper runs can produce a connection some mornings but usually activity doesn’t pick up until midges start hatching around 10am or so. The best fishing is often after lunch when water temperatures peak.
Nymphing is hands down the most effective technique in the early spring months if there are not rising trout (although streamers and even dries can still be an option). The fly selection doesn’t have to be fancy but will very from fishery to fishery. On the bigger freestone rivers such as the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison 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 think small with hooks 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). 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.
The streamer bite has also been pretty good lately. Streamers are never going to produce a lot of trout but if you pull them all day you can expect a few nice browns and sometimes a real monster. This is a good time of year to hit really large fish on bunny fur. A slower retrieve is often better than fast stripping off of the banks. A lead core line can also be nice in deeper runs.
On a mild day you might be lucky enough to run into some rising trout feeding on midges or baetis mayflies. The midge hatches often peak in March and extend into April. We recently enjoyed some epic dry fly fishing on the Upper Madison with hundreds of trout greedily feeding on a strong midge hatch in the late morning hours. Even freestone streams like the Gallatin will produce some sporadic midge hatches. 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 Griffith's gnat that imitate these “rafts” of insects can out produce single insect patterns. We are also seeing some baetis mayflies which will soon become the most important hatching for late April and early May.
Time of day is also important this time of year. Early mornings can be very tough fishing. The midge hatches are a late morning event often beginning around 10-11am and that will sometimes kick the trout into the feeding mode. Baetis begin after lunch and persist to around 4pm.
Rainbow trout are spring spawners and often prefer smaller tributaries over the larger rivers. The Livingston spring creeks (DePuy, Armstrong and Nelson) are all open in the spring so you need to police yourself and avoid shallow spawning gravel. Trout from the Yellowstone river are moving into the spring creeks prior to the spawn and this is one of the few times of the year where you can expect higher catch rates on the “creeks” do the large influx of “river” fish. As we move farther into the spring please try to avoid the shallow gravel riffles where the trout will be spawning. The large “clean” circles in the gravel are the nests or redds. Wading across the redds can crush delicate eggs buried just a few inches below the surface. Trout expend a lot of energy when spawning so please avoid casting to trout that are actively on redds in the spring months.
Early spring levels are always on the low side and there is a lot of definition to the water. The key to early spring 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. The baetis hatches are also starting up and are much stronger on cloudy days. Otherwise the fishing is a nymphing game.
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 the baetis hatch try a dun during the hatch but also try an emerger pattern. A small pheasant tail is great nymph option. For sub surface try a rubber legs, egg or worm pattern on top and a smaller midge larva or baetis nymph on bottom.
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.