Montana Fishing Report
Spring has arrived in Montana and fishing conditions are changing rapidly. This is a very exciting and dynamic time of year to target Montana waters. Conditions can change by the day and even by the hour so paying close attention to weather and flows is a huge part of the late spring fishing game. What happened yesterday is not necessarily a good indication of what will happen tomorrow so be very cautious about running to a fishery because your buddy had a great day there two days ago or because a fishing report talked up how epic the fishing has been. Remember that by nature fishing reports are 100% stale information. This report will focus on some generalities about spring fishing but will also focus on some tools that you can use for predicting when to be at the right time to catch some windows of mind blowing fishing that often arise this time of year – often in narrow windows. Do not be discouraged by the fact that some waters are high and muddy, the waters that are fishable are spectacular right now and this is one of our absolute favorite times to target local waters. There are few out of state anglers and often you can have incredible fishing with light pressure. The only fisheries that you will see a good number of other anglers on right now are the tailwaters.
As temperatures warm the mountain snowpack melts and brings up water levels on all fisheries except spring creeks and stillwaters. In general, freestone fisheries are a tough option right now. Freestone rivers and streams are those that rely heavily on overland flow from rain and snowmelt. These streams and rivers (Think the Gallatin and Yellowstone) become high and dirty with sediment during late spring run off and are not fishable most of the time (but not all of the time! – see notes below). Spring creeks are fed by groundwater and are completely unaffected by run off. Some rivers are also fed from reservoirs that trap sediment. These tailwaters (Bighorn, Missouri, Madison etc) do increase in flows during spring run off but they retain good water clarity and often great fishing. Stillwater reservoirs, ponds and lakes are also a very good option this time of year.
There are no shortage of insects available to trout on our local waters this time of year. The most important hatches are the spring baetis mayflies, March Brown mayflies and the Mothers Day caddis. Hatches may or may not bring trout to the surface but it is important to know that the trout are looking for these bugs, even if they are eating subsurface. Don’t go anywhere in the late spring without imitations of nymphs, emergers and dries of the aforementioned species. There are a variety of different patterns that are effective and most work just fine. Don’t forget about a large size 12 hares ear when you see March Browns – they don’t always hatch in abundance but trout love them. When fish are feeding on the surface, also try hanging an emerger just a foot or so behind your dry. Watch rise forms carefully. If trout look like the are porpoising they are probably taking emergers and not duns/adults.
Fly selection is simple in the spring 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. Our favorite caddis patterns are X-Caddis, Elk Hair Caddis, and DOA caddis. Be sure to fish emgering caddis patterns too. Good choices are Sparkle Pupeas, soft hackles, and Silvey's Pupeas.
The safe bets right now are the waters that are protected by run off. These include tailwaters below reservoirs, spring creeks and still waters. The good news is that these three categories of fisheries are lights out right now and occur in abundance across Southwest Montana. Spring creeks have consistent baetis hatches and sometimes caddis on a daily basis and are a very safe bet for dry fly fishing. The fish are still fresh and haven’t seen a lot of artificials yet so catch rates are often high. Tailwaters are also coming alive right now as water temps rise and the trout put on their feedbags. Dry fly fishing is variable and depends on flows and if they are bumping the dam releases or not. Nymph fishing is predictably good. If flows are on the rise fishing closer to the dam is often better because moss can often get dislodged and if you are too far downstream it can foul hooks. Stillwaters are also a great option and catch rates can be very high slow stripping streamers. Early Callibaetis mayflies can also produce good dry fly action on some waters.
Wild card options
Many anglers completely write off freestone fisheries from mid May until waters clear in early summer. This is huge mistake! Savvy flyfishers that tune a watchful towards hydrographs and weather patterns are often rewarded with spectacular days without another angler in sight. What you want to watch for is a cool down in the weather forecast. If a cooler weather pattern that sets in it can suspend snow melt and rivers can quickly respond. Every fishery is different – some of the larger ones like the Yellowstone take a big cold snap with a longer duration to produce fishable waters but smaller rivers can clean up and go on the drop even after a single day of the right weather. Remember that the water does not need to be clear – you just need as little as six inches of visibility to have great fishing. If the hydrograph shows the river is on the drop and is missing the “yo-yo” pattern of rising water from daytime sun followed by falling water from the evening then it is a good bet it may be fishable. Don’t expect dry flies but streamers and big ugly nymphs can be deadly. Target the soft water where fish are staked up like inside corners and seams behind large rocks. Sometimes these windows only last one or two days so you need to respond quickly when the conditions warrant.
The Upper continues to be a good option. The entire river is open and the farther up you go the better the clarity gets. Generally the upper water is always fishable but as you move down the valley and more tributaries come in the clarity gets more affected. Beaver and Cabin bring in sediment but are small enough that they don’t completely blow the river out. The West Fork at Lyons bridge brings in a lot more mud during hot weather but the plume stays on the west bank for several miles so usually you can stay on the East Bank and have decent clarity. Worms and stoneflies are key.
The Lower can fluctuate from outstanding to just OK depending on the day. Windy days can bring in extra sediment that gets churned up in the lake and fluctuating dam releases sometimes put the fish off a bit when the flows bump. When the flows are stable for a day or so the fishing is usually very good. Nymphing is the main game with worms or crayfish trailed by baetis or caddis emergers. Fly selection isn’t rocket science by the art comes into where you fish. Focus on soft seams and edges in and around weedbeds. Gently pulling crayfish or buggers over weedbeds also produces.
The Yellowstone River will continue to go up and down until the warm weather really sets in. A few cooler days in a row can still cause a decrease in flows. Time that up with water temperatures warm enough for caddis, and you can find yourself in some incredible dry fly fishing scenarios. It is a fine line over here, between caddis coming off and enough water clarity for the fish to key in on them. Watch the USGS flow charts carefully, as it could be worth it if you see the graph level off or drop consistently for a couple days.
The Gallatin is up with run off. It can often gain enough clarity with just a short cold snap and produce outstanding nymphing on stoneflies and worms so don’t completely write it off. The clarity above the Taylor Fork is almost always fishable. Up above the Taylor Fork, you will find trout on light nymph rigs with stealthy presentations anywhere the water slows up a bit. Inside bends and larger pool tailouts are good places to seek out this time of year in this small stream water.
The Boulder is up and off color below the West Boulder which brings in a lot of mud. This is a north facing drainage so cold nights can suspend run off and produce fishable water for short windows.
The Jefferson can be an interesting option in the late spring. It is affected by run off but usually clears earlier and easier than other freestone fisheries. If flows are dropping it is worth a try.
The East has a lot of low elevation snow run off and blows out early. It won’t be an option until later in the early summer when it drops to safe wading levels. Most of the East is on private land so you need to wait until the river is low enough to cross back and forth to avoid trespassing if accessing from a bridge.
The Ruby is up right now with higher flows and fishing is tough. Flows peaked at about 400 CFS below the dam yesterday then dropped, but are now again on the rise. Keep an eye on the flow charts, and head this way when the water is below 400 CFS and either has been steady for a couple days, or on the drop.
The Missouri near Craig is a great option during run off. As flows rise scuds, sow bugs and worms are kicked loose and trout really put on their feedbags. Water remains clear below Wolf Creek but the Prickley Pear and Dearborn can put in mud so fishing downstream of the tribs just depends on how hot it is. Dry fly fishing is iffy but caddis and baetis can produce pods of rising trout when flows have been stable.
This is a great time of year to fish stillwater. We have been targeting some of the private ranch fisheries lately and our guides have been racking up some banner days with lots of trophy trout. Water temps are on the rise and fish are becoming very active. Sight fishing has been very good. Typically a leech pattern is a good way to cover a lot of water to search for trout. A chironomid on a long leader and slow strip is another great way to get selective trout to eat on lakes and ponds right now.
Spring creeks are beginning to fish really well. As Spring progresses, the fishing should just continue to get better. Baetis are the prime target insect and daily hatches have been bringing fish up, especially with cloud cover. On blue bird days the rises become more sporadic and most feeding is on the emergers. Caddis and even some lingering march browns on some of the creeks are also turning trout. We have added several more private ranches with exciting new spring creek fisheries this season. The “creeks” in the Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone valleys are some of the best spring fed fisheries in the world and now is the time to go!
Many of the smaller waters are high at the moment but there are a few favorites of ours that we don’t like to advertise online that are really, really good this time of year. Smaller waters can be a lot of fun if you pay your dues and do some exploring.