If you ask most avid fly fisherman to recount some of their most memorable days on the water, many will tell tales of dry fly loving trout on their favorite waters. Watching a wild trout suck down a dainty mayfly spinner is exciting. Keeping your cool when a monster brown crushes your foam hopper in an explosion of water and adipose spots is not even an option! We frequently field questions that have to do with finding great dry fly fishing. The challenge of dry fly fishing in Montana and elsewhere is that most trout take less than 10% of their diet from the surface. Most days on most rivers anglers will have much more success “catching” when fishing subsurface with nymph patterns which best imitate the a trout’s dominant natural food source. There are times and places, however, where trout become surface oriented and feed almost exclusively on top. Although nearly every fishery in Montana has periods of times when the dry fly fishing heats up, here are a few of of our favorite fisheries and “events” that produce great surface action year in and year out.
Later Winter Midge Hatches on the Ruby
The Ruby River is a small wade fishery near Sheridan, MT. Below the Ruby Dam the river receives daily hatches of chironomids (aka midges). In February, March and April anglers hungry for surface action can find some consistent late morning dry fly action during the hatch. The surface action usually lasts for about 2-3 hours but anglers can still bend rods before and after by nymph fishing. In late April the midge hatch overlaps with the blue winged olive as an added bonus. The Bighorn River near Ft. Smith is another consistent producer of midge eating trout in the late winter.
Skwalas on the Western rivers
At the end of March and early April fisherman in the Western half of the state get excited about the Skwala stonefly. This smaller size 12 stone is olive in color and hatches in just enough abundance to encourage trout to look up. The dry action is often just in the afternoon when the water warms and it isn’t as explosive as post run off hatches of golden stones and salmonflies, but it sure is nice when there is still snow on the ground and you are yearning to see a good eat on the surface!
The baetis hatch on the Gallatin
The baetis (aka blue winged olive) can produce outstanding dry fly fishing on local rivers in April and May (and then again in October). The Gallatin is one of my favorite rivers to target the spring baetis hatch. The caveat with the baetis hatch on the Gallatin is that conditions need to be just right. If the weather is too warm early snow melt can temporarily bring the river up and spoil the dry fly fishing. Sunny days aren’t the best for catching the hatch either, even though you can usually find a few risers. If you catch the Gallatin when it is still low before snowmelt on a cloudy overcast day in early May you can experience some of the best match the hatch fishing around. The river seems to come alive with rising trout that are furiously attacking the small size 18 insects. Fortunately similar fishing can occur on the Madison, Yellowstone, Boulder and Missouri during this prolific hatch.
Spring creek baetis action in April and May
Spring creeks nearly show up a lot in the “best dry fly fishing” discussions. The first consistently good dry fly fishing on the spring creeks arrives with the spring baetis. As is to be expected on these fertile ground water fed fisheries the hatch is thick and abundant. Late April and May baetis fishing can produce several hours of consistent surface action on legendary waters like Armstrong, Depuy, Nelson, and McCoy spring creeks.
Early May Mother’s Day Caddis on the Lower Madison and Yellowstone
One of the most prolific hatches of the year is the explosive Mother’s Day Caddis hatch on the Lower Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. The hatch starts at the end of April but really picks up steam in early May. The hatch on the Yellowstone often occurs just before run off and on big water years or when there is an early warm spell the melting snow can spoil the action. On days when you catch the Yellowstone just right it is some of the most amazing dry fly fishing in the world. Waves of fluttering caddis pop at the rives surface as trout feed with reckless abandon. Back eddies are sometimes completely covered with mats of mating insects. The Lower Madison also has a terrific Mother’s Day hatch. The Lower Madison is protected by some of the dams on the river which makes is a more reliable river for the hatch on years when the Yellowstone gets dirty early. This is a “must fish” event for all locals and many visiting anglers.
Spring Creek PMD fishing in June and early July
Although spring creeks are always a great place to find “heads” and can produce great surface action during spring and fall baetis hatches as well as late summer terrestrials, nothing rivals the pale morning dun. The “PMD” is a medium sized goldilocks mayfly. The insect is just big enough to interest larger trout but small enough that trout are not easily filled up by the insect. The hatch occurs in thick abundance daily from mid June to mid July on legendary spring creeks like McCoy, Nelson, DePuy, Armstrong, Benhart and Thompson. Getting rods on these private ranches during the hatch can be difficult since some dates book out nearly a year in advance. Spring creek trout are always smart and spooky and require technical fly patterns and careful casting presentations. These wily trout drop their guard a few notches during the PMD hatch as they become intoxicated with the tasty little arthropods. “Spooked” trout that normally go down for the day after a bad cast sometimes get back into a feeding rhythm just 10 minutes later when the hatch picks up in intensity.
Madison River Salmonfly Fishing in later June/early July
The salmonfly is the largest aquatic insect in North America. This massive stonefly reaches 3 inches in length and provides enough nutrition to lure even the largest trout in the river to the surface. The salmonfly represents the best opportunity to catch a monster trout over 25” on the surface. Catching big trout on the big bug is far from garuanteed and frustration is experienced just as often (or more often!) than success. Once you hook a monster brown that blows up a size 4 rouge stone you will be forever changed! The chance at reliving that experience is enough to keep throwing the big bug when the hatch is on the water. Salmonflies are notoriously hard to catch since they only occur for a few days a year on any single stretch of water. The Madison River is one of the most consistent places to find the big bug because it is clear when the hatch arrives. Other rivers like the Yellowstone also produce a great hatch but sometimes it occurs during run off.
Attractor Dry Fishing In July
About a week after the big freestone rivers first clear, big attractor dry flies begin to lure hungry trout to the surface. The Yellowstone, Boulder, Stillwater, Gallatin and a few others are a few of our favorites for lights out fishing with giant wulffs, pmxs and faom attractors. Casting big bushy dries on stout tippet in run and gun pocket water is simply a riot! The rivers are usually still on the high side even though they are clear so we usually either fish out of drift boats or small rafts during this great window since wading is still a challenge.
Yellowstone River Hopper Fishing
Montana is famous for its great grasshopper fishing. The state is filled with broad flat valleys filled with irrigated alfalfa that provided a perfect home for the succulent insects. Trout simply can’t resist hoppers and anglers eagerly await the late summer season when the grasshoppers become mature, grow wings and begin flying. The Yellowstone river offers some of the best hopper fishing in the state. The perk of fishing big foam hoppers on the “Stone” is that you are always in the game for a trophy size trout on a dry. The best hopper fishing is often shortly after they first get their wings which is usually late July or early August depending on the year. After a few weeks of seeing different flavors of artificial presentations they slowly get a bit wiser and short strikes can become more common. On years when we receive a long Indian summer great hopper fishing can be experienced well into September.
The “Flying Ant” on the Upper Madison
If you spend enough time in the spectacular Upper Madison valley wade fishing you will begin to notice giant ant hills along the banks. In late August, usually around August 22nd or 23rd winged ants leave their homes to mate and establish new colonies. The “ant hatch” can fill the skies with large black and red two toned winged insects that trout absolutely love. This is a short lived event and only lasts a day or two each year but when you catch it just right the action can be rewarding. Fortunately, this is also hopper time so there will always be some fish looking up even if you miss the ants.
Small Stream Hopper Fishing in Late Summer
In late August and early September some of the trout on the larger and easily accessed rivers become a little wise to big foam hopper patterns you get less confident takes and more trout chewing on the rubber legs. This is the time of year when the some of the smaller fisheries really turn on. We don’t want to name names to give away some of these little gems. Some of them are access from public points like bridges and others are on private ranches that we have permission on. Terrestrial fishing on the “off the beaten” path waters around Montana can be absolutely awesome in the late summer!
October baetis hatches on the Yellowstone, Madison, Gallatin, Missouri and Spring Creeks
The last hurrah of really good dry fly fishing is the fall baetis hatch. The “blue winged olives” show back up in late September but really get going again in October and early November. The baetis occurs on most fisheries in Montana and the rivers named above are just a sampling of the locations that can receive a good hatch. As in the spring, the intensity of the hatch increases logarithmically with cloudy and overcast conditions. Even on sunny days fish are often looking up even when the hatch is sparse. A size 18 or 20 parachute adams can perform wonders this time of year on the big rivers. On the spring creeks more technical cripples and emerges often do the trick. There is often a smattering of grey drakes and mahogany duns that coincide with the baetis. These larger mayflies are always sparse but the trout often prefer them and a larger size 12 grey wulff can be a productive pattern on the larger waters in the fall.