This is one of our most commonly asked questions. It is also one of the most difficult to answer. As with most fishing related conversations the initial answer to questions inquiring about the best time of year is “it depends”. There are several reasons why selecting a single time of year to identify as the best fishing is very difficult when it comes to Montana. There are a few different reasons why pegging down choice dates can be a sticky issue. The first is that everyone has different goals when it comes to their expectations on a fishing trip. Some folks want to catch as many fish as humanly possible, others are targeting trophy browns and some want to dry fly fish exclusively. A second complication to the answer is that due to the vast diversity of fisheries present in the Big Sky state. On the same day some rivers are peaking during the PMD hatch while others are still high and dirty with snowmelt. Montana has a wide variety of different styles of fisheries including freestone rivers, tail waters, spring creeks, large lakes, alpine lakes, mountain streams and meadow streams.
The reality is that at just about every month of the year from late April to mid November one fishery or another somewhere in the state is “peaking” while others are only marginal. For example in early May larger rivers like the Yellowstone River have explosive hatches of baetis, mother’s day caddis and March browns while higher elevation mountain streams are either still closed, snowed in or just plain cold to be productive. Finally, conditions from year to year change based on snowpack levels and temperatures. Certain times of year such as the fall are extremely predictable since snowpack is long gone regardless of the snow year, but the time period from May through late July are very dynamic and change from season to season to some degree. The beauty of Montana fly fishing is that regardless of what time of the year anglers visit – there is certainly opportunity to have great fishing regardless of your preferences toward floating or wading, dries or streamers etc. but here are a few ideas for targeting peak windows.
Best Time to Catch the Most Fish
Most visiting anglers simply want to have a lot of action and aren’t too picky about where they fish and how they fish as long as the “catching” is good. Of course you can have big number days throughout the season or can have a tough day as well but here are some windows when catch rates are traditionally high.
1) Late April to Early July
The fishing varies greatly from week to week in this dynamic time of year as water levels and temperatures are rising and falling and hatches are changing by the week. This is the time of year when aquatic insects hatch in the most abundance on the bigger rivers. Even in the middle of run off when river levels peak the catch rates can be very high as long as you are on tailwaters, spring creeks, stillwaters and a few others. For simply having the best shot at catching lots of trout this window is hard to compete with.
2) Mid July until early September
The trout in the big rivers are getting a little smarter and as the flows drop the fishing becomes more technical. This is still a favorite time for many anglers on the big rivers that like the more technical terrestrial fishing. This is also a great time to target the “off the beaten” patch fisheries and mountain streams. Mountain streams are cold all season so their best fishing is in the heart of summer and since backcountry fishing is never pressured the trout don’t become educated. Other fisheries on private ranches with restricted access, or locations in Yellowstone Park that we hike into can also be exceptionally good. The heart of summer can produce high catch rates for those willing to work a little harder or access private waters.
3) September and October
We tend to think of fall as the time to target big fish but this is also the best time to have the most action on some of the lower elevation rivers that are too warm in the summer to be productive. So this can be a good blend of catching and big fish but not necessarily as consistently high catch rates as the spring and early summer.
Best Times to Match the Hatch
Some of the most explosive hatches of the season occur in the spring on the larger rivers. The baetis, March brown and Mother’s Day caddis hatches can produce astounding clouds of insects and feeding trout. When you catch these hatches right no other time of year can compete with the quality of match the hatch dry fly fishing. The only caveat is that weather conditions and river flows can be variable and sometimes spoil the dry fly fishing. The perk is that even if the dry fly fishing goes south, fishing is still good with nymphs and streamers.
2) Mid June to Mid July
Another wave of aquatic insects begin in mid may and continue into mid July. On the bigger rivers it can be fly soup with PMD’s, caddis, golden stones, yellow sallies and salmonflies all on the water. This is also the peak window to target the PMD hatch on the famous spring creeks near Livingston.
3) Mid September to Mid October
This is a very nice time to find a lot of fish sipping on baetis mayflies on the larger rivers like the Missouri, Yellowstone and several others. The rivers are often empty and the weather can be spectacular in this window. This is a bit more technical on the fishing end than the spring hatches but the quality can be excellent.
This is a bit of a sleeper time to match the hatch but there are a few events that can be outstanding. The Trico hatch on a few rivers can be outstanding and produce high quality match the hatch fishing (although very technical). The large lakes like Hebgen and Ennis also peak for the calibaetis and trico hatches that produce “gulper” fishing. Don’t knock stillwater fishing until you have spent a day chasing huge trout gulping mayflies off the surface – it requires long accurate casts and the sight fishing is outstanding.
Best Attractor Dry Fly Fishing
1) Late June to Late July
This is a great time to dry fly fish in Montana. Even when the hatches are coming off you can often bust the hatch with big foam attractors and when the hatches wind down in mid July the terrestrial fishing turns on for beetles, ants and hoppers. This might be the safest time to consistently have good dry fly fishing on the bigger rivers.
2) August and September
Although the trout on the larger rivers have seen a few flies, this is hands down the best window to through terrestrials in Montana. Especially if you can get off the beaten path a bit and find trout that haven’t seen an armada of foam hopper patterns.
Best Streamer Fishing
Streamer fishing is notoriously fickle and some days you can throw them until your arm falls off while other days the fish light up on them for no apparent reason. Big fish enthusiasts love to throw streamers (and so do we!).
1) April and early May
This can be hit or miss but we see some monster trout hitting streamers in the spring before run off arrives. Slowing the strip down a bit and using some sinking lines can pay off since the water temps are still warming up.
2) Mid June to early July
The window just after run off when rivers are dropping and clearing can produce some incredible streamer fishing – some of the best of the year.
Brown trout spawn in late October through December. October is a great time to target aggressive browns with streamers – the water temps are dropping but still decent which helps keep the fish active.
Best Time to Catch Huge Trout
This is also a tough one because you are in the game for the trout of a lifetime on most waters in Montana at any time of the season. There are a few windows where we see more large trout than others.
1) October and November
The biggest trout in the rivers are usually giant carnivorous brown trout. Targeting pre spawn browns when they are more aggressive and more accessible (many run out of large reservoirs into rivers then) is a great time to catch the big one.
2) Mid April to early May
For some reason we see a lot of big browns in this window as well. Maybe because the get a little dumber over winter and haven’t seen flies in many months
The heart of run off and just after is another great time to catch big fish. Although some rivers are unfishable, others can be fished right through run off. And big freestone rivers that get too high and dirty in early June become fishable in late June producing some big tugs.
4) Mid Summer Rainstorms
Although you can’t plan for these – some of the biggest browns I have seen have been caught in the dog days of summer when either a thundershower hits or an all day drizzle. Suddenly the monster browns go on a feeding binge when this happens and if you are so lucky you can have some of the most intense big trout fishing of your life.
Best Time to Fish the Backcountry
The answer is easy on this one – July and August. Most backcountry fishing is on smaller streams and rivers that run cold. The metabolism peaks on the trout in mid summer producing the best fishing. In the alpine country the streams and lakes cannot even be accessed until all of the snowfields finally melt away which can be as late as mid July depending on the location. By the time mid September arrives the waters are already getting cold and the fishing gets tougher.
Best Times to Have Good Fishing Without Crowds
Thankfully Montana is a huge state with not a lot of locals so this one is actually pretty easy. While some of the most famous tailwater fisheries like the Bighorn, Beaverhead and Missouri can feel a little crowded at times depending on your perspective – there is still a lot of water where you can get away from it all.
1) July and August
This might surprise you, but the heart of the tourist season when out of state visitation is at its maximum is also a great time to get away from it all. The reason is that the backcountry streams and some private ranch fisheries are peaking then. So the catch is you need to avoid the bigger famous rivers and be up for hiking a little, riding a horse or access some private water but this can be a great time for adventurous anglers to find solitude.
2) Mid September to November
Once kids go back to school things settle down a lot in Montana. Locals have also gotten in their fishing fix and are looking more towards hunting than fly fishing. This is a great time to have some of the more famous fisheries like the Madison, Missouri, Yellowstone etc. to yourself or to only see one or two other anglers in a day.
3) April to Mid June
This is a great window to target the bigger blue ribbon rivers that make all of the coffee table books. There aren’t a lot of tourists here yet and the fishing can be intense. The locals have a bit of spring fever and are out fishing – but thankfully there really aren’t a lot of resident anglers so unless you are on the Bighorn on a Saturday this is a great time to have great fishing on big rivers without a lot of competition. So hopefully you can see why I sometimes find myself rambling on in response to the “when is the best time to come” question. The good news is that you can find high quality wild trout fishing just about any month of the year in the Big Sky state. It pays off to think about your own preferred style of fishing and what your goals are and then try to match those to a window where your expectations have the best chance at being met or exceeded.