One of the factors that makes Bozeman, MT such a great trout town is that the surrounding waters offer great fishing 12 months out of the year. Mild winter days offer anglers some prime opportunities to catch trout with very predictable fishing and nonexistent crowds. Winter is the time to experience solitude on some of our world famous rivers that draw anglers from all over the world during the summer months. Fishing during the winter is a nice change of pace from skiing or snowboarding and a great way to soak up a little sun and beat back cabin fever. Let’s take a look at some winter fishing tactics and locations around Bozeman for off-season angling opportunities.
Winter Fishing Overview and Tactics
The actual fishing during winter is usually quite easy, so the hardest part is really going to be dealing with the elements. While we do get our fair share of really cold weather around here, there are fishable days in December and January while February and March typically offer some extended periods of nice weather. Even early April generally follows "winter" fishing patterns. What constitutes a “fishable” day is going to be different for everyone but I look for sunny days where the high temperature is at least 30 or more. The wind is the real wildcard, so pay close attention to that when checking the forecast. The best fishing will occur during the warmest part of the day, so plan on hitting the river just before lunch and fishing until the sun starts to lower and come off the water.
Winter fishing can be very productive because fish tend to congregate in very specific water types. Additionally, there are very few hatches during winter, making fly selection easy. You want to target the slow, deep water when fishing during winter. The cold lowers the trout’s metabolism substantially, so they don’t have the energy to fight faster current. If you land a trout, make sure to work that area thoroughly, as there are almost certainly more fish hanging out. Nymphing is the bread and butter technique during winter, with the occasional midge hatch drawing trout to the surface. When nymphing, a typical rig would include a stonefly nymph or San Juan Worm as my lead fly, and a small mayfly or midge as the dropper. More important than fly selection is getting your fly right in front of the fish. The reduced metabolism dictates that the fish won’t move far to eat, so it is critically important that you experiment with weight and leader length to get your fly down to the fish.
Winter Fishing Locations
Winter is a great time to be on the Gallatin River, which can be quite busy during the summer. The good fishing, easy access and spectacular scenery from A River Runs Through It fame make this a worthy destination. It’s close proximity to Big Sky Resort makes it a prime target on a day off from skiing. While the entire river can fish well, the area around Big Sky is the most popular. Here, many springs enter the river, raising the water temperature substantially. During extreme cold snaps,the river will freeze solid except for these thermally influenced areas. In times of warmer weather, the entire Gallatin Canyon can fish well. The water above Big Sky and down below the canyon in the valley is prone to significant ice jams, so it is best left alone unless you really know the area. Several years ago one of these ice jams above Big Sky abruptly broke, sending a tsunami of water downstream (search “Gallatin Tsunami” on Youtube). While this is certainly a freak occurrence, it is a good reminder to keep your eyes peeled while on the water.
Stonefly nymphs are my #1 pick for winter fishing, and I will sometimes fish two in different colors if they are working well. Other solid choices would be a small Copper John or Pheasant Tail. As a freestone stream, the Gallatin doesn’t have a huge variety of bug life, especially during winter. Basic stoneflys and small, attractor nymphs are all you really need. It is a good idea to carry a few midge dry fly patterns just in case, but the Gallatin will primarily be a nymphing game. There are some huge deep holes in the Gallatin Canyon but I like to focus on the tailouts and deep, choppy riffles. Much of the river is swift and bouldery, so the good winter holding water should be fairly obvious.
East Gallatin River
The East Gallatin River is a nice option close to town that usually offers open water all winter. This is a nice spot to sneak out for a few hours after lunch during the heat of the day. The Bozeman water treatment plant pumps some warm water into the river so the best fishing is usually downstream of Bozeman down towards Belgrade and Manhattan. Unlike the Gallatin, the East flows gently through the valley, providing ideal holding water for winter trout. The river meanders endlessly, and each bend provides some nice, deep holding water. Pay particular attention to the upper half of the pool where the water from the riffle starts to slow and drop off into deeper water. This transition zone allows trout to sit in a comfortable lie and ambush food as it tumbles downstream.
Fly selection on the East is very simple. A San Juan Worm is my top choice for a lead fly, and I will typically choose a #18 or #20 Pheasant Tail as my dropper. I also carry various midge patterns and small Copper Johns. The East tends to see more dry fly action than the main Gallatin, so be prepared with some midge clusters like a Griffith’s Gnat and some small Parachute Adam’s as well.
Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
The world famous spring creeks (Depuy’s, Armstrong’s, Nelson’s) located just south of Livingston, Montana rank among the best choices in the state for winter angling. These creeks are fed 100% by groundwater springs, which maintain a nearly constant temperature year-round. This leads to increased activity by both trout and insects over that of a freestone stream. The added bonus here is that winter rates on the creeks are the lowest of the year, $40 per day. It is also very easy to get a reservation at the last minute, while reservations for prime summer dates need to be made more than 6 months in advance.
The spring creeks are your best bet for winter dry fly fishing, and midge hatches are a daily occurrence. You can expect to see rising fish each afternoon as long as the wind is not blowing the bugs off the water. The constant water temps also means that hatches start earlier and end later here, so be prepared to fish Blue Winged Olives in both early and late winter. Spring creek trout are known to be selective, so carry some BWO emergers that you can fish behind your dry.
Your nymph selection on the spring creeks is going to look different than on a freestone. San Juan Worms can still be effective, but you will want to downsize to some sort of micro worm or floss worm. My prefered lead nymph is some sort of Sowbug or Scud pattern. A Ray Charles is a great Sowbug imitation. My favorite colors for these types of patterns are tan, orange, and pink. For a dropper nymph, it is hard to beat a midge or Baetis pattern in #18- #22. Some top picks in my box are a Zebra Midge, non-beadhead Pheasant Tail, and thread midges in red or black.
Reading the water on the spring creeks is different than on a freestone as well. Since the water is so much warmer on the creeks, the fish are not packed into a few deep holes. They will be found throughout the creeks, including fast water and riffles. My strategy is to choose what type of water to fish based on the technique that I am using. When nymphing, I look for broken riffles and deep holes and runs. When looking for risers and fishing dries, I look for gentle riffles, glides, and flats.
Most winter fishing takes place on the “Lower” Madison, that being the section of the Madison River below Ennis Dam down to the headwaters of the Missouri River at Three Forks, MT. The most popular areas for winter fishing are in Beartrap Canyon and immediately below in the stretch between the Warm Spring’s and Black’s Ford fishing access sites. The section from Warm Springs to Black’s Ford can be floated, but most anglers prefer to wade fish during winter. This way you can head back to your truck immediately if the weather turns nasty, instead of being committed to being on the water for a certain duration. Beartrap Canyon is a wilderness area that can be accessed from its upper end just below Ennis Dam or its lower end from a trailhead on the far side of the river from the Warm Spring’s boat ramp.
Reading the water on the Lower Madison can be difficult to the uninitiated because it is a very broad, flat, uniform river. The river contains many weedbeds and sandbars, and you are looking for the “buckets” of slower, deeper water created in the river. There is also some more obvious structure in the form of large boulders and islands. This section of river can be a bit frustrating at first, but becomes pretty easy to read if you put in some times.
The Lower contains an abundant population of crayfish, so a crayfish imitation makes a good lead fly. As usual, San Juan Worms produce well and are another good choice. For a dropper nymph, I like something with a little flash to it, so carry various small, flashy nymphs such as Lightning Bugs and Copper John’s in #16 and #18. The Lower can have good midge hatches during the winter, but the wind can often make it tough to fish dry flies. Look for rising fish in protected waters along the willows or in back eddies.