Run-off has finally arrived in Missoula, and our Missouri river guide season has started. We always look forward to spending the month of May on the Missouri. This big tailwater rarely disappoints with consistent nymphing, exciting streamer action, and some of the finest dry fly fishing of the year.
With a bigger than average snowpack we are expecting higher water on the Missouri this year than the last couple of seasons. That is not ideal for our dry fly plans, but just like in Missoula, higher water equals more big brown trout and everyone loves big browns!
The big browns are always a special treat, but it is a steady diet of 16-20+ inch rainbows that keep our anglers coming back year after year to the Missouri in May. The spawn seems to be nearly over for the season and those big rainbows return to the main river ready to eat anything that moves.
While the higher flows aren’t the best for midge and blue-wing olive hatches, the trout won’t be able to resist big March Browns and the hordes of caddis that are coming. The March Browns should show up any day, and size 12-14 mayflies covering the river will get some big snouts breaking the surface. The caddis will come next and we will get explosive takes in fast water.
We had an unbelievable spring dry fly season in Missoula with some of the most consistent conditions ever on our local rivers. Now it is time to switch gears as our Missouri river guide season has already started. We will be on the big river for the next month with heavy nets and smiles as wide as the big sky. We look forward to seeing a lot of familiar anglers and introducing a few new ones to the Mighty Mo.
We have some great fishing coming, and it’s just around the corner but after a cold and snowy winter there are a lot of anglers who simply can’t wait any longer. Temperatures are getting above freezing here and there and we are starting to see the sun more than occasionally. For those that are chomping at the bit and determined to get on the river here are a few early season fishing tips.
Safety First: Many of the USGS gauging stations can be iced up or only seasonally operated. so you may not be able to see the state of the river with just a few clicks on your phone like summer. A couple phone calls to local fly shops or fellow anglers can help you find out if conditions are even fishable. Ice jams can be another big threat this time of year and it’s a good idea to scout thoroughly before you hit the water. Just because the piece of river you are looking at is open water does not mean the entire river is flowing. There could be ice jams upriver from you, and if they break free while you are fishing it can get dangerous in a heartbeat. Just take a peek at this Video from the Gallatin a few years ago! In the past week I’ve seen ice jams on the upper and lower Clark Fork and Blackfoot so be careful out there.
Low and Slow: A big key to early season fishing success is spending your time in the right water. It may be a relatively nice day outside but the water is still very cold and has been for months. Trout are not living in their normal summer time haunts. Fast riffles, juicy banks, and pocket water are virtually void of life right now. Focus on slow water, knee to waist deep or deeper for the best results. Slow inside bends, soft riffles, and even tail outs are the preferred holding lies this early in the year.
Embrace the Bobber: You should expect to do best with deep nymphs. If you are going out to feed your ego, or your Instagram feed then you can certainly catch some fish on dry flies or big, gnarly articulated streamers but the bobber rod is the one that is bent most often in these conditions. Two nymphs, some split shot, and an indicator is your best chance at an active fishing session. Rubber legs, stonefly nymphs, and san juans are always reliable early on, but don’t overlook smaller pheasant tails and even midge pupae.
The Early Bird Gets Cold: There is no reason to rush out too early or try to fish from dawn till dusk this time of year. The trout aren’t very active in general, and their peak of activity is only a few short hours during the warmest of the afternoon. Fishing from 12-4 takes advantage of the prime hours. Use the rest of your day to sleep in, tie flies, drink beer, or all three.
There’s nothing too technical about the early, early season. It’s a good way to shake off the rust from a long winter. You will likely have the river all to yourself, and you will be all tuned up when the main part of our fishing season kicks in.
Cabin fever has reached epidemic proportions this year around Missoula. The above photo is from the end of my street, and I haven’t made it much further than that in the last month. We have a ton of snow in the valley this year which is a great thing, but the temperatures have been so brutally cold that a lot of the winter activities like skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing are unbearable most days.
That’s not all a bad thing. The valley snow will recharge the aquifers
if when it finally warms up enough to melt, and the arctic temps have our high elevation snow locked up tight. That should make for a gradual run-off once we finally get to May and June.
In the meantime we are stuck with February, a time of year when cabin fever can get downright ugly. The only positive is that it’s the shortest month of the year. A combination of tying flies, skiing, a little ice fishing, and fermented liquids in particular order will see us through until March. That’s when the fun starts to happen around Missoula. By the first of March it will be only a matter of days before our wild trout start eating big stonefly dries.
It’s always coldest before the dawn, and right now it’s pretty damn cold in Montana. We are hoping to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will be here before we know it. Still it seems a long ways off at this point with ice jammed rivers and more below zero temps on the way.
Looks like it’s time to grab another beer and head back to the tying table….
What is Hoot Owl?
Hoot Owl Fishing Restrictions have returned to Missoula this year. Montana FWP puts these restrictions in place when water temperatures get too warm for trout to reliably recover from being caught and released. In western Montana our water temps can vary by as much as ten degrees in a day, and restricting the fishing after 2 pm protects our trout when they are most vulnerable. It is not an ideal fishing scenario, but we have dealt with these restrictions in years past.
Essentially we have been fishing a Hoot Owl schedule for the last 10 days or so. On freestone streams with no dam the fishing is generally best when it is most comfortable to be outside. For instance, in March and April when it is downright frigid in the morning our best fishing is often when it warms up in the afternoon. Likewise, during the peak of summer the fishing is much better when it is cool in the mornings versus the sweltering heat of late afternoon. Once the daytime highs start hitting the 90’s the best course of action is to set that alarm clock for as early as you can stand.
Anglers who have fished with us through Hoot Owl in years past realize it’s not the end of the fishing world, but first timers understandably feel a bit of panic when they first hear the news. The only real difference is that the Hoot Owl is a publicized piece of the fishing equation. Our guides and anglers deal with similar challenges throughout the season, whether it is the high water of June, big cold fronts in the spring, or early snow storms during fall. Every season presents a particular challenge and during late summer it is the Hoot Owl.
On the flip side, some of the best fishing we have seen has occurred during periods of fishing restrictions. Spruce moth hatches on the Blackfoot, Rock Creek, and West Fork make for incredible dry fly fishing and the hopper, ant, and beetle fishing seems to gain momentum each day. It’s still just fishing though, some days are great, some are tough, and most fall somewhere in between.
During Hoot Owl restrictions we will do everything we can to make the most of your fishing trip. If you want to maximize your time on the water we can pick you up at daybreak and fish hard all the way until 2 before stopping for lunch. Others choose to meet a little later and have lunch during the fishing day and that’s fine too. It’s your trip and we will do all we can to meet your expectations.