It is hard for a lot of anglers to know what to bring and how to store it on their Montana fly fishing trip. Some folks bring too much while others show up with too little. If we boil it down to the essentials there are 3 things you never want to be on the river in Montana; cold, wet, or burned. I always carry quality rain gear, an extra jacket, and sunscreen whether it is March 1st or August 15th. What you bring on your fishing trip is important, but how you bring it is not to be overlooked either. A dry bag is the best way to carry your gear. Fishing out of a drift boat typically affords plenty of dry storage but if you find yourself in a raft there may not be any dry storage at all. Having your own dry bag will ensure your gear stays safe, and it keeps all your stuff in one place so you don’t forget a jacket or camera in your guide’s boat at the end of the day. I really like the Sea to Summit dry bags because they are so light weight.
So what exactly should you bring on your Montana flyfishing trip? I have two basic set-ups, one for the spring/fall seasons and one for summer. During spring and fall we are typically wearing waders and try to layer appropiately for the weather forecast. My dry bag during those seasons holds a warm hat, heavy rain jacket, packable jacket like a Patogonia Nano Puff, sunscreen, Buff, and at least one pair of fingerless gloves but usually two pairs. The key is staying warm and dry and this gear will do just that in virtually any conditions.
During summer the essential gear list changes a little, but not much. You will likely wet wade during a summer Montana Fly fishing trip so you will trade the waders for good water sandals. It is still important to make sure you stay warm and dry so a quality lightweight rainjacket and rain pants are a must along with a packable jacket. I have seen a hot 85 degree day turn sketchy when a thunderstorm rolled in with heavy rain, wind, and a 20 degree temp. drop. If you’re not prepared for that then a great day on the river can turn miserable in heartbeat. Of course, sunscreen is a must and a Buff or similar sunshade will keep the sun off your neck and face. These are just the essentials to keep you safe and comfortable on the river, but your dry bag can also hold your camera, wallet, and smart phone all in one place. Just remember it is better to have something with you and not need it than need it and not have it with you.
I absolutely love my life guiding trout fishing in Missoula, Montana but I try to take at least one destination flyfishing trip each year. It’s a unique experience for me because for a short time I go from guide to client, and the view from the front of the boat is awful nice. It challenges me to become a better fly fisherman and it usually takes me to beautiful locations chasing gorgeous fish. This year my long-time fly fishing buddy, Rich and I chose Baja hoping for shots at Roosterfish among other species. My true passion outside of Montana is tarpon, but I’ve been fascinated by Roosters since I saw my first video and we needed a change of pace. Rich and I have been spanked on our last several destination flyfishing trips and we thought our safest bet for weather and fish was the desert of Baja.
The first few days of the trip left us pretty desperate. There weren’t many fish around and the bait and weather were definitely not working in our favor. There were 10 anglers on the trip and everyone did their best to stay positive, but few Roosterfish were seen and not a one was hooked after 4 days on the water. Rich and I were feeling cursed, but the beer was cold, the food was unbelievable, and day 5 brought a change for the better. We didn’t find the Roosters we were looking for although we stumbled into a huge school of Dorado that kept us entertained all afternoon.
Our last day we worked extremely hard for a Rooster and had several shots but no joy. The Dorado were plentiful again, to the point we were tired of landing them, and we loaded the boat at the end of the day a couple of satisfied anglers. It ended up being one our best trips in the last few years and we are already planning to return.
The point is you never know what to expect on a destination flyfishing trip. Whether it’s Montana, South America, or Baja you hope for the best, prepare yourself to deal with the worst, and the trip usually ends up somewhere in between. Years down the line there will be some memorable fish, but most of the best memories come not from the fishing but something else along the way.
The spring Missoula fly fishing season is coming to a close as we transition into run-off. Looking back it was the most interesting spring in my guiding career. Snowstorms pounded us in Feb., and a warm spell at the end of the month actually blew the rivers out before we even started fishing. Fortunately the dominant weather pattern was relatively cool and the Bitterroot river and Clark Fork shaped back up for most of the spring.
While the local rivers did drop and clear, the flows remained above historical averages for the duration of March and April. That translated into challenging Missoula fly fishing conditions. The spring is famous for the Skwala stonefly hatch and a typical season brings dry/dropper fishing in the morning and then some of the best single dry fly afternoons of the year.
The Skwalas came sporadically this year and rarely in great numbers. There were moments of greatness, and windows where we were able to play the single dry fly game. However the dry/dropper rig was the rule day in and day out, and we even employed the straight nymph rig at times. The upside was with bigger river flows it kept the big fish in play all spring. Those hook-jawed browns and big rainbows couldn’t hide like they can in lower flows which meant some hefty trout in the net each day. There were also some good hatches of blue-wings, especially late in the spring and the little dry stung some nice trout toward the end of April. The big mystery was the lack of March Browns/Grey Drakes this year. We never got the water temps needed to get those big bugs hatching in mass.
The other storyline for Missoula fly fishing was the Missouri river. We are extremely fortunate to have the best tailwater river in the West only a 2 hour drive away. I spent more time on the Missouri this Skwala season than during a normal spring, but it was time well spent. With the local rivers running above average it didn’t take much to put them out of shape for a day or two which mean a drive over the continental divide nearly every week of the spring. The highway time was well worth it though with an incredible number of big, hard fighting rainbows and some great brown trout too. The nymphing has been phenomenal on the Missouri, and even with the rainbow spawn going on right now there are still plenty of trout in the main river to keep anglers busy. A couple of my long-time clients remarked that it is the best fishing they’ve had in years.
Currently run-off is going full bore in the Missoula area and I’m taking a little break before I return to the Missouri river later in May. That will be our mainstay into June when the Missoula fly fishing scene will light up again as the water starts to drop and our Salmonfly hatches kick in. It promises to be an awesome water year, and after this cold spring I’m looking forward to some summer scenes with shorts, sandals, and big dry fly eating trout in the net!
As Missoula trout guides we see all kinds of trips over the course of a season from the six day single angler to the 10 boat half day float trip. Some of the most fun and most misery comes from those group trips. Any time you put a group of people together, even like minded fly anglers, you are bound to get some friction. Folks have different skill levels, different expectations of the trip, of the guide, and it can be a challenge to keep everyone happy. Fortunately it’s just fly fishing and not Middle East peace talks so it is rare for a trip to turn really sour. I’ll save those stories for another day, but this past week I had the opportunity to work for a good friend on one of the best group trips in years.
The trip was 10 anglers and 5 guides, all experienced veterans who I enjoy working with. The anglers were an interesting mix with a wide range in age and interests. Fly fishing artist, Derek DeYoung, was there, along with a member of the Abel Reels team, a few guys who manufacture golf putters, and couple in the advertising industry. They rented an unbelievable house on the banks of the Bitterroot and had it well stocked with food and drinks. The guides were tempted to ditch their after shift responsibilities and just crash at that pad.
They guys all seemed great, not a dud in the bunch, and after shooting the breeze for a bit the guide pairings were made and we were off to the river. I had a couple of the younger guys who were simply thrilled to be in Montana fly fishing. We fished hard, caught a bunch of trout, and even experienced all four seasons on the Bitterroot with sun, then rain, snow, hail, and wind. There was no shortage of funny moments today.
Day 1 ended with a recap at the cabin over a beer and a plan to take a few of the guys over to the Missouri the next day since they had never fished that river. Fellow guide, Erik, and I meet the boys early and made the run over the hill to the mighty Mo. It’s always nice to see people who appreciate the beauty of Montana and the camera phones were clicking non-stop on the drive over. I had pumped up the Missouri as a fishery on the way over and was a little disappointed when we only had one fish in the boat at lunch. My anglers were upbeat though even if they had a little fun at the guide’s expense.
The afternoon fishing kicked in and both boats were filled with bent rods and heavy nets. They were all blown away by the quality of the fishery and the drive home included plenty of talk about a return trip to the Missoula area.
The whole group had a great trip and they’re already planning a return next spring. Group trips always make me a little nervous, but this one was a breeze and I can’t wait to get back on the water with them. I guess the bottom line is, come in expecting to simply have a good time and you will, no matter what the conditions.
The Missoula Fishing Report hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past week. High streamflows this spring have remained the biggest challenge to consistent fishing in the Missoula area. It has been best when flows have been level for a couple days or dropping. When the rivers bump it is time to check out other options and in the past week we’ve fished everywhere from Missoula rivers, the Missouri, a spring creek, and even a lake. With one notable exception it was a great week on the water. Most visiting anglers want a sure thing, they want reliable fishing, stable water, and nice weather. Guides want that too, and I could crank out a season under those exact conditions happily. But I would miss all those big fish, especially those big brown trout. While big water often provides unpredictable fishing conditions, it also produces the largest trout of the year. Those alpha fish don’t have anywhere to hide when the water is high. They are pushed to the banks, the side channels and the soft water. You won’t necessarily rack up huge numbers of fish in these conditions, but you may end up with the trout photo that sits on your desk for years to come.
The Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Clark Fork have all given up some extra large trout in spots over the past week. It hasn’t been easy fishing. A sharp eye on streamflows and weather along with experience and a willingness to gamble have been required for success. This week in high water conditions we put more 20+” fish in the boat than the rest of the season so far. Our water levels look to remain above average until run-off sets in for real. We will continue to walk the tight rope until then, and the fish that hit the net will be well worth the effort.