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.
Missoula fishing guides are not normal humans. While the rest of western Montana is overjoyed to see the arrival of sunny weather in the 60’s and 70’s fishing guides can be seen muttering under their breath and cursing their bad luck. The spring season is always a tightrope act of temps warm enough to get the big bugs moving but not too warm to push the snowpack out of the mountains and into our rivers. Sunny and 70 seems great, but right now it either means cancelled trips or long drives over to the Missouri river. Give me 55 and cloudy until May 1st and I’ll have less gray hairs at the end of the year. Odd behavior by Missoula guides isn’t only limited to this time of year though. We are a strange lot, and most of this revolves around the weather. Can you think of any other collective group that prays at night for cloudy skies? A lot like ranchers and farmers we look to the heavens every morning and hope our prayers our answered. Clouds mean confident trout and good dry fly fishing while the blazing sun translates into vacant water and sunburned anglers. Add a little light rain in the fall please to get those mayfly hatches rolling full steam. Wind? We never actually say the word, true veterans never even think it. It’s simply referred to as the “W” and if it rears it’s ugly head it can ruin your day in a flash. Sunny and warm with a slight breeze to keep you cool might be perfect if you’re a civilian but fly fishers and especially fly fishing guides live for cloudy and calm. It always makes me laugh at the market in the morning when I’m picking up lunch. The cashier will almost always innocently comment on the weather and you can be sure that I’m always thinking the opposite. She’ll say, “It looks beautiful out there today.” Translation: sunny and warm, Guide translation: damn infernal sun and no rising fish today…I hate life! Or “Glad I’m not out there today.” Translation: cloudy and cool, Guide translation: I live for these days, thank God! I love my job! Fishing guides, we’re not quite right in the head but we have one helluva an office.
The Missoula fishing report hasn’t changed much in the past week. The Skwala hatch is still sputtering along. If you are in the right place at the right time you could see a good push of bugs, but overall through the system they are still just trickling off. The added challenge this week is the increased boat traffic. Fishing pressure always spikes at the end of March and beginning of April and we’ve been seeing that this week. A little creativity goes a long way in getting away from the pressure, and at this point in the hatch it can pay big dividends. The fishing has been solid with the dropper game carrying the lions’ share of the workload. The dry fly fishing is decent and can be good with the absolute right drift in the exact right spot. The fish have seen enough big bugs that they will eat them in the soft water, but they aren’t blasting them in the random spots when the hatch is full force. Right now the fishing is decent most days and skilled anglers are rewarded with a solid dry fly bite. A little drag on the drift or a fly 6″ out of place go untouched. Things are progessing though, I saw the most bugs of the season so far today, and if our water holds the coming week could be when the fly fishing busts wide open. Time will only tell, but I for one am looking forward to getting back out there in hopes of bugs rolling and fish gobbling.