The Missoula fishing report for this week is one of challenging conditions. We are looking at record high flows for this time of year on the Bitterroot, and while it is our best option right now in the area it is still day to day on whether or not it is fishable. The other rivers around Missoula are blown out currently.
If you happen to be reading this Missoula fishing report and considering floating the Bitterroot on your own in the next few days then you need to make sure you are an experienced rower and reach out to fly shops, shuttle drivers, and guides to find out about any hazards on the river. The Root is NOT for the inexperienced right now. There are blocked channels, nasty hydraulic currents, dangerous diversion dams, and even sketchy boat ramps at the moment. With almost 20 years on the river I have had a couple heart pounding moments in the last week, and no trout is worth risking your safety over.
The current conditions have made it a nymphing game mainly. A couple nymphs under an indicator fished in the right water will produce right now. There’s not much of a dry fly game at this point. If you hunt the back waters and side channels with a skwala you can raise a few fish, but if you are looking for action then it’s a stonefly nymph and san juan in the slow water.
We are at the mercy of the stream flow gauge this March. If the river stays level or drops then the dry fly fishing will begin to kick in. If the flows continue to bump up and down then a strike indicator will be your new best friend. Skwala fishing is always a bit of a gamble. There are some big trout hitting the net daily if you’re willing to take the risk.
Another 6″ of fresh snow overnight and it is still coming down as it seems winter will never end here in Missoula. March has certainly come in like a lion this year and we can only hope that it goes out like a lamb. This latest storm will certainly push the area over 100% for snow pack. With a couple more wet months ahead of us all signs point to a great water year in 2017. You can see for yourself right HERE.
In the meantime Missoula fly fishing guides are starting to get restless. Yes, there are a few fish to be caught right now in these winter conditions, but the hatch isn’t making much progress forward. We are holding onto the hope that next week’s forecast is correct.
If the forecast holds true, we should see daytime highs in the mid to upper 40’s and lows at or above freezing. That’s a good recipe to get those Skwala nymphs migrating into the shallows, and next week could be the break we’ve been looking for. I don’t expect dry fly pandemonium although it should get some trout looking toward the surface in the right spots.
For the moment we will continue to tie flies and drink beer to keep us sane. Fingers are crossed that the weather forecast is more accurate than normal.
March 1st marks the start of a new license year for anglers in Montana. That means you need to pick up a 2017 Montana fishing license before you head out to the stream or lake next time. You can buy your license the old fashioned way, in person at a sporting goods store, fly shop, or FWP office or you can go on-line to MT FWP and purchase and print your license from home. You can even keep a pdf copy of your license on your phone this year that qualifies as proof of license should you get checked by a game warden.
Despite the new license year upon us, there aren’t many anglers out fly fishing on local streams. The recent cold and snowy weather has kept all but the most hard-core hunkered down at home, or up at the ski hills. You can catch some trout in these conditions, but don’t expect banner fishing. The water temps are still a little too cold for good insect activity and the fish are sluggish.
It is a noticeable change from last season when there were boats rolling around town by mid-February and pretty respectable fishing on this date in 2016. We are well behind that schedule this year which might hamper our early season a little, but it bodes well for the rest of 2017 with lots of high and mid-elevation snow still on the ground.
Look for the Bitterroot and Rock Creek to offer the best action once we see the next batch of warm weather. A day or two of temps in the 40’s is all it will take to get the ball rolling and start our fishing season. Nymphs and slow streamers will be the best tactic for the foreseeable future, but the dry fly fishing will come. Mid-March is my guess for when the trout will start looking up and then it will only get better from there! Get your Montana fishing license now while it’s cold and snowy so you’ll be ready when the fishing does heat up.
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….