Missouri River Fishing in May
We love our freestone streams around Missoula, but we also readily look forward to May when we make the drive over Rodgers Pass for some Missouri river fishing. We spend most of the month on this awesome tailwater. It has become one of our favorite times of year during the Montana fly fishing season. There is a lot to love about the Mighty Mo.
Large Trout and Lots of Them
The Missouri river boasts large trout populations. Some years the counts have approached 8,000 trout per mile. This year it’s closer to 4,500 trout per mile on the upper stretches, but the real kicker is that the average size is a legit 17-18″ with several chances at 20″ class trout each day. Venture a little further down river and you will find more of a mix in age classes, but there are some giant brown trout lurking that can provide you with the fish of a lifetime. These are all hard fighting, line-ripping wild trout that can leave you with a sore forearm by the end of the day.
Variety is the Spice of Life
For a tailwater, the Missouri river has loads of variety both in the insect life and the styles of fishing available. Of course, nymph fishing is the most consistent way to find trout on the Mo but there is even variety with that. The safe bet is deep nymphing in the classic lanes, but short leash nymph rigs in the shallows produce some of the biggest trout in the river. Streamer fishing is effective and there is almost always dry fly fishing to be had in May too. There are loads of midges, blue-wing olives, march browns, and caddis that all hatch during the month. Anglers can search with dry/dropper rigs, headhunt for rising trout, or just prospect the likely water with a dry. Some days I wish we could 4 or 5 different rods rigged up because every technique would produce well in the right spot.
There’s really no place we’d rather be during May, and for the rest of the month you will find us over on the Missouri fishing the greatest tailwater in Montana. It’s not too late to join us!
Here in Missoula we are blessed to have so many fishing choices so close to town. It means that no matter what the conditions are we likely have a good fishing option in the area.
The challenge comes this time of year when we get a bump in our streamflows, either from too much rain or too many warm days which start the snowmelt. Some bumps we hardly notice, only lasting a day or two, but others like this most recent bump are substantial and can stretch out a week or more. It’s at times like these when guides really start to scramble and daily fishing choices become hugely important.
It really does become a chess game because how well something fished yesterday is of little importance compared to the morning streamflow gauge and how likely the weather is to have an impact on those flows. Of course, the safe option as far as consistent fishing goes is to run over to the Missouri. The 2 hour drive to that famous tailwater has saved many a trip for Missoula fishing guides, but if you run to the Mo every time the water bumps a little you will also miss out on some of the best big fish conditions of the year locally.
The two big benefits to water bumps are that it drastically thins out the river traffic, and the big ones come out to play. When the water gets high and off-color most local anglers all but give up on fishing for awhile and many guides either run to the Mo or cancel their trips. That leaves our rivers relatively vacant which means if you are willing to take the gamble you can have your choice on where to fish in solitude.
No Risk, No Reward
And those who gamble stand a good chance to find the biggest trout of the year. Higher water pushes those alpha fish out of their hidey holes and the lack of clarity makes them approachable and catchable. While fishing through these water bumps does have a bright side in the form of big trout, it also has it’s share of perils. Even the most veteran guides still get their butts kicked during water bumps. All of the data available may point toward a certain option being great fishing, and you end up grinding it out for just a trout or two. Fishing may be great in the morning and you can’t wait for the afternoon, then the river completely blows out as mud and floating beaver houses wash by your boat.
It’s not for the faint of heart, but as a guide it is very rewarding to pick the right fishing choices and put your guests on the trout, and as an angler there’s nothing quite like hoisting up the biggest fish of the year on a stretch of river with no one else around.
Big Dry Flies in March?
The Skwala hatch started early this year with the mild weather at the beginning of the month and it has been one of the best March’s I have ever seen when it comes to dry fly fishing. The Bitterroot has Skwala stoneflies coming off river wide, from above Darby all the way down to Missoula. It is still the top option in the area, but some other fisheries are starting to come on-line and if you want to get away from all the traffic on the Root those other choices may surprise you with the quality of the fishing.
Skwala Hatch Options with Solitude
Rock Creek has been solid all spring with consistent nymph and streamer fishing, and the dry fly bite is on too with a few Skwalas and blue-wing olives on cloudy days. The March Browns are only days away, and that is one of the very finest hatches on Rock Creek each year. Normally March is a little early for the Clark Fork to have a reliable Skwala hatch but this year has been different. There are some big bugs crawling around the water near town and the blue-wings have produced daily pods of rising fish. The upper Clark Fork from Rock Creek to Missoula has been great as well. You won’t find the rising trout up there, but dry/dropper combos have been consistently producing. The very upper and lower portions of the Clark Fork haven’t seen much pressure yet.
Is it too early for those spots? There’s only way to know for sure, and I can guarantee you won’t have to wait in line at the put-in to launch your boat. The Blackfoot has been hit or miss so far this spring. Some days the nymphing and streamer fishing has been fantastic while other days it has been really slow. It’s pretty up there though, and you will have that all to yourself as well.
This year has been a good one so far for the Skwala hatch. The bugs are here and there are enough different options to keep everyone happy. Our weather forecast looks good for the rivers too. We should have fairly stable streamflows through this week at least. It looks like another good one to be in Missoula!
Bitterroot Skwala Hatch
What was once a local secret, the Bitterroot Skwala hatch has become the most anticipated event of the Missoula fishing season. It is easy to see why. After a long, dreary winter the Skwala provides the first big meal for local trout and the first big dry fly fishing for anglers from all over the country. This rise in popularity has lead to a busy river in the spring and requires a different approach from years ago.
These 5 Tips can be the difference between a bent rod and high fives, or grumbling the whole way home about that ‘overrated’ Skwala hatch. Spring is here and it’s time to go fishing!
1-Avoid Traffic: Whether you are wade fishing or floating do your best to avoid accesses that look busy. Bumping just a few miles up or downstream can give you the space and solitude to fish more effectively. If you are wading plan to work upstream of the access in the mornings and downstream in the afternoons. This will eliminate most any competition with boats.
When I am floating I will take the ramp with only one boat ahead of me over the stretch with the ‘hot’ report and 10 rigs any day. You need space during the Skwala hatch, and launching behind a line of other boats is a sure fire way to find tough fishing.
2-Sleep In: This is not the time of year to be on the water at the crack of dawn. In fact, the crack of noon is about right to take advantage of when the trout are most active. Water temps are still cold this time of year and it takes some daylight and heat to build to get our trout actively on the feed.
Yes, you can catch trout earlier in the day and some days even on dries, but there is no need to rush in the morning. Taking a relaxed approach will also likely create some space between you and other anglers.
3-Go Fast or Go Slow: If you show up to your first Bitterroot Skwala hatch hoping to see coulds of bugs flying around and pods of rising fish you will be sorely disappointed. It’s a great hatch, but does not produce prolific numbers of bugs like a Salmonfly or caddis hatch. That means you need to adopt one of two approaches.
You can choose to work the water fast, looking for the most aggressive trout and pockets of bugs, or you can slow way down and fish the water very methodically. Both styles have their pros and cons and I will often switch between the two during the day working fast when there’s not much action and then putting on the brakes when the fish start to look up.
4-Watch Streamflows: Spring is a tricky time of year when it comes to streamflows. Too warm of weather or rain can have the river on the rise while hard freezes can make flows drop. The best case scenario is stable water levels while the worst is a steeply rising river. Tough fishing is the norm during rising water, but it only takes a day or so for the trout to adjust once the river levels off.
Once flows start to drop again that can be a trigger for heavy feeding. The biggest factor effecting our flows in the spring is nightime low temps. As long as the temps drop below freezing at night conditions will remain fairly predictable. A couple nights of above freezing temps at night and all bets are off.
5-Believe in the Dry Fly!: You have come to fish one of the best dry fly hatches of the season so it only makes sense to throw a dry fly. Yes, nymphing will produce fish, some days a lot of them, and a dry/dropper rig is very effective too but it’s not dry fly fishing. Don’t get me wrong, I am no dry fly snob as I’m happy to fish whatever tactic will produce, but the Skwala hatch is one situation where you seriously hurt your chances of a dry fly eat by fishing a dropper.
Slow, woody debris is ideal during Skwalas and a lot of those spots are damn near impossible to throw a dropper into. Nearly all of the best guides I know choose to push a single dry fly for the better part of their days during the Skwala hatch. Sure, the 15″ rainbow is easy pickings on a dropper in the main seam, but your best chance at that 22″ brown is tight to the snag infested log jam.
Smith River Camp 2015
Camp life on the Smith River is one of the highlights on this 5 day overnight trip. You’re never quite sure what is going to happen in camp, and by day 5 the activites skew toward the creative. Last year on the Smith, gear guys Sam and Max decided to blow off a little steam once the final desserts of the trip had been served. We always wonder what the gear guys do all day before we make it to camp. Now we have a little better idea.
We are getting to that time of year when Smith River applications are due. The deadline is Feb. 18th and you can find all the information you need HERE