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.
August Fishing Report
Hoot Owl Restrictions have been lifted for Missoula area rivers and the August fishing report is looking much better by the mid-way point than it was at the beginning of the month. August is historically a wild card month. We never know for certain what kind of fishing August will produce and our fortunes can change on a dime this time of year.
Water, Heat and Fire
Those are the 3 things that our August fishing revolves around. Mother Nature is still in charge of this trout fishing game. High water years are dreamy with plenty of clean, cold flow and happy fish that are looking to eat dry flies most every day. High water years usually bring cooler temps and little fire activity as well. On the flip side are low water seasons like the one we are experiencing now. Low water is more sensitive to hot weather and the threat of big forest fires always looms. We had both this year, and that triggered fishing restrictions earlier in the month. The Dog Days of summer were extra doggy for awhile and the August fishing report looked pretty dismal at the beginning of the month. Then Mother Nature bailed us out with cool, wet weather for the better part of a week. Water temps dropped and the river flows bumped up some, and the trout certainly responded.
While we would prefer the kind of fishing a high water year offers, our current situation is almost as good. The Hoot Owl restrictions earlier in the season has led to a lull in river traffic. It’s simply not very busy on the rivers right now even though the conditions are much improved. The anglers that are out there getting after it are greeted by vacant stretches and trout that haven’t seen many flies recently. Unpressured trout go a long way to producing solid fishing this time of year. Lots of solitude with fish willing to eat a well presented dry fly is about as good as it gets in late summer.
At the beginning of the month our August fishing didn’t look to promising, but now we are set to float into fall on a high note.
Mother Nature’s Gift
Much has been written about the relationship between fishing and the weather. Mostly because anglers have a primal need to explain away poor fishing with a plausible excuse. We love our excuses, but they are out the window right now as some great fishing weather has descended upon Missoula. It is the kind of stuff that doesn’t make the tourists very happy, but every guide in town is gearing up in the morning with a big smile on their face.
Solid cloud cover, some rain, and below average temps are forecast to hang around well into next week. That is the perfect fishing weather for Montana. The rivers will pump out steady mayfly hatches and the trout will look up with more confidence as the cloud cover offers them more protection from predators. The small dry fly game promises to be excellent in places like the Clark Fork and lower Bitterroot. In the faster water of the Blackfoot and upper Bitterroot trout will throw caution to the wind and hammer big attractor patterns too.
The best part about this latest round of weather is dropping water temps. There are already some Hoot Owl restrictions in other parts of the state, but this cold front came just in time to drop our water temps back to ideal levels. At least for the next week or so, anglers can sleep in a little longer and take to the water on a civilized schedule.
There are plenty of trout looking up right now around Missoula. They love the clouds just as much as we do. If you get the chance you should take advantage of the best fishing weather of the month. It’s only a matter of time before the sun, heat, and excuses return to the rivers of Montana.
Big Dry Fly Season
If you like throwing big single dry flies then the time is now! All the Missoula area rivers are dropping and clearing from run off and the big stoneflies are hatching. Over the next couple of weeks we will have more biomass in insects hatching than the rest of the season combined. Not only are Salmonflies and Golden stones coming off, but PMDs, Green Drakes, Caddis, and Yellow Sallies are also hatching on all the area streams. It makes for some of the best dry fly fishing of the year, but with so many bugs it can also be frustrating some days.
If you’ve never fished a big stonefly hatch you may be surprised to hear that there are days with big bugs all over the water and hardly a trout eating them. The reality of stonefly season is that the fishing runs in cycles. There may be thousands of Salmonflies on the water, but it only takes a handful of those giant bugs to fill a trout up. The fish eat hard, but eventually they are gorged and take a day or two off before feeding again. It’s gut wrenching to be on the river with Salmonflies and golden stones fluttering everywhere on the water and absolutely no rises. Most days we will float out of that gorged section of trout and back into some feeders again, but other days it can be tough from start to finish. There’s not much to do. Streamers and nymphs might help a little, but gorged trout just aren’t going to eat much.
Network to Success
Just like in the business world, networking can pay big dividends during big dry fly season. There are a lot of options around Missoula and while the trout may be gorged on the Blackfoot, they may be eating dries like crazy on Rock Creek. The more sources you contact then the better idea you will have of the big picture. The key to great dry fly fishing this time of year is being in the right place at the right time. Just a day or two can be the difference between awesome dry fly eats most of the day or staring at your fly as dozens of naturals float downstream untouched. Regardless of how it plays out this is still one of the finest times of year to be on the water in Montana!
Missoula Stonefly Hatches
We are getting closer by the day, and anglers all over Montana are awaiting the arrival of the Missoula Stonefly Hatches. It is always one of the most exciting hatch cycles of the year and timing plays a huge role in an anglers’ success. Giant orange Salmonflies will kick off the stonefly season and they will hatch first on the upper Clark Fork, then Rock Creek, and the Forks of the Bitterroot.
Better Early than Late
When it comes to the stonefly hatches you are usually better off gambling on the front end of the hatch. That is when the most aggressive dry fly feeding will take place and when the biggest trout will be on the prowl. Salmonflies are a giant meal for a trout and if you want until you see pics of bushes full of salmonflies before you head to the river you may be too late. Trout binge feed on the first of the bugs and after the first few days there is almost always a hangover. The trout are simply too stuffed to eat any more and the fishing can be tough. If you find yourself in that situation all hope is not lost. If you have time on your side then those trout will tie the feed bag on again in a day or two. If you don’t have the luxury of time then your best bet is to scramble to one of the other local options.
The Over Achiever
Salmonflies get all the publicity during this time of year and for good reason. They are absolutely huge! and manage to raise some of our biggest trout of the year to a dry fly. But the salmonflies little cousin, the Golden stonefly is the favorite hatch of many veteran guides. Like I said earlier, salmonflies can be feast or famine based on how they feed on the bugs, but golden stones are a little smaller and the hatch lasts much longer. This produces much more consistent fishing where we can raise good numbers of nice trout day after day without the up and down swings during salmonflies. Try throwing a golden stonefly even during a heavy salmonfly hatch and you may be surprised with the results.
Down and Dirty
The buzz this time of year revlolves around dry fly fishing with big, bushy dry flies but you don’t have to live and die with the dry. Trout are still gorging on stonefly nymphs and some days fishing a dry/dropper combo or straight up nymph rig will produce better results than strictly dry fly fishing. Everyone loves the dry, but some days it’s the nymph that gets the job done
The Current Forecast
We have been cool and wet recently which is great for the rivers, but all signs point to an early stonefly season around Missoula. There have already been some trout caught on big dries and the next spell of warm weather will bring the hatch on full force. It looks like early June is going to be the time for Salmonflies in 2016. Don’t worry if you can’t make it that soon, the golden stoneflies should last into July.