The image above looks inviting doesn’t it? It is what we dream about when we think of our fly fishing trips. The reality is that it doesn’t always work out that way. Being prepared to fly fish Montana can be the difference between awesome days on the water and miserable ones.
I took the photo above on May 9 and it was the start of a 5 day run of spectacular weather on the Missouri river. By the end of it we were wearing shorts and sandals and even complaining that maybe it was a little too warm. It all seems like a distant memory now. Since then it has been cold and wet everyday. We have only seen the sun for a few fleeting moments this past week and 50 degrees seems like a lofty goal at the moment.
That kind of weather is tough on anglers and guides alike. Cold fingers make it difficult to manage the fly line and feel what’s going on with the fly rod, hoods make it hard to see and hear, runny noses, and full body chills have all been part of the package lately. But the fishing has been off the charts good.
It’s understandable that anglers don’t get excited to see the 3 day forecast for their trip with highs in the 40’s, rain and a north wind. Guides aren’t chomping at the bit in those conditions either, but there are some keys to making your time on the water more enjoyable when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
- Take more clothes than you think you need. It’s always colder on the water than it is in town or at the boat ramp.
- Stay dry. Don’t wait to put the rain gear on. If it starts to sprinkle it’s time to suit up
- Hand warmers are a day maker. Open them and stick them in pockets before you hit the river.
- Extra gloves are a must. On cold, wet days I often go through 3 pairs of gloves or more. Keeping hands warm and dry is a key to being able to fish well
- Surgical gloves are great for anglers. Every fly anglers knows it’s near impossible to fish in full finger gloves. Hands tend to get cold with fingerless gloves as well. Wearing surgical type gloves along with fingerless gloves allows anglers to manage their line and stay warmer
- Cover your head and neck. You lose a lot of heat up top and sometimes a ball cap isn’t enough. Wear a beenie, use your hood and keep your neck protected with a Buff.
- If you are just a little cold, add another layer right away. Anglers go from a little cold to too cold faster than you think. Don’t try to tough it out, just add more clothes.
The fishing in Montana is often great during periods of rough weather. Come prepared to endure the elements and it may turn out to be the best fishing of the year. The cold weather continues on the Missouri river and we will be ready for it again tomorrow.
The Skwala hatch is a big deal these days and for good reason. It is the first main hatch of the season and at times it produces exceptional fishing. But, like any hatch during the Montana fishing season it has it’s pros and cons.
The most common question we get from anglers is, “When is the best time to fish the Skwala hatch?” If I could predict that with any accuracy I would book those dates and take the rest of the hatch off and go tarpon fishing. I really wish it was like fishing the Skwala hatch with Oprah. “You get dry fly fish, and you get dry fly fish, everybody gets a bunch of dry fly fish!”
The reality is a little different. There are ups and downs during Skwalas just like all of our other hatch cycles. Over the years I have had fantastic dry fly fishing as early as the first week of March and as late as early May. I have also seen tough fishing conditions throughout that time frame as well.
The best way to think about it is, that the quality of your actual fishing relies almost entirely on the specific conditions of your trip dates for any hatch. For Skwalas your best bet is to pick dates within the historic window of mid-March through late April. After that it is up to the fishing gods.
If you show up and it’s bright and sunny everyday with rising water levels then you are definitely going to have to work for your opportunities. On the other hand, if the river has been dropping for 3 days and it’s 55 degrees, cloudy and calm then buckle up. The fishing is likely going to be lights out awesome.
The angler’s skill and the guide’s experience definitely play a part. A good combination of those two will make each days fishing better, but they are still subject to the daily conditions. Some days the conditions favor the anglers and some days they don’t.
This season, the last 5 days have been like fishing with Oprah. Just about everyone has been having banner days. In 2017 we were completely blown out in Missoula for these same dates. It is always good to do a little research on locations and best times, but ultimately pick your dates, pull the trigger, and then hope for the best.
Run-off has finally arrived in Missoula, and our Missouri river guide season has started. We always look forward to spending the month of May on the Missouri. This big tailwater rarely disappoints with consistent nymphing, exciting streamer action, and some of the finest dry fly fishing of the year.
With a bigger than average snowpack we are expecting higher water on the Missouri this year than the last couple of seasons. That is not ideal for our dry fly plans, but just like in Missoula, higher water equals more big brown trout and everyone loves big browns!
The big browns are always a special treat, but it is a steady diet of 16-20+ inch rainbows that keep our anglers coming back year after year to the Missouri in May. The spawn seems to be nearly over for the season and those big rainbows return to the main river ready to eat anything that moves.
While the higher flows aren’t the best for midge and blue-wing olive hatches, the trout won’t be able to resist big March Browns and the hordes of caddis that are coming. The March Browns should show up any day, and size 12-14 mayflies covering the river will get some big snouts breaking the surface. The caddis will come next and we will get explosive takes in fast water.
We had an unbelievable spring dry fly season in Missoula with some of the most consistent conditions ever on our local rivers. Now it is time to switch gears as our Missouri river guide season has already started. We will be on the big river for the next month with heavy nets and smiles as wide as the big sky. We look forward to seeing a lot of familiar anglers and introducing a few new ones to the Mighty Mo.
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.