Summer fishing season has finally arrived in Missoula! A big snow year combined with a cool and wet spring resulted in high water all through May and June. There were some great moments, but we did not see consistent dry fly fishing like we always hope for in June. That has changed. All the Missoula area rivers are dropping and clearing, and the dry fly bite has gained momentum in the last few days.
Based on the current conditions this looks to be our best July and August in several years. There have been many years where are temps are in the 80’s-90’s by mid-June and by the time we get to July we are meeting at dawn to take advantage of the cool weather and active trout. Yesterday we saw a high of 63 and we have been able to meet at a leisurely 8 am for weeks.
All of the Missoula rivers have plenty of water and the water temperatures are ideal for this time of year. The next couple of weeks will produce a myriad of good hatches from golden stoneflies, pale-morning duns, green drakes, yellow sallies, and caddis. During hot, low water years we run through our hatch cycles very quickly, but during high water years the hatches are much more sustained. The last high water year produced a golden stone hatch that went through the third week in July and we could very well see that again this year.
August is our sleeper month. Anglers are a little hesitant about fishing in August because of the chance of fishing restrictions and forest fires. As a result August has become the month with the least amount of river traffic during the entire season. If you enjoy solitude then August is the month for you. In a high water year we can have fantastic dry fly fishing in August. Hoppers are the main game, but there are also good hatches of tricos, fall drakes, and spruce moths.
We will be in shorts and sandals for the next couple months enjoying the best that summer fishing season has to offer. It promises to be some of our best dry fly fishing this year and the crowds will thin by mid-July. If you have a trip planned your in luck, and if you are thinking of coming out we still have some availability left.
Hero or zero season has finally arrived in western Montana. At least that’s how I like to think about this time period when the rivers are finally dropping, but there are still a lot of questions about the fishing. In the next 10 days or so I am fairly certain that I will see some of the very best fishing of the season, but there will be heartache too. The only question is how much?
As a guide I try to gather as much information as possible to make my fishing decisions. Angler ability, reports from fellow guides, streamflows, weather, hatches, etc. all factor in to the decision of where to go each day. That decision is more important now than at any other time period during the season.
Some years I will have stretches where I make the right call 4 or 5 days in a row. The fishing is incredible, the clients think you walk on water, and if you’re not careful you’ll start to believe it a little bit too. Then there are stretches when you miss the call 4 or 5 days straight. The fishing is tough to downright miserable, your clients wonder if you really have a guide license, and you fill out applications for Subway at night.
The misses always hurt, but they are a little easier to take when you gamble on something that no one else is fishing. Those are home run days where you either hit it out of the park or strike out swinging. The misses that start to mess with your head are when you are off by only a few river miles, either just above or below the action. Hearing a fishing report from a buddy who killed them 5 miles downstream while you were getting it shoved is absolutely brutal. It happens to everyone, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
The problem with Missoula, and it’s a good problem, is that there is so much water. If we just had one river then we’d fish it everyday, take the good with the bad and move one. Not here, we have 350 miles and 4 different watersheds in play over the next 2 weeks. Every day, some guide on some stretch is going to have off the charts fishing. Other guides are going to go home with their tails between their legs. It’s not just chance or dumb luck, there is a method to the madness but there are no guarantees either.
I guess that is what makes June so unique. The chance at having the best fishing of the year, even your life, on any give day mixed with the very real possibility of coming up short. It’s not the best thing for a guide’s mental health or liver but it certainly keeps things interesting.
May on the Missouri River is always one of our favorite times of the season. MTO is over on the mighty Missouri dodging run off in Missoula and enjoying the finest tailwater fishing in the state. We really like early May on the Missouri because the river is typically low, the tributaries are clear, and there is some exceptional dry fly fishing and fun short leash nymphing. This year is anything but typical when it comes to streamflows though. We came into May with a river that was twice as high as normal, blown out tributaries, and cold water temps.
That made for some tough conditions in late April. Fortunately things started to turn in our favor for our first groups in May. The water started warming up just in time, and the guides used their creativity with the floats to avoid the bulk of the river traffic. Since the tributaries were blown out, everyone who was fishing was forced to the upper river. That can make for a crowded river, but we managed to stay out of the herd by using different meet times.
Missouri River above Wolf Creek
The fishing has been consistent all month. The deep nymph rig has been best for steady action, but in the last week the water has warmed up enough to fish some shorter nymph rigs with good success in the right spots. The tributaries are starting to clear up too and that has allowed the traffic to spread out throughout the entire river.
May on the Missouri River can spoil an angler and guide. Most would consider the high water less than ideal and still we are having good fishing everyday with lots of big rainbows from 16-20+” and some hefty 20+” browns mixed in. We probably won’t see the great dry fly fishing in these high flows which is disappointing. Despite that, every group of anglers we have had so far in May are already planning a return trip to the Missouri next year.
We love May on the Missouri River and look forward to what the second half of the month will have in store.
Missoula spring fishing is some of the very best of the season. Single dry fly fishing with big foam bugs is hard to beat, but it can also be tough fishing when the conditions do not cooperate. There are highs and lows to every spring fishing season around Missoula and it’s a mere matter of timing.
Rarely in the fishing world can you expect great rewards without some degree of risk. In other words, there is no “guaranteed” best time to go fishing in Missoula, or anywhere for that matter. It’s really up to each individual to decide what type of angler they are. Do you like to play it safe? If so, then come out in July when you have the best chance to find clear water in all the streams and warm weather. The fishing is likely to be respectable too, and lots of anglers come each year in July and love it.
But you want to catch big fish on dry flies don’t you? If that’s the case then you better buckle up, it could be a bumpy ride. I am 100% confident that more big brown trout were caught on dries in this past week around Missoula than were netted in the entire month of July last year. The catch is, I couldn’t make that claim about this same week in April of 2017. And that’s the rub, when the fishing is good in the spring it is incredible, but there is no reliable way to predict when it will happen.
What we do know is that every year between March and April we will see a high number of our biggest trout of the year on dry flies. Some years it’s the 3rd week of March, others the 2nd week of April, and when we are lucky like this year we will get a 4 week run of solid fishing that could produce the biggest trout of the year on any given day.
You could get snowed on, it might be windy, and the rivers could bump out of shape on you. That’s simply the price of admission for what could be the best dry fly fishing you have ever seen. If you don’t swing for the fences then you’ll never hit a home run. It has been a great week of spring fishing around Missoula and now we are looking down the barrel of some challenging conditions. If things break in our favor we will be netting a bunch of 20+” trout in the days ahead. If not then we will scratch and claw to make it happen. Either way we will be happy to not be playing it safe.
The Skwala hatch has become one of the most celebrated events in western Montana in recent years. A quick look through social media channels on any March day will reveal fly shops, fishing guides, lodges, and every millennial with a set of waders boasting about the now famous skwala hatch.
Is the hype just a product of a bunch of cabin fever stricken anglers looking for an excuse to get on the water? Fly shops need to make sales and fishing guides like to add a little something to those bank accounts that have been dwindling since October. A big hatch sounds like the perfect ploy to get the season started. Of course, it could be the real deal. It could be great fishing in the spring and you’re missing out.
Lots of hype surround the Skwala stonefly
In fact both answers are true. The skwala hatch is over-hyped and it is some of the best fishing of the year. The main reason is that the skwala hatch is not easy. This isn’t green drakes with visible risers down a good bank or golden stoneflies with thousands of bugs milling around. Most days you can count the number of natural skwalas you see on the water on one hand. That doesn’t make a compelling argument to fish a dry fly, but it might be exactly what you should do.
The other big challenge is Mother Nature. In the spring we can see anything from 38 and snowing to 65 and bright sun. Some of my best dry fly days have come during snow squalls when common sense would say to nymph or just stay home.
River levels are prone to fluctuate erratically too. Low and mid-elevation snow melting off when it’s too warm and rain events can all cause the river to bump out of shape for a few days. Weather forecasts and streamflows are huge for fishing conditions during the skwala hatch.
Traffic is the other piece of the puzzle in the spring. It’s a lot busier on the river now than it was 15 years ago. Everyone is looking for the same thing and I can’t blame them, but the weekend warrior is likely to see more anglers than trout most days. Creativity is rewarded this time of year. If you can find a little space you will likely find some willing fish.
More than any other time of year, the skwala hatch is when it truly pays off to hire an experienced guide. I’m a guide so it seems automatic that I would recommend getting a guide to fish. But it’s the honest truth for this time of year. An experienced guide is the absolute best investment you can make for successful spring fishing.
Putting it all together in the spring
There will be 3 or 4 days during the hatch that are completely bonkers. Everyone will have a great day if you hit it just right. The rest of the season is more complicated. The average angler will have a tough time cracking the code. They will drive home cursing the over-hyped skwala hatch only to scroll through Instagram the next morning to see a couple jaw dropping brown trout, #skwalahatch.
Whether the skwala hatch is all hype or legit is for you to decide. All I know for sure is that tomorrow I’m going fishing.