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.

Fishing Choices

 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.

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.


family fly fishing vacation

Thomas with a great dry fly cutthroat

So what does a fly fishing outfitter do with a mid-season break?  He takes a family fishing vacation of course!  I always try to schedule some time off toward the end of August before the kids go back to school so we can take a trip somewhere.  The trip doesn’t have to be exclusively about fishing, but wherever we go fishing has to be on the itinerary at some point.  This year we made the trek north to Fernie, British Columbia which is home to the Elk River and legendary dry fly fishing for westslope cutthroat.  My good friend, Jeff, is an outfitter up there and runs Home Waters Guide Service so once we got into town he stopped by to fill me in on conditions and hatches.  It’s always fun to explore new water, and with the kids there is not a much better option than dry fly cutthroat fishing near the end of summer.  The scenery around Fernie is simply spectacular and over three days of floating on the Elk river we discovered that the fishing is awesome too.  The young anglers caught plenty of fish to keep them interested, and my wife crushed trout on dries the two days that she fished.  There were lots of fat 14-16″ cutthroat that hit the net with a few approaching the 18″ mark.  If it wasn’t for some local letting all the air out of my tires on the last day it would have been an absolutely perfect trip.  Fortunately Jeff came to the rescue with a rented air compressor.  His efforts turned a potential nightmare into just a small inconvienence.  Overall it was a great family fishing vacation and the perfect break before our final push into the fall fishing season.  The kids are already working on where we are going next summer.

Drift Boat Fly Fishing Tips

Ready and waiting for the right moment

In the first two weeks of Drift Boat Fly Fishing Tips we talked about big picture concepts.  Now it is time to get down to the nuts and bolts tactics that will make you a better fly angler for your next float trip.  The first step is to be able to maintain a good Ready Position.  Every river you fish will be different, on some you fire casts all day while others require that you pick your spots.  Regardless, there will always be times during a float when you are not fishing.

The actions you take during that “down time” can have a big impact on your overall success during the day.  After the first hour in the boat I have a good idea how long it takes my anglers to get ready to fish again.  Some are faster than others, and I try to prep accordingly giving the slower anglers more lead time.  When we do take a break some anglers simply plop their rod down with fly line strewn all over and flies surely wrapped around something.  Those anglers are rarely ready when the time comes, but even diligent fly fishers get tripped up by situations that could easily be avoided.

A good Ready Position and some general awareness by the angler can ensure that their fly is in the water when it’s most important.  For starters, you have to make sure that your rig is easy to get out of the boat and cast.  That means you need to make sure to keep the leader out of the guides on the rod.  The knots that form leader to fly line connections invariably get caught in the guides and make it more difficult to make the first few casts.  Always leaving a couple feet of fly line out the end of the rod is a safe bet.  Next is to make sure the flies don’t get tangled or hooked on anything.  For a one fly rig this is fairly simple, just hold that fly by the bend of the hook.  Don’t hold the leader above the fly becasue that allows tangles and snags.  If you are fishing two flies such as a hopper dropper or nymph rig then the most effective technique is to hold the bottom fly, again by the bend of the hook.  This keeps everything in a straight line but you need to make sure the top fly doesn’t snag anything.

Now that you have the fly line out the rod tip and secure hold of your flies you need to remain mindful of what you do with your fly rod.  If you wave it all around or leave it pointed up at the sky then your leader is going to wrap around your rod.  Try to keep your rod level with the river and don’t move it much at all.  If you have to move your rod then do so in smooth motions.

The last thing to address is your excess fly line.  Some folks like to reel up their excess fly line between spots.  That is fine, but then they just have to pull it all back off the reel at the next run and it takes more time and effort than just leaving it out.  The pitfall with leaving your fly line out is that it tends to get stepped on or wrapped around things in the drift boat or raft.  So the last step in maintaining a good Ready Position is to actually look at your fly line and make sure you are not stepping on it or it’s not wrapped up.

This whole process is not that complicated and if you commit to it, you will gain precious time when your fly is on the water and not in a tangled mess.  Next time you are drift boat fly fishing and the guide asks you to take a break start off by putting yourself in a good Ready Position.  Then have a nice conversation, look at the scenery, or take a drink of water.  When the guide calls on you to get ready simply go through a quick checklist:  flyline out the tip, fly in hand, rod level and untangled, and fly line clear.  It quickly becomes second nature, and you will catch more fish in the end!

Drift boat fly fishing tips

A Happy Drift Boat Team

Last week in Drift Boat Fly Fishing Tips we talked about the mental aspects of the game.  The second most important element to remember is that float fishing is a team sport.  Wade anglers are used to the solitary nature of their trade.  They can move at their own pace and only have to worry about themselves.  With drift boat fly fishing you have to keep in mind that there are two other people in close proximity, and one of them is also waving around a 9 foot stick.

I cannot tell you the number of hours, yes hours! of lost fishing time over the course of a season that occurs simply because someone was not mindful that another angler was in the boat.  Tangled lines, tangled flies, hooked anglers, and worse all happen and it adds up to lost time on the water.  Often it is not a big deal because we either weren’t floating through great water, or I can simply row back upstream and cover the missed section of river.  However, other times it’s a big deal.  It may be fast water where I can’t hold the boat or quiet water with super spooky trout, but I know we only have one shot.  And I also know if my anglers make that shot we are virtually guaranteed a trout.

So how do you play well as a team when drift boat fly fishing?  The first step is to understand your roles and territories in the boat.  There will be an angler in the front of the boat and the back of the boat and a good dividing line is straight out from the oars.  Any water in front of the oars is the territory of the front angler and any water behind the oars is the territory of the back angler.  Don’t cast your flies into the other anglers’ territory and you will likely avoid tangled lines.  Some guides divide this up differntly so if there is any confusion just ask the guide to clarify what they would like to see.

Now you know where you should be fishing, but it is much more important to know how you should be fishing.  It only takes a few floats to realize that most days the front seat offers the best chances.  It makes sense as that angler gets to present their flies to the trout first.  While the front seat might be the hot seat, the back angler has the most critical role on the team.  The back angler can see everything that is going on because it is in front of them, and because of that they have more responsibility.  The front angler is essentially blind to what is going on behind because they are facing forward.

Both anglers should focus on their fishing, but the back angler should also do their best not to cast while the front angler is casting.  When hitting a new run the back angler should also wait for the lead angler to get in the water first. If the back angler does have to cast out of rhythm or unexpectedly it’s a good idea to let your partner know with something like, “I’m up!” or “casting”.  In short, the back anglers’ job is to stay out of the way while still fishing hard.  As you get better as a team, the back angler should try cover water with their flies that the front angler misses.  You’d be surprised how often this pays off with a nice trout for the tail-gunner.

The front angler has a very simple job, put the fly in the spot.  The burden of preventing down time is moslty on the rear angler so the front angler need only focus on making their best casts to the spots the guide is pointing out.  The biggest mistake front anglers make is fixating on a spot for too long and casting back into the other anglers’ territory.  Putting the fly in the right spot and keeping the fly ahead of the boat are the front anglers’ main responsibilities.  As you get more comfortable with drift boat fly fishing the front angler should also occasionally take a glance toward the back angler to make sure they are not casting at the same time.

Embrace your role and you will know what to do and when to do it.  Float fishing is a team sport and if you remain mindful that it’s more than just you fishing out there you will spend more time fishing and less time untangling.   When that happens you will find that your great days far outnumber your tough days on the water.

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