Missoula Fall Fishing

September is here and the Missoula fall fishing season is underway. What used to be considered a shoulder season has now become a favorite time to fly fish for many anglers headed to Missoula. Guides eagerly anticipate fall fishing as well.

The fall hatches top the list of reasons why September/October are prime months in Missoula. Terrestrials like hoppers, ants, and beetles are great options, but the mayflies are what keep the fish looking toward the surface. Fall starts with tiny, technical tricos but we also see huge Hecuba, or fall drakes, Mahogany duns, and Blue-wing olives. With that many options, fishing a single dry fly is a real possibility every day.

The diversity of good fishing options is another big draw to fall fishing. The Clark Fork, Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Rock Creek, and Missouri all fish very well in the fall. That allows anglers to spread out over hundreds of miles of water in the Missoula area. The fast pocket water of the Blackfoot fishes great and so do the slower glides of the lower Clark Fork along with everything in between. Variety and fall fishing go hand in hand.

Weather puts fall fishing over the top. Hazy 90 degree days are a thing of the past. The days are crisp and cool, the air is clear and with a little luck the clouds are overhead. As fall progresses the color change of the trees in the river bottom takes place and there isn’t a prettier time to be fishing in Missoula.

Fall is finally here in Missoula and we plan to relish every day on the water. Our waders are back in the truck and the dry fly rods are ready as we head into the home stretch of the fishing season.

How to Fish a Hopper

It’s August in Montana and that means hopper season. For the next two months grasshoppers and other terrestrials are at the top of the menu for hungry trout. It can be some of the most exciting dry fly fishing of the year, but it can also lead to some hot, frustrating sessions on the river if you don’t know how to fish a hopper effectively.

When fishing any fly it is always help to think about the actual bug itself. In the case of hoppers they are terrestrial insects so they hatch on land and not in the water. Have you ever watched a hopper land on the water? If so you know they don’t land gently. They usually hit the water hard and then they struggle once there. This gives you some clues on how to best fish a hopper.

There is no need for delicate presentations when hopper fishing. In fact the sound of a hopper hitting the water hard often attracts trout from a distance to investigate. That doesn’t mean you can thrash the water blindly while hopper fishing. You still need to work the water methodically, but you can deliver the fly to the water with authority on each drift. The exception to this might be fishing on spring creeks or in situations where you are sight fishing to a specific trout. In those instances you may try a drift or two with a delicate presentation before smacking the fly in above the fish.

Water is a foreign environment for hoppers and they want out of it if at all possible. You almost always see hoppers kicking their legs and struggling when on the water. Most hopper patterns now have rubber legs sticking out all over them and when fishing moderate or faster flows the material has plenty of movement on it’s own during a good drift. It is a different story in slow water though. A dead drifted hopper can often go unnoticed in slow water. That is when a subtle twitch can make all the difference. Most anglers twitch the fly too aggressively, working it almost like a bass popper. In reality you want to impart just the slightest movement to the fly. Just a touch to make the rubber legs move and send out a few ripples. Only once every 5-10 seconds on a long drift and be ready.

Hoppers are a big meal during the summer but an infrequent one too. It’s not like a good PMD or caddis hatch where you see lots of bugs in the air and on the water. On a good day you may only see a handful of hoppers on the water. As a result you don’t need to spend a lot of time in each spot. Hopper fishing is more of a run and gun style. You want to cover as much water as you can in a session. One or two good drifts over each prime lie is all you need. During the summer trout know full well what a hopper is, and if they are going to eat the fly it will happen on the first drift or two. If not then move on to the next spot.

Once you understand how to fish the fly, the next step is where to fish the fly. Some hoppers can fly and there are bugs that end up in the middle of the river, but you will find the highest concentration of hoppers near the bank, especially grassy banks. Focus your efforts on those areas to find the most fish. Make a note of where you raise fish and where you don’t to help narrow down the water types you are working.

Perhaps the most overwhelming thing about hopper season is the selection of flies available. There are more varieties of hopper patterns out there than any other insect. Local knowledge is the key to success. Hoppers that work great on the Yellowstone might not raise a fish on the Bitterroot and vice versa. It is well worth it to spend a few bucks in a local fly shop to at least get in the ball park.

Size, color, and profile are the keys to hopper fishing. Those 3 variables can make for a lot of fly changes in a day if you don’t have a good system in place. When you are trying to dial in the right pattern don’t fish the same water with a new fly. Move to new water with the new fly. Start with size first. If you get no response from a size 10, drop down to a size 12 in the next spot. Still no response then change color for the next spot and then change profile, etc. Once you find a fly they will eat then you can back track and fish some of the water you already covered to see if it produces with a proven fly.

Hopper eats are some of the most exciting in the game. Hook-up percentages can be quite low though. Partly because they are relatively big and buoyant flies, and also because trout don’t always eat a hopper the same way. Some explode on the fly while others come up slowly and sip it, and at times they will even bump the fly first before coming back and inhaling it. Extreme focus is required of the angler. You have to watch the fish eat the fly. That sounds relatively simple, but is harder than you think. Don’t set the hook until you see the fly disappear in the fish’s mouth.

The hopper season in Montana has just started. Two months of big dry fly fishing awaits and it is time to get back on the water.

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.

I was jokingly referred to as being a little “salty” in last weeks post. After the winter we have endured I can certainly embrace that salty moniker. Since we are still not on the rivers yet, let’s keep that trend alive and tackle the growing Keep Em Wet campaign.

Keep Em Wet states it “is about releasing fish in the best condition possible. It’s a motto for minimizing air exposure, eliminating contact with dry surfaces, and reducing handling. It’s a movement to empower anglers to take small, simple steps to responsibly enjoy and share fishing experiences.”

I think that it is an awesome idea much like the Kick Plastic campaign, using barbless hooks, and the Clean Drain Dry movement to stop the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species. The main problem isn’t with the movements themselves. It’s the zealots who hijack things to serve the growing trend of social shaming.

These folks take an idea like Keep Em Wet and use it to broadcast their sense of moral superiority every chance they get. They are the vegan/crossfit heros of the fishing world. You will find them in the comments section of your news feed. Under a grip n grin photo of a nice fish, “Great fish! Too bad you killed it to get that pic.#keepemwet”

There are no shortage of examples like that out there. The problem is, no one responds well to being called out, either in person or on social media. If your real goal is education about proper fish handling or better fish survival then send someone a considerate direct message. Blasting them in the public comments is just a self righteous circle jerk.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the actual Keep Em Wet movement. They have done an excellent job in their literature of conveying their points without seeming judgmental or condescending. Their logic is fairly bullet proof, the less you handle a fish and the less time it spends out of water the better its chance of survival.

But how far do we take that logic? If you never even hook a fish surely it would have a better chance of survival. In fact if you never even stressed a fish by fishing to it, the fish would have a better chance of survival. Is the No Hook movement next? A cadre of anglers casting flies with the hooks cut off. Where do we draw the line, and how far down the rabbit hole do we want to go?

Personally, I love to photograph trout. They are all different and most of them are exquisitely beautiful. I get to scratch that photo itch often with my client’s fish. When I’m fishing I’m perfectly happy to unhook almost all of them in the net and let them escape quickly. But if I catch 3 permit in a week down in Mexico you can be damn sure I am going to photograph each one of them.

That is exactly what it is like for most of our clients. They don’t get to see thousands of trout each season. They feel lucky to get to fish a handful of days and they are excited to document the process. To them it’s not just another 16″ cutthroat. It’s the most brightly colored fish they have ever caught. The classic grip n grin is a staple for guides across the west and I don’t apologize for it.

Those photos connect anglers to a world they only dabble in. They are memories of the past, motivation for the future, and they translate into money not only for the fishing industry but a multitude of conservation organizations. Some fish certainly die as a result of a photo session, but I also know for a fact that some fish photos serve as a good reminder to send that fat annual donation check. Does that even the scales? Who knows.

I do try to shepherd anglers away from taking a photo of every fish they catch. Instruction on how to prepare and set up the shot is always given so it takes a minimum amount of time. I also show them how to properly hold a fish or I will hold it for them if needed. To become proficient at anything you have to practice, and I would prefer that anglers practice with me than on their own. I try to steer clear of excess, but we don’t shy away from fish pictures in my boat.

Still, I want that fish to live as much or more than anyone else, and most anglers are quick to pick up on that. Over the years I have seen many anglers go from wanting a shot of every trout to only taking one or two fish pics over 4 days. Most of us tend to go through that evolution and I think the Keep Em Wet campaign is trying to accelerate that process through education and awareness. An idea worth considering for sure.

It’s important to remember that we devote an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy to pursue tiny brained fish with whippy rods tossing pieces of feather and fur lashed to hooks only to let them go once we have caught them. Whether you throw a picture in there or not, the entire thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We sure do love it though, and in the end it’s up to you whether you Keep Em Wet or not. Just make sure to disable the comments!

August is our slowest month of the fishing season in Missoula.  The risk of forest fires and fishing restrictions have caused anglers to shy away from what used to be one of our more popular times.  It is certainly understandable, but for the anglers willing to gamble on August there are some secrets of summer fishing that can make for an awesome trip to Montana.

August is your best chance to find unpressured trout.  There are stretches of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork that may not see a guide boat for days during August.  If you find yourself on one of those stretches where the trout have been rested it can provide some of the best hopper fishing of the season.  There are a ton of fishing options around Missoula and many days in August you will have an entire stretch of river to yourself.  

Early on, early off is the key to success.  Water temps are most favorable early, before the heat of the day sets in.  The trout know this and they feed most aggressively during this time period.  Take in a gorgeous Montana sunrise and stick some nice trout when it’s most comfortable for everyone.  Get back to town and cleaned up to make the most of all Missoula has to offer in the late afternoon and evening.

Skill is rewarded in August.  A well placed hopper in just the right spot next to a log jam or a solid reach cast on target to a rising trout is the way to find the biggest trout during summer.  Take advantage of your existing skills and be willing to learn some new ones.  Time spent learning new fly fishing skills will pay off for seasons to come.  

Take what the river gives you.  We all want to fish single dry flies to large trout.  Some days we are able to pull that off.  Other days the fish are pounding droppers or they want to chase a streamer.  Other times the trout fishing is off all together and we are able to have fun sessions chasing northern pike or smallmouth bass.  Stay flexible in the summer to have the best fishing that you can.  In the past week our biggest trout came on a streamer and another angler landed a solid pike for the biggest fish of her career.  They adapted to the conditions and had a great trip.

We are enjoying some solitude and good fishing this August.  Not much in the way of forest fires and no fishing restrictions yet. There are definitely some secrets of summer fishing and our anglers have been enjoying themselves on the river.