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.
It has been solid fishing in the area, and the Missoula Fishing Report for the week ahead looks to be a good one. River levels are still well above average for this time of year, but they are stable to dropping right now. With the weather that is on tap that should remain the story for the rest of this week.
The Bitterroot is still the star of the show at the moment with clear flows and your best bet at dry fly fishing. In the past week we saw good Skwala dry fly fishing from the upper reaches around Darby all the way into Missoula. March browns, grey drakes, and blue-wings can be found on cloudy days and we have found a few fussy trout that would only rise to a mayfly. At times the river has been busy. The extra water this year helps but you still need to choose your floats wisely, especially on the weekends. Spring is your best chance at a really big trout on a dry fly and it looks like we will have at least another week of favorable conditions.
Some other fishing options are starting to pop up as well. The upper and lower reaches of the Clark Fork showed signs of life in recent days. It’s still a little early for prime time on this river, but fishing was respectable and you are certain to see a lot fewer people than on the Bitterroot. We had moments of great dry fly fishing, but dry/dropper was the norm. If the rivers stay in shape then the Clark Fork will only get better as spring progresses.
The Blackfoot is still mainly a nymphing game with tricky access in spots. If you are looking for a big fish and only need a handful of opportunities, you will find plenty of solitude on the Blackfoot. Wade anglers have seen plenty of success on Rock Creek. Dry flies, dry/dropper, nymphing, and streamer fishing has also produced bent rods over the last week on Rock Creek. The road is passable all the way through so there is plenty of water to choose from.
Fishing in Missoula has been plenty good so far this spring and we are excited to get back on the water again this week!
We put this together last year around this time. March Madness has a whole different meaning when you are in Missoula, Montana!
Big Dry Flies in March?
The Skwala hatch started early this year with the mild weather at the beginning of the month and it has been one of the best March’s I have ever seen when it comes to dry fly fishing. The Bitterroot has Skwala stoneflies coming off river wide, from above Darby all the way down to Missoula. It is still the top option in the area, but some other fisheries are starting to come on-line and if you want to get away from all the traffic on the Root those other choices may surprise you with the quality of the fishing.
Skwala Hatch Options with Solitude
Rock Creek has been solid all spring with consistent nymph and streamer fishing, and the dry fly bite is on too with a few Skwalas and blue-wing olives on cloudy days. The March Browns are only days away, and that is one of the very finest hatches on Rock Creek each year. Normally March is a little early for the Clark Fork to have a reliable Skwala hatch but this year has been different. There are some big bugs crawling around the water near town and the blue-wings have produced daily pods of rising fish. The upper Clark Fork from Rock Creek to Missoula has been great as well. You won’t find the rising trout up there, but dry/dropper combos have been consistently producing. The very upper and lower portions of the Clark Fork haven’t seen much pressure yet.
Is it too early for those spots? There’s only way to know for sure, and I can guarantee you won’t have to wait in line at the put-in to launch your boat. The Blackfoot has been hit or miss so far this spring. Some days the nymphing and streamer fishing has been fantastic while other days it has been really slow. It’s pretty up there though, and you will have that all to yourself as well.
This year has been a good one so far for the Skwala hatch. The bugs are here and there are enough different options to keep everyone happy. Our weather forecast looks good for the rivers too. We should have fairly stable streamflows through this week at least. It looks like another good one to be in Missoula!