This article appeared in The Bozeman Magpie on March 24, 2011.
It’s officially spring here in Montana, which means warm and sunny weather today, whiteout blizzard tomorrow. While anglers are obviously excited about hitting the first good fishing of the season, there’s also a sense of urgency, as the impending seasonal run-off starts on most rivers statewide in mid-May. Few devoted anglers can deny dreaming about an extended road trip with no set destination, just the promise of good fishing ahead. The warming days of spring only seem to agitate these desires. Fortunately in Montana, there’s no need for extended trips, since a wealth of great locations lie within a few hours drive.
Those looking for a little help selecting their destinations should consider the following recommendations before the dirty water hits.
While January and February in Montana can bring some great midge fishing, the nice weather days are too few to consider this timeframe among the best fishing of the season. However, as the days of March slowly warm, the rivers literally spring to life. One of the earliest major hatches is the Skwala in western Montana. These beefy stoneflies are easily imitated with Stimulators, Sofa Pillows, Mystery Meats and the like in sizes 6 to 10. After a long winter of minimal activity, the trout prove eager for such a dining opportunity. This feasting exhibition has anglers rushing to the Bitterroot, Clark Fork and Rock Creek, looking for that first tight line of the season.
This hatch⎯like many stonefly hatches⎯can be spotty, but there is hardly a better way to ring in the fishing season than with the possibility of trout eating large dry flies. Seems both anglers and trout are ready to break free of winters cold embrace with this great fishing opportunity.
April brings consistently warmer days, and the options seem limited only by your gasoline budget or level of angling wanderlust. The tailwaters, spring creeks and freestones throughout the state will start to witness plenty of spring baetis. On the more technical water, these small mayflies, also known as Blue-winged Olive, are best imitated with any number of Rene Harrop CDC flies, and subsurface with brown/olives and pheasant tails in sizes 14-18. On the larger freestone rivers, more traditional flies like Parachute Adams, Wulffs, and bead-headed CDC Pheasant Tails will do the trick.
The more noteworthy rivers at this time include the Missouri River, Armstrong Spring Creek, Bighorn River and the Upper Yellowstone River. As the warmth of April increases, an explosion of insects begins with the fabled Mother’s Day Caddis, March Brown’s and continued baetis. The caddis get all the press, but the baetis and March Brown mayflies occur just before and throughout the Mother’s Day Caddis (shown below), ending only when the rivers finally swell with a full-swing run-off. While anglers still have to deal with the occasional bout of snow or cold weather the trout seem to be happy to cooperate with the smorgasbord of eatables spring brings with her.
Spring run-off sullies rivers throughout the state during May and June, meaning a little concentration should be applied on where to head next. As there are limited options, a good choice is to head back to the Big Hole River where the caddis are often just beginning. This river does experience run-off, but its tannic-looking waters rarely yield to that unfishable muddy color for long. By late May, the caddis are popping, but those looking for truly big fish will be throwing a streamer, particularly in brown/yellow. The J.J. Special is certainly a crowd favorite. If the Big Hole does get dirty for a couple days, another short drive will have you fishing the tailwaters of the Beaverhead or the Missouri.
With so many options and all that wonderful activity, the month of May quickly turns into June. From there, the summer season is just a few short weeks in the offing. Tailwaters throughout the state are starting to fish particularly well, but certainly the Bighorn and the Missouri should be vying for the top of the Montana angler’s list. These two rivers tend to fish exceptionally well with nymphs, including Rainbow Czech Nymphs, Scuds, Lightning Bugs, San Juan Worms, Tung Darts, and a variety of others.
Those anglers who prefer to fish dry flies will have limited opportunities in June, however the Paradise Valley spring creeks of Armstrong, DePuy and Nelsonoffer dry fly fishing that is second to none. The Pale Morning Dun (shown right) is a common summer mayfly that typically appears in mid-June on these particular spring creeks. The Big Hole is another river to keep an eye on as the elusive Salmonfly can make its emergence anytime in June depending on the weather and water conditions, but it usually coincides with the onset of the summer season.
Spring awakens dormant life great and small with the receding snow, while the bounty awaiting trout and anglers alike excites the spirit. The aforementioned are just a few of the highlights for the upcoming spring season. But they do introduce good opportunities for many of you to experience exceptional fishing before the onset of summer. In the pursuit, you’re sure to discover unique wonders of your own. Here’s to the start of a great fishing season!
– Eric Adams