Spring flyfishing in Montana

Tips on spring flyfishing in Montana

It's spring (almost) — that time of year when Montana anglers turn their thoughts to wetting a fly.

It begins with ice-out, as warming air and water temperatures reduce the ice barges traveling downriver. And though trout feed throughout the year, the increasing water temperatures in Montana in spring rivers trigger a heightened level of feeding instincts in the fish.

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Anglers fish a spring creek near Livingston, Montana, along the Yellowstone River. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

Though pre-runoff hatches pale in reputation to their late-season counterparts, a solid smorgasbord of insects early in the year means that top-of-the-water action can rival that of the famed summer and fall surface frenzies. If it’s warm enough for the bugs, it’s warm enough for you.
Pre-runoff fishing is an angler’s delight for another principal reason.

With a few exceptions, fishing pressure is considerably lighter from February through May than it is from June onward, when hordes of thin-skinned tourists descend upon local waters like the insect hatches that entice their quarry.

But perhaps the best thing of all about spring fishing is that it adheres to the basic rule of fishing in general, which is to say that the conditions define the methodology—and often, during this time of year, the comfort level—of the excursion.

There are those exceedingly rare, sun-washed days in February, pure gifts from the gods, when you’d be close to believing it summer, were it not for residual ice shelves along the riverbank and the liquid nitrogen separated from your lower extremities by five millimeters of neoprene.

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Photo courtesy of visitmt.com

A day like that is perfect for the year’s first outing, a chance to bring your cast out of hibernation and fling the standard assortment of nymphs to fish which, like the still-dormant surface bugs, have been caught off-guard by the early bloom of spring. A day like that is its own reward, when the act of casting and the simple art of pursuit pays off huge mindframe dividends; and the first hookup, the first electrified touch of a live line buried beneath the current, is a transcendent joy.

If springlike conditions prevail during this time—and this year, with El Nino as the 800-pound gorilla on the atmospheric front, we could very well see one of the more warm, dry springs in recent memory—chances are excellent for a decent hatch of one of the smaller stoneflies.

The Missoula area’s Big Three—Rock Creek, the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers—are not generally known for highly technical fishing, but when the diminutive Capniae (size 16-18) or slightly larger Nemoura (size 14-16) throw a party, the fish attend in droves, as do the necessary fragile leaders and the frustrations that attend them.

It can be a humbling experience, presenting small flies on thin line to trout gazing through the clear, smooth surface that marks low-water conditions, especially when your cast has been mothballed for months. But constant doses of humility are inherent to flyfishing, and there’s nothing wrong with getting put in your place right off the bat. Like golf, where the perfect swing is always just a minor adjustment away, it’s the slim failures in fishing that keep you coming back.

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Photo courtesy of visitmt.com

But if winter remains the dominant player on the weather scene in the early months, the first trip of the year may coincide with the Skwala outbreak when water temperatures hit the mid-40s, usually in March. The Skwala is a big bug, the mother of early season hatches, and as ugly as its name. But for trout and their pursuers alike, the Skwala armada signifies that the feeding game, in all its glory, is on.

The Bitterroot is famed for its Skwalas, and as a result the Skwala hatch on the ‘Root attracts more fishing pressure than any other early-season locale. Some guides in the area refuse to float the river on Skwala weekends, arguing that the sheer number of boats reduces a client’s enjoyment beyond the point of diminishing returns.

But if the fishing is as fast and heavy as it can be, your attention will be locked on small grids of water and the perpetual boils of feeding fish within them. And the spectacle of a flotilla of boats on confined ribbon of water is something to behold—whoops of joy and fish flashing on the surface, near-collisions between crafts, often at the same time—if only for a short period, like a refreshing visit to a crowded city.

Rock Creek bestows a fair share of Skwalas upon its inhabitants as well, and the creek’s reputation brings a good number of anglers with them. But the lion’s share of early hatches there occur during low water, before the creek becomes navigable by boat.

That means quality wade fishing is easy to be had, if you make the effort to sniff out some of the nooks and crannies that pepper its banks away from major access points. And a dry-fly flurry on the emerald waters of Rock Creek, with its hefty browns, aggressive cutts and surging ‘bows, is a can’t-miss experience.

The Clark Fork offers surface action that ranks right up there with the best blue-ribbon water in the area, and early-season hatches are no exception. With two major confluences bookending the river on either side of Missoula—the Blackfoot to the east and the Bitterroot to the west—the Clark Fork can muddy up in a hurry, especially during spring squalls. But when the flow is down and visibility clear, Skwalas and other early bugs can turn the Clark Fork into a big-fish romping ground. It takes only one tangle with a football-shaped rainbow, thick flanks shining red as it explodes into the air, to forever cement a warm spot in your heart for the Clark Fork River.

April brings the Grey Drakes, a medium-sized mayfly that, if cloudy conditions rule, can stimulate a piranha-type pack feeding behavior among trout in all three of the rivers, and regular blue-winged olive and caddis hatches keep the action moving right on up to runoff, when lakes become the only viable option (aside from constant-flowing spring creeks) for those seeking a trout fix.
But if it’s done right, a fisherman can have a bounty of incomparable fishing days under his wading belt by the time the rivers blow their banks.

Early-season fishing may be as good as it gets all season long. If water levels hold out, an active early season just means you’ll be fine-tuned for mid- and late-season action. Besides, I’ve never heard a fly fisherman complain about spending too many days on the river. 

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