by Montana Angler Fly Fishing
Fishing is definitely on the upswing around Southwest Montana. Good hatches of midges are often bringing trout to the surface on the right days. The spring baetis hatches are just getting started and will become much more important in the weeks to come. The streamer fishing has also been very good – not always a lot of action but for those willing to stay with the big bunny patterns some big browns are coming to the net. With the new Montana regulations in effect for 2016, the entire Upper Madison is now open for fishing, along with most of the small streams. These regulations give us some exciting new options for fishing in April and May this year.
Trout metabolism is tied to water temperature and as rivers and streams slowly warm they are becoming more and more active, but still plan on using some winter tactics. Many trout are still in their winter runs and will be there for most of the early spring. This time of year you need to be have laser focus on where you fish and target the deeper runs with slow to medium currents. Trout will not move into the fast riffles or bustling pocket water until later in the spring and early summer. The good news is that once you find some of these cold water honey holes they will be packed with trout. Fish densities in the best winter runs can be staggering with dozens upon dozens of trout packed together. Time of day is also very important. Morning water temperatures are cold and the fish don’t start moving in earnest until the late morning. Slow stripping streamers in deeper runs can produce a connection some mornings but usually activity doesn’t pick up until midges start hatching around 10am or so. The best fishing is often after lunch when water temperatures peak.
Nymphing is hands down the most effective technique in the early spring months if there are not rising trout (although streamers and even dries can still be an option). The fly selection doesn’t have to be fancy but will very from fishery to fishery. On the bigger freestone rivers such as the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison it is nice to still fish something larger as the top fly such as a stonefly nymph, crayfish pattern or sculpin trailed by a smaller nymph. For small nymphs think small with hooks in the 18-20 range. Patterns that produce include small baetis emergers, pheasant tails and midge larva. San Juan worms and eggs are also good patterns to try and if you are fishing a tail water or spring creek a sow bug can produce (especially pink). On spring creeks the big/small rule for nymphing can still apply but the “big fly” might be a size 14 sow bug trailed by a size 22 midge larva.
The streamer bite has also been pretty good lately. Streamers are never going to produce a lot of trout but if you pull them all day you can expect a few nice browns and sometimes a real monster. This is a good time of year to hit really large fish on bunny fur. A slower retrieve is often better than fast stripping off of the banks. A sink tip line can also be nice in deeper runs.
On a mild day you might be lucky enough to run into some rising trout feeding on midges or baetis mayflies. The midge hatches often peak in March and extend into April. Scott Bohr recently reported some epic dry fly fishing on the Upper Madison with hundreds of trout greedily feeding on a strong midge hatch in the late morning hours. Even freestone streams like the Gallatin will produce some sporadic midge hatches. If the hatch isn’t too strong dries that imitate single midges are more productive such as a palomino pattern. On tail waters like the Bighorn the midge hatches in the winter can be thick in the late morning and the insects will cluster together so many of the patterns such as the Griffith’s gnat that imitate these “rafts” of insects can out produce single insect patterns. We are also seeing some baetis mayflies which will soon become the most important hatching for late April and early May.
Time of day is also important this time of year. Early mornings can be very tough fishing. The midge hatches are a late morning event often beginning around 10-11am and that will sometimes kick the trout into the feeding mode. Baetis begin after lunch and persist to around 4pm.
Rainbow trout are spring spawners and often prefer smaller tributaries over the larger rivers. The Livingston spring creeks (DePuy, Armstrong and Nelson) are all open in the spring. Trout from the Yellowstone river are moving into the spring creeks prior to the spawn and this is one of the few times of the year where you can expect higher catch rates on the “creeks” do the large influx of “river” fish. As we move farther into the spring please try to avoid the shallow gravel riffles where the trout will be spawning. The large “clean” circles in the gravel are the nests or redds. Wading across the redds can crush delicate eggs buried just a few inches below the surface. Trout expend a lot of energy when spawning so please avoid casting to trout that are actively on redds in the spring months.
Report by Brian McGeehan