Winter can be a great time to fish in Montana for a variety of reasons. You might be on a ski vacation and your legs just can't take another day on the slopes or you need to clear your mind from the day to day grind and a experience on a un-crowded river sounds inviting. Or, the weather is going to be so incredible that if you don't fish after sitting cooped up all winter that someone may have your pulse checked out by your doctor. Wintertime in Montana can offer some great fly fishing opportunities.
Some years there are ample opportunities, other years very few. This is meant to be a primer to make the most of those opportunities that arise. Follow these simple key points not only to increase your success rate but to make the most out of your day and enjoy those small windows of opportunities to get outside and wet a line.
1. With water temperatures low the trout have slowed down their metabolism. They are not expending excessive energy to eat.
Fish slow and methodically. You may need to make 5-8 drifts in a certain fishing lane to make sure that you have thoroughly covered the water. By fishing another lane only 3-4 feet out you may find success. Rinse and repeat.
2. Fly pattern isn't nearly as important as proper weight.
During the winter months the trout still have to eat but aren't moving far for a meal. That also means that they aren't moving far in the water column. Start with some weight and then increase until it until you are either hanging up on the bottom to often or your into fish. If you are fishing a deep pool you may need what you might consider using a excessive amount of weight to get your flies to the bottom where the trout are laying. Attractor flies such as prince nymphs or small stoneflies can be productive along with small nymphs such as zebra nymphs and pheasant tails.
3. While nymph fishing, set the hook on the most subtle bobble on your indicator.
Most strikes in the winter are going to be very subtle. The more "trigger happy" you are the more you we be rewarded. If you are expecting your indicator to shoot upstream and take off you might be waiting a long time. The strikes can be very subtle and soft. So remove any doubt and recast those flies. You might just have a fish on the end of your line.
4. Concentrate on fishing during the warmest part of the day.
There is no need to get out there early. Let the water warm up and the trout get active. Many days the peak of warmth isn't until the afternoon. The window for fly fishing Montana in the winter as a general rule is 10am-4pm. To early or too late and you're wasting your time. Make the most of your time and fish hard during the best time of day. Many midge hatches won't occur until 2pm and last only an hour or two.
5. Concentrate your efforts in the proper water.
Unlike in the summertime when trout seek out the heavy riffles for oxygen, in the wintertime you will find the trout in the deeper pools and slower runs. You almost have to reverse your thinking from summertime. The trout are not found in the skinny riffles like in the summer. They are deep, in the slower water where they don't have to work as hard and burn endless calories. Skip the fast water and concentrate on the slower "holding" water where they can rest and pick off an easy meal.
6. Keep your eyes open for dry fly opportunities.
Fishing dry flies in the winter is the ultimate. Opportunities exist but they can be few and far between. When the occasion arises make the most of it. Most winter time dry fly opportunities revolve around midges. Some of the smallest insects found in our aquatic system. Study the water and the bank to see what is on the water. Are the fish taking emergers? Adults? Or nymphing just under the surface? Most rising trout at this time of year will be near the bank or around bigger boulders. A fly that represents a midge cluster such as a Griffiths gnat works well, but sometimes you need to get specific and fish an individual pattern. A captive midge or smaller pattern (size 20-22) may be needed to fool some finicky fish. If you have problems seeing a small dry try putting a attractor fly such as a royal wulff in front of your small dry to act as a strike indicator. Check out our you tube video for a quick and easy way to attach droppers.
7. Clothing for winter fishing can make or break a trip.
An extra pair of fingerless gloves, fleece pants and layered clothing goes a long way to make sure that you are comfortable during your outing during the winter months. Stumbles into frigid waters and fishing thoroughly means not a lot of movement that can cause circulation to slow down. Dressing appropriately can not only give you comfort but more hours on the water. Jeans are not a good insulator. A good pair of fleece pants can help shield you from the cold water. A extra pair of gloves can extend a day if the first pair becomes wet. A good knit hat will keep that much needed heat where it needs to be. Heavy socks are a must when wading. Boot fit waders are much warmer than neoprene waders with socks if possible. If your waders are neoprene socks make sure that your boots can accommodate the extra bulk. Tight fitting boots in cold temps will cause your feet to feel like ice blocks. Here in Montana, you will experience many different scenarios throughout the day. Be ready to shed and apply extra layers as needed to make sure you can get the most out of your day.