We are often asked in a conversation, "When is the best time to fly fish in Montana?" An easy answer is, whenever you can get here. The reason for this answer is because there is no right answer to the question. Montana has many different seasons and offers many different options for fishing some of the nation's best blue ribbon rivers and streams. Here I will outline Montana’s fishing seasons and what you can expect during the different time periods.
Starting around April and continuing through mid May, spring hits Southwestern Montana. Water temperatures start to warm up and both the trout and the insect life start to get active. The rainbow trout are beginning to spawn and opportunities for dry fly fishing increase. The fishing pressure tends to be light during this time frame and finding opportunities to have the rivers almost to yourself are very good. Many days you may find daytime temperatures in the mid 50’s to 60’s, but the occasional squall or rainy day is not uncommon. Sometime during May when the water temperatures reach the mid 50’s we experience an unbelievable hatch of caddis flies named the Mother’s day caddis hatch. Rivers such as the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers experience a phenomenal hatch where caddis hatch by the millions, and it is not uncommon to see fish rising from one bank to another. Mats of spent caddis can be as big as 4’x10’ and the trout will gorge themselves in back eddies and behind protruding boulders. This time frame is one of our favorite times to fish because of the lack of pressure and the trout are uneducated.
Generally starting in mid May our snow pack begins to melt and many of our area rivers begin to swell and get dirty. During this time frame many of the rivers' clarity are day to day, and some days they are fishable and others not. The length of run off is dictated by mother nature, and how long it lasts depends on snow pack depths and how fast it melts. On an average year, run off lasts between 4-6 weeks depending on many factors. We always have options to fish during this time period with areas that have fishable water, but we may not have all options available during our run off period. Please remember that we do not need “gin clear” water to have great fishing. High water generally pushes the trout toward the banks and with a foot or three of visibility the fishing can be quite good. Fishing during the run off season will allow you to use much stronger leaders and bigger flies which ensures that the success rate increases. Throwing 1x leaders and big rubber legs patterns are the normal and can be very successful. We also concentrate on many of our rivers that aren’t affected by run off. Tailwater rivers such as the Missouri and Beaverhead rivers don’t see the effects of run off as much and can offer a great option for fishing clear water with a chance for fishing dry flies. Many of these rivers are very popular during this time frame and advance planning to arrange lodging are recommended.
This season is when we see the majority of our clientele book their fishing trips. The weather is the most consistent, the fishing is good to great and it’s a great time to fish Montana. From late June to early July we experience our famous Salmonfly hatch. These 2.5” clumsy fliers are not only a delicacy for the trout but a major meal that they cannot get enough of. This is a busy time of year and a difficult hatch to fish as the hatch progresses upstream depending a lot on air temperatures. But, that day you hit it just right will be the best day of dry fly fishing in your life—guaranteed. It can be busy on the river with many others looking for that epic day, but I feel that our experienced guide staff has the tips and tricks to ensure a great time. July and August is also terrestrial time in our area and if you like throwing big attractor dries and foam flies that you can see, then this is a great time. Fishing the hot summer days, blind casting big grasshopper patterns either on the bank on mid river can bring up some trophy trout on the Yellowstone or Madison Rivers. We also see other hatches such as golden stones, PMD’s, tricos, and various Caddis flies.
This is one of my personal favorite time periods to fish. After Labor Day, many families have kids back in school and the pressure on all the rivers tend to relent. Fishing with terrestrials is still a possibility, but we experience another stonefly hatch that has completely different qualities than our early season hatch. These nocturnal stones hatch at night and throwing big attractors can bring explosive strikes on the surface. Dropping a small stonefly nymph off the dry can also be very productive. As October approaches, another hatch of Blue winged Olives emerges. Smaller than their spring time cousins, the trout key into this hatch on many of our western rivers and fishing small technical dries will test the most experienced anglers. As the brown trout began to stage up to spawn, the streamer fishing can be very rewarding as well. Fishing 6-7 weight rods and throwing big streamers for trophy brown trout is a lot of work but can get you that fish of a lifetime. Seeing a huge brown trout come off the bank, charge your fly, and try to rip the rod out of your hand is an unbelievable experience.
We fish year round here in Montana. What we look for is a day that is not too windy and air temperatures above 32 degrees. You want to concentrate on the warmest part of the day, such as 10am-2pm, when the trout are most active this time of year. The pressure is relatively light on our area rivers and streams. Midges are the predominate insects hatching and even though the trout have slowed down their activity you can have a great day fishing slowly and thoroughly. Nymphing is usually the best technique to find success and being in nature in the quiet of the winter months can be very relaxing. Most of our major rivers stay open year round so fishing when the conditions permit, you can go find a lot of water all by yourself and have a great day.