Written by: Brian McGeehan, Montana Angler Fly Fishing
Early Spring (late March thru early May) is the most underrated time of year to fish in Montana. The trout are hungry after a long winter and have not seen a fly in months. Low water levels have fish concentrated in specific areas, and crowds are sparse. While visiting anglers have discovered our fabulous fall fishing, spring remains very quiet and presents a great opportunity for anglers. The weather is certainly a crap-shoot, but it can be absolutely gorgeous, and the fishing is usually good enough that putting up with a little bad weather is completely worth it.
The nice thing about early spring in Montana is that we have a myriad of options. Freestone rivers will be on fire as they begin to warm, but can mud up for a few days as the low elevation snowpack begins to melt. If this happens, we have tailwaters and spring creeks to turn to, so there will always be something that is fishing great. Let’s take a look at five of my favorite options for early spring fishing.
1. Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone is a prime option during spring, when water and weather conditions cooperate. My favorite thing about the Yellowstone this time of year is the opportunity to fish streamers, nymphs, and dry flies all on the same float. Nymphing with stoneflies and small beadheads seems to always produce, and hatches of blue-winged olives and March browns can draw fish to the surface. Spring is also a prime time to tie on a big streamer and swing for the fences. While the fall is thought of as the time to target big fish, as many if not more trophies are landed each spring. I like to slow down my retrieve and use a heavier sinking-tip line in the spring, as water temperatures are still cold, limiting the trout’s willingness to chase a fly.
During the spring, most fishing on the Yellowstone takes place around the town of Livingston and in the lower reaches of Paradise Valley. The Shields River is muddy for most of the spring, impacting the river downstream of Livingston. The upper reaches of Paradise Valley can be very slow-going at such low water levels, so most anglers target the lower part of the valley where the current picks up a bit. Expect to catch plenty of rainbows in the 13- to 16-inch range, with a few cutthroats and whitefish thrown in. The prize on the Yellowstone is a big brown trout, and fish north of 25 inches are taken each year. On a freestone river like the ‘Stone, this is a true trophy, and it is comforting to know that you have a shot at such a magnificent fish.
2. Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
If the Yellowstone River is muddy or you want to do some wade fishing, then the world-famous spring creeks just south of Livingston are a great bet. Depuy’s, Armstrong’s, and Nelson’s all offer red-hot fishing during the spring. While these spring creeks are packed with fish year round, rainbows and cutthroats move in from the Yellowstone to spawn during the spring. Fish that are actively spawning should be left alone, but pre- and post-spawn fish take flies readily, giving the angler a shot at large trout that spend most of the year out in the big river. These spring creeks are subject to daily rod fees, which are at the lowest rate before April 15th, another reason to visit Montana in the early spring.
The spring creeks offer good opportunities for both nymphing and dry-fly fishing. Blue-winged olives and midges are the predominant hatches, and come off best on cloudy days. There will be a window in the afternoon for dry flies, even on sunny days. Come prepared with a variety of midge imitations and Baetis patterns for each stage of the hatch. I find that emergers often out-fish dun patterns, and I usually set up my rig with a BWO emerger trailing about 14 inches behind a Parachute BWO.
Nymphing will be the mainstay when there are no bugs hatching and is most effective in the riffles and choppy runs. I like to use a Scud, Sowbug, or San Juan Worm as my point fly and a midge or Baetis nymph as the dropper. Drab, generic patterns, like a Zebra Midge or RS-2, will take fish 365 days a year on the creeks. Small yarn indicators work well here, as the takes are often very subtle. These fish live in a food factory and do not need to move very far to have a meal. Carry split shot in a variety of small sizes and adjust often, as each run is different and your presentation needs to be precise.
3. Lower Madison River
In local parlance, the “Lower” refers to the section of the Madison River below Ennis Dam. The most popular float is between Warm Springs and Blacks Ford, and this is a excellent spring option. While lake turnover will put the Lower out of commission for a few days each year, this is a very reliable option. The Lower is an interesting piece of water. It is a wide, shallow river with an abundance of sand bars and weed beds. The holding water is less obvious than in many other rivers, and the nuances of the Lower take time to understand. There is a good population of rainbows in the 12- to 16-inch range, and some real bruiser browns as well. While it’s mostly a nymphing game, both streamers and dry flies have their moments.
One of the defining characteristics of the Lower Madison is its abundance of crayfish, and this is a very popular choice here. The San Juan Worm is another good bet for a lead fly. For your dropper, most folks prefer small, bright nymphs like a Lightning Bug, Copper John, or Psycho Prince. The predominant hatches during spring are midges and blue-winged olives, so make sure to pack both dry flies and nymphs to match.
4. Gallatin River
The Gallatin is a great option for wade-fishing during the spring, and it offers miles of easily accessible water throughout Gallatin Canyon. This stretch of river was made world famous by the movie A River Runs Through It, of which a great deal was filmed in the canyon. The water here runs clear most of the spring. A major tributary, the Taylor’s Fork, contributes most of the mud, so fishing above this confluence is an option if the rest of the river happens to blow out, though that is not common in early spring. The river parallels US 191 throughout the canyon, so access is simple and easy.
The Gallatin is primarily a nymph fishery in early spring, though the angler should be prepared with the usual assortment of midges and especially blue-winged olives, just in case. I typically choose a stonefly nymph as the point fly on my nymph rig, and I tend to go with darker shades of black and brown during the spring. For your dropper, any generic attractor nymph—like a Prince Nymph, Copper John, or Pheasant Tail Nymph—will work fine. Gallatin River fish are not known for being picky, so stick with a fly that you have confidence in.
The Gallatin is a swift river, and the cold water temps of early spring will have the fish stacked in the deeper, slower buckets. If you catch a fish, you should slow down and work that area very thoroughly because chances are there will be more trout holding in the same spot. Adjust your split shot for each run to make sure that you are getting deep enough. The fish will not be motivated to move very far to eat your fly, so you need to get your presentation right down into their face.
5. Missouri River
The Missouri is a large tailwater fishery that offers clear, cold water 365 days a year. At over 2,300 miles in length, it is certainly difficult for the uninitiated to pinpoint where to trout fish on the Missouri River. The prime fishing lies below Holter Dam, centered around the town of Craig, Montana. This is a major fly-fishing destination due to the sheer quantity of fish present, currently estimated at about 6,000 trout over 10 inches per mile. The real kicker is that almost 90 percent of these fish are over 15 inches. These fish are by no means pushovers, but you have a great chance to land some quality fish on a Missouri River float.
Like the other fisheries discussed above, nymphing will be the most successful technique, but dry flies and streamers have their place. When streamer fishing the Mo, a deep, slow retrieve is your best bet. This is a bit different that the fast, shallow retrieve that most of us are used to fishing on the Yellowstone or Madison. Midges and blue-winged olives hatch here in the spring, as they do elsewhere, and the Missouri ‘bows love to pod up and eat dries.
When nymphing the Missouri, the key is the length of your leader between the indicator and split shot. I like to fish a good bit of weight and change my leader length before I start changing flies. Six feet from indicator to shot is a good place to start, and make adjustments as necessary. For flies, choose your typical tailwater fare: a scud, sowbug, worm, or crayfish on the point, with some sort of small mayfly as the dropper.
Brian McGeehan is owner and outfitter of Montana Angler Fly Fishing, an Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Expedition in Bozeman, Montana.