By Patrick Straub Explorebigsky.com Fishing Columnist
Like the sunrise or last call, runoff is guaranteed. As local guides, anglers and fly shops scramble to find quality fishing in muddy, high water, it’s hard to keep one’s eye on the prize. Just remember, the longer into runoff we get, the closer its end.
Many folks, including myself, often travel to clean water this time of year. But road tripping to the Missouri near Craig is wearing on my truck and my psyche – I want my wife and daughter to remember what I look like. The prize is grand, as the fish are big and hungry, but you can’t discount our local waters; instead, just count on being flexible and testing your angling abilities.
Despite the grande-double-tall-skinny color of the Gallatin, a few legitimate fishing options exist that don’t require a tank-full of gas or sleeping in your truck. The most talked about is the Gallatin above its confluence with the Taylor Fork. Be sure you wait to fish the waters in Yellowstone National Park, however, until they open over Memorial Day weekend.
The Taylor Fork is the Gallatin River’s kryptonite. It is the main culprit for mud in spring and if a summer thunderstorm lands in its drainage, expect the main Gallatin to run muddy for a day. The Gallatin above the confluence tends to run clear, and although this stretch isn’t home to the greater numbers of trout found closer to Big Sky, an adept angler has a shot at catching a few.
Use your basic run-off tactics: large flies (sizes 6 through 10) and deep nymphing. Tie good knots and use stout tippet, as you’re going to snag your flies on structure and loose a few. Weighted Woolly Buggers, Rubberleg Pat’s Stones and Beadhead worms are must-haves.
Also relatively close, the Madison below Hebgen Dam and above Quake Lake offers a few miles of tailwater-esque fishing. Pack a few beers, because it tends to be a social scene with several anglers vying for the best runs. A few tributary creeks can dump muddy water into the river, but it’s not chunky brown and the fish feed through the muck. Fish here like color – pink, red, chartreuse and anything flashy. If you can see the color at a rave, then give it a try in your fly.
The Lower Madison and the water in Beartrap Canyon is accessible via boat or a good hiking trail. As a kid, this was my place. At its gnarliest runoff, finding fish here was do-able, and it still is. Because of Ennis Lake and Beartrap Dam, enough clarity exists to consider the river fishable most days. When this water is muddy, fish it only if there is a hatch or an impending hatch. Caddis nymphs are active here now and salmon fly nymps soon will be.
If ponds and lakes intrigue you, Hebgen and Quake are home to fish. Shore angling is limited, but with a boat and a long cast, you’ll find large rainbows and browns. The frozen water of our high-mountain lakes is thawing out daily, and intrepid anglers can catch both hungry fish and a workout. Load your boxes with lightly dressed Woolly Buggers, damselfly nymphs and lake Mayfly dry flies.
Fortunately, in several weeks waters will drop and hatches of salmon flies, caddis, Winnebagos and rental cars become prolific. Hotels will be full, guides’ pockets fat with cash and you’ll have to wait for tables at your favorite eateries. Here in our tourist hamlet, we understand that and wouldn’t want it any other way. And waiting makes things that much sweeter.