Inevitable, but beatable
By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
It’s going to get messy with muddy rivers, high water, and limited fishing options dominating the scene. Yet this happens every year as the snow we’ve been carving all winter comes down in the form of cold, muddy water. Runoff and high water are essential to healthy trout rivers, and the more days of fresh pow and face shots we get in winter, the more likely fat trout will be looking up for dry flies come summer.
Summer will come in time with shorts and flip-flops and size 10 dry flies on 4X, but now we’re faced with the challenge of finding clear water to fish. When I started this guiding game back in the mid-90s, runoff conditions frustrated me. Today, I learn to keep a few changes of clothes in my truck and adjust my fishing mentality and tactics. I can’t help you with your packing list, but here are some tips to muscle through runoff.
Local knowledge. We are fortunate to have several quality fly shops servicing our local community and the rivers we fish. Internet fishing reports are reliable, but a quick phone call might garner more info, or better yet, pay a visit.
Tailwaters and spring creeks. Rivers like the Missouri, Bighorn and Beaverhead, and spring creeks such as DePuy’s, Armstrong’s and Nelson’s will run clear when other rivers are mud. For a moderately experienced do-it-yourself angler, the spring creeks will offer a challenge. For those fishing with a guide, spring creeks serve up a unique angling experience. If you’ve never done a spring creek, now is a good time.
Opening day. Our general season begins Saturday, May 17, and small streams open to fishing as do sections of certain rivers, such as the Madison above McAtee Bridge. I value my tires and don’t want them slashed, so I cannot tell you in this forum which small streams typically run clear during runoff, but there are enough that do and with a little patience, a little trial-and-error, and some trusted local knowledge you’ll find them. Fishing in Yellowstone National Park opens in a few weeks, too.
Go big or go home. Runoff fishing demands an adjustment in your tackle. Fish stouter tippets, and unless you’re on DePuy’s, leave the 5X at home. Expect to fish subsurface more than not. My standard leader this time of year is a 9-foot 2X. I then add the appropriate 3X or 4X tippet with the appropriate amount of weight. Place your split shot above a knot, then tie on a piece of tippet to your first fly below that knot.
Tippet change. Invest in quality Flurocarbon tippet material such as Rio Fluroflex, TroutHunter, Scientific Anglers, or Orvis Mirage. But before you do, practice your knots. Fluorocarbon ain’t cheap and you want to spend your time fishing not tying knots.
Love the worm pattern. Fishing with weighted nymphs below an indicator is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Yet I like to catch fish and to understand that, when in Rome … This time of year, with snowmelt and rain causing dirty water, fish are eating worms. And can you blame them? A worm is a high-protein meal for trout.
Keep hope alive. The sooner runoff starts and gets rolling, the sooner it will be over, and you’re not alone in your search for clean water. Be congenial and share the water out there – a little friendly conversation with a fellow angler might yield a hot fly, a tackle adjustment or a new place to fish.
I’ve been fishing the Yellowstone, the Madison, the Missouri, a private lake, and a few spring creeks. I’m dialed in on fishing locations. But each morning as my coffee is brewing, I check a dozen streamflow charts, eight weather forecasts, and annoy my riverside sources with texts like, “What’s the river look like?” On the floor near my packed bag sit my flip-flops. They may be close to my bag, but wearing them is still a ways away.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing. Along with his wife, he owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.