Fish closer to home during runoff

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
As a teenager and then college student, fishing in late May and early June meant opportunity – the potential to discover an out-of-the-box fishing location. Things never came easy because the major rivers were blown out and I never had enough gas money for road trips to Craig or Fort Smith. In those days, I had to prioritize my budget: materials for tying rubberleg nymphs, cash for beers and Top Ramen, and just enough spare change to buy more split shot.
I would spend most of my angling days in search of fishable waters, and usually ended up on the banks of the Lower Madison in Beartrap Canyon, wading the riffles of the Upper Madison, or sidestepping runs to avoid buffalo on the Firehole.
Today, the budget issue is solved and I still drink too much beer, but the challenge to find clear water still exists. I continue fishing many of the same places I did before, but with the help of some angling friends and a little trial and error, I’ve got a pretty good list of options. To give you a head start, here are some of them:
Upper Madison. When asked what’s the best option for fishing right now, Cam Coffin, manager at Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, says, “The Madison. Period. Whether it’s muddy or not.” Expect the water clarity to be questionable at times, but long-standing knowledge says the fish will feed, even in mud. There’s a dedicated group of anglers, shops, and guides who cherish the Madison these few weeks before the summer onslaught, yet no matter how much the great fishing is hyped all over cyberspace, this number pales compared to summer. Expect consistent nymph and streamer fishing and inquire locally about the best patterns.
Firehole and Gibbon in Yellowstone Park. Expect high flows but you’ll find clear water. “The Firehole and Gibbon, which make the Madison, are our go-to rivers during runoff,” says Walter Wiese, head guide at Parks Fly Shop in Gardiner. “They are worth the drive.” If you’ve not fished either of these rivers, plan a day. They drain an abundance of geyser basins, which makes fishing them like no other place on earth. The warmer water also means you might find some hatches to give you a break from deep nymphing.
Hebgen Lake. Coffin at Blue Ribbon Flies recommends this large lake as a change of pace. With ample shoreline access, wading anglers can find some fish, but a boat makes more sense. If the wind is calm, you might find a few fish eating midges on the surface. To catch the most fish, use sinking lines with small beadheads. The water is still very cold so have a slow retrieve and be safe out there.
DePuy’s, Armstrong’s and Nelson’s spring creeks. These are some of my favorite options for runoff fishing, and I try to spend as much time on them as I can. These private-access fisheries offer technical fishing in a beautiful setting. Their water sources are springs that bubble-up directly from the ground. If you aren’t totally confident in your angling skills, consider hiring a guide.
Gallatin River tributaries and small streams. The Gallatin River is going to be a challenge, but there are myriad tributaries worth exploring. It’s useless to mention any by name as conditions change daily, so get out there and explore. Your local fly shops will also offer honest advice. “It’s too small; too much brush cover,” they might say. But if the shop employee gets quiet, pulls you aside, and starts with, “It’s kind of a secret…” you may want to pay attention.

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Back when nearly all boat ramps on the Madison were dirt, my runoff routine meant a hike up the Beartrap Canyon to fish its muddy waters. I’d fish size 6 Girdle Bugs tight enough to the banks that I’d lose a few each outing, catch several fat trout, then head back into Gallatin Valley as the sunset lit the Bridgers in blaze orange.
I’ve never been worried about fishing through runoff, I just approach it with an adventurous attitude and hope angling opportunity turns into angling success. If it doesn’t, well, each day gets us closer to salmonflies.
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, owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.