Adapt to changing fishing conditions

Straub_MTO_WinterBy Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

Spring has sprung, snow is soft on the slopes, green grass is popping up in the valley, and drift boats are bobbling along our rivers. The other day I saw a few caddis bouncing around on the Yellowstone. Caddis on the Yellowstone in late March? That’s not normal.

But as more and more anglers proclaim March is the new April, it’s clear that our angling calendar has changed. Deniers of climate change are obviously not local anglers—with each passing year the first drift boat float of the season comes earlier than the last. So what is the new normal for anglers in southwest Montana? Here’s a quick prediction based on my observations over the past twenty years on the water.

Consistently good spring fishing. The opportunities to fish are more frequent than ever this spring. As a kid growing up, late March and early April were more about powder days than matching hatches. Nostalgia aside, anglers can now realistically fish most of March and anticipate prime dry fly fishing in April.

Above-average springtime streamflows. A similar thing happened this time last year. Our snowpack looked good with most statewide numbers hovering around 90 to 100 percent of normal. But as spring temperatures rose, so did the flows on our rivers and streams. Last year our rivers flowed well above their long-term average through most of April. We were still able to fish despite these higher flows, but anglers used tactics more commonly employed during runoff-type conditions. Larger flies and deeper nymph rigs were required.

Springtime fishing could be some of the best of the year. As the long-term angling calendar changes, our spring fishing resembles run-off more than winter fishing. NPS PHOTO

Springtime fishing could be some of the best of the year. As the long-term angling calendar changes, our spring fishing resembles run-off more than winter fishing. NPS PHOTO

A possible repeat of spring 2016. A look at current stream flows illustrates another run of well-above-average levels. Heavy rain and warmer temperatures have resulted in a spike in flows. Compared to long-term levels, current streamflows are high. Of course it’s still early, but if current trends continue, our considerable 2017 snowpack will continue to melt, which is not normal. The snowpack should dwindle in May, not now.

Late summer stream flows are a wild card. If stream flows are double normal now, summer flows will be lower than average. For our late summer angling to be consistent with my teenage years, we need several spring snowstorms to drop the temperatures and some snow. If that doesn’t happen, expect higher flows and run-off like fishing conditions the next several weeks. Summer hatches will be sooner and late summer fishing will mean early morning fishing during the coolest time of the day.

Enjoy it while you can. Your idea of a day on the water may be T-shirts and flip-flops and casting large dry flies to hungry cutthroat trout. Those days can still happen, but if you want to maximize your angling, consider expanding your calendar. It may require purchasing a pair of quality waders and outerwear, but you will get to fish more. In case you’ve already forgotten, the Yellowstone was closed last year for over a month due to an invasive parasite whose effects were exacerbated by low flows and high water temperatures.

 

A colleague of mine who also owns a fly shop seemed quite surprised how good business was the past few weeks. “So many people are out fishing,” he said. “And the fishing has been great.”

I responded with a generalized comment along the lines of, “Wouldn’t you rather be out fishing than sitting it the shop—especially in the warmer weather of late?” Ask yourself that same question. And if the answer is yes, you’re one of us now—those admitting that normal is subjective in today’s angling seasons. So get out there and enjoy the fishing now and be happy if you have to wear your extra layers.

Pat Straub is the co-founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, the author of six books, including “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and he co-owns Montana Fishing Outfitters.