By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
The phone call came late at night. An aspiring fishing guide was looking to get on the Upper Madison and needed an angler to fish while he rowed.
“You want to row all day and I get to fish?” I asked. He agreed and despite marginal fishing reports, we rendezvoused at takeout and I loaded my gear into his rig. Minutes later I was in the front of his boat casting to sweet spot after sweet spot. This is what you call a “win-win.”
The best fishing to be had in early June often requires a boat. Due to higher flows and fish holding in lies near the banks, a boat offers a distinct advantage. Here are some helpful tips to take advantage of the plethora of float fishing opportunities in our area.
Boat choice. Choosing the best type of boat is essential. A raft is ideal for lower water conditions, whitewater sections, and ease of access. But a raft is more maintenance than a hard-sided boat. You should keep it covered to protect it from the sun when not in use, and you need a rowing and fishing frame.
A higher profile, Mackenzie-style drift boat has plenty of room, can bust through big waves, and is safe during high flows. But a big drift boat is easily blown around on a windy day; during low water it might be limited to certain stretches or rivers; and a larger boat is more work to row. Lately, the skiff-styled boats have gained popularity. These low-sided drift boats cut through the wind better and are ideal for low water conditions, but are best saved for experienced boat-handlers.
Safety first. Choosing the right boat is important for safety concerns as well, because bad things can happen fast during high flows. Always be sure to have a personal floatation device for everyone on board. Any craft longer than 16 feet must also have a throwable PFD. Make sure your spare oar is functional and easily accessible and always anchor in a safe place and ensure you’re not dragging the anchor. Err on the side of safety – if an eddy looks too swirly or the water is too deep to anchor, stay clear.
Pick the right boat mates. You will spend several hours in a small space together. One bad attitude can spoil a day on the water, and getting away from life’s responsibilities for a few hours is one reason we go fishing. Consider your own fishing style and goals for the day when deciding whom to invite. It helps to have an experienced rower aboard, but have patience if you hand the oars over to a beginner – the only way they’ll learn is by doing it.
Learn a reach cast. When clients step into my boat for a day of float fishing, after the safety talk comes learning the reach cast. This specialized cast takes practice to master. It consists of a normal forward cast into your presentation, but as your fly line is coming forward you move the rod tip into a mending position and lay the fly line onto the water in a mend before it lands on the water. Think of it as an extended follow-through on your forward cast or a pre-mend before the fly line lands on the water. This cast is essential for getting a good drift while fishing from a boat and for fishing dry flies or dry-dropper rigs. Learn a reach cast and catch more fish.
Do the “bow and go.” This technique is best used for fishing streamers or large baitfish patterns, and on rivers like the Lower Madison, anglers are finding success while fishing crayfish and worm patterns. It’s simple: Cast at a slightly upstream angle as close to the bank as possible while floating. Put a small downstream mend in your fly line and let the pace of the boat pull the fly off the bank. The movement of the large fly pattern through the water helps to attract fish. It sounds bizarre, but it works.
Floating our larger local rivers has gained in popularity the past several years. Four quality boat manufactures exist within a two-hour drive of Big Sky. If that doesn’t convince you of the joys of float fishing, I know a rookie guide who’s ready for the big leagues.
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.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.