By Patrick Straub EBS FISHING COLUMNIST
With snow on the peak and days getting shorter, it is evident fall is on the outs and winter is coming. My last few guide days are on the calendar and I expect some very chilly mornings but by early afternoon my soul will be warmed as blue-winged olives will hatch and the fish will start to rise. Despite my clinging to days of casting dry flies to rising trout, soon the focus will be on getting first chair or just how long the line might be at Yeti Dogs.
The transition from fall to winter is welcome—it is a break from the busy summer season and allows us to recharge our collective batteries before skiers show up en-masse. Fishing can still be had, and can still be quite good. With plenty of local options—Paradise Valley spring creeks, Upper and Lower Madison, the Gallatin, even the Missouri River near Wolf Creek and Craig can be worth the drive. If you’re heading out to fish during the next few weeks, be sure to use some of the following tips.
Watch the weather. As the temperature swings daily, so do the feeding habits of the fish. Look for a few days of consistent weather for the best possible fishing. Weather changes are not always bad, but this time of year we typically get high winds when we shift from warm to cold or vice-versa. If the forecast calls for a gradual weather change—be it mercury up or down—consider fishing. Some of the best days of late fall fishing can occur as a cold front slowly moves into our area.
If you choose to float, plan accordingly. Just like the wind can bring in a weather change, it can also make for a cold and lousy day if you’re committed to floating all day. Check the forecast, don’t let cool or wet weather deter you, but do let high winds alter your plans. In nearly 30 years of floating Montana’s rivers this time of year I rarely have good fishing from a boat when the sustained winds are higher than 15, or even 10, miles-per-hour.
Inquire locally. Big Sky, and the surrounding community, is blessed with plenty of world-class fly shops and outfitters. This is the time of year many of the staff fish—they are done with their busy seasons and now pursue their passion. Check their social media accounts and websites, and stop in, nothing potentially gets you the best beta than going in to a shop and spending a few bucks.
Eat a big breakfast, but pack a PB&J sandwich. With cold nights, the fishing doesn’t usually heat up till mid-morning, and most often not even until early afternoon. Plan accordingly with proper clothing, but also be sure to keep yourself fueled. If the hatch gets thick or the streamer bite happens, both likely to occur mid-day and into the afternoon, don’t let an empty stomach keep you from catching. Good gear can protect you from the elements, but only yourself can keep you fed.
Use a net and a catch-and-release tool. This time of year, cold and wet hands rarely warm up. By using a net and a tool you can release a fish without having to touch it, which makes the whole experience easier on the fish. A Ketchum Release tool or a quality pair of forceps will allow fish to be released without your hands getting into the water or having to touch the fish. If you do not already own either, use it as an opportunity to support your local fly shop, and be sure to get some of that local knowledge on where to go fishing.
Embrace it. If you like to fish dry flies or strip streamers, get out now, because soon you’ll have to decide between double-nymph rigs with weighted flies or which line to take off Lone Mountain or make sure the grooming report is accurate if you want a cruiser.
After a summer blessed with average streamflows and relatively fish-friendly conditions, we’ve had a snowy fall, which means a great head start to possibly another summer season. But for now, as we look forward to what the snow piling up means for next summer, don’t get the cart ahead of the horse because soon you’ll be wanting to make sure you don’t get too far out in front of your skis.
Patrick Straub is a 20-year veteran guide and outfitter on Montana’s waters and has fished the world over. He now writes and manages the social media for Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures. He is the author of six books, including “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing” and has been writing The Eddy Line for seven years.