By Patrick Straub ExploreBigSky.com Fishing Columnist
One of our head guides drives a snowplow in winter. He’s up at 3 a.m. while I’m still asleep, clinging to my corner of the bed – my wife, our two dogs, and in a few hours our toddler, all staking their claim.
During the restless moments I spend curled up between fur and a high thread count, and the quiet moments Bob spends in between driveways, he and I share the same thought: fishing season is here.
March is the unofficial, official kick-off to our angling season and the next four weeks is a transition time in Big Sky. Skiers are still making turns on the peak, but anglers become more river-centric. In the garage, fly rods stand next to skis and waders hang over snowshoes. Our backs and arms are ready for the methodic stroke of the oars.
Midge hatches on the Gallatin are now a daily occurrence. Local guides are sneaking in the occasional afternoon walk-wade trip. Shop phones are ringing with curious anglers asking, “Is there fishing in winter?” Last week we shoveled snow off the drift boat and floated the Yellowstone, hoping for an early-season trophy brown trout.
But before your expectations get the best of you, keep it in perspective. It’s March, remember? Action on the river might not be hot and heavy, and your fishing options are limited. A little weather observation goes a long way in making the best of your spring fly flinging.
Wind: This should be the main factor in determining when and where to fish. Wind on the lower Madison and on the Yellowstone is common in March. Check the weather. If the forecast is calling for sustained winds of 15 mph-plus, stick to the sheltered part of the Gallatin, in the canyon. A high of 40 seems balmy after months of 20s and 30s, but factor in a 15-mph wind and things get interesting. You can fight the wind with good gear, like a wind proof jacket, or you can change your fishing location.
Mercury rising: Temperatures are sure to be a factor. Daytime high temps play a role, but it’s the nighttime lows that anglers should watch. During the next four weeks, the mercury can drop overnight into single digits or hover around freezing. These low numbers dictate timing for the next day. The colder the nighttime temp, the longer you should wait before heading out. Rule of thumb: below 20 degrees, start fishing no earlier than noon. Above 20, you start at 10 or 11 a.m.
Sunny or cloudy: The debate still exists. Most agree, bright sun in winter makes fish more skittish. However, the river needs direct sunlight to raise the water temperature, thus starting a trout’s feeding desire. The perfect scenario is sunshine early with afternoon cloud cover. Goggle tan in the morning, the crisp earthy smell of the river in the p.m.
Is this heaven? No, just Big Sky.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and the forthcoming Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing* *but were afraid to ask. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.