By Patrick Straub
Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
I must have been suffering from idealistic optimism when I wrote my previous column, because it referred to expectations of dry flies and hatches galore. With the warmer weather of late, our local freestone – or free-flowing – rivers appear to be high and muddy.
Tailwater rivers and spring creeks are good options right now since our freestone rivers, including the Gallatin and Yellowstone, are slowly moving into runoff mode. However, just as quickly as they become high and muddy, they can drop and clear up.
Last year the Yellowstone River blew out early, cold weather came briefly in mid-May, and for three days epic dry-fly fishing prevailed for fishermen lucky enough to blow off work. Those of us who make our living chasing trout relish this time of year and its challenges. The easy way out is to head to the clear water of the Missouri River below Holter Dam, but if you want to stay closer to home, here are some tips to find fishable water.
Buy (and talk) local. Online reports and Facebook posts can be helpful, but if you truly want the skinny on where to fish in less-than-ideal conditions, visit your favorite fly shop. The staff will have “been-there-done-that” beta – potentially as recently as yesterday – or they will have recently guided trips with first-hand reports. They may also know of a few places to fish that you may not know about.
Geek out on streamflows. This one is pretty simple and only requires an Internet connection. Make a daily habit of checking local streamflows and forecasts. Watch for rising and dropping trends in flows. If flows are rising on the river you hope to fish, look elsewhere. But if the general trend is a dropping streamflow, the fishing should improve. A small drop can serve up just enough clarity along the edges of the river for fish to get back on the feed.
Weather watcher. If I paid as much attention to my stock portfolio as I did the weather and streamflows, my dream of spending winter in the Bahamas might be a reality. For our larger freestone rivers, the Gallatin and Yellowstone, to drop and clear enough to fish this time of year, daytime highs need to hover around 60 F and the nighttime lows need to be at or below freezing. If you observe this weather pattern for a few days, expect fishable conditions.
Fish it anyway. Even if things look challenging when you see the water, fish it – some of my best days have occurred when others had written them off. While abundant food exists in swollen and muddy waters and the fishing can be great, rising rivers are no place for experimentation. A good way to know if conditions are safe for wading is if you can stay below the median high-water mark while on the riverbank. If the water level makes it difficult to navigate, conditions could be unsafe.
Spring creeks, tailwaters and lakes. If deciphering weather reports and streamflows is not in your DNA, there are still plenty of places to fish. Paradise Valley spring creeks, the Missouri and Bighorn rivers, and the Upper and Lower Madison all typically run clear enough to fish when other area waters are unfishable.
Herein lie the blessing and the curse the next several weeks in southwest Montana –great fishing can be had, but much of it requires suddenly dropping all your responsibilities. Amazing Mother’s Day caddis hatches along with fishable conditions occur once every few years. But that’s OK, because having a job is a good thing and most mortgage lenders don’t accept dry fly addiction as cause for delinquency.
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 along with a business partner, operates a guide service on the Missouri River.