Fish before the snow flies

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

The calendar tells us winter doesn’t start until Dec. 21, but here in Big Sky we know better. Local fishing guides can still be found in shorts and flip-flops before wadering-up each morning, enjoying the weather of late – near record highs and sun-filled days in October – which caused a long fall angling season. This autumn has been truly unique, as local trout were still eating grasshopper patterns after Columbus Day.

But the calendar moves on. This time of year many anglers shift their focus – hunters migrate away from our rivers in attempts to fill the freezer or re-write the record book. Late fall angling is a favorite of mine, with fewer anglers on the water and trout staging to spawn or bulking up for the cold weather to come. Winter feels imminent, so making the most of these warmer fall days is important. Here are two of my favorite places to do so.

Madison River: Above Hebgen Lake, Hebgen Lake tributaries, and between the lakes.

As most area rivers dwindle in angling pressure, these waters attract it. Large, spawning-size brown trout migrate out of Hebgen and Quake lakes to spawn, and anglers flock to this river in hopes of a trophy. Much like the migratory patterns of steelhead, these browns move in and out of the Madison, and targeting them requires persistence, patience, and plenty of weight on your leader. If you don’t want to target the spawning fish, pods of rainbow trout follow the migrating browns up the Madison to feed on the eggs of the browns. Use flies that offer a large meal: big streamers and woolly buggers, or egg imitators.

Covering a lot of water is not as important as being in the right place at the right time. Lower light conditions tend to fish better, as these migratory fish prefer to move under the cover of night or darker skies. Learn the various holding lies of these waters, stake out your spot and be patient.

Use extreme caution when wading to avoid stepping on spawning beds and if you choose to target actively spawning fish, keep in mind the future of our wild trout populations depends on healthy recruitment and when releasing any caught fish, handle them carefully.

Gallatin River: From the Yellowstone Park boundary to Four Corners.

Sure, that’s a lot of river miles, but the Gallatin is a perfect place to play in the coming weeks. Gone are the whitewater rafters and tourists, and most college students are in class during the week or tailgating on game days. The best runs and riffles see little angling pressure and this is a perfect time for anglers wishing to fish streamers and woolly buggers. Nymphing with an indicator is downright easy, but the dry-fly fishing takes a little skill since the fish are eating smaller mayflies. Use streamers tied with a skinny profile, black and brown woolly buggers or short-bodied sculpin patterns. For nymphs use Pat’s Rubberlegs and Girdle Bugs with a smaller beadhead trailed behind. For dry flies, fish size 16 and 18 Purple Parachute Adams or Para Wulffs, and size 14 Parachute Caddis or Red Crystal Stimulators.

Most fish will be holding in medium-speed water, such as the middle or tail end of a pool or run. Unlike summer when fish are in the faster riffles, for the next few weeks fish will move into slower water. Target any depth change from two feet to four feet or more. Have a variety of weight sizes to add to your leader and to continually adjust the amount. This adjustment will help your flies find the feeding zone.

It’s a good idea to use a wading staff or have cleats in your boots. Over the summer a thin layer of moss grows on many of the Gallatin’s rocks, making them even more slippery than in the height of summer.

I often enjoy the company of other anglers– I like the camaraderie of fishing with a companion. Yet this time of year I find myself fishing alone since my angling friends are often in the hills chasing game. A trophy catch reminds me that it’s a good thing to be the only person on the water.

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 with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.