By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
It wasn’t until college that I became a float-fishing fiend. During those years, I gravitated to fly fishing our local waters out of a drift boat. You might think the obvious: One can cover more water and fish it more effectively from a boat. Those reasons make sense, however my love of float fishing also bloomed the same time I was of legal drinking age – more beer can be carried in a boat than on foot.
Now, especially when I’m guiding, I often prefer the more intimate setting of the walk-and-wade experience. I can feel the pressure of the water on my legs, the earthy smell of our springtime runoff is intense, and instruction is more effective standing side-by-side. Plus, the predatory aspect to finding big fish is elevated because you’re more on the fish’s terms.
In our area, we’re lucky to have abundant access to both float and walk-and-wade fishing options. Choosing which method to utilize can be a difficult decision. Whether you own a boat or not, you probably know someone who does. If you own a boat, you may be selective in who you allow access to the rower’s seat. I can’t help you choose your fishing companions, but I can offer some insight on rowing and wading. The choice is yours.
Floating bigger water can mean bigger fish. Many of our guides feel their best chance at big fish is floating large rivers like the Yellowstone or Madison. And they are right … mostly. Experienced Upper Madison anglers will argue the water above Lyons Bridge, which coincidently is closed to fishing from a boat, is home to some of the river’s largest trout. I say fish where there the big fish are known to be and you’ll find them, whether on foot or in a boat.
Safety is crucial. As our runoff subsides, the desire to fish grows, but our river levels are still high. Use caution and only float a river on which you have experience or go with someone who does. Call your local fly shop and get info first – freestone rivers change during high water and what a river looked like last year could be different from this year. Never wade in water in which you cannot see or feel the bottom unless you have knowledge of the river, and never fish alone in high-water conditions. Always wear a wading belt.
On foot, you are a predator. When fishing on foot, the playing field is leveled. Float fishing offers elements of predator-prey fishing, but on foot you’re on the fish’s turf. Quality polarized glasses cut glare and help you see fish. Your casts are often shorter and more directed to specific structure, or perhaps specific fish if you’re sight-fishing. Wear drab, even camouflaged clothing. Try not to wade in the water if conditions allow; try to tiptoe up the bank or into a slower run with the softest steps possible. Years of experience have taught me that it’s noise first – not visual disturbances – that spook fish.
In a boat, you’re often prospecting. When bobbing along the currents in a drift boat, your casts are not always directed to specific fish. There are times when you’re hunting, for example when anchored and fishing to rising fish, but most elements of float fishing are geared to covering water and getting your fly in front of as many fish as possible. In a boat you have distinct advantages: Your profile is higher, so vision and obtaining a good drift are easier; a boat allows you to bring more gear to fish a large variety of methods, like having a nymphing rod rigged and ready; and you’re often with another angler, so two methods can be used.
Wade fishing is more personal. Often times, it’s you, the river, and the fish. Choosing where to cast the fly is up to you. How long and how effective a drift you obtain is up to your skill level. And, any fish caught are a result of your own skill, or sometimes luck.
Float fishing is a team event. The most successful float fishing outings are when the rower and anglers have a team attitude. Anglers cannot fish effectively if the boat is floating too fast or too slow or if it’s in poor position. Positive “boat mojo” results from anglers and rowers working together and being excited when a fish is caught, regardless of who catches it.
We’re fortunate to have a mix of float-fishing and wade-fishing opportunities. We’re also spoiled because there is no wrong decision to make: both result in spending time on a beautiful river with friends or enjoying quality “me” time.
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. Along with his wife, owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.