By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
The next two weeks are a love-hate dilemma in the world of southwest Montana fly fishing. As summer vacations across the country come to an end, we see the masses of traveling anglers and tourists – along with their wallets – dwindle to manageable numbers. But as the summer fades, fall begins to arrive – nighttime low temperatures drop to trout-friendly levels, angling restrictions start to lift, and talk of the hard-core fall angling traffic begins.
But don’t get too excited just yet. Despite a chill in the morning air, the transition from high-summer angling to early fall fishing can be difficult. Before the frosts begin and the leaves start to change, here’s some help during a potentially challenging time.
Manage your expectations. You don’t need to lower your expectations, but do have a realistic approach to current conditions. Just because the calendar says September doesn’t mean you’re going to be seeing hatches of Blue Winged Olives and October caddis, or that big brown trout will be on the prowl. Early September weather is more similar to August than October. Before fall mayflies and October caddis arrive, and brown trout become opportunistic, substantial weather changes must occur – nightly frosts and daytime highs in the 50s and low 60s. Stick to your current strategies and you won’t be disappointed. If we get an early frost or cold front, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Carp ‘e diem. If you haven’t tried fly fishing for carp, now is prime time. Our local carp waters – mainly the Jefferson and Madison rivers near Three Forks and the Missouri below Toston dam – are low and clear. Carp are the biggest river-dwelling fish you can hook on a fly rod, but catching one isn’t easy – utilizing a boat to access these waters increases your odds. Several local guides are very adept at this unique fishery and if you’ve never been, consider going.
Tweak your strategies. Your thinking doesn’t need to be entirely outside the box, but consider blurring the lines a bit. If you’re a floating angler, think about shorter stretches while thoroughly fishing the best water – or longer floats hot-spotting the best water. If you’re on foot and want to target larger fish, think like a predator: Fish early and late in the day and fish less utilized sections of a river. For example, on the Gallatin River avoid the “Mad Mile” below House Rock due to the plethora of rafters and kayakers.
Take a hike. Within an hour’s drive of Bozeman exist more than a dozen trailheads accessing high mountain lakes. Since most of the recreational tourists are gone, you’re likely to have many of these pristine waters to yourself. Expect hungry trout as they prepare for a fall that comes a little earlier than at our lower elevation waters. Solitude and hungry fish make for a fun adventure. If you go alone be sure to tell someone your plan and it’s never a bad idea to pack a bottle of bear spray along with your small dry flies and beadhead nymphs.
Be a report groupie. Conditions change daily, so use the resources of our numerous local fly shops and read their fishing reports regularly. They have guides and shop staff fishing every day who will know if trout are still eating ‘hoppers on the Yellowstone, or if you’re better suited sticking to dead-drifting streamers and zebra midges on the Upper Madison.
Keep your fishing simple. Until our fall hatches begin, my focus is more on finding the fish rather than exactly what they’ll eat. Since no single food source is prevalent or obvious, my problem-solving technique is targeting water where they will hold and hope a few are willing to eat what I’m offering. This time of year I focus on riffles, the shelves below riffles, and any drop-off or hole near moving water. Fish will congregate near, or in current, as that’s the likeliest soup line.
Fishing right now is like a preseason NFL game: The big guns come out to play for sure, but only for a limited time. The overall feel at the end of a fishing outing is satisfying, but the thought of better things to come lingers.
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 he co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.