Where to Find High Country Trout and What To Do
March 19, 2018
Wyoming, Idaho and Montana offer some amazing high country trout angling options, and these are among the very best.
Into the heart of the premiere wild trout fishing on the continent comes spring and great fishing in the northern Rockies. As always there will fantastic trout fishing this year in the land where "A River Runs Through It."
The rivers and lakes of these mountains are so good some people come here every year. Some stay their lives. And, here is why.
The most noted trout fishing in Wyoming occurs where vast stretches of national forest, national park and BLM land hold some of the finest trout fishing in America. There is so much public water that an angler can't fish all of it in a lifetime.
It's where Tim Wade, with North Fork Anglers in Cody, has fished for years. And he says this time of year has very good fishing in tailwaters and in freestone streams, if they aren't muddied too much.
It's a good time for trout anglers because the main crush of the tourist season has yet to arrive. But even when that does occur later in the summer, it's not hard to escape the human herd. Even a short walk on most streams will get you away from the crowds.
In northwestern Wyoming fishermen can hit the lower stretches of streams earlier on because they will open up earlier in spring. Fishing higher up in Yellowstone or the mountains comes on later.
"Our spring season is very good," says Wade. "Dry fly fishing on tailwaters and nymphing on freestone. We have 1,500-miles of streams in the Cody area. It all starts in the third week in March."
Wade recommends watching the weather this time of year to determine where to fish.
"It depends on how the weather warms up," he says. "The high desert lakes have big fish. From May to June we fish more lakes when runoff is going on. Our freestone rivers may be blown out, but the still-water fishing is awesome in April, May and June."
East Newton Lake sets at a five-minute drive from Cody, is easy to get to and has 22-inch brown trout and rainbows. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department manages this lake as a trophy trout fishery. It doesn't disappoint.
Regulations there call for flies and artificial lures only. It's good for spin-fishermen.
Smaller spinners will work.
And, of course, fly-fishing works well. Good flies include blue-winged olives and scuds.
Montana Trout Hookset
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May is the time when the Callibaetis hatch is going on," says Wade. "Those are mayflies, and the trout really lock in on them."
Other good lakes this time of year fish well early in the season — Luce and Hogan reservoirs. Luce has lots of rainbows. Hogan has native cutthroats running up to 23 inches.
The famous Bighorn River flows into Wyoming from Montana, and it is under-rated in the Cowboy State. Spring and early summer is a favorite time for veteran anglers to fish it because it tends to weed up as summer rolls on.
"If you like big fish that is the place to go catch them," says Wade. "It gets a little warm and weedy in summer. May is last good month before weeds. Once irrigation is over then the fish go back on the bite, and irrigation is over Oct. 15.
Other areas pick up as spring goes along.
"We are part of the golden triangle around Yellowstone National Park," says Wade. "It's managed for wild trout. Once you get to the point where you can float it is phenomenal. Usually in July, but this last year it was August."
The high plains of Wyoming have lots of sunshine in spring, and good early fishing.
Luke Keil, with Wyoming Anglers in Casper, keys on the North Platte River, which is known for good tailwater fishing even in bad weather.
Grey Reef and Miracle Mile are a couple of the most famous stretches here.
"It's mainly nymphing, but there are times when it is dry fly," says Keil. "It depends on the time of year. In spring there are black midges, scuds, egg patterns, brown leeches - then blue-winged olives, then caddis, yellow sallies. We get stonefly hatches. And tricos in August."
The North Platte is the water of big rainbows. And a big plus — it fishes good nearly all the time.
"We are fishing tailwaters so we have only got a couple days that are blown out," says Keil.
Montana has received enough publicity playing up good trout fishing to be swamped with anglers. But that hasn't happened, for the most part. Lots of fishermen come here. But the landscape is so loaded with good rivers, streams and lakes that the place still has that rarefied wild air to it. It's not overloaded with fishermen.
The die-hards fish all year here. But it's when the snow cover drops off and the signs of spring return that everyone with a rod in Montana turns out. That time is right now.
Certainly, where Ennis, Mont., is located is near one of the centers of it.
"Ennis has 800 people and three fly shops, which should tell you something," says Nick Peterson, guide at one of those fly shops, Trout Stalkers.
Flowing through town is the Madison River, of fishing lore. This river makes good fishing because it is spared the brunt of the runoff this time of ear.
"Because we are a tailwater we don't deal with that much," says Peterson. "The eastern part of the river is wilderness. A lot of our tributaries will blow out."
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But the Madison and Hebgen Lake offer a lot fishing when other waters are turbid.
The stretch of the Madison along Hwy 287 is easy to get to and fish. It's also one of spots where fishing pressure can be very heavy.
Many people think trout fishing in the river and nearby lakes continues to improve into the summer. It's easy to think that because this area is the location of some spectacular hatches. The caddis will swarm here. But nothing quite prepares one for the spectacular salmon fly hatch that is one of the most renowned events in freshwater fishing.
The period the salmon fly hatch occurs moves around, but generally it begins in late June or early July, and is done by Fourth of July.
When it starts the trout commence a massive feeding frenzy that delights anglers and provides enough high protein food to carry a trout's growth into lunkerdom.
"A lot of times when you see them the fish crush them," says Peterson. "They are a huge source of nutrients. They go nuts. You fish a giant dry fly. You slap it down on the water and see the biggest fish on the river gorge on them. You can actually feel the bugs in their belly. It is 25 percent of their yearly nutrients."
Anglers come from all over the world to fish this. They arrive and then await the hatch to begin.
"Most of the (stonefly) females breed multiple times," says Peterson, "and that is where the fish crush them. It is a great thing. You float down into it. It starts at Ennis Lake and works its way up river. So you float your way through it. Some years it just pops up and the whole thing will lift up at once. All of a sudden the whole river goes nuts with salmon flies."
That's why anglers comes here in spring and wait for it to begin.
A somewhat more sedate trout experience unfolds in dark and cold Swan Lake. Fishermen catch rainbows and browns from this deep shadowed water.
Subsurface nymphs and streamers are standard fare. Spin fishermen can fish these with plastic bubbles.
Some fishermen use bellyboats but one needs to be careful with doing so. Winds sweep this lake and one might get blown far out in the lake or up or down the shore.
Spring is a good time to hit it. After ice-out you'll have it to yourself for the most part. Later on in the summer it gets lots of boaters and recreational use because it is such a beautiful lake in the mountains, with good access. Hwy 83 runs along the western edge. The Swan Lake setting is undeveloped and anglers get a real taste of cold, deep water in Montana mountains.
Then come winter it's buried again in the Montana mountain deep freeze.
Some of the best trout fishing this time of year will be in the Henry's Fork for fly-fishing, and the Salmon River near Stanley for spin-fishing.
On the Salmon River anglers are catching rainbows, bull trout, whitefish and cutthroats. Later in the summer sockeyes and chinooks move in and it is a free-for-all for nice big fish.
Spinners are one of the most popular of the lures here.
The area is a gentle place to camp as the weather warms. It's good for fishermen and families where there are other things going on besides fish. Wilderness hiking, whitewater rafting and hot springs are nearby. And all of it in a beautiful setting with Idaho mountains as the backdrop.
Early in the season before the main rush occurs is when some of the more avid trout fishermen fish the river. Salmon spawning later on are a big attraction for many anglers.
Unfortuntely, the salmon here are in trouble, says Eric Eikanger, at Idaho Angler in Boise.
"Salmon populations are going down," he says. "There are so many dams for them to go through it is hard for them to get up. Water temperatures are getting hot in the summer months. They don't have the urge to go up because they want the colder water. The dams in the Pacific northwest really inhibit our salmon and steelhead runs. There is data to show that if they removed two of those dams it would increase it two-fold. There is a huge push for it. They are so outdated that they cost more to update them than to remove them over the long haul."
Fly-fishermen fish this, too. The tactic is to annoy the big salmon and steelhead trout into attack.
"Once they get into the river they aren't really hungry to eat," says Eikanger. "So you want to piss them off. When they are wanting to spawn they will bite at it."
Top flies for annoying the salmon and steelheads include bigger streamers and egg patterns.
"You can wade along shore, depending on the water flows they will do drift boats down that.
"There are trout that live there and then the salmon that come up," says Eikanger. "We always strive to use barbless hooks. We do catch-and-release around here."
For pure pristine fly-fishing sport, there is the Henry's Fork. It's another of the renowned fly-fishing rivers in this art of the American West. It's as famous for fly fishing as Yankee Stadium is for baseball.
In spring some of the top patterns center around streamers and egg patterns. This will open up to dry flies on nice days and into the summer.
"Most of the guys who fish over there are fly-fishing only with single barbless hooks," says Eikanger.
This is a good time to fish it. Though the fishing is great, this is considered advanced water.
"If you want to test your skill it is the number one place to do it," says Eikanger. "It's gin-clear and technical water. With nice browns and rainbows in there."
Trout here have seen about everything. And with the clear water they get a good look at offerings, looking for any unnatural float.
"They have seen so many flies and fishermen," says Eikanger, "they are super picky on what they will eat. Use super long leaders just to get one to look at you."
Henry's fork fish range from 16-inches to the upper 20s. They're all wild.
One of the more unusual aspects is the possibility of sleeping in. Some of the best hatches and feeding on the river occurs during the afternoon, and sometimes in evening. Top flies includes size 18 to 24 blue-wined olives and size 16 to 20 pale yellow PMDs, all of this rather delicate stuff.