As a Montana trout fishing guide, guests often ask me, “Just when is the best time?” To which my stock answer, “April,” never fails to raise eyebrows and, as often as not, brings incredulous looks and, of course, the next question: “Why April? Everyone knows in Montana April is still winter. Besides the regular trout season doesn’t open until the third Saturday in May?”
Right on both counts, but April is a time of transition. Longer, warmer days have Ol’ Man Winter on the ropes. Warmer days drive water temperatures up, which revs trout metabolisms, triggers aquatic insect activity and — bingo — the bite is on. Better still, the crowds have yet to arrive.
True, many small rivers and creeks are closed, but major rivers, lakes and reservoirs are, for the most part, good to go. So are most tailwaters and all spring creeks. Once the ice goes and the low-elevation snow melts, freestone rivers generally fish well for several weeks until the high-country meltdown, which usually occurs later in May and June.
Take last April, when for three days running, we launched at three different spots on the Big Hole River, a popular freestoner and one the coldest spots in Montana.
All day we see just four other boats and pass but a handful of wade fishermen. As is typical of frosty mornings, the fishing starts off slow. But still, two hours of pitching buggers nets half-a-dozen trout, including two browns in the 18-inch class, in addition to several heart-stopping chases. By late morning, the bright sun kills the streamer action; time we switch to nymphs, with San Juan Worm, Pat’s Rubberlegs, Copper John, BH Prince, Micro May, Hare’s ear and Flash-back PT all being good choices. By early afternoon, the tally includes several hefty whitefish and a like number of smaller browns and rainbows. But the highlight is counting coup on a big male brown of 20-22 inches.
Soon, clouds start to roll in and, on cue, blue-wing olives (Baetis sp.) start to pop. There’s a light drizzle and suddenly the river is wall-to-wall hatching bugs and slurping, swirling trout. Pitching #18 Sparkle Duns and Barr Emergers until the sun reappears an hour later, my guests thrill to “the bestest, fastest fishing ever!” Alas, the sun returns to kill the topwater blitz. But April weather is a fickle sister and soon the rain returns, but the wind comes up big-time and, by unanimous vote, we declare a halt. How many in the net? Actually, no one took time to count, but “plenty” pretty much covers it.
It was cloudy and much warmer. Again, we start with streamers; almost always a good bet in early-season, low-light situations. Even though the sun never does show, for whatever reasons the hoped for Baetis hatch fizzles as well. So we stick with a mix of streamers and nymphs. And while the fishing fails to match yesterday’s high standard, we still put several fat brook trout (to 14-15 inches or so) and three big browns in the 18- to 20-inch range in the net. All in all, not a bad day, especially considering we didn’t see another boat.
DAY THREE (A SATURDAY)
The was bright sunshine and it was unseasonably warm. Expecting more of a crowd, I am not surprised to find five rigs already at the launch. But, trust me, on the Big Hole five boats do not equal a crowd — not by a long shot. Still, I consider launching someplace else, but … . When the last of the five disappear around the first bend, once more we find ourselves alone and, for the rest of the day, only a handful of boats and wade-fishermen do we see.
It’s too bright for reliable streamer fishing. Instead, we rig nymphs beneath bobbers. That turns out to be a good call as right out the gate both guests begin sticking trout and whitefish. A red San Juan Worm below a Pat’s Rubberlegs is the hot ticket and, for a time, I can hardly man the net fast enough. All morning the hot bite continues, bringing to net numerous small to mid-size brown, rainbow and brook trout. No big trout today, the highlight is, of all things, a whopper whitefish. Really!
Truth is, April’s half-starved trout are quick to jump on most any fly pattern properly presented. This includes streamers and wets, such as Woolly Buggers, Soft Hackles, San Juan Worms, Pat’s Rubberlegs, PTs, Hare’s ear, Micro May, Copper John, Prince, etc.
Blue-winged olives (Baetis), Western march browns, midges and Grannom caddis (tan/green) top the April hatch chart, but the Bitterroot, Big Hole, Clark Fork and Rock Creek host the increasingly popular skwala stonefly hatch, often tempting even the biggest trout to look up.
Spin-fishers do well casting such favorites as Panther Martins, Mepps, Rapalas, Blue Foxes and such. Regardless of your fishing preference, due to our notoriously fickle, ever-changing weather and water conditions, it is a good idea to check locally before making a long drive.
Below is a partial list of rivers and creeks open to trout fishing in April. Please note there are exceptions, so be sure to check the current regulations.