Early Bird Montana Trout Fishing
March 30, 2012
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.
In the Central and Western Fishing Districts, rivers open to trout fishing in April include the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Clearwater, Flathead, Flint Creek, Kootenai, Little Blackfoot, Thompson, Whitefish, Beaverhead (above Pipe Organ Fishing Access Site), Big Hole (all tributaries above Divide are open to brook trout fishing year around), Bighorn, Boulder (near Big Timber), East Gallatin, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison (Quake Lake to McAtee Bridge is closed), Marias (below I-15 bridge), Missouri, Musselshell, Ruby River (below the dam), Shields, Stillwater (Columbus), Sun River, Teton, Yellowstone and Tongue. Creeks include Rock Creek (near Missoula), Alder Gulch Creek, DePuy Spring Creek, Armstrong Spring Creek, Big Spring Creek (Lewistown), Warm Springs Creek (near Anaconda) and Nelson Spring Creek. In the Eastern Fishing District, nearly all trout waters are open year-round.
Montana's numerous spring creeks (public and private, partial list above) offer April anglers fishable options no matter what (one of those "if-you-can-stand-it [weather, tariff, etc.], you-can-fish-it" situations). While it's true, private spring creeks come with a daily rod fee, the good news is the fee is generally lower during off-season, which in most cases includes April. Some (McCoy [Dillon]) comes to mind, require hiring a guide first time around. Inquire locally to learn what is available.
In brief, the Montana Stream Access Law allows access: 1. So long as access is gained from public lands, roads, bridges, Fishing Access Sites, etc. 2. Angler stays below the "normal" high-water mark (this includes boats and there is no restriction [such as in Wyoming] on dropping anchor or getting out and wading). In other words, above the normal high-water mark, all private lands require landowner permission; no exceptions.
Lakes and reservoirs scattered throughout the state harbor the sort of trout all anglers dream of. As examples, Clark Canyon Reservoir (Dillon) and lakes on the Blackfeet Reservation, routinely give up rainbow and brown trout of 5 pounds-plus and lucky anglers occasionally haul trout double that size. A friend netted a brown of 14 pounds from CCR just last spring. While other reservoirs suffered during the extended droughts of late, ours are brimming, thanks to a run of good water years.
CLOSE TO SHORE
Ice-out triggers an inshore feeding blitz. On many days, trout swarm the banks close enough that no watercraft is necessary. Often, you don't even need rubber boots. Most days you can easily wade to the best fly-fishing and, of course, nothing beats a spinning rod for getting out there, if need be. For the most part, the same flies and spinning lures that work in rivers and creeks work in stillwater, too. Trolling with planer boards and downriggers consistently produces some of the largest trout. For example, Lake Koocanusa (Libby) is a hotspot for trolling up double-digit Kamloops rainbows and bull trout.
One of the best fly-fishing techniques for relatively shallow reservoirs and lakes is to rig a pair of nymphs or, better yet, tiny (panfish-size) jigs beneath a bobber. Set the depth so the bottom fly is just a few inches above the bottom, with the other 18-24 inches above. Pitch the rig out there and wait for the trout, which at this season constantly cruise the shoreline in search of an easy meal and/or going through the ritual biologists call a "mock" spawn. Rainbows and browns spawn most successfully in moving water, thus fishing around the inlet is usually a good ploy. As the spawning urge deepens, females become increasingly harder to catch, but males become especially aggressive and likely to grab anything in their path. Stripping buggers, leeches (Egg Sucking Leech is a favorite) and various nymphs (such as BH Prince, BH PT, Chironomid, Sheep Creek, etc.) is another option worth trying anytime the bobber/jig bite slows. Egg patterns also often work well.
Should the trout move offshore, as sometimes happens in late April and in lakes with little or no shallow shorelines, a depth finder (Fishin' Buddy is one) comes in handy.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Each lake seems to have its hotspots, hot flies and lures; most local fly and bait shops post up-to-the-minute information. Another tactic is to simply follow the crowd. Curiously, while many river anglers seem reluctant to give out information, even to buddies, the lake crowd is much more gregarious, more apt to spread the wealth around. Keep your ears open; it is often surprising how explicit is the stuff you hear. "Purple with a pink head is pure poison." "Eatin' size-8 bead-head Princes like there's no tomorrow." "Size-8 Panther Martins, gold blade, black with white spots, are flat- out slammin' 'em."
There are literally dozens of stillwaters to choose from, such as Clark Canyon Reservoir (Dillon), Canyon Ferry Reservoir (Townsend), Hauser and Holter reservoirs (Helena), Blackfeet Reservation lakes (Browning), Cliff, Wade and Hebgen lakes (West Yellowstone), Dailey Lake (Emigrant), Ennis Lake (Ennis), Harrison Lake (Harrison), Hyalite Reservoir (Bozeman), Three Forks Ponds (Three Forks), Ruby Reservoir (Alder), Holland Lake (Condon), Browns Lake (Ovando), Harper Lake (Clearwater Junction), Ashley Lake (Hobson), Lake Koocanusa (Libby), Willow Creek and Nilan reservoirs (Augusta). As I say, the list is extensive, with literally countless lesser-known puddles scattered the length and breadth of Big Sky Country.