This article has been created in partnership between Matador and our friends at the State of Montana.
There’s a scene in A River Runs Through It where Brad Pitt’s character is up to his waist in the middle of the Blackfoot River and yells over the roar of the rapids:
“What are they biting on?”
This beautiful cinematic moment is a summer one. But fly fishing enthusiasts know a seasonal secret: the best time to fish the iconic waters of Big Sky country is spring. Come late March/early April, winter slides off the spine of the Bitterroots as light and warmth entice Skwala stoneflies and March brown drake mayflies out of their casings.
The serious, pleasurable work of catching fish from the end of an elegant cast is about to start.
Besides all the attention the Norman Maclean memoir and the Robert Redford film rendition garnered, Montana has some of the best fly fishing in the world for very practical reasons: its wild fish populations have been protected since 1963 with the passage of the nation’s first stream preservation legislation.
Rather than simply throwing in stockers from hatcheries to please the masses, biologists and natural resource professionals key to the habitat of native cold water fisheries. This helps protect water quality, stream flows, and healthy stream bank vegetation.
It also ensures wily wildness in the fish at the end of your line, fish that spook when your shadow darkens the shore. In a true angler’s opinion, it’s a much more exciting catch than hooking some lunker just out of the Fish and Game truck.
Montana has also been ahead of the curve in terms of catch and release policy, encouraging the use of barbless hooks for decades. Better to enjoy the thrill of the “get” rather than the taste of the flesh, putting the fish back in the stream and letting them get bigger, perhaps to be caught another day (or not).
Matching the Hatch
For beginners still sorting out their new Orvis purchases, “matching the hatch” is the process of mimicking the entomological cycle of native insects when selecting your artificial fly.
A hatch in full force is an electric event to witness. Nymphs, the insect equivalent of adolescents, morph from teenagers into winged adults instantaneously. The water surface bubbles and boils with feeding trout. Depending on what species is hatching, the ichthyology can get acrobatic.
The initial urge is to tie on your best rendition of a grown-up fly and get in on the action. But before you wet a line, take a deep breath and observe.
It may not be the flying forms the fish are after. The way the trout moves is an excellent indicator of what’s being eaten and where. Are fish jumping clear out of the water? Caddis emergers are probably making a quick run for the surface.
Small white fish mouths opening and closing below the water so you can see them? Classic surface feeding on small midges. Tails pointed upward towards you? Nymph feast on the riverbed!
Matching the hatch is more than noticing what’s flying around you. What’s underneath a rock may be what you want to tie on your line any given spring day.
Where to Go Before Memorial Day
When it comes to spectacular trout fisheries the “west is best,” meaning the left portion of Montana is where to focus your efforts in the coming months. This includes southern Montana as well.
Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer and the crowds that come with it, so get your license, dust off the tackle box, and head to these Montana waters before school lets out.
Early April: Right now (and I mean right now) the Skwala stoneflies open the surface action on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers in NW Montana and Rock Creek in SW Montana.
April through mid-May: March Brown and Grey Drake Mayflies are big versions of the genus and make their debut each spring on the Missouri, Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers. It’s the season’s first large mayfly hatch. Mercurial weather usually means fishing pressure is fairly light.
Mother’s Day Mayflies: The Yellowstone River rolls through southern Montana to the border with Wyoming and the United States’ first national park. About the time we celebrate our maternal connections, mayflies pop on the surface of one of North America’s premier trout fisheries.
Matador loves Montana! Check out Travel Montana, a leading Matador partner and terrific source of support in terms of food, lodging, and those all important fly fishing guides and shops.
This year’s snowmelt is pumping up Montana’s rivers right now for both fishing and paddling. If you’re interested in kayaking or floating some of the classic Big Sky runs, as well as additional information and resources for visiting Montanas’ rivers, check out our guide to Boating the Big Sky.