Creek Time

Tributaries in the Western District open the third Saturday of May every year in Montana, opening up a lot of new waters we haven’t been able to fish since December! The cold nights and cooler days will provide some good fishing in the upper reaches of the tribe, so there’s going to be some good fishing to be found!

But as we start to venture farther away from the main stems, we start to wander closer to the wilder sections of our area. For the last two years, the bears have been prevalent in the Blackfoot valley. So if your,re going to head up to your favorite Blackfoot River tributary, you will want to have bear spray. The bears are up and moving, be ready for that situation.

Mooses are starting to calve. When we think of dangerous animals in Montana, we think of bears and wild cats, but in truth, in the Spring Moose can be incredibly dangerous. They are calving, and if you find yourself between a moose and its calf, you are going to have problems! If you see a moose, steer very clear. While moose are normally docile to humans, they will defend their calf vigorously, so don’t spend time looking to see if there’s a calf, just find another place to fish!

It’s still Spring in Montana, so as you venture up the tributaries, make sure to take additional layers, and maybe a little extra water and some essential safety gear. As we all know, the weather in Montana can turn on a dime, so you’ll need to be prepared for whichever way the wind blows. A little pre-planning can be a true life saver if you find yourself high in the hills when the weather gets unfriendly.

Once you’ve made the necessary preparations for Montana’s weather and critters, the fishing can be fantastic as the tributaries open. The Mother’s Day Caddis is still out and about. Make sure to have some dries and pupa to be ready when they come off. The Salmon Flies are right around the corner. While the big bugs probably won’t be flying, the nymphs are starting to stage in the shallows. Make sure you have a few sizable Pat’s Rubberlegs or Some big Double Bead Stones. The fish are looking for these tasty morsels, so make sure you’re prepared.

There is a lot of excitement around Missoula fly fishing when the tribs open, and there’s good reason, especially this year. They should be relatively clear, if still moving fast. The water is cold, and some of the bigger fish will still be holding out of the main stems. Don’t count on much surface activity, so be ready with your streamers and your nymphs. While the opening day is important, not as many anglers will take advantage as you think they will, especially this year, as the students are mostly not here. It will be easy to find the best spots, and make sure you work them well. Fast water keeps the fish close to the bank, so keep your flies there as well.

For some of Missoula’s tributaries, this is the best time to fish them. Some of them get low and warm as the season progresses. If you love the small waters, the solitude of the woods and the simplicity of wading, today will mark the first time in 6 months that you can indulge in these joys.

The Search For Clear Water

When the rivers are high and brown, there’s a feeling that goes through the Missoula fly fishing community. It’s a combination of frustration, annoyance and a little bit of optimism. If only just, if I just did this, I would find clear water. The eternal optimism of the Missoula fly fisher comes through in the month of May. This optimism is always tempered by a trip across any bridge in downtown Missoula. Before they re-did the Russell Street Bridge, you could feel the bridge vibrate as the brown water raced under it. Not the first thing you look for in a place to fish!

But there is clear water, you simply have to decide you’re going to find it. Lets start at the wrong end of the spectrum, and move forward from there.

The worst place to find clear water in Missoula in May is below Kelly Island. Within 26 miles of Kelly Island, the Blackfoot River, Rock Creek and the Bitterroot River all pour into the Clark Fork River. The entire sum total of all the mud, logs, trees, and anything else that found its way to the edge of the river is coming downstream, and the lower Clark Fork is the catch all for everything. The lower Clark is pretty much the last place to search for clear water.

And from there, we start to follow the general wisdom of clear water in rivers. The further upstream you go, the clearer the water gets. It only makes sense. The higher you go in the water shed, the less chance there is for all the discoloration attendant to run-off to enter the water. So with the Clark Fork in mind, the best place to find clear water is the Warm Springs area. It’s as far upriver as you can go, and the water will be as clear as you can find in May. The same holds for all our local rivers. East and west Forks of the Bitterroot, the Upper Blackfoot and Rock Creek- the farther up river you travel, the clearer the water will be.

On the 3rd Saturday in May, the upper reaches of the rivers become so much more accessible as the tributaries open. The same rules apply to the tribs as do the rivers. The further up you go, the clearer they get. But many tribs are higher gradient, and high gradient streams hold less silt, and run clearer. Tribs are also smaller (Duh) and they have less junk floating down them. The higher sections of the tributaries offer instantaneous access to clearer water.

You’ve had to read this far to get to the easiest answers. If you’re looking for clear running water, the Missouri River is the answer. With the dam at Wolf Creek, the Missouri River is a tailwater. The bottom release water is almost completely unaffected by the mud pouring into the water behind the dam. Comes in dirty, comes out clear! There are two things to take into consideration when thinking of the Missouri. The first is its size. The water may be clear, but the dam can only hold so much water. The water levels in the Missouri go up during run-off, just as if it was a freestone river. The wading access isn’t always ideal. Given an option, the Missouri is a river better floated in May. Additionally, while the Missouri itself isn’t affected by runoff, the larger tributaries to the Missouri are. At the peak of run-off, the Missouri is really only fishable from the dam to where the Dearborn comes in. The Dearborn will be brown and high, and as soon as it enters the Missouri, the entire river clouds up and the fishing slows way down. Keep that in mind as you head to the Missouri in May.

In such a river-centric city, it’s easy to overlook the still water fly fishing around Missoula. It’s good all year round, but most anglers are focusing on the rivers most of the time. In May, many of the higher altitude lakes are icing off, and the fish are looking to feed after a long, cold winter. The ice out can be an amazing time in Missoula, with Brown’s Lake, Beavertail reservoir and Harpers’ Lake coming rapidly to mind as some of the best Missoula still water fisheries in May. And those are just the lakes we talk about. The mountains around Missoula are full of lakes- pick up a gazetteer and you’ll find hundreds. A nice hike in the mountains, and the possibilities of wild WestSlope Cutthroats- it’s a great spring day.

And we’re going to say it, but kind of in a whisper. There are bass in Montana. Big ones. Feisty and ready to eat in the lakes around Missoula. As the Spring warms the waters, the bass start looking to the surface. There’s very little more exciting than watching a Largemouth bass crush a surface popper as you rip it through cover. The blowup is something to be seen. And where you find bass you often find pike, which are also on the move as the warm weather starts to heat up the water. Some fine bass fishing is found in Upsata Lake, Nine Pipes Reservoir and Kicking Horse Reservoir. Remember that Nine Pipes and kicking Horse are on the Flathead reservation, so a separate license is needed to fish those waters. Nine Pipes is also a Migratory Bird Sanctuary, so there are specific rules that apply to fishing there. Consult the regulations before heading up there to fish.

We know, every time you cross the Clark Fork River in Missoula the brown gets you down. But the rivers aren’t off color everywhere. Nor are the abundant high mountain lakes and lower reservoirs. The tribs will soon be open, and the fishing is going to be better than our limited city vision will lead us to believe. It’s just like our local ski slope. The crafty veterans can’t wait for the snow to melt in town, because many skiers think, “Oh well, no snow.” Not in the mountains, and the crowds go way down. Same with the brown Clark Fork, we see off color and think no fishing. But with a little thought, you can find fish through the month of May and the first two weeks of June. The fishing is there, you just have to widen your gaze just a bit.     

Montana Fly Fishing Creek

High Water Tactics

Runoff happens every year. And EVERY year we hear the same 2 questions. “Are the rivers blown out?” and “Are the rivers still fishable?”

Both of these questions illicit the same answer: Of course they are! The water running high is a GOOD THING for our rivers. And that’s no reason you can’t fish.

It’s not like the fish get to go on vacation when the water gets high. The trout are still in the Blackfoot River, Clark Fork River, Rock Creek, and the Bitterroot River, doing the same things they always do.

You just need to change your tactics.

Changing tactics means revisiting some basic principles. A trout can’t survive expending more calories than they take in.

The high water has dramatically changed the nature of the river, and for a trout to survive, it must find shelter from the fast-flowing water. While it might be obvious, the faster the water is moving, the more energy a trout must expend to maintain its lie. 

As you approach the river, you’re looking for places where the water is eddying, or very slow, as that’s where the trout must be to conserve calories. Use the foam on the surface to locate these places.

Another basic principle is 80% of the fish are found within 10 feet of the bank. That is SO important during high water.

The currents are always lesser near the banks, and since trout are looking to avoid the pressure of the water, they are hugging any shelter they can find.

This is so much more prevalent near the shore, so much easier for the trout to locate. So you’re working the shore, looking for eddies and slower water.

When you’re standing at the river’s edge, it’s not always easy to see where the eddies are moving, or where the slower water will be. To get a better perspective on where the slower water is try standing on a high bank, a bridge or just walking up the bank a bit to get a better view.

As you get further from the river, the patterns of current become clearer.

Once you’ve identified the slow water and places of trout shelter from above, then head to the river’s edge and look at those same places up close. It will soon become apparent what the best holding water looks like up close.

Another factor comes into play near the shore once you’ve identified the better holding lies. As the water moves more slowly next to shore, the mud, dirt and everything else the river is carrying will begin to precipitate out. This means near the shore, visibility will be better. We didn’t say good, only better.

Because fish have to eat even in run-off, any advantage they can find they’ll take, so slow water next to the shore offers better sight as well as requiring less energy expenditure to stay there.

Keep an eye on the weather. A couple of colder days will slow down snow melt, and the slower water will get more visibility as less debris is entering the water.

Finding access to the edge of the river can be challenging during high water. Gone are the days of long gravel bars and easy access.

During run-off rivers are full to the bank. And even running through the vegetation that is normally 25 feet from the bank. Run-off fishing is often about where can you get to the river and safely access casting to trout. 

Safety is no accident in run-off. Not only is the water moving as fast as it will all year, which of course makes wading VERY dangerous, the high water is moving all the debris that’s gathered on the rivers edge since last June. That means logs, downed trees and other flotsam are floating down the river as well.

So even if you’re in shin-deep water, if a tree or log goes by and you don’t see it, it will sweep you into the river. Be smart, stay dry during run-off!

It also takes some planning to actually land a fish in run-off. You might find a place to access the river, but you also need to plan how you’re going to land a fish when you hook one.

The first move is to use tippet about two sizes heavier than you usually would. Not only are you fighting the trout; you are also fighting the current.

A little extra pound test will help you bring the fish to the net, which is a critical piece of tackle for high water. It’s just too dangerous to get so close to the water so that you can grab the fish. Bring your net and use it.

Before you cast, think about how you’re going to land the fish. Check for impediments, and make sure you have a clear, safe space to bring the fish to hand.

99% of run-off fishing is going to be subsurface. Sure, the stars might align, and you’ll run into a Mother’s Day Caddis hatch or an early Stonefly hatch, and even water where they’re rising. But don’t count on it.

Be ready for nymphs and streamers. The most important part of your rig may be lead weight. You don’t have much room to cast, and your flies don’t have a long time to sink.

Think about it this way. If your flies sink at a rate of one inch per linear foot of river covered, you will need to cast 60 feet upstream to get your fly 5 feet deep to a trout’s lie. But if your fly sinks at one foot per linear foot of river covered, you only need to cast 5 feet above that trout suspended 5 feet deep.

It makes a huge difference, so have your lead weights and tungsten bead flies.

The Wire Worm, Pat’s Rubberlegs or any dark DoubleBead Stone are great flies to use during run-off. These are some of the fastest sinking flies we carry, and they will be very useful for getting deep quickly.

But just because the water is big and fast, that doesn’t mean the fish only take big flies. Make sure to drop off a SR Quill Bullet, TH Duracell Jig or any other quick sinking smaller nymph off of the larger, heavier point fly.

Most insects in the river are small- so don’t be fooled by the thought big water, big fly. Make sure to run smaller bug off the back of the big one. Don’t worry about using a heavier tippet and fouling up your drift. In fast water, the fish need to make a quick decision to eat or not.

Add the difficulty of locating food in stained water, and you’ll find the fish to be a bit less fussy than mid-August. The heavier tippet also helps control the cast when you have an indicator, two flies and two split shot running along your leader.

When choosing a streamer, fly choice depends on the line you’re using. If you have a sink tip or sinking leader, a bulkier fly that may not sink as rapidly is very effective.

The bulky fly helps the fish find it in off-color water. If you’re using a floating line, a sparse fly with weight and maybe even a split shot or two will get the fly to where the trout are. (Dirty Hippie). Whatever streamer you choose, make sure you allow the cast to fully extend downstream.

Work it as close to the shore as you can, for all the reasons that have been mentioned before. Fish where the fish are, so make sure your streamer spends as much time as close to the bank as possible.

It’s not easy to find the prime spots during run-off. The access points are few and far between, and it seems to change every day.

A few cold days and nights, and the water starts to drop. Warm temps of course bring the water levels up.

What’s good today may be gone in two days. While the access points may be few and far between, so are the anglers! If you’re looking for solitude, it can be easily found in May.

There’s not a lot of pressure on the Blackfoot River, Rock Creek, Bitterroot River and Clark Fork River.

We can’t say you’ll find the best fly fishing in Montana of the season in May, but you will find some fish.

Be safe, stay dry, and good luck when the conditions are difficult!

Missoula Montana River Flow and Fly Fishing

Reading Flows 101


You hear it constantly this time of year. “What’s the flow at Bell Crossing on the Bitterroot River?” “Oh crap, it came up 300cfs!” “Hey, it only came up 300 cfs.” What does it all mean? Where are these people getting this information?

It all starts at the USGS website, Streamflows for Montana.  This is the URL .You can also find this information at The Missoulian Angler Fly Shop’s fishing report, if that’s faster. That’s where you find the information on river flow. This will allow you to understand in much greater detail the information that’s available from this website, and how to interpret it.

Missoula Montana River Flow and Fly Fishing

Look at the screen shot for Bell Crossing on the Bitterroot River. You can see the flow, represented by the blue line and measured in cfs (cubic Feet per Second), went up dramatically (spiked) four days ago, and is now dropping quickly. Notice the graph rows are NOT equal in thickness. So in real height, while the spike only went up a ½ inch, it covered almost 2500cfs. The bottom row of the graph, indicating 1000cfs, is actually wider than the 3,000cfs found at the top of the graph. I’m sure there’s a reason for that, but just be aware the row sizes vary, and you need to check the numeric value found on the left hand side to be accurate, when checking flow.

This concept is also critical. All flow information is contextual. Five days ago, the river was about 6500cfs, which is above average flow. The hollow triangle designates the average flow on this date for the history of this gaging station. You can see the Bitterroot is above it’s historical average. A spike in the flows, as seen on May 17 when the river rose 2,000cfs in 12 hours, will bring a lot of debris into the river, coloring the water and making floating and wading a dicey proposition. But as the river drops, the debris begins to beach itself, and the water will start to clear. Maybe not enough before the next spike, but it’s getting clearer!

Let’s talk about the 300cfs reference. Again, it’s all contextual. If the Bitterroot River at Bell Crossing rises 300 cfs in the next 12 hours, it would be less than 5% of the flow, and would probably not affect the fishing very much. But if Flint Creek, which normally runs at 125cfs, jumps 300cfs, that’s a big spike of 200% more flow. So on one river, 300cfs is not a big deal. On another river, 300cfs is a very big deal. Which is why you need to know a bit about the river being discussed! To make it a bit simpler, the bigger the river, the more water it takes to spike. Smaller rivers take less water to dramatically effect flows. It’s also why you always view a week’s worth of data when looking at a specific gaging station on the USGS site, to make sure that context is immediately visible.

Missoulian Anglers new employee Bryce Hasquet doesn’t let highwater in may get him down in Missoula.

With a little practice, and regular checking, you can learn to read the stream flows as they relate to fishing. Of course it’s no substitute for eyes on, but it’s a very useful tool to have. It’s very easy to drive over the Madison Street Bridge right now and think there’s no fishing to be found in the entire region. But the Clark Fork River is the main drainage for the area, which means it’s often the last to color up, and the last to clear. So while downtown Missoula’s flows may be high and poor for fishing, you may find, with a little internet sleuthing, that other rivers in western Montana are dropping, clearing and most importantly, fishing!