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.
It’s 8:30 pm on a late July evening in Western Montana. You just got done with a short after work trip to the river, throwing a dry and putting a few smaller fish to hand, then switching it up to a streamer, but no slam pig brown like you’ve always dreamed of. The sun is just starting to tuck behind the mountains, so you figure you’d better head back towards the car. . . or should you? Is the best trophy trout fishing of the day about to begin? Is that monster of a brown trout just starting to slide out from a deep hole to feed? Well, there’s only one way to find out.
One of the most overlooked methods of fly fishing for big trout around Missoula starts when the sun goes down. It may seem foolish and difficult to fumble around attempting to cast in the dark, but the payout can be extravagant. First, let’s establish why this works, and why it’s worth giving a shot. Big trout, and I mean BIG trout (23-32 inches) didn’t get big by being stupid. After living in a system for anywhere from 7 to 20 years, they know where and when they are in danger from predators, they know what actions put them in a vulnerable position, and they know one simple solution to eliminate these life-threatening factors. Eat. At. Night. Simple as that, feeding after sundown allows big trout to roam nearly any part of the river as they wish without a care in the world about the eagle that lives a quarter mile upstream. However, protection is not the only reason that huge trout choose to feed almost exclusively at night, there is another factor that is more seasonal. As you may have noticed the last time you fished the river in 100 degree weather, trout aren’t too fond of hot water temps. The biggest and smartest fish in the river are no exception. These fish live with 4 things in mind: get big, stay big, make babies, don’t die. The ‘stay big’ portion of this lifestyle is not particularly complimented by exhausting vast amounts of calories trying to chase baitfish through the shallows under the scorching hot sun. The air becomes cool at night in the Missoula area, and so does the water. Yet another reason why the 10+ pound trout of your dreams isn’t sipping BWOs at 2:00pm.
Now that we’ve discussed why this works, lets address how. There are two commonly used methods when it comes to fly fishing at night; mousing/topwater and streamer fishing. In most freestone rivers like the Bitterroot River, Blackfoot River and Clark Fork River, when trout reach a certain size, mayfly nymphs and caddis flies aren’t going to sustain the calorie intake that these pigs require. When the fish reach this point in their life, some will start to shift from a BMI (Benthic Macro Invertebrate) diet, to a baitfish and juvenile fish diet. Not only this, but these trout will also predate on mice, rats, small water mammals, frogs, crawdads, snakes, birds, the list goes on. Anything that offers a significant number of calories, a large predacious trout will eat if it can get its jaws on it. That being said, larger 4-7 inch articulated streamers have become a standard imitation for these large piscivorous trout, and anything from a single hook Moorish Mouse to a triple articulated rat pattern stripped across the surface will go as a rodent imitation. Oh, and ideally bring at least a 6 or 7 weight rod or you’re ‘gonna have a bad time’. Now, it’s not necessarily true that one of these fly selections will work better than the other, because when a trophy trout is the target, it’s more-so about being in the right place at the right time. However, as exciting as it is to hear a 6 pound brown Trout break the silence of the night with a belly flop on a mouse pattern, the number of hookups are less than ideal. If comparing the hookup ratio of a mouse pattern to a streamer, it’s probably 1:5. . . Regardless of which fly option you choose, the strategies that follow both are relatively similar. First off, it all starts with finding the right body of water. You need to find a system that has big fish potential. This can mean a few things. . . the system has at one point or another produced a giant fish or two, the system regularly produces larger fish (say 18-22 inch trout in this case) and you’re looking to uncover something greater, or maybe something as simple as a big fish story. Two crucially important factors that arise while night fishing rivers, is familiarity with the water, and finding safely wadable water. Don’t go trotting out onto a river you’ve never laid eyes on before in the pitch black. Not only can this be incredibly unsafe, but you also will have little clue what you’re casting to, tremendously lowering your efficiency. Keep in mind, it’s important to keep your headlamp off as much as possible, so casting into complete darkness is much easier if you’ve walked the water a time or two in the daylight. Additionally, try and choose a stretch of water where you can either easily navigate the bank, or walk through shallow and calm water that won’t sweep you off your feet and take you for a midnight swim. Now, with disclaimers out of the way, lets say you find a familiar stretch of river that you are convinced will produce a 28” brown trout. Focus on fishing moderate/slower pace water, anywhere near obvious structure or cover such as undercut banks, overhanging trees, downed logs, and rip-rap banks. Another major river feature that should be noted while night fishing, is big shelfs and drop offs. Often, large predatory fish will sit down on the deep end of a drop off during the day to rest. When nightfall hits and they’re ready to feed, they will move up onto the shelf and scan the flat water for minnows and juvenile fish . . . so, don’t be hesitant to pull a streamer or mouse through a stretch of knee deep water. Additionally, big fish will also move into side channels and sloughs where their prey has less room to escape.
From here, there’s only a couple things left to consider; commitment and persistence. Night fishing is different, and not particularly convenient or appealing to the average angler. However, it is by far the most effective manner of targeting big fish exclusively and not worrying about numbers. Furthermore, the determination to pursue a big fish comes with some downfalls. Other than the few giants, most fish usually stop feeding around sunset. This means you’re going to get skunked more times than anyone likes to admit along the journey of chasing a trophy. Those willing to bite the bullet and put fishless (and sleepless) hours on the clock are the ones who will be rewarded. So . . . next time you hit the river for evening outing of fly fishing, bring a few streamers, a couple mice, and a headlamp. Stay a few extra hours and you may be surprised what kind of magic happens after the sun goes down.
We do offer guided fly fishing trips in Montana for Mousing. Due to safety of issues of fishing at night we typically start at first light in the morning which can be one of the best times to mouse. If this is something you would like to do then please give us a call at 1 (406) 728-7766.
The first rule of piscatorial predation. Big Fish eat Little Fish. The first rule of Missoula’s Piscatorial Predators. Big Streamers catch big fish!
There’s never a wrong time to throw a streamer. Unlike grasshoppers or Salmon flies, which appear at specific times, small fish are available to larger fish 365 days a year. There are many winter streamer fishermen in our area, and while they may not catch as many fish as a cold weather nympher, total weight may be a close contest. When the weather breaks in March, smaller fish migrate to the warmer shallows. The big fish take advantage of this migration and streamer fishing rocks. Rising and falling river flows surrounding run-off also kicks off excellent streamer fishing. Flow change displaces all fish, and big fish take advantage of disoriented smaller fish seeking new homes. The streamer fishing will be strong through mid July, and then it tapers back to normal.
The Missoulian Angler Fly Shop has the largest selection of streamers in Missoula, for very good reason. We have streamers for all water and all line weights. The big articulated streamers, like the Articulated Kreelex, need a 7 or 8 weight to effectively handle them. We have highly weighted streamers, like the Sculpizilla, for use with floating lines. And we have a large selection of Galloup’s neutrally buoyant streamers (Butt Monkey, Tips Up) that work best with a sink tip 7 or 8 weight.
We also carry a wide variety of flies handled with a 5 or 6 weight like the Clarks Rat. These are by necessity lighter and smaller than their grown up cousins, but still move big fish. From a biological standpoint, it’s conventional wisdom most fish will not attack anything that’s bigger than 1/3 it’s size. So if you fish a 3 inch streamer, you can expect to catch nothing smaller than a 9” fish. Put on a 5” streamer, and now you’ve weeded out all the fish below 15”. This is one reason some anglers feel streamers are less effective, because a dry fly angler or nympher makes his living on 8-13” fish. (Hey, just being honest) Tie on a big streamer, and 80% of the river’s trout population is now untargeted. No wonder streamer fishing can feel slow, when so many fish aren’t even in the mix.
When choosing your fly, line weight isn’t the only factor. In late June, when the water is high, the size of your streamer doesn’t really matter. Even if it hits the water with a thud, the big water masks it’s landing. But throw that same fly in late August, and it will move fish- all away from you! Skinny waters need skinnier, low impact streamers. Especially if you’re wading. Streamer fishing is the most intrusive form of fly fishing, with dry flies being the least intrusive and nymphs falling in between. If you’re fishing a spot with limited wading opportunities, run your dries first, then a nymph, then streamers. Because if you rip a big streamer through the pool first, the fish may not be as amenable to rising after that! In a boat, it’s not that critical. You’re always moving to new fish, so it’s not important how you attack specific spots. You’re just going to move on! You can also fish a bigger fly in skinnier water, because the splash will be in one spot, and the streamer will be fished in another.
We’re big fans of fluorocarbon for streamer fishing. We all know Fluorocarbon is invisible in water, but it’s also much heavier than standard leader material. On a sink tip, a 3’ leader of 10 pound fluoro keeps the fly down at the level of the sink tip. With a floating line, a full Fluorocarbon leader helps the fly gain a little more depth. Invisibility is just an added bonus, it’s the higher specific gravity that’s more important.
We have enough streamers that it can sometimes be a bit of an adventure filling your fly box! We recommend, when getting started in this, following this old adage. Light day, light fly- Dark day, dark fly- Bright day, bright fly. With that in mind, make sure to vary your fly size, always remembering what line weight you’ll be using. If you use sink tips, weight won’t be critical. Floating lines might require you to look for flies with a little weight on them, like a conehead or smaller dumbbell eyes. One of our favorite weighted flies is the Sculpzilla. Others are the Skullhead Super Tinsel and the Baby Gonga. These flies can be thrown on a 5 weight with some concentration, and larger rods handle them with ease.
Classic streamer fishing while wading utilizes a cast quartering downstream. Fish the cast out, and then take 3 steps and do it again. We would amend that to consider water clarity. In stained water, you may only take one step. In clear water, you may take four steps. What you’re trying to do is give every fish within casting range a chance to see your fly, without throwing over stale fish. From a boat, the classic streamer technique is hammer the bank, the closer the better most of the time. But keep your eyes open for mid river structure like rootballs and boulders. These hold fish as well. Don’t neglect the riffles. Two feet of moving water holds more big fish than you think, and are well worth running a streamer through.
No matter where you’re fishing or what your fishing for, listen to the fish. They’ll tell you what they want, and how to present it. We often start with a very gentle stripping action, but if that doesn’t move fish, we get continuously more aggressive until we’re stripping with the line hand and pushing the rod forward with the other, moving the fly as fast as possible! Don’t worry. If a trout wants your fly, you CANNOT strip it faster than the trout can swim. Varying your retrieve allows the trout to respond to the action it prefers.
There are three types of strikes to a streamer. The type A strike is a killing strike. The trout is eating, and your streamer is dead. You almost can’t miss this type of strike. The Type B strike is the action of a fish defending its territory from an invasive presence. The trout will lash out and chase the intruder away, but is not as interested in feeding, and you may not gat a take to this movement. The Type C strike is asimple curiosity. The trout will follow the streamer out, slowly, making making light nips on the tail in an effort to find out what this thing is. This fish is not actively feeding, and may be enticed to strike, but it’s definitely not a given.
From a boat, the Blackfoot River may be the best streamer river in our area. Strewn with boulders, and a gradient that keeps the water moving, the Blackfoot is streamer paradise. Lots of places to hide, and your fly is moving fast enough that fish don’t get a long time to look at it. Rock Creek holds awesome streamer fishing for the wading angler, because its smaller size allows working both sides of the river. Smaller streamers, like the Sparkle Minnow, are often more effective on Rock Creek, due to the average size of the fish.
As an aside, yellow streamers seem to be a clarion call to the Northern Pike Minnow. So while trout are also attracted to yellow, you will see way more than your share of the NPM if you go lots of yellow. A black streamer seems to perform all the time, as does white in our area. Special mention should be made of the Kreelix. Made from Kreinik sparkle material, this bright fly pulls fish out of places they don’t normally leave. All of our staff and guides are streamer junkies, so if this has raised any questions, call 406-728-7766 or email [email protected] for more information!