How To Use Sinking Leaders

The sinking leader for fly fishing is a game changer for the part-time streamer thrower, or for fast water, no indicator nymphing. They save anglers a lot of money in lines and spools, while getting your fly deeper in quickly changing conditions. They are very popular with our customers, but we also get questions about their usage. They can be tricky to cast because they change the action of your fly rod. Here’s a few thoughts and tips for using sinking leaders more effectively.

History and Specifications

Sinking leaders have been around for a while, and truthfully never been a whole lot of fun to cast. Before the advent of today’s sinking leader, intrepid anglers built them from lead core fly line. Talk about a nightmare casting- no taper and lots of weight poorly attached to the fly line. It was chaos, and it took dedication coupled with a fearless attitude when back casting that mess out of the water directly at your head.

Things have changed for the better. The new sinking leaders aren’t perfect, but so much better than it used to be. It starts with the welded loop found on the end of every fly line. Sinking leaders also have a welded loop, and the loop-to-loop connection is one key to better casting. Gone is the mono leader butt that created so many casting issues. A mono leader butt is unable to support the weight of the sinking leader, and the resulting hinge point was almost impossible to cast through. With loop to loop, there’s a small hinge point, but it’s very manageable.

The new sinking leaders are made like a fly line, only with a monofilament core. You can get away with this because the short lengths don’t stretch enough to cause the coating to separate from the core. The new leaders are also tapered, which greatly improves turnover and accuracy.

We STRONGLY recommend tippet rings at the tippet end of a new sinking leader. The 12” of uncoated tippet at the end doesn’t last long when tying surgeon’s knots to new tippet. We recommend using tippet no longer than 2.5’ long, so the fly maintains leader depth. With the short leader length, you change tippet out frequently. A tippet ring extends the life of a sinking leader.

We carry sinking leaders in a variety of lengths and sink rates. It’s like carrying a variety of sink tip lines in a vest pocket. You can tailor your presentations depth with a quick re-rig, and make sure your fly is exactly where you want it. But there are things you need to know when using a sinking leader.

While there is some debate going on, AFTMA fly line standards are still the industry standard. The first 30 feet of a 5 wt line should weigh 140 gr. The first 30 feet of a 6 wt should weigh 160, a 7 weight should weigh 185 gr over the first 30 feet. This is important when using a sinking leader. As an example, a 12’ 3IPS Sinking Leader weighs 46 grains. A 12’ 7IPS Sinking Leader weighs 103 grains. The faster sink rate requires more weight.

When you attach the 3IPS leader, it’s like adding a line and a half to your rod. With the 7IPS leader, it’s like adding 3 line weights to your rod. When using a 5 weight rod with a sinking leader, you’re either casting the equivalent of a 6.5 weight or 8 weight line with it. That has important ramifications for the angler.

Techniques For Sinking Leaders

When starting the back cast, remember you have a lot of extra weight on the end of your line. You’re not going to just be able to flip 40’ of line off the water. You’ll have to strip the sinking leader much closer to the tip before starting to back cast. With less length comes less weight, and the rod handles the lighter weight better.

This is also very important. The sinking leader is completely submerged. When back casting, it’s not like pulling a floating line off the water. There’s so much more pressure brought to bear on a subsurface line than a floating line. To protect the lighter rod, use this method to start the back cast.

Bring the fly line in so the fly is 20-25 feet from your feet. Roll cast the fly to the surface. If the first roll doesn’t get it to the surface, roll again! Once the fly is on the surface, immediately start your back cast. With the fly skimming across the surface, there is much less pressure brought to bear on the rod. The heavier the leader, the more important this is. Rolling the fly to the surface is also a lot safer for the angler, because you have more control over the back cast.

When a fish strikes, make sure the tip of the rod is pointing directly at the fly, and use a strip set to jam the hook home. A strip set uses the left hand pulling back on the fly line- the rod is not involved. It’s critical to have a straight line from left hand to fly (accomplished by pointing the rod tip at the fly) so the strip set connects with the fish.

If you use the tip of the rod to set the hook, you have a good chance of not hooking the fish. With a dry or dry/dropper, on hook set the rod tip bends a bit and then the fly moves. Sinking leaders affect the rod much more. With the additional weight of the leader, coupled with the pressure of complete submersion and a larger fly- the rod bends deeply on the strike. While the rod is bending, the hook isn’t moving rapidly or powerfully, resulting in fewer hook-ups. Using the strip set plants the hook where you want it, when you want it.

4 weights, 5 weights and some 6 weights aren’t really designed to handle sinking tips. When the rod is out of its comfort zone, changes should be made in your casting and hook setting styles. At best, not changing casting and hook set will result in fewer fish. At worst, trying to lift too much weight with a fly rod will shatter it. Better to get the fly closer and do a little more false casting than explode the rod because it can’t handle the load. Better to practice the strip set to make sure you’re hooking the fish that strike.

Sinking leaders are a strong addition to any anglers kit. Light weight and easy to rig, the sinking leader gets anglers deep without the hassle of buying, carrying and changing out spools. The new design makes them much easier to cast, improving accuracy. Conditions are constantly changing on the water. The sinking leader allows you to make the most of the water you’re fishing.

Best Flies For August Fishing In Montana

When you study rivers and their make-up, you learn the month of August defines a rivers carrying capacity. For our purposes, carrying capacity is defined as the amount of trout biomass, or the total weight of the trout population, a river can support throughout the year. August sets carrying capacity as the most difficult time of year for the trout. Missoula’s freestone rivers- Rock Creek, the Bitterroot River, the Big Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River– are at their lowest and warmest points in the heat of the summer. Competition for holding lies and food is intense at this time, and fish that can’t locate homes or food won’t make it to the September rains. August is the month when rivers in Missoula make their statement about how the fishing will be for the next 11 months.

This is both good and bad for the angler. Obviously, a scorching August makes trout habitat more difficult to maintain, with trout under considerable stress in Missoula and across Montana. But competition for food and space has a considerable upside for the angler as well. The trout are hungry, and food is scarce. The fish are willing to roam farther from their feeding lies to eat, and certainly less selective. A well presented fly will often take fish even if it’s not an exact match, due to lack of food present in Montana rivers.


Except for the trico hatch!  The tiny trico is the only aquatic hatch to come off with any regularity in the month of August, and when it comes off, it’s a blanket hatch. Trico-maniacs are dedicated anglers, focused and intense about being on the water when the tricos both hatch and fall. The trico is one of the few mayflies important to the angler that hatches at the same time the spinners fall. It is also the only hatch where the males and females differ significantly in color. For the hatch matching dry fly angler, the trico is paradise masquerading as sheer torment. At any given moment, you have male and female spinners, male and female duns floating as well as male and female cripples on the water. Tricos hatch in such great numbers that the water is covered with insects, with extremely selective to the sex, stage and size of the fly.

No other hatch offers this diversity in fly possibilities. A book has been written about meeting the trico hatch, providing strategies and ideas on how to approach this complex blanket hatch. The most important is make sure you have a wide variety of flies when you go to the water. We know, sounds like thinly veiled sales pitch, but it’s true. Our favorite trico pattern in the shop in the shop is Ron’s Trico. This simple pattern has been a top producer for as many years as Ron Beck, the Missoulian Angler’s longest tenured employee (and dedicated trico-maniac), has been tying them. The Trico Sprout is also an excellent cover for the cripples that are always present, while the Female Comparadun will work as a full floating dry, or as a cripple if you choose to dress only the wings. 5-6X tippet is the norm for these size 18-20 flies, and with the low, clear water a decent cast is imperative. Tiny flies mean narrow feeding lanes, so your cast needs to be on target, drifting correctly and be the stage, sex and size the trout is looking for. As we said, a hatch matchers paradise.


But it’s not always so tricky in August. The Spruce Moths will be out in full force in the first two weeks, and trout feast on them as they come down to the water. Clocking in at a size 10 or 12, these flies are easy for the trout to find and easy for the angler to see. Again, Ron has created our best Spruce Moth imitation, the Mangler Moth. Made from spun and clipped deer hair, it perfectly mimics the mottled color of the Spruce Moth and floats like a cork. We also really enjoy the Spruce Almighty, with its lower floating profile, and the parachute Spruce Moth, which is the easiest of all our imitations to see. No need for super fine tippet on these guys, 3-4X will get it done when the Sprucies are coming off.

August is terrestrial time in Missoula and throughout Montana. Ants and Beetles are active all day with the heat, and consistently finding their way on to the water. Many times the random rise you see close to the shoreline is to an ant or beetle, and it’s the rare trout that won’t take either if they’re looking up. Again, with less access to food in the rivers, ants and beetles become a critical part of the trout’s diet. The Ant Acid in Purple or Red have proven to be extremely effective, as well as the foam beetle. Take your terrestrial fishing to the next level and try a Sunken Ant along the shoreline. Ants aren’t designed to float, and trout take them anywhere in the water column.

Hoppers also make their grand entrance in August, and we all know what that means. On the hottest, windiest days, the hoppers are up and flying. As the wind buffets them about, they can hit the water with a significant splat, alerting the trout to their presence. Those monster rises mid river in the heat of the day are almost always to a hopper. Because hoppers don’t enter the water with any regularity, you have to be ready on every cast, and ready for some dry spells in between strikes. But the ferocity of the take and the size of the fish that recognize hoppers as a valid food form makes hopper fishing so worthwhile in late August. The Morrish Hopper in all its color variations has proven to be the most consistent hopper we sell. The Parachute Hopper runs a close second, followed by the Henneberry Hopper. When hoppers are on, pretty much any hopper that catches your fancy will catch the trout’s as well.


The phrase originated as Hopper/Dropper, and now morphed into Dry/Dropper. But the original indicator fly was the hopper, because the nymph fishing in August can be great. The fish are looking to feed, stay out of the sun and away from the surface where they’re vulnerable. You can use pretty much any nymph in your box (within reason!) but we definitely prefer the Tungsten Bead Jig Nymphs. They sink like bricks, ride hook point up to snag less, and get to where trout live and stay there. Exactly what you’re looking for in a subsurface fly! Don’t be afraid to go with a size 16 or 18 nymph. The river is filled with smaller nymphs, and while they don’t look like much to you, the trout are accustomed to these smaller flies and take them without hesitation.


A quick word about streamers. The dedicated streamer angler has put away the 7wt rod. The giant streamers, so effective in June, are too big to effectively fish in August water But trout haven’t stopped eating minnows. Scale back your fly’s size, and the bruisers will prove just as happy to eat a big meal in August as they were 6 weeks ago. Look for a slim, smaller fly like the Sculpzilla, the Kreelix or even the Baby Gonga. If you can throw the streamer comfortably on your 5 weight rod, you’ve scaled back enough. The smaller streamers make less commotion when they land, and in clear water present a less more lifelike appearance than their larger brethren. Predators are predators, and few turn down a well presented, easily captured meal!

Attractor Patterns

August is the fly tyer’s month as well. Remember that fly you tied late at night, purple, chartreuse and orange. You looked at it the next morning and thought, “What was I thinking?!” August is the time to fish that fly, and any other attractor that strikes your fancy. Food is scarce, and trout are willing to be more liberal about what constitutes food and what doesn’t. August is when oddball flies really shine. The trout are heavily fished late June and July, and very familiar with tried and true patterns. Show them something they’re never seen, like your late-night concoction, and you’ll be surprised by the gullibility of August trout.

Final Thoughts

August is a month where getting on the water can be a challenge. Heat, low clear water and the concern for the trout’s well being all come into play. But it can be a great month to angle. Fish the edges of the day if you can, and when we say edges we MEAN edges! If you’ve never tried mousing after dark, August is the perfect time to make that plunge. The weather is grand, with big fish responding to lower light and lower water temperatures. Flashlights and a little pre-scouting are certainly not remiss if you plan to be out after dark. And this is information you won’t get many other places, because we’re more about real fishing! If you fall in after dark in August, it’s not as cold as the other months!! If you are fishing mid-day with a hopper, fight the fish hard and fast, releasing them in cold water so they live to fight another day. August gets a bum rap from so many anglers, but if you put your time in, find the trico hatch, come prepared with hoppers, nymphs and streamers, you’ll find August to be an exceptionally rewarding time to be on the water.

Missoula Montana Guided Fly Fishing Trip

Come enjoy a day on the river with Missoula’s best fly fishing guides. We float the Bitterroot River, Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. All gear, lunch and transportation provided.

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Montana Guided Fly Fishing Float Trip
Montana Stonefly Hatch

Best Flies For July In Montana

For Missoula, and most of Montana, July fly fishing comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. It starts like a house afire, and it often ends up just being hot! Montana rivers start the month high, cold and green, and end it low and clear. For the wading angler, this can be a blessing, for the floating angler, not as much. For those who float or row, early July can be the trickiest time of the year. As the water drops, the rivers teeth start to stick up and come into play. But the water isn’t actually low, it’s just lower.  Still a lot of push in the river, and the snags, rocks and sweepers are now a lot closer to the surface, and a lot more dangerous. Pay attention when rowing in early July! But we digress. . . . . . .


If you want, July can start BIG! Not as big and bright as June, as the Salmon Flies are starting to wane, but they’re still around, coming back to the water to lay their eggs. The Rogue Salmon Fly or the Morning Wood Special in a size 6-8 can work very effectively, as the adult salmon flies are shrinking as they return to lay eggs. They get smaller and darker as the hatch progresses, and your flies should reflect that. However . . . .

The best fly fishing guides in Missoula will tell you the moment the Golden Stones appear in numbers, it’s time to drop the big guy and go for the gold. The goldens are a more consistent hatch along the river, and the fish will rise more readily to the golden. Maybe they taste better? We don’t know that, but we do know they’re usually more productive as we head into July. If you’re not ready to abandon the salmon fly altogether, we can suggest a few “Tweener” flies. A tweener is a fly that does double duty- could be a golden, could be a salmon fly. A great example of this is the El Camino Grillo Golden in the larger sizes. Fits the bill for a big golden or small salmon fly.  A long time stalwart in Missoula is the PK Golden, and don’t sleep on the Plan B either. While it may sound like a second tier fly, the Plan B is a go-to for Missoula fly fishing guides.


Lets go back to big for just a second. At the beginning of July, when the rivers are full and maybe still a bit off color, a streamer will often move the biggest fish in the river. The lack of clarity in the water helps them feel safe, and the higher water means the fish are hugging the banks looking for an easy meal they don’t need to move far for. A streamer worked along the shoreline doesn’t give the trout a lot of time to make up its mind, and the vicious hit of a big trout bent on making the most of what the river rips by can about knock the rod out of your hands! Agreed, the surface activity can be so good that you don’t think past the meniscus, but the trout are feeding at all levels of the river. If you’re on the water early and there’s no movement on top, it’s a great time to mobilize big fish with big flies.


The Pale Morning Duns and the Pale Evening Duns are also out in big numbers in the month of July. Look for the PMD’s to come off anywhere from 9:00 am  to 1:00 pm depending on weather. Soft water and longer glides can offer some of the most exciting fishing in Montana and locally, with blanket hatches of PMD’s coming off steadily for 1-2 hours. Have a good selection of bugs, as the fish can get a bit snotty. The Tilt Wing PMD and the Last Chance Cripple cover a lot of the stages of the adult life cycle, and are go-to flies when the hatch is on. The Parachute PMD is easier to see, and is also very effective.

The Pale Evening Duns can be a bit trickier to find. They’re extremely weather dependent. If the day has hit 95 degrees (not uncommon in mid-July- bring your sunscreen!) the PED’s might not come off till about 15 minutes before dark. Be ready, so you’re not trying to tie your fly on in twilight! The same bugs that work for the PMD’s will work for the PED’s as well. If the day was cool or cloudy, they may start to appear as early as 7:30. Make sure you’re ready on the water when they come off, because they are going to. It just depends on the day.

The Rusty Spinner deserves a paragraph all its own. Both the PMD’s and the PED’s will morph into Rusty Spinners, so there are a lot of them on the water. The spinner is a spent mayfly that has returned to the water to die. Their wings are flat to the surface, and they are very difficult to see if you’re not looking for them. They will  come off at dusk or dawn, or both. If you’re an early riser, you might find some early risers! If you’re out late, and the trout have spurned your classic PED patterns, switch over to a Hi-Viz Rusty Spinner. You will be astounded at how popular that darn near invisible (to us) fly is to the trout.


The reason you might not be ready for the PED’s is the Tan Caddis. When they are on, they are ON! They will also come off around dusk on the Clark Fork River, Rock Creek, the Bitterroot River, the Big Blackfoot River and all across Montana. The Tan Caddis may be the most popular fly in the entire state.  If you run across a blanket hatch, and there are few fish rising, move directly to the Deep Caddis Pupa Tan or Translucent Pupa Tan. Those insects on the surface didn’t appear from nowhere, and if the fish aren’t feeding on the surface, they’re feeding underneath! If you find them rising in faster water, nothing works better than a Tan Elk Hair Caddis. Find them in some slower water, and the X-Caddis Tan is often the answer. The Tan Caddis is also a great searching fly throughout the day, and will move fish at the strangest times in the strangest places!


These hatches are huge as the month of July starts, but wane as the month goes on, until what was once a blizzard is now a mere localized squall. As the water drops and clears, and the aquatic food sources begin to dry up, the fish need to widen their gaze, and start looking for alternative meals. The big hope is the Spruce Moth. They can be huge in the last weeks of July, depending upon the weather.  You can hear the landowners curse as the tops of their trees are destroyed, but to the trout, they can be a huge bridge between the cornucopia of early July and the tricos of August. Ron Beck’s MAngler Moth is every guide’s favorite fly, but don’t lose sight of the Spruce Almighty, or even a big tan caddis when the Spruce Moths are on the water.

This is also the time that your Ants and beetles begin to shine. The hot days get those bugs moving around, and every time the wind blows, more enter the river systems. We enjoy the Foam Beetle, as it floats well, and is almost easily seen. The Ant-Acid has become very popular in the last couple of years, as has the ????. It’s a bit early to look to the hopper, unless July has been brutally hot, but the hopper days are coming, rest assured. Patience is required when fishing terrestrials, as the fish aren’t always looking up when we think they should be . . . . .


So go to the nymph!! Pick a good, basic nymph in a size 14-16 and fish the crap out of it. Jig nymphs sink faster- never the wrong choice. The fish are missing their regular meals, and will move a good distance to find some food. If you come across a good deep hole, the Pats Rubberlegs is still a top producer, especislly on the Clark Fork River. Stoneflies nymphs in Missoula have a 2-3 year lifespan, so the Pat’s is always a good bet in the deeper parts of the river.  A Double Bead Stone may be a bit much, but you’re sure going to get down to the bottom of the river with that fly in late July!


There’s another terrestrial that deserves special mention in July, and that’s the mouse. Yes, the mouse. Late in the month, when the rivers have calmed down, and the heat of the day has driven the big fish deep into the shade, the mouse can be magic. It takes a little intestinal fortitude to fish rodentia, as the best mouse fishing is found after dark. We find its best to do your mousing in water you’re familiar with- a little prescouting doesn’t hurt either. A flashlight or headlamp is also highly recommended. The big Browns across Montana come out to feed after dark, and its not what you think it is. Darkness hides them from predators, and they will move into shallow water to feed. Work the top of a pool, right where the riffle comes in, and the tail out, where the water shallows back up again. At night, the big fish are in skinny water, and that’s where you need to be. If the mouse isn’t producing, switch to a streamer. Same place, just sub-surface. The takes can be brutally hard. But truthfully, we’re looking for the sippers, the trout that’s so big it takes your mouse with hardly a sign. That’s why you’re on the water after midnight, for the fish that hasn’t seen the sun for 3 years!

Final Thoughts

In like a lion, out like a lamb. The wading is tough in the beginning, awesome at the end. Reverse that for floating. You start the month with 2X tippet, and can find yourself with 4’ of 5X on July 31st. That’s what July is in Missoula and across Montana, the month with the biggest change. Be ready to match the hatches, be ready to make your own with some terrestrials, or get down to where the fish are when the hatches wane and the sun comes out. You get to see it all in July.

Missoula Montana Guided Fly Fishing Trip

Come enjoy a day on the river with Missoula’s best fly fishing guides. We float the Bitterroot River, Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. All gear, lunch and transportation provided.

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Montana Guided Fly Fishing Float Trip

Streamer Green

You wont find it at Ace, or Sherwin-Williams. It’s not a recognized color on a mixing wheel, and it varies from angler to angler. But it’s a color, all right. When the water isn’t brown, but it isn’t clear, it’s Streamer Green

Trout have an IQ of 4. Don’t tell anyone, we can look foolish enough on our own without that info getting out! It means trout can’t do two things at once. The rivers are full of food right now, and the fish are out feeding like crazy. Get so focused on your food, and the next thing you know, you’re dinner! Big fish eat little fish. Lots of food makes little fish get bigger. It’s a risk/reward type of thing, and sometimes the risk is substantial. Add the dropping water, which is moving the fish from place to place in search of new homes. The fish are displaced, vulnerable and trying to feed. All this screams streamers to the angler.

If you have a dedicated 7 or 8 weight streamer rod, you already know what to do! Bang the banks with a big fly, like the Beastmaster or Hop Scotch Sculpin. The big heads push a lot of water, so the fish can find your fly more easily. Work the shoreline, work the structure. Use a short leader on your sink tip, so the fly gets deep and stays there. Use the big stuff, 15lb Maxima. These fish aren’t leader shy, and heavy tippet has saved many a $6 fly from dangling in a tree branch. If you really have to reef on the fly to get it free, check the hook and make sure it’s not bent out. Then cast it out again! You know the drill.

If you don’t have a dedicated streamer rod, there are ways to handle the bigger, green water with a streamer. Use the heaviest line weight rod you have- it helps to control the bigger, heavier flies A long leader and a well weighted fly will help you attain some depth. We often recommend a Bonefish leader 12’ long with a 12-16lb test. The big, stiff leader helps turn that heavy fly over, and again, trout eating streamers aren’t leader shy. The trout doesn’t have a lot of time to make up its mind to eat or not, so leader thickness is not an issue.

There are two schools of thought on fly size. One says to use the largest fly you can throw, and get it close to your target. The other school says use a smaller fly, and be more accurate. Big fish are where big fish are. If you land a 5 inch fly 2 feet away from a trout, it might eat because the fly is big enough to risk coming out from cover and expending the energy to eat. If you drop a 2.5 inch fly 6” from the trout, it might be an easier choice. Both methods work, and both have their adherents. It’s good to know about both!

If you don’t think you’re getting deep enough with a long leader and weighted fly, you can purchase sinking leaders. They come in different lengths and sink rates. You can get a few and experiment, but we often find the longest and fastest sink rate you can handle is best. We stress that you can handle. Use a short leader (2-3’) off the end, as the mono leader doesn’t sink as fast and if it’s too long, the leader is way deeper than the fly. Keep in mind you’ve added a lot of additional weight to your fly line when you add the sinking leader. It’s like casting a 7-8 wt line on a 5-6 wt rod. Make sure you bring the fly close to you before starting your backcast, or the cast may fail. Worst case scenario, the rod fails! Depending on how deep the fly and leader is, you may need to roll cast the fly to the surface, and then pick it up. Sink tips work a little differently than a floating line, so be ready for some changes to your casting stroke.

With the rivers so big, you’re going to want to work the banks. 80% of all trout are found within 10’ of the shore, so let your cast swing all the way out if you’re wading. Work the soft water and any structure you find. If you’re using a bigger fly, make a couple few casts and then move on. If the fish was going to eat, it would have already. Streamer fishing isn’t like nymphing. Continuous presentations aren’t always what is needed. If you’ve gotten good casts to a likely spot, and seen nothing, move on and find a new spot. Plenty of fish in the river! If you’re floating the river, this is all built in. Bang the banks, and be ready for a fish off every shelf and behind every log.

On general principles, the more off color the water is, the darker a fly you should use. A dark fly creates a better silhouette than a light colored fly, and in murky water that’s a big plus. If the water is light green, you can start with a lighter color. Vary your retrieve. Let the trout tell you if they want the fly subtly moved, or violently stripped. Always keep in mind you can’t move your fly fast enough to keep it away from a big trout bent on eating, so if the slow strip isn’t working, start to move the fly with some speed. Vary the flies entry into the water, and use aerial or water mends to give the fly line some slack, which will allow the fly to sink. Be ready for a fish on the flies first movement, as many large fish will take a dead drifting streamer as an extremely easy meal.

Streamer can be boom or bust. When you’re throwing a big fly, a lot of fish aren’t capable or willing to attack something that large. But the fish you do take on a streamer can be significant. Streamer fishing isn’t for everyone. It takes a lot of effort to throw the big rod and sink tip all day, especially if the fish aren’t cooperating as you think they should! But if you love streamer fishing, or are ready to check out what all the fuss is about, take advantage of the off color clarity that is Streamer Green, and get the big bug in the water!

Bitterroot River Fly Fishing Guided Trip

In Search Of Big Trout

Slabside. Pig. Brother Two Foot. Doesn’t matter the slang you use, lifetime fly fishing memories are made as you venture on the water, sights set on the size of the result. But how do you find them? What’s the secret for locating that fish of a lifetime? Here’s a couple of hints to get you off the dinks and into the Dawgs!

The first step is to do a little homework, and go where big fish live. For some, it may be higher altitude lakes or a tailwater river. We try not to rub it in, but Montana has a surplus of big trout, and we know how lucky we are. If your home river is a stocked stream that hits 80 degrees in August, then its not going to hold too many large trout. A big fish in that river may be 11 inches! A trophy if you know about the water, but maybe not the photo op you’re looking for. Once you decide to land a big trout, you need to go where you actually have the chance to catch one, whether you’re driving or flying. It might take a bit of planning.

Big trout are a direct application of trout biology. This is the reason you paid attention in seventh grade. While it should go without saying, big fish get big because they have a continuous, abundant food source. They survive because they have protection from predators, and grow because they have a place to live where they don’t need to expend a lot of energy, which uses up those precious calories. These are the three things trout need to attain size. You need to find big fish holding lies, and there are no road maps. Add to the equation that big trout are natural survivors, or they wouldn’t have gotten so big, and you have a pretty good puzzle to solve.

The first thing to do when deciding to target big trout is put away the dry fly. Sure, there are specialized times when big trout will come to the surface, but it’s not something to bank on. Big fish need more calories to sustain themselves and staying near the surface requires more energy, where most often the rewards don’t cover the energy expenditure. Add in large trout are survivors, avoiding exposure to predators, and the smart money goes under water.

Missoula Fly Fishing Guides

One of the best pieces of advice ever is Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity- doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! In order to start changing your result, you need to start changing your habits. If you always go to the same hole on Rock Creek in Montana, and always catch little fish, something has to change. And don’t count on an earthquake changing the nature of that hole! Take it a step further. If you always nymph with your indicator set at 3’, you might want to add some length. Change your depth. Put on a smaller fly than normally used, or a larger one. If you never use weight, maybe you should try some. Change your game, change your strategy. If it doesn’t work, so what! You’ve learned something, and while you didn’t go big, you weren’t going big before, so nothing ventured, nothing gained.

This might sound a bit contradictory to what was just said, but you still need to be familiar with the water you’re fishing before starting to take big fish. Very few anglers step into a new piece of water and start taking lunkers. You need to have some familiarity with where you’re fishing before the big fish will start to show themselves. And they do show themselves. Sometimes you find them by clumsy or inattentive wading. Who hasn’t walked to the edge of a river and spooked a huge fish from the bank. Remember that! Remember where you spooked that big fish! They’re coming back to that spot, because they were there for a reason. Make a note, and choose a different path next time.

Floating anglers have this built in, but for the wading angler, the best tool they have for finding big fish are their boots! You are NOT a tree- move your feet. Big trout don’t come find you, you go find them. The more territory you cover, the better your chances are of finding a bigger fish. This can prove to be problematic for the wading angler on larger rivers. Often the topography simply doesn’t allow for a wide range of movement. Which is too bad, as larger rivers hold a disproportionate number of big trout.

That’s another aspect of big trout hunting. The bigger the watershed, the bigger the trout. In Missoula, the Clark Fork River holds the largest Brown Trout and Rainbow trout in our area, simply because it’s a our biggest river. Everything is oversized, the currents, the lies, the food supply. You name it, it’s bigger. By comparison, though Rock Creek has the most trout per mile of any Missoula River, the average fish size is less than that of our other local rivers. When you’re on the prowl for Mr. Big, the journey often begins at a larger river, but this isn’t always the case.

Missoula Fly fishing

As you cover more ground, be alert for any motion in the water. Your movement along the river creates sensations that big trout don’t enjoy, and the first time you spot a larger fish may be as it slides back under the bank or sideways  to a downed log. Again, remember that spot! If a big trout is there now, it’s there later. Pay attention as you walk the river. Remember, you’re not on salary! Slow and watchful beats fast and careless 99 times out of 100. Walk like you’re being paid by the hour. Of course, if you’re walking through ankle deep water, you can move at pace, but the moment any decent water presents itself, slow down, put your head on a swivel, and start looking for places of food, shelter and low current speed.

Sid Gordon wrote a book called How To Fish From Top To Bottom. He was paid to go to lakes and ascertain if there were any fish in them, and if so, what were they. When coming to new water, he used a white pie plate on a harness that he lowered into the water. If he had 6 feet of visibility, he would cast his lure out and retrieve. If he had no strikes, he would make his next cast 12 feet from the last. His theory, and its a good one, is that if a fish is out and eating, they can see your lure. Whether the fish eats or not can’t be changed, but why go over old ground. A 12’ casting radius with 6’ of visibility covers the most water efficiently. A good lesson when looking for any fish, but especially big ones.

Let’s go one step farther. Big fish are wary, and the act of draping your fly line across the water is disturbing. Focus on what you’re doing, and make the first cast your best cast. Results diminish with every cast, so make the first one count. Unless you’re euronymphing, and making a very light disturbance on the water, each successive cast is more intrusive and less likely to take fish.

Earlier, we said look for fish sliding out of their feeding lanes and back under cover. Big trout are exceptionally structure oriented. If they’re not feeding, they’re under cover. When you go in search of big trout, have a lot of flies with you, because you’re going to lose some. Our Bitterroot River is known for trees in the water, grounded, stump end facing upstream. The root wad breaks the rivers flow, carving out deep side channels on each side. Those root wads scream big fish. Not surprisingly, they’re also full of roots! Which will snag your fly and keep it. It’s a risk/reward situation. Are you willing to put your bug where it needs to be, knowing you probably won’t get it back? That is a question every big fish fisherman asks before they cast. Is it worth it? Before you set out to chase Big Papa, you need to know the answer to that question.

Clark Fork Rainbow Trout Downtown Missoula

Contrary to what was previously said, there are people who come to new water and catch big fish. They’re your everyday, average streamer junkie. You know that angler! Runs a 7 or 8 wt., doesn’t have a floating line, and the flies they throw are close to the size of a trout taking mayflies. They catch big fish. Because that’s all they’re going to catch. Biologists (back to 7th grade!) will tell you that a trout strikes only if they are at least 3 times the prey’s size. When you’re throwing a 6” streamer, unless you find a kamikaze trout, the smallest fish you’ll take is 18”!  Specialized equipment for a specialized task. They keep score in a different way. A brutal yellow flash that turns aside at the last instant counts! You moved a fish as wide as most fish are long. It’s a different game when you’re hunting big fish, and a flash is almost as good as a strike! Keep this in mind, those big fish chasers remember that spot for the next time!

Big fish require different tactics, and a different level of commitment. You’re going to leave your comfort zone, and venture into a new area. It can be frustrating. Success is not going to come walking down the river to shake your hand. There will be days when fish count is lower than flies lost. Chasing big fish is a mindset. For many anglers, it’s not important. But as with all aspects of fly fishing, when you decide to learn something new, the spillover will up your game in every aspect. Learning to examine the water closely will pay dividends no matter what size fish you catch. Expanding your boundaries will quickly improve your casting. This may sound funny, but losing flies makes your knot tying faster and stronger. So as you bumble about on the water the first few times you target that Hooknose, know that whether you’re successful in the short run or not, expanding your fish size will expand your skill set, and that’s never a bad thing!

Streamer Fishing Resources

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.