*the following is a work of opinion, farce, and prognostication. It is intended to be taken with utmost seriousness and intended for the private use of our fishing-adled audience only*
Mid winter isn't all that bad. Skiing is fun and gets some minimum amount of physical activity in. The downtime to tie flies and pick away at the ever-expanding reading list is also an important part of the fishing bum seasonal lifestyle : All that Duncan isn't going to read itself goshdangit. And most importantly it offers the chance to plan a seasons worth of fishing trips across the state ( and maybe the world??), weighting options and piecing together the perfect 12 months of fishing experiences. I try to get after something I've never done before each season, whether is be species, river, or season, and with the every-increasing number of rivers fished this becomes a harder and harder challenge.
Having lived in Montana plying its fishy rivers for the last twelve years I have developed some hunches. Call it "hunch development" as to when and where to be in the state for best results. Granted these hunches are often informed by one specific year that my boys and I stumbled into a suicide bite of one kind or another. Still once the memory is there and the draw is very real and makes you think very serously about going back and trying to recapture that moment once again. So without much order or editing here's a rough list of our favorite stops throughout Montana and the time of year we most enjoy fishing and guiding them. Dream on .
Spring : Bitterroot
Spring comes earlier ever year it seems and that is not something that you will hear me complaining about. After the long dark days of a winter in the valley the thought of hunting sipping trout on a sunny afternoon seems like the greatest thing you could ask for. By the middle of March and rolling into April we see the first chances of legitimate afternoon dry fly fishing. The Bitterroot is my favorite spring fishery and has the best Skwala hatch around : Long considered a "guide only" season due to erratic weather and fishing conditions, the cat is out of the bag and now lots of folks know how good this hatch can be. Its a gamblers game for sure, tshirts one day and parkas the next is the halmark of Montana spring. But if you are down for the unreliable weather it doesn't take much for this to be the bonanza kickoff party to the fishing season. A week of warm afternoons and the back eddies will have these olive kickers out in numbers with large (large) trout hunting them. Similar in many ways to Rock Creek we get a lot of spring sunshine to help get our fish moving and once they see the first helpless struggling stonefly of the year they are on it like ham on any kind of bread.
Although the lower river sees most of the pressure this time of year the entire Bitterroot can fish well. We usually stick to our favorite upstream water and prospect away with dry and dropper. Some of my favorite flyfishing memories from college days happened during Skwala season, half-day classes giving way to lazy afternoons looking for risers. A big Rainbow slurping a dryfly anywhere this time of year is a heart-stopping moment. I still hold this season near & dear and get out whenever I can. If you've got any interest in seeing what spring fishing in Montana has to offer this is the time, and this is the river.
Runner Up : Clark Fork
Early Summer : Big Hole
Hands down the place I want to be for the first giant brown trout of the year is on the Big Hole. No other piece of water in Montana catches my eye like the slowdown inside chop of a riffle near Maiden Rock. And when the possibility of a monster brownie is lurking behind every other rock m tree and stump, I fish with double conviction at every opportunity I get.
I set my calendar to arrive somewhere near Wise River in May. The high water part of the year is the bane to many rivers throughout the state but not at all to the Big Hole : The BH gets high and a little off-color, yes, but never ever gets truly Muddy. The sludge that Missoula-area rivers have to contend with is a non-factor over here, and the browns (like the good predators that they are) love the extra cover. If you want to spend the runoff season on a freestone and not a tailwater the BH is your play. Expect to throw big streamers to every bank and sit and nymph the bottom out of everything else. You will be rewarded over here, its just a matter of when and how big. The Big Boys come out to play this time of year no question, with so many of these giant fish hitting the net in 14' that the nickname "Jurassic Park" rightfully took hold. And then there is the Salmonfly hatch to end all Salmonfly hatches. Truly the river that made this hatch what it is know as today the Big Hole generates these bugs by the millions. Being here early (i.e. pre hatch) is key, cuz the big fish only need to eat the first hundred or so they see then its all over til mañana. By the middle of May the hushed voices around fireside are all predicting the first epic day of "THE hatch". You gotta be here to appreciate this river during high water and the insanity that is a Salmonfly grab. Bucket list year for everybody!
Runner Up : Missouri
Runner Up : Missouri
Not to be a homer or anything, but the Bitterroot for me wins the summer season hands down. Dry flies baby, dry flies. No other river has as consistent dry fly action at the Root'. None. Period. The combination of diverse hatches throughout our river system, multiple trout species chugging dry flies with reckless abandon, and the miles of eye-dropping scenery and you have the complete package: The quintessential Montana flyfishing river. I've seen a lot of Montana so far and no other river has called me quite like this one has. Fish with confidence and leave the bobbers at home : Summertime in the valley is a very very good time.
We are truly blessed by our hydrology, cold West Fork headwaters and tributaries to go along with a massive amount of low valley subsurface recharge. We stay cool in the summer when other rivers are heating up, have all the trout species in whopper sizes, lower number of anglers than other famous flyfishing rivers, and list of fishable hatches is longer then a 20-incher: Green / Gray / Brown Drakes, Goldenstones, Salmonflies, Flavelenias, PMD's, Hecubas, Hoppers out the whazoo, and some Tricos and BWO's to round it all out. You gotta spend a year here to truly appreciate this rivers' diversity.
And the Cutties, oh the Cutties. God bless their little aggressive hearts .
Runner Up : Again, the Clark Fork
Fall : Missouri
After a long summer hunting said Cutthroats throughout the Bitterroot valley my mind very quickly turns north : Craiglandia and the fabled Mighty Missouri River. Although the BRG crew take clients over to the Mo' periodically over the summer it is the autumn season that really shines on this river. The Blue Wing Olive hatches are truly world class Rainbow freakout events that even us exhausted guides want a piece of. Nothing like a 30-plus fish pod nosing up to flotillas of mayflies to get the blood pumping. So much water out here that everybody can find their own fish and catch to their hearts content. Add to that a building streamer bite as the brown spawn approaches and you have a real winner.
The fall fishing is so good over here that we have made the Mo' our destination for the annual end-of-season birthday fishing bash : For when you just haven't caught enough stinking fish in a guide season. Pods slurping with such lacksidasical confidence that the muttering of "why you smug little bastard" is the opening war whoop on nearly every riser. You don't rise down n' across from me at 30' and get away with it . Fish awwwwn!!!
Runner Up : None, the Mo' is the only one.