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Leave the Emerald City at first light and you’ll be throwing big dries to western Montana’s hefty trout by mid-afternoon.

It doesn’t take long to get from Seattle to Montana. Fortuitously, some of the best early season dry-fly fishing on earth occurs in the far western portion of the state, in and around Missoula, a trout addicted town surrounded by five blue-ribbon rivers and what seems like 500 quality brew pubs.

            Want to fish the best late winter and early spring hatches on rivers producing wild browns, rainbows and cutthroats to 18 inches or more? All you have to invest is an eight-hour drive and a few days to fish.

            I should know; I went to college in Missoula, have fished and lived around the state for 30 years, including stints in the Gallatin Canyon, the Bitterroot Valley, and the Madison Valley; I wrote the book Fly Fisher’s Guide to Montana; and I’ve spent the past 10 years back in Missoula, casting flies as often as possible on all the local waters.

            Western Montana is Big Sky Country’s banana belt. Winter fades quicker here, and spring arrives sooner, than anywhere else in the state. That stimulates aquatic insect activity and those hatches, a mix of small midges and blue-wing olive mayflies, followed by larger skwala stoneflies and March brown drakes, get the fish feeding heavily, And it’s not subsurface stuff—on warm winter days midges bring trout to the surface and offer great dry fly opportunity; by late February the first skwala stoneflies are moving around and size-8 and 10 imitations draw big fish up (the skwala action gets progressively better as spring arrives, and continuers into May); blue-wing olives and March browns come off at midday hours and, at times, seem to bring every fish to the top.

            Wading anglers can easily get in on the action, especially on the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek, but those floating in a raft or driftboat, who can access an entire river even in elevated spring flows, enjoy better success.

The Rivers

The Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers run right through Missoula, offering in-town action for those who don’t want to venture far. But it pays to drive a little ways. The Bitterroot heads south of Missoula, in the gorgeous Bitterroot Valley, and offers great opportunities throughout its 70-some mile course. Whether you wade or float, there’s lots of good turf wherever you look—pocket water, braided channels, deep pools, long riffles, and glassy glides, especially on the lower river where trout can get technical and only the best presentations get eaten.

            The river is loaded with rainbows, cutthroat and browns, and about eight gazillion whitefish. The trout range past 20 inches with the common fish coming in at about 15 inches long. These are all wild trout and the cutthroats are native. After a long winter spent eating midge larvae and the occasional adult, these trout are hungry and ready to put on weight. When the skwalas come off these fish rise for size-6 and 8 dries; as the season progresses they’ll have seen a lot of flies floating over their heads and anglers might need to scale back from 3X and 4X tippet, to 4X or 5X and size-8 and 10 imitations.

            Don’t expect to see tons of skwalas on the water or in the air—it’s not like the salmonfly hatch. No worries—it takes only a few bugs to get trout looking up. Want to know if the skwala is happening? Turn over some rocks in shallow water and inspect woody debris near the edge of the stream. If those bugs are around you’ll find nymphs crawling on the underside of those rocks and logs/limbs. That’s a sure sign that fish are looking for them too.

The Clark Fork also offers great spring fishing. You can throw above or below town with equal success. This is a big river, very intimidating to the fledgling fly fisher. But fear not—plenty of action takes place near the banks, with trout sipping blue-wing olives one after the other, sometimes in pods of rising trout numbering in the dozens. If you float the river you can reach all the available water, which includes massive eddies and pools, typically lined with foam. When fishing the Clark Fork, remember, foam means fish. That’s because adult midges, mayflies, and even skwalas collect in that foam. The trout merely poke their noses through the surface to grab a bite. This can be technical fishing consisting of 6X tippet and size-20 dries; or, when March browns and skwalas are about, anglers might get away with 4X tippet and size 8 dries.

            The fish are a mix of rainbows and cutthroats, with only a few browns thrown in on the side. Bonus: spring offers good opportunities to catch northern pike in the backwaters and side channels. If you want to do just that your guide likely can provide an 8-weight rod, a five-inch long fly, and a wire leader. The rest is between you and the water wolf. That can be a challenge. Pike to 20 pounds are possible.

Prefer pocket water and a more intimate setting? Rock Creek has your name on it. This river runs 60 miles through a nearly pristine corridor with abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bald eagles, moose, and black bear. I even saw a mountain lion while driving out of Rock Creek one evening; it leaped from one side of the dirt road to halfway up the opposite bank. It was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in my life.

            Rock Creek isn’t known for giant trout, although the average size of its fish seems to be on the increase, with 16-to 17-inch trout being pretty common these days. Ten-to 14-inch fish make up the majority of the catch.

            You’ll find an appealing mix of browns, rainbows and native westslope cutthroat here, and they’ll rise eagerly for dry flies beginning on the warmest of February days. That early, they’ll look for midges. By mid-March blue wing olives are squarely in the mix. Around late March extending through April, March browns come off. Seeing scads of trout eating those bugs can be an amazing sight, like somebody flicked a switch and told every trout to head to the surface at one time. You can get technical while matching this hatch, but the trout are eager and throwing nothing more complex than a size-14 or 16 Parachute Adams scores big results. Of course, emergent mayfly imitations and the ubiquitous Purple Haze produce nicely, too. Look for this hatch to pop between 11: 30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

            Don’t overlook the skwala on Rock Creek. When these fish get on the big bug you can catch good numbers. On the right day you might hook 30 fish. Again, afternoon hours are prime, with most of the activity occurring between 1 and 5 p.m.

            Lower Rock Creek is located just 25 miles from Missoula. Anglers can fish their way up the river for 60 miles, finding abundant public access throughout. The creek offers tons of riffles and deep runs, pools and side-channels. You can cast across it in most places but it isn’t a trickle. This is fun fishing, usually with lots of action, but its fish can get freaky after seeing flies floating over their heads all spring. If they do just that, low-profile, technical imitations often crack the code. Your guide will have some “secret weapons” on hand, sneaky patterns that trick educated fish. Don’t be afraid to ask about them.

The lower Blackfoot River meets the Clark Fork about five miles east of Missoula. Good fishing for browns, rainbows and cutthroat extends upriver for 50-some miles. The average fish here measures 14-to 16 inches long, but know that larger fish exist. Any given cast could bring up a 20-some inch brown or bow . . . or a 30-some inch long bull trout. You can’t specifically fish for bull trout, but they prefer the same streamers you’ll throw for rainbows and browns.

            Much of the Blackfoot runs between canyon walls. You can find every sort of trout water known to man. And the hatches bring fish up in all of these places. Blue-wing olives are abundant on the Blackfoot, and the skwala comes off in good numbers, too. You can find March browns and midges also. Maybe the most exciting way to fish the Blackfoot is with streamers when the water turns to beautiful green, not really clear but not blown out either. Fish can find your fly easily enough, and they aren’t too shy because that color in the water gives them mega-confidence. If you want to catch a large trout in the Missoula area, the Blackfoot during spring time, when water conditions allow, is the place to be.

            You can fish the Blackfoot by wading the banks, but in most places its steep and rocky, and wading is a challenge. Best to let a guide pull the oars while you and a buddy or a spouse or kid cast from the bow and stern, working those Sparkle Minnows, Buggers, and Double Gonga’s, along the banks, teasing big browns and massive bull trout out of the boulders and into the net. Can you say, “photo opp.”

            I grew up in Seattle and have visited family often over the past 30 years. One of the best ways to make this a quick trip to God’s Country is to leave early in the day, whether exiting the city from the north or south. If you leave at 5 a.m., you won’t deal with any traffic and could be casting on the lower Clark Fork by about 3 or 4 p.m (MST).

            That’s not an option if you head towards the state’s more famous waters in southwest Montana—to reach many of those rivers requires a 12-hour drive and you can add two more mountain passes to the mix, which could make driving sketchy. I know: I made that drive from Ennis to Seattle and vice versa about a hundred times when I lived in the Madison Valley—it takes 12 long hours (13 if headed from Seattle to Ennis because you lose an hour due to a time change). But fear not: Missoula’s spring fishing is as productive or more so than what you’ll find elsewhere.

            If you book with Joe and Tammi Cummings, who own Missoula River Lodge, you can leave Seattle  early in the a.m. and unpack your gear that afternoon, possibly leaving time for a late day dry-fly session on the lodge’s 100 private acres of riverfront property. Staying at Missoula River Lodge means you are in prime position to fish any of these five rivers, depending on which offers the best options on a particular day. The guides are experienced and super dialed into hatches and water conditions—they give you the best shot at early season dry-fly nirvana.

            When not on the water you can kick back in the lodge and enjoy views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range while watching the water and the wildlife drift by. And you can enjoy some seriously fine dining, all prepared by executive chef Carrie Nowlen, who was named one of America’s top 100 chefs by the Washington Post. So, live large this late winter and spring and hit one or more of these hatches. You won’t find better dry-fly fishing anywhere close to Seattle or beyond. See you out there.

Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas is a well-travelled steelhead fanatic and writes for various outlets, including the New York Times, Outside, Forbes, Big Sky Journal, Field & Stream, etc. He has penned several books on fly fishing, including Fly Fisher’s Guide to Washington and Fly Bible Montana. He lives in Missoula, Montana and owns the website, Anglers Tonic. See more of his work at www.anglerstonic.com and on Instagram @anglerstonic.