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.