Runoff season is here in southwest Montana near Big Sky and Bozeman May 17 2017
You can still fish, it just requires a little extra effort
By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
We hoped for snow and we got it, albeit a little later than normal. The late-season skiing action eclipsed the past few years and now we are left with copious amounts of snow. This is a beautiful time in our area as valley floors are green and mountaintops are white. It brings back memories of the Montana I remember as a kid—when May and early June saw rivers raging with mountain snowmelt and pastures green and full.
Runoff in mountain country is a fact of life and with our cooler spring, much of the snowpack has remained. This is a good thing because the later runoff begins, the higher the likelihood we’ll have ideal summer flows. Fishing options still exist locally and within an easy drive, but not every river or stream will be an option. Here’s some help in muddling through our muddy waters.
Local knowledge. We are fortunate to have several quality fly shops serving our local community and the rivers we fish. Internet fishing reports are reliable, but a quick phone call might garner more info. Better yet, pay a visit.
Tailwaters and spring creeks. Rivers like the Missouri, Bighorn and Beaverhead, and spring creeks such as DePuy’s, Armstrong’s and Nelson’s, will run clear when other rivers are muddy. For a moderately experienced do-it-yourself angler, the spring creeks will offer a challenge. For any angler fishing with a guide, the spring creeks serve up a unique angling experience. If you’ve never fished a spring creek, now is a good time. For the larger tailwater rivers, plenty of information exists and there’s certainly no shortage of great fly shops serving them.
Go big or go home. Runoff fishing demands an adjustment in your tackle. Fish stouter tippets—unless you’re on DePuy’s spring creek, leave the 5X at home. Expect to fish subsurface more often than not. My standard leader this time of year is a 9-foot 2X. Invest in quality Flurocarbon tippet material such as Rio Fluroflex, TroutHunter, Scientific Anglers or Orvis Mirage. But before you do, practice your knots because fluorocarbon ain’t cheap and you want to spend time a-stream fishing, not tying knots.
Geek out on streamflows. This one is pretty simple and only requires an internet connection. Make a daily habit of checking local streamflows and forecasts. Watch for rising and dropping trends. If flows are rising on the river you hope to fish, look elsewhere. But if the general trend is a dropping streamflow, the fishing should improve. A small drop can serve up just enough clarity along the edges of the river for fish to get back on the feed.
Weather watcher. If I paid as much attention to my stock portfolio as I did the weather and streamflows, my dream of spending winter in the Bahamas might be a reality. For our larger freestone rivers, the Gallatin and Yellowstone, to drop and clear enough to fish this time of year, daytime highs need to hover around 60 F and the nighttime lows need to reach or drop below freezing. If you observe this weather pattern for a few days, expect fishable conditions.
Love the worm. Most of my regular anglers know fishing with weighted nymphs below an indicator is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Yet they also know I like to catch fish. This time of year with snowmelt and rain causing dirty water, fish are eating worms. And can you blame them? To a trout a worm is a high-protein meal.
Fish it anyway. Even if things look challenging when you see the water, fish it. Some of my best days have occurred when others had written them off. While abundant food exists in swollen and muddy waters and the fishing can be great, rising rivers are no place for experimentation. A good way to gauge if conditions are safe for wading is if you can stay below the median high-water mark while on the riverbank. If the water level makes it difficult to navigate, conditions could be unsafe.
Keep hope alive. The sooner runoff starts and gets rolling the sooner it will be over, and you are not alone in your search for clean water. Be congenial and share the water out there—a little friendly conversation with a fellow angler might yield a hot fly or tackle adjustment or a new place to fish.
As our area rivers rise, keep sight on the prize: significant snow in the mountains now means good late summer fishing and healthy summer streamflows for all. Enjoy the green, fish through the mud or discover some new water.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana on The Fly” and” Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky with his wife and operates a guide service on the Missouri River with a partner.