As a teenager and then college-student, my fishing in late May meant opportunity—the potential to discover an out-of-the-box fishing location. Things never came easy, because the major rivers were blown-out and I never had enough gas money for road trips to Craig or Fort Smith.In those days I had to prioritize my budget: materials for tying rubberleg nymphs, cash for beers and Top Ramen, and just enough spare change to buy more split shot when needed.
I would spend most of my angling days in search of fishable waters, and usually end-up on the banks of the Lower Madison in Beartrap Canyon, wading the riffles of the Upper Madison, or side-stepping buffalo on the Firehole.
Today, the budget issue is solved, I still drink too much beer, but the challenge to find clear water still exists. I’m still fishing many of the same places I did in the past, but with the help of some angling friends and a little trial-and-error, I’ve got a pretty good list of options. To give you a little head-start, here’s some of them.
Upper Madison. Expect the water clarity to be questionable at times, but long-standing knowledge knows the fish will feed in the mud. There is definitely a dedicated group of anglers, shops, and guides who cherish the Madison these few weeks before the summer onslaught. Yet is seems no matter how much the great fishing is hyped all over cyberspace, the number of anglers pales compared to summer. Expect very consistent nymph and streamer fishing and inquire locally as to the best patterns.
Madison and tributaries in Yellowstone Park when it opens to fishing on the 28th. Expect high flows but you’ll find clear water. “The Firehole and Gibbon, which make the Madison, are our go-to rivers during runoff. They are worth the drive from Gardiner.” says Walter Wiese, Head Guide at Parks Fly Shop in Gardiner. If you’ve not fished either of these rivers, plan a day. They drain an abundance of geyser basins, which makes fishing them like no other place on earth. The warmer water also means you might find a few hatches to give you a break from deep-nymphing.
Hebgen Lake. With ample shoreline access, wading anglers can find some fish, but a boat makes more sense. If the wind is calm, you might find a few fish eating midges on the surface. To catch the most fish use sinking lines with small beadheads. The water is still very cold so have a slow retrieve and be safe out there.
DePuy’s, Armstrongs’ and Nelson’s Spring Creeks. These are some of my favorite options for runoff fishing, and I try to spend as much time on them as I can. The private access fisheries offer technical fishing in a beautiful setting. Their water sources are springs that bubble-up directly from the ground. If you are not totally confident in your angling skills, consider hiring a guide.
Gallatin River tributaries and small streams. The Gallatin River is going to be a challenge, but there are a myriad of tributaries that are worth exploring. It’s useless to mention any by name, so get out there and explore. Your local fly shops will also offer honest advice—“it’s too small; too much brush cover; etc.” But if the shop employee gets quiet, pulls you aside, and starts with “it’s kind of a secret…” you may want to pay attention.
Back when nearly all the boat ramps on the Madison were dirt, my run-off routine meant a hike up the Beartrap Canyon to fish it’s muddy waters; fishing size 6 Girdle Bugs very tight to the banks, tight enough I lost a few each outing; catching several fat trout; then heading back into Gallatin Valley as the sunset lit the Bridgers in blaze orange.
I’ve never been worried about fishing through runoff, just approach it with an adventurous attitude and hope angling opportunity turns into angling success. If it doesn’t, well, each day gets us closer to salmonflies.
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. Along with his wife, owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.