Big fish can be had right now on many of Montana's best fly fishing waters, but, extra effort and local knowledge are paramount.
Fishing during runoff: Inevitable but beat-able
Extra-effort and elbow grease a must
It’s going to get messy out there—muddy rivers, high water, and the possibility of limited fishing options. Yet, this happens every year as the snow we’ve been carving all winter finally comes down in the form of cold, muddy water. Runoff and highwater are essential to healthy trout rivers and this is a big reason we enjoy skiing so much because the more days of fresh pow and face shots we get in winter, the more likely fat trout will be looking up for dry flies come summer.
However, summer will come in time and shorts and flip-flops and size 10 dry flies on 4X will dominate, yet now it’s the everyday challenge of finding clear water to fish. When I started this guiding game back in the early mid-90’s, runoff conditions frustrated my desire for easy fishing. Today I learn to keep a bag of a few changes of clothes in my truck and adjust my fishing mentality and tactics. I can’t help you with your packing list, but, here’s some help in muscling through runoff.
Local knowledge. We are fortunate to have several quality fly shops servicing our local community and the rivers we fish. Internet fishing reports are reliable, but, a quick phone call might garner more info, or better yet pay a visit.
Tailwaters and spring creeks. Rivers like the Missouri, Bighorn, and spring creeks such as DePuy’s, Armstrong’s, and Nelson’s will run clear when other rivers are mud. For a moderately experienced angler 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 done a spring creek, now is a good time to hire a veteran spring creek guide (like the author, montanaflyfishing.com; 406-995-2290) There’s no shortage of information on the larger tailwater rivers and 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 than not. My standard leader this time of year is a 9 foot 2X. I then add the appropriate 3X or 4X tippet with the appropriate amount of weight. It is always a good tactic to place your split shot above a knot, then tie on a piece of tippet to your first fly below that knot.
Tippet change. Invest in quality Flurocarbon tippet material such as Rio Fluroflex or TroutHunter. But before you do, practice your knots because fluorocarbon ain’t cheap and you want to spend time a-stream fishing not tying knots.
Love the worm. Most of my regular anglers know fishing with weighted nymphs below an indicator is like fingernails on a chalk board. Yet they also know I like to catch fish and to understand when in Rome…and 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.
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.
In the past seven days I’ve fished the Yellowstone, the Madison, a private lake, the Missouri, and a few spring creeks, I’m dialed-in for where to fish. But each morning as my coffee is brewing I check a dozen streamflow charts, eight weather forecasts, and annoy my river-side sources with texts of “what’s the river look like?” On the floor near my packed bag sit my flip-flops. They may be close to my bag but they are still a ways away.