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Montana Angler Fly Fishing Report

Montana Angler Fly Fishing Inc.

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406-522-9854

Montana Angler Fly Fishing
76 Lucille Lane
Bozeman, MT 59718
January 23, 2018

Montana Fishing Report Overview

Fishing is starting to settle into a very predictable winter pattern.  The fall spawn is largely over or coming to an end soon depending on the fishery and water temperatures are falling quickly with long nights and short days.  The hard cold snaps of mid winter have not yet arrived and most of the big fisheries are still ice free and providing good access.  Most streams and larger rivers now stay open all year long, as well as the Livingston spring creeks of DePuy, Armstrong and Nelson.  

Trout are now in the mode of a maintenance diet and their metabolism is directly tied to the water temperature which means it is slow.  Most of the fish in our local waters have already moved into their winter runs.  This time of year you need to be have laser focus on where you fish and target the deeper runs with slow to medium currents.  Trout will no longer be found in the fast riffles or bustling pocket water that was so productive in the warmer months.  The good news is that once you find some of these winter time honey holes they will be packed with trout.  Fish densities in the best winter runs can be staggering with dozens upon dozens of trout packed together.  

Nymphing is hands down the most effective technique in the cold weather months (although streamers and even dries can still be an option).  The fly selection doesn’t have to be fancy but will very from fishery to fishery.  On the bigger freestone rivers such as the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison it is nice to still fish something larger as the top fly such as a stonefly nymph, crayfish pattern or sculpin trailed by a smaller nymph.  For small nymphs think small with hooks in the 18-20 range.  Patterns that produce include small baetis emergers, pheasant tails and midge larva.  San Juan worms and eggs are also good patterns to try and if you are fishing a tail water or spring creek a sow bug can produce (especially pink).  On spring creeks the big/small rule for nymphing can still apply but the “big fly” might be a size 14 sow bug trailed by a size 22 midge larva.  Takes in the cold weather months are always very “soft”.  The fact that trout are not moving much for flies along with the slow water that they are found in produces a very light reaction on a strike indicator.  It is important to experiment with weighting to ensure flies are right on the bottom.  Many of our guides also prefer a yarn indicator in the winter which makes it easier to see subtle ticks and changes of speed.  If your indicator tilts, slows down, speeds up, or looks “funny” set the hook and ask questions later.

On a mild winter day you might be lucky enough to run into some rising trout feeding on midges.  Even freestone streams like the Gallatin will produce some sporadic midge hatches.  If the hatch isn’t too strong dries that imitate single midges are more productive such as a palomino pattern.  On tail waters like the Bighorn the midge hatches in the winter can be thick in the late morning and the insects will cluster together so many of the patterns such as the Griffiths gnat that imitate these “rafts” of insects can out produce single insect patterns.

Time of day is also important this time of year.  Early mornings can be very tough fishing.  The magic window in the winter is from around 1pm until 4:30 or so each day when water temperatures are peaking.

As we progress farther into the winter months it will pay to seek out waters that have some thermal protection from frigid air temperatures.  Waters that are great producers even during cold snaps include the spring creeks, tail waters and certain freestone waters that have significant spring fed influences.  Big freestone waters like the Yellowstone River will develop large ice shelves resulting in dangerous wading conditions.

Generalities
Winter time water levels are always on the low side and there is a lot of definition to the water.  The key to winter fishing is finding slower holding water and fishing in the afternoon when water temperatures are at their peak. 

Hatches
Midge hatches can be strong in some locations in the late morning and early afternoon when warmer mild weather settles in.  Otherwise the fishing is a nymphing game.

Fly selection
Fly selection is simple in the colder months.  If there is a midge hatch choose your favorite midge dry or cluster pattern.  Palamino midges and Griffith’s gnats are good enough.  For sub surface try a rubber legs, egg or worm pattern on top and a smaller midge larva or baetis nymph on bottom.

Reading water
Water temps are cooler and trout have moved out of the heavy water and riffles in favor of softer holding water. Trout will be very heavily concentrated in large, slow runs and nearly absent everywhere else.  It pays to skip a lot of water and only focus on these slower runs.  Fish slow and deep in the peak afternoon hours.

Yellowstone River Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The river is still a good option closer to Gardiner but the lower river develops a lot of ice shelves and becomes difficult to fish.  During cold snaps be aware of slush and drifting ice.  Plan on fishing the after lunch hours with nymphing being the staple.  Rubber legs trailed by a prince is as fancy as you need to get.  Small general-purpose nymphs in flashy or brightly colored varieties can be effective as well.  The most important thing is to find a nice winter holding run with steady slow current and a few feet of depth.  

The Month Ahead:
The ‘Stone can be a tough option once the big ice shelves begin to form and the slush is in the river.  The best winter fishing tends to be up near Gardiner.  Keep an eye out for warm spells and try to focus your fishing efforts during those times.  

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Yellowstone isn’t the best winter fishery.  The Gallatin, Lower Madison and the spring creeks in Paradise Valley are usually a better choice once ice becomes a factor on this big freestone river.

Upper Madison Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
On warmer days the Upper can produce some consistent action.  The best fishing is in the slower water which is sometimes hard to find on the Upper Madison.  The waters around Ennis are a good bet since there are several slower, deeper winter holding runs that concentrate a lot of trout.  With cold weather these runs receive a lot of slush and ice shelves, so the productivity depends on the temps.  During cold snaps the best bet is to move farther upriver to avoid ice.  Check your regs because about half of the “Upper” is closed to fishing later in the winter.  Between the lakes stays ice free most of the winter although accessing with the snowpack can be tough.

The Month Ahead:
The Upper Madison can be tough mid winter fishing but when warm spells arrive and the wind isn’t blowing it can be very productive. 

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Upper Madison isn’t our top choice for winter fishing.  The combination of big river winds and ice can make it a tough go.  Early spring, however, can produce some epic midge hatches on warm days.  Keep an eye out for warm spells to chase the Upper's best winter fishing.

Lower Madison Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The Lower has been a consistent producer and should hold form through the heart of winter.  The trout are holding in the slower and deeper runs so make sure to stop and work this type of water.  Most of the faster riffles will be devoid of trout.  Float fishing isn’t as productive but using a boat to hop from run to run isn’t a bad idea.  Nymphing is the best option but slow stripping streamers can also produce.  Down and across swinging streamers can be a fun way to cover the water in the Lower as well.  For nymphs, something big and buggy on top is a good idea including a sculpin, crayfish, yuk bug or san juan worm.  Smaller patterns for a dropper including small pink lightning bugs, cdc baetis nymphs, pheasant tails and egg patterns are good options.  Some dry fly action on midges can also be an option on mild days, especially closer to Bear Trap.  When big cold snaps come through the river tends to get slushy and can become tough to fish.  Keep an eye out for warm spells to try to hit the Lower's best winter fishing.

The Month Ahead:
The Lower fishes well most of the winter.  Sever cold snaps can send slush down the river and the wind can really howl on some days so checking the wind forecast is always a good idea.  

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
Basically a broken record of the information above.  Midge hatches get stronger later in the winter otherwise it is a pretty similar game on the Lower in the cold weather months.

Gallatin River Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The Gallatin is low and clear and is fishing well for most of its length.  The ice shelves are fairly manageable on the lower water and the river through most of the valley is still fishing well.  Mild days are even producing some risers over the midge hatch.  Nymphing is the best bet and it pays to skip a lot of water and jump from one deep run to another.  Look for steady currents that aren’t too strong but still enough to bring food to trout.  Slow water that is 3-6 feet deep and located just below a riffle is always a good bet.  Nymphing stone fly nymphs trailed by a baetis nymph or midge larva is always a good bet, egg patterns and worms are always good flies to try as well.

The Month Ahead:
The Gallatin fishes well all winter.  Don’t focus on the fast water as the fish will have moved into the slower and deeper runs.  There are several springs near the Big Sky junction that keep the upper canyon waters ice free and this is a great place to fish during the colder months.  During cold snaps the valley waters as well as the lower end of the canyon develop slush and big ice shelves.  If you find icy conditions just keep driving upstream towards Big Sky.  Upstream of Big Sky ice is also a problem so the 15-20 miles from Big Sky down is the best on the coldest days.  Nymphing smaller patterns and eggs is the big producer. 

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The info above will be the forecast for most of the winter.  April will produce a little more variety as the baetis mayflies become active again.

East Gallatin Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The water on the East is low right now and trout but the fishing has been good.  Nymphing the deeper runs is definitely the ticket.  The trout are highly concentrated in these buckets and not found in the rest of the river so if you aren’t fishing some depth keep moving.  Once you find a productive run you can often hook up on multiple fish.  Slow stripping streamers can also produce from time to time, especially with a bit of cloud cover.  For nymphs a small san juan worm trailed by a midge larva as they are a safe choice.  Dead drifting a big sculpins can also turn some trout.

The Month Ahead:
The East should be a steady option all winter.  The water on the lower river has more influences from spring creeks and spring seeps that helps to keep it open even during cold weather.  Slush and ice can form during extended cold snaps, however the East tends to be a safe winter bet.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The East will stay in the winter pattern described above until April when a short but productive period of spring baetis hatches can produce great results just before the river hits run off (the East always runs off early). 

Jefferson River Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The Jeff is in mid winter mode now, big shelf ice, slush, and completely iced over conditions exist.  If you can find open water, concentrate on the bigger runs below riffles and experiment until you find the right water speed and depth.  Nymphing will be the best producer and as a rule expect very slow and subtle strikes so make sure to set the hook on even small disturbances to your indicator.  Slow swimming a streamer across these runs can also produce some monsters however expect less overall action.  A big sculpin or wooly bugger is a good choice as a top fly when nymphing and a prince or pheasant tail will do just fine as a dropper.

The Month Ahead:
The Jefferson has little mid-winter fishing to offer.  A day of exploring could yield a bit of open water to fish, however the best bet would be to hold off on heading to the Jefferson for another month or two.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Jefferson will not be the best option through the heart of winter until things start to warm up in later on in March and April.  Some good spring fishing during the skwala stonefly hatch can be had in the early spring.

Boulder River Report

Current Conditions:
The Boulder can be a tough winter option.  Shelf ice can make things difficult.  A day spent searching out open water could prove to be productive, if you can find open and fishable deep, slow water.  Standard fair for nymphing like stone fly nymphs and baetis patters is productive.  Small brightly colored patterns can produce as well.  Swinging and stripping streamers can turn some browns from time to time, as long as you can find open water.  Cloudy weather will bring up rising trout during the baetis hatch like clockwork in the later afternoon.

The Month Ahead:
Tough conditions will prevail on the Boulder until things thaw a bit in the early spring.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Boulder is a cold river and not a premier winter fishery.  It will become a viable option in April after the thaw.

Missouri

Current Conditions:
The fishing on the upper waters is slow and in full on winter mode, however the tailwater section near Craig is remains a great choice.  The temperature moderation provided by the dam near Wolf Creek produces ice free waters all winter.  The key when fishing the Missouri is to seek out the runs that hold trout in the winter.  Look for the slower seems below islands or on the edges of big eddies as well as the slower water drop offs after a riffle to hold winter fish.  Nymping hot bead sow bugs trailed by midge larva is a safe bet.  If the wind subsides, swinging flashy streamers on spey rods or singlehanders can be an effective and fun way to cover the broad runs in the Mo.

The Month Ahead:
The Mo tends to produce all winter.  Later winter will see some decent midge hatches and a chance for dry fly fishing.  Wind can be an issue in the winter but the trout should still be feeding in the afternoon hours on a daily basis.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Missouri below the dam at Wolf Creek is a good winter fishery.  Nymphing the slower seams will be the staple until the stronger midge hatches arrive in the later winter and early spring.

Spring Creeks Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The spring creeks are a great winter option.  The water that percolates from the springs are always at Montana’s mean annual temperature of 48 degrees which is much warmer than surrounding freestone rivers.  This produces a higher metabolism in spring creek fish than trout in other waters and gives anglers a better chance to hook up.  The more active nature of spring creek trout in the winter combined with high trout concentrations makes them a top choice in the cold weather months.  You can almost always find a rising fish or two if you hunt hard enough that are looking for midges but on most days expect to nymph fish.  The slower slots with will concentrate trout but they won’t move far to take flies so expect takes to be subtle.  As a rule I always use yarn indicators on spring creeks – generally custom cut to be just big enough to not sink.  These indicators allow you to detect very subtle disturbances resulting in more hookups.  Fly selection doesn’t have to be very sophisticated this time of year and a scud trailed by your favorite size 22 midge larva should be good enough.  Where you fish and your presentation is much more important than changing out lots of flies.  Rod fees are just $40 in the winter on the Livingston Creeks.

The Month Ahead:
The report described above will be identical for the duration of the winter.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Livingston creeks will see some extra fish starting in March when rainbows move in from the Yellowstone prior to spawning.  Baetis mayflies will also become a target of the trout in mid April.

Ruby River Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The Ruby is a nice option during the winter months.  The smaller valley doesn’t produce as strong of winds as the Madison and the dam protects the waters a bit from ice shelves.  Nymphing can be pretty good most days and you will often be surprised to find some rising trout over midge hatches.  Focus your efforts closer to the dam to find the most consistent water temps and ice-free conditions.  Light nymph rigs for the smaller water tends to be favorable.  Dredging the deeper holding water with streamers can produce surprisingly large fish from time to time as well.  

The Month Ahead:
The Ruby is a good option all winter.  The report above will hold out until early spring.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Ruby will produce all winter.  Later winter really gets interesting as strong midge hatches bring trout to the surface.  Baetis also show up in April to add to the smorgasbord.  

Stillwater River Fishing Report

Current Conditions:
The Stillwater River is not the best winter fishing option.  It tends to ice up and the fish seek the slower deeper pools.  If you can find open water focus your efforts on nymphing the slower deeper water with general nymph patterns.  The usual patterns for a two-fly nymph rig will suffice.  A larger stonefly up top for weight/profile and a smaller flashier nymph behind it.

The Month Ahead:
Fishing will be tough for most of the winter with ice shelves and slush.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
The Stillwater is a relatively cold river and isn’t as productive as some other fisheries in the region in the winter months.  April will result in better results but we wouldn’t recommend a long drive to get there until later in the spring when water temps produce more active fish.

Lakes

Current Conditions:
Not a good option until spring, unless you like ice fishing!

The Month Ahead:
Not much will change until ice out occurs.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
Ice out is from April until June depending on the elevation of the lake.  It's always a great time to sight fish to cruising trout or strip streamers for trophies once the ice melts.

Other waters

Current Conditions:
The smaller streams around Montana are very weather and temperature dependent this time of year. Most of the mountain streams will be snow and ice covered until April or so. If you find a small spring creek to access, these can be great winter spots due to the constant water temperature and eager, hungry fish.

The Month Ahead:
Small streams will stay in winter mode usually until April when things start to thaw out.

Long Term Fishing Forecast:
Most of the small mountain streams are best fished in the heat of the summer due to the cold water they provide when the bigger rivers heat up. Unless there is a spring, it is probably best to focus fishing efforts on the larger freestones and tailwaters. 

Source Link:
https://www.montanaangler.com/montana-fishing-report

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