It’s been a long winter around here, it’s snowing now. My mountain bike just got knocked over on the front porch by the latest snow squall that ripped through the valley, and now it’s sunny. All in about twenty minutes. I can see the next one brewing up Sawtooth and Roaring Lion canyons across the valley from my house. It should be here in the next hour. And so it goes, Montana in the spring.
The Missouri river is a place that will haunt your memories all winter long, and you might even get a whacky idea mid December or January to go freeze your ass off there and watch your guides ice up. You’ll catch fish, but freeze you will. So once the bugs stir for the first time and the nights are no longer freezing deep, it’s time to go see what we can find on the big river.
Nymphs dominate the scene this time of year on the Mo. Until the caddis and baetis get their groove on, really midges are the only thing happening on top, and unless it’s epic, you really will only see a couple random rises throughout the day. Streamers have their moments, as well, and both fish I’m holding ate a conehead bugger while ripping it across flats on a sink tipped number seven Loomis. I love the streamer game when it plays, and once a mile is considered playing by my standards.
So get with us on an early Mo trip, unless you are here chasing the Skwalas around on the Bitterroot with us. The Mo offers the utmost challenge in fly fishing with rewards of rainbows in the trophy class. These fish are big and healthy and do not screw around once hooked: jumps, runs, and more runs until you can finally bring them to hand if you play them correctly. Bring your ‘A’ game and get ready for one of the finest trout rivers in North America.
Finally the time has come that all us river rats beg for all season: fall in Montana. It’s been a tough summer since the snow burned off and the heat kicked up in July, but a few well timed weather systems saved our asses, keeping water flowing in the rivers and quenching the fires that inevitably come with the dry conditions. Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel: the nights are cold, days are shorter, and the Missouri is fishing like we know it can.
We spend a lot of time on the Mo during the fall months. Anyone who has experienced a decent day here–not to mention those lucky souls that have hit it perfect– is essentially hooked for life. She’s got you. Guides included. Fish start to stack up in all the right places to feed heavy on the fall bugs, Baetis and Pseudos primarily.
This fall fished well for us, though the summer moss hung on longer than we’d like and dry fly opportunities were limited. Once the daily rig was determined, nymphs more often than not, the fishing was consistent and down right smoking hot at times. Look for moving riffles and drop offs with the right depth, and fish were all over the place. The dry or die mentality had to be kept in check, though, as most fish just weren’t coming to the surface reliably enough to target them.
As hard as it is to peel yourself away from the Salmonfly craze of the mountain rivers, you are always glad you did when you are standing at the Wolf Creek boat ramp at sunrise. Gulpers and sippers work the greasy water, while pelicans and seagulls flop and squawk on the goose shit covered islands. Bugs are already peeling off the river, their obvious dun forms gliding lazily into a twenty inch rainbow’s mouth. Ah, the Mo! Back Home.
Don and I have fished this river many times together, probably more than any other river. We just keep coming back; or at least Don keeps calling me and booking trips, so I’m all in as long as he is! You never know what you are going to find on the Mo, maybe nothing. This is a tough river: definitely not for the beginner if you have any hopes of seriously throwing a dry fly. That takes a different beast. Patience and precision are absolute virtues on the Mo, and the more you have the more you unlock the river. Untouchable fish start to become possible, and eventually even predictable. But I better watch what I say lest the Mo Gods punish me next time with howling winds and frog water.
This trip goes down as an all time epic Missouri foray. Three days we gave it hell: first boat in every morning, and on our favorite haunts while the water was still fresh and the fish just starting to move. We search out flats where the river shallows up to knee deep or less, some of them football fields in size. When the hatch gets cranking, PMDs in this case, fish move onto the flats to feed where the bugs are most plentiful and accessible. A cautious eye will find pods of feeding fish, sometimes almost indiscernible in the rippled water.
This is when it gets glorious on the Mo. Slipping out of the boat and into the flat on foot, risers eventually surround you. Some are untouchable because of the angle, and some are just too far to get an effective drift. But once again, patience and precision are the name of the game. A well placed, mended, and drifted bug has every chance of bringing home a twenty inch rainbow on that long piece of 5x terminating a fourteen foot leader. Anything less than perfect, you might as well throw rocks at them.
The time has finally come to Montana: Fall. River bottoms are full of color, elk are bugling in the mountains, and big browns are sipping Baetis and Pseudos on the Missouri. The hot long days of summer are far behind us now, replaced by cool calm days and low angled sunlight. No hurries this time of season; things are on a slower pace and the fishing is always good somewhere. Especially the Mo. Three days of long delicate casts is a dry fly fisherman’s dream; hunting fish like these on 5x and #18 mayflies holds a special place to those in the know.