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A Pocket Guide to Fly-fishing in Southwest Montana


A special publication of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

2014 montana Fishing


jefferson River.. ...............22

Regulations.. .................... 4

madison River...................24

How to Fish Nymphs.......... 5

Wilderness Water.............26

HOW TO FISH Dry Flies........ 6


HOW TO FISH Streamers..... 8

National Park.................28

Yellowstone River........... 10

fly shop index...................30

big hole River.. .................. 12 missouri river................... 14 gallatin river................... 16 beaverhead River.. ............ 18 upper clark fork River....20 On the cover: A fisherman casts beneath a big sky on a central Montana trout stream. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE An angler casts on the Ruby River near Alder, Montana. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

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2014 Montana Fishing Regulations Most anglers who wish to fish in Montana are required to purchase a fishing license. Fishing licenses may be obtained at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional offices and at numerous retailers throughout the state. Licenses fall into two categories: resident and nonresident. Residents between the ages of 15-61 must purchase a conservation license ($8) and a fishing license ($5 for two consecutive days or $18 for season, $8 for season for angler ages 15-17). Nonresidents ages 15-61 must purchase a conservation license ($10) and a fishing license ($15 for two consecutive days, $43.50 for 10 consecutive days or $60 for season). Discounts are available for anglers ages 1-14 and 62 and above. On Father’s Day Weekend (June 14-15, 2014) any person, resident or nonresident, may fish in Montana without a fishing license. Special exceptions apply for paddlefish and bull trout. Montana has three fishing districts. Rivers and steams in the Western District and Central District open the third Saturday in May through November 30, unless otherwise specified in the state’s fishing regulations. Rivers and streams in the Eastern District are open all year. Lakes and reservoirs in all districts are open all year. Fishing is allowed at all hours during open fishing seasons unless otherwise specified the regulations. When you purchase your fishing license, be sure to pick up a free copy of the 2014 Montana Fishing Regulations. The regulations have detailed information on hundreds of waterbodies across the state, methods of fishing, maps and state fish records.

4 Hatch | Summer 2014

How to Fish Nymphs: A “nymph” is the generic term fly fishers use to describe a subsurface fly. Nymphs most often imitate the juvenile state of an aquatic insect, but can also mimic crustaceans, eggs, or other food sources found below the water’s surface. Nymph fishing is generally the most productive type of fly-fishing in Montana. Nymphs will catch fish across the broad range of conditions and water types found in the state. The success of nymph fishing owes to the fact that trout primarily feed below the surface. Even during the An angler eyes heaviest hatches, when a brown trout trout are rising in great while nymph fishing on a creek numbers, there are likely near Dillon. other fish—and perhaps PHOTO BY the same fish—eating BEN PIERCE

By ben Pierce

insects underwater. The reason for this is simple: trout operate on a simple equation of calories expended versus calories consumed. As a food source for trout, nymphs frequently fall on the right side of the equation. The set-up: Nymph fishing rigs vary from angler to angler, but the most common arrangement for Montana water is an indicator followed by a weight followed by two nymphs on a 9-foot tapered leader. Indicators come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Indicators are made of yarn, wood or plastic, but they all serve the same purpose—to give the angler a visual cue when a fish strikes. A slight pause or dip in the indicator and the angler should set the hook. Weight comes in many forms as well. The most common—splitshot—is simply a round

Summer 2014 | Hatch 5

piece of lead with a slice in its side to allow the angler to crimp the splitshot to the leader. Weight is intended to get the flies below the surface where the fish are feeding. Adding weight helps the nymphs get down to the fish faster. The final piece of a nymph rig is the flies. Montana fishing regulations allow anglers to fish two flies. Attach a length of monofilament from the hook bend of your lead fly to the eye of your trailing fly for a tandem rig. There are thousands of nymphs to choose from that represent all forms of aquatic life. Area fly shops can help narrow the field to the few you need. Proven patterns like the Pheasant Tail nymph and Hare’s Ear nymph

are always worth a shot. Technique: While productive, nymph fishing can be a challenging way to fish. Because the trout are most often not visible to the angler, the fisherman must make an educated guess as to where the fish are. The successful nymph fisher must first read the river and decide where trout are likely to be feeding. They must then search the water by varying the depth of their rig to find where trout are holding in the water column. Because each section of river is different, a nymph fisherman must be prepared to adjust their rig accordingly. Learning to adapt to different fishing situations takes time, but the payoff is trout in hand and success on the water. •

How to Fish Dry Flies

By ben Pierce

What is dry fly-fishing: Dry flies are the many types of flies anglers use to attract fish feeding on the surface of the river. Dry flies can be tiny—as with midges—or massive—as with stoneflies. They are light flies made of fur, feathers and synthetic materials design to float above the water. Dry fly-fishing is dynamic and visually engaging. There’s nothing like descending the banks of a river to a pod of rising trout. The angler can see the rise forms on the water and sometimes the heads of trout breaking the surface of the stream. The sound of a rise is distinct and memorable, the anticipation of casting to a riser palpable. But dry fly-fishing can be a tricky affair. A poor cast may put a group of rising fish off the feed. Your fly may be rejected again and again. The trout may 6 Hatch | Summer 2014

scatter or turn off for no apparent reason. Still, when it all comes together, there is nothing better than catching a trout on a dry fly. That visual connection—actually seeing the take—elevates fly fishers to another plane. It defines what we love about the sport. The set-up: Dry fly-fishing rigs are generally a straightforward affair. Most Montana anglers prefer a 9-foot 4X or 5X tapered leader on a floating fly line. Weight forward or shooting head fly lines allow anglers to achieve greater casting distance, but double tapered lines will work well in most situations. Tippet diameter and length can be a factor when dry fly-fishing. Trout that have seen a lot of angling pressure may become weary of 4X tippet or if you cast

your line over them. If you think you’ve got the right fly and the trout aren’t interested, tippet down to 5X or 6X and have another go. If the trout spook when you cast, lengthen your leader. Technique: Trout rising to dry flies can be easy to catch or tough as nails. When trout are keyed on a top-water food source and you’ve selected an appropriate fly that matches the hatch, cast away. There’s a good chance you’ll be into fish all day. Work your way up the bank, pick out risers and have fun. When you can’t identify what a trout is feeding on, or when trout are spooky, a measure of stealth is required. If you spot a rising fish, take a moment to observe its behavior and the surroundings. Make an effort to approach the fish without passing over its position. Use a few false casts to gauge the distance to the fish and try to make your first cast count. Becoming a great fly caster is a lifetime

skill, so don’t be Two anglers discouraged if your float in a drift boat down cast falls short or you the Madison miss a fish. Treat each River between failure as a learning Greycliff and experience and relish Three Forks, Montana. your successes. PHOTO BY When it comes to BEN PIERCE fly selection, the best bet is to carry several imitations of the major insect types found in Montana—caddisflies, midges, mayflies and stoneflies. If you know you’ll be fishing a certain hatch, drop by a fly shop and pick out a few patterns that match that insect. And just because you don’t see a riser doesn’t mean you can’t fish dry flies. Attractor patterns like the Royal Wulff and Stimulator can draw strikes on the slowest of days. •

Summer 2014 | Hatch 7

How to Fish Streamers:

By ben Pierce

What is streamer fishing: Streamers are flies used to represent fish, crustaceans and other aquatic or terrestrial life. Streamers can be tied in small sizes, but are often larger flies that present a high-calorie food source to trout. Streamers are fished below the water’s surface. As trout mature they may turn their attention from aquatic invertebrates to larger food sources such as baitfish, crawfish or other trout. Fish that make this switch tend to grow substantially larger than their insect-eating counterparts. By imitating larger food sources, anglers who fish streamers are more likely to catch larger trout. This brown trout took a streamer Streamer fishing can be a thrilling experience or terribly pattern on DePuy disappointing. Smaller trout may be unwilling or unable to Spring Creek near strike a streamer, which means an angler may be casting their fly Livingston. over fish in vain. On the flipside, a single large trout can make a PHOTO BY day’s worth of casting entirely worthwhile. Ben Pierce

8 Hatch | Summer 2014

The set-up: Streamer fishing rigs rely on the angler’s ability to cast a big and sometimes awkward fly. There are two ways most anglers go about fishing streamers in Montana. The first rig employs a floating fly line and a short, stout leader fixed with a heavily weighted streamer. Trout that strike streamers tend not to be tippet shy. Often times they are striking out of a predatory instinct as much as they are out of hunger. A 2X, 1X or 0X tippet is just fine, and the rigidity of that thick monofilament helps turn over the heavy fly when casting. This rig is best for fishing small- to medium-sized water with moderately deep holes. The second rig uses a sinking fly line with a weighted or unweight streamer. By using a sinking line, the angler relies on the weight of the fly line to get the streamer down to the fish. This method of fishing is best for big rivers with deep holes or ponds and lakes. It can also free the angler from casting a heavily weighted streamer. Technique: Streamer fishing has many mysteries and each angler must come up with their own method for catching fish. Some anglers like to strip streamers— jerking them quickly through the water in short, quick bursts. This technique imitates the behavior of a frightened baitfish or the movement of a crawfish. Stripping streamers in this fashion can produce aggressive strikes from trout. Other anglers prefer to dead drift their streamers, perhaps mimicking a dead or injured fish. This approach is less likely to elicit a predatory strike, but could attract a hungry trout looking for a big meal. Stillwater anglers may prefer a long, slow retrieve. This type of technique could imitate the languid movement of a leech. If you can identify a food source—whitefish, tadpoles, sculpins—you’re halfway there. As with any type of fishing, experience, experimentation and close observation will serve the angler well. •

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Summer 2014 | Hatch 9

Yellowstone By ben pierce

The Yellowstone River is big water with a big nutrient base that grows big trout, period. The Yellowstone is also the longest undammed river in the lower 48, one of the last strongholds of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout and the home water of some of the best fly fishers on the planet. And if you think that’s impressive, wait until you see the hatches. “The last time I caught the Mother’s Day caddis hatch real well was a high water year with a late run off,” said Peter King of Bozeman Angler. “We were even catching sculpins on dry flies, there were so many fish up in the river.” At the height of the Mother’s Day caddis hatch bugs can literally blanket the water. Mats of insects more than an inch thick are not unheard of. Later hatches of golden stoneflies and salmonflies can be equally astounding. Give the Yellowstone a chance and it will take your breath away. Maybe your leader, line and backing too. 10 Hatch | Summer 2014

Anglers fish from a drift boat near Point of Rocks on the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley during the annual salmonfly hatch. BEN PIERCE

The Yellowstone River runs 692 miles from its headwaters in the Thoroughfare region of Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Missouri River at Buford, N.D. For the trout fisherman, the stretch from Yellowstone National Park downstream to Big Timber is the most important. Anglers can access the river just outside the park near the gateway town of Gardiner, and again downstream at Queen of the Waters and McConnell Landing fishing access sites. All three locations offer excellent fishing opportunities for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, rainbows and browns. Downriver lies Yankee Jim Canyon. The Yellowstone here can be exceptional during the late June salmonfly hatch, but the canyon is also choked with whitewater and best not to bring a drift boat through. Lower boat ramps at Point of Rocks, Grey Owl and Pine Creek offer better options for float fishermen.

Below Yankee Jim, the Yellowstone winds through Paradise Valley to the city of Livingston. There are plenty of access points along Highway 89 to drop in and cast to your heart’s content. Even an afternoon outing to the river for a couple hours can prove memorable. From Livingston to Big Timber trout numbers begin to decline, but fish size is typically larger. Late summer hopper fishing downstream from Springdale Bridge is often excellent. For those unaccustomed to fishing big western waters the Yellowstone can be an intimidating river. The pools are can seem a long ways apart. Rest assured there’s trout just about everywhere. Look for slack water behind rocks, along the banks and at the confluence of eddies. Also, keep an eye peeled for underwater shelves. Trout love to stack below these features. If you need a little help, just about every local fly shop in the area offers guided float trips on the Yellowstone. The joy of floating through Paradise Valley on a brilliant summer day is beyond comparison. If you happen to net a nice trout along the way, all the better. •

yellowstone Quick facts River miles: 104 miles from Yellowstone National Park boundary to Big Timber Best hatch: Golden stones come off just about the same time as the giant salmonflies and the trout are often more eager to take these slightly-smaller bugs. Nearest cities: Gardiner, Livingston, Big Timber

Summer 2014 | Hatch 11

Big Hole Will Jordan of Bozeman casts near Silverbridge on the Big Hole River in southwest Montana.

By ben Pierce

The Big Hole River Valley is one of those magical land-

scapes straight out of a western novel. Rolling ranchlands, sheer canyons, chiseled peaks off on the horizon; the Big Hole PHOTO BY is all of that and more. If you’ve come to Montana to feel like BEN PIERCE you’re in Montana, the Big Hole is the river for you. The trout fishing won’t disappoint either. You’ll know you’re in for something different the moment you arrive. The water of the Big Hole is tannin stained (a “tea” color) similar to certain trout waters in New Zealand and much unlike anything else in the state of Montana. Starting in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, the upper reaches of the Big Hole pass through private ranchland near the towns of Jackson and Wisdom. The first public access at Squaw Creek on Highway 43 includes a boat launch. Access points downstream are frequent all the way to Twin Bridges. The upper Big Hole holds a healthy population of brook trout, some up to 16 inches. The chance to catch brook trout this size is reason enough to explore the upper river, but don’t be surprised is something bigger takes your fly, a few of the river’s largest brown trout inhabit this water. “I haven’t personally caught a giant but I have caught a lot of respectable big fish,” said Robert Eddins of Ro Drift Boats in Bozeman. “The bugs and the baitfish and the structure, it is a hell of a fishery.” Lucky anglers may also hook into one of the river’s fluvial grayling. The Big Hole is one of the last remaining strongholds for the fish in the lower 48. You’ll

12 Hatch | Summer 2014

recognize grayling immediately by their exceptionally large and vibrantly colored dorsal fins. Unfortunately, summer heat and low water take a toll on the upper river. Don’t venture this high if you happen to be fishing during July or August, the best action is going to be downstream. Near the towns of Divide and Melrose the Big Hole enters a stretch of canyon that helps keep the water cooler and tends to fish better during the latter summer months. Here, the Big Hole shifts character with faster water, riffles and boulder fields. If you are in a drift boat, be sure you’re up to the task as the canyon can be a bit tricky to navigate, especially during high flows. “A lot of the time the flows are 4,000-8,000cfs and you are fishing up in the trees along the banks,” Eddins said. “For anyone savvy on the oars it is not too tough, but that can be said for any river. You stop paying attention and that’s when things happen. There are a lot of boats that sink on the Big Hole every year.” The Big Hole is a treat to fish not only for the scenery, but also for the abundant and diverse aquatic insect life the river harbors. You name it and the Big Hole has probably got it: salmonflies, midges, yellow sallies, brown drakes, skwalas, tricos, caddis, PMDs, even the occasion but significant spruce moth. With such a variety of bugs be sure you arrive at the river with a fly box fully stocked and ready for anything. It’s also a good idea to toss a few streamer patterns in for the deeper holes and the bigger fish. Sculpzillas, Wooly Buggers and Double Bunnies will all draw strikes. Try stripping your imitation through deep water, or even dead drifting it beneath an indicator. •

Big hole Quick facts River miles: 153 miles from headwaters to Twin Bridges Best hatch: Whe Big Hole’s salmonfly hatch generally occurs earlier than on other big Montana rivers. There a lot of variables in play, but if you hit the river at the right time the hatch is sure to be memorable. Nearest cities: Butte, Dillon, Twin Bridges

“I haven’t personally caught a giant but I have caught a lot of respectable big fish,” said Robert Eddins of Ro Drift Boats in Bozeman. “The bugs and the baitfish and the structure, it is a hell of a fishery.”

Summer 2014 | Hatch 13


By ben Pierce

The “Mighty Mo” might just be the best trout water in the state of Montana.

Formed at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Three Forks, the Missouri carves its way north and then east through spectacular country. Hatches on the Missouri can be truly epic, and the trout are world renowned for their unflinching defiance when being hauled toward a net. “Those rainbows on the Missouri are like little mini A fly fisherman steelhead,” said Justin Smith of Montana Troutfitters in seeks a trout on the Bozeman. “They will put you in your backing quick.” Missouri River below Wolf Creek Bridge. The most-fished trout water on the Missouri is below The Missouri River Holter Dam, north of Helena. The water immediately downbelow Holter Dam stream from Holter is broad and flat. Many anglers compare is well known for its character to that of a spring creek—complete with flowexcellent fishing. PHOTO BY ing weed beds and silt bottom—rather than a massive river. BEN PIERCE Take a ride in a drift boat or just peer over the edge of Wolf Creek Bridge and you’ll see why fly fishers from around the world make the pilgrimage to the Missouri—the river is

14 Hatch | Summer 2014

Missouri Quick facts River miles: 145 miles from headwaters to Cascade Best hatch: While diminutive in stature, the Missouri’s trico hatches can be staggering. If long leaders, fine tippets and technical fishing are your thing, this late-season hatch is for you. Nearest cities: Three Forks, Helena, Great Falls

stacked with trout. While wade fishermen may be hard pressed to cover much water on the Missouri, the truth is they don’t need to. Find a deep seam or riffle and there’s a good chance there’s a trout in it. Some float fishermen will actually drift from Holter downstream to Craig three or four times in a day. It’s that good. “If you find a place where the fish are biting, stay and fish,” said John Arnold of Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig. “If you get one or two fish, there are probably 100 stacked up.” While trout numbers on the Missouri below Holter hover around 4,000 browns and rainbows per mile, the trout on this stretch are notoriously fickle. Even during heavy hatches, of which the Missouri sees caddis, blue-winged olives, pale morning duns, green drakes and tricos, anglers may need to tippet down to 6X or 7X to illicit strikes. Below Craig the Missouri braids up and some of the side channels can produce excellent fishing opportunities. It’s easy to pull your boat over and get lost exploring a stretch of water for the rest of the day. Downstream to Cascade the Missouri has multiple access points perfect for wade fishing. Cast nymphs in the pocket water along rock walls and keep an eye out for rising fish. In the early season the Dearborn River dumps in a lot of mud,

which can put the fishing off downstream. In addition to the dry fly-fishing for which the Missouri is best known, don’t head to this fishery without an assortment of scud patterns. Ray Charles, Orange Scuds and Czech Nymphs are your best bet when the going gets tough. Just throw on a strike indicator, set your depth and dead drift those nymphs through likely holes. •

At the Bench. On the Water.

Summer 2014 | Hatch 15

Gallatin By ben Pierce

When anglers think of fly-fishing in Montana, they invariably think of Robert Redford’s

classic film “A River Runs Through It.” While the story is set on the Blackfoot River just outside Missoula, much of the film was shot on the Gallatin River. And there’s little wonder why—the Gallatin is, if nothing else, a beautiful stream. “Most people are motivated to catch fish, but a lot of them really appreciate the beauty of the Gallatin,” said Jimmy Armijo-Grover of Gallatin River Guides in Gallatin Gateway. “Not often anymore, but there are still people that request being guided on the spot Brad Pitt stood from the rock.” Formed in the high country at the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin runs a braided course for its first few miles through picaresque mountain meadows. Here, the river offers anglers an intimate fishing experience. It’s easy to spend a day exploring the channels and casting dry flies to eager rainbow trout, most in the 10- to 14-inch range. Remember that a portion of the upper Gallatin lies within the boundaries of Yellowstone and requires a park-issued fishing license. Upon reaching Gallatin Canyon below the turnoff for Big Sky, the river constricts and gains speed. Popular with whitewater rafters and kayakers, the river is closed to angling from boats until its confluence with the East Fork of the Gallatin near Bozeman. Fortunately, Highway 191 follows the river through the canyon and dozens of access points make reaching the river a breeze.

A woman fights a rainbow trout caught during the salmonfly hatch on the Gallatin River near Big Sky. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

16 Hatch | Summer 2014

Anglers will have success through the summer months fishing attractor dry flies like the stimulators, elk hair caddis and parachute Adams, but don’t be afraid to try some of the newfangled patterns they’re selling at the local fly shops. They might not look much like a bug, but they work. In early summer the Gallatin sees a significant hatch of golden stoneflies. Caddis, pale morning duns and green drakes often are present at the same time, which can make for some dynamic fishing. Target the seams and eddies along the banks as well as the obvious pools. Sometimes the Gallatin’s larger trout can be found holding in less than a foot of water. “June into early July is when we see a lot of the larger browns in the shallow water eating bugs on the surface or along the bank,” Armijo-Grover said. “In late July, when the water starts to clear, they move into the deeper holes.” That said, don’t expect to pull a monster brown from the depths. While trophy fish do exist in the Gallatin, they are few and far between. You’ll have a better day if you expect to catch modest-sized, beautifully speckled rainbows, and lots of them. In addition to aquatic insects, the Gallatin can be a great river to fish terrestrial patterns. The steep walls of Gallatin Canyon are covered with conifer trees that provide habitat for beetles,

gallatin Quick facts River miles: 89 miles from Yellowstone National Park boundary to Three Forks Best hatch: If you happen to catch it, the green drake hatch in late June and July is a blast. These large mayflies don’t come off in huge numbers, but those that do are a favorite of the trout. Nearest cities: West Yellowstone, Big Sky, Bozeman

moths and flying ants. Take a little time to explore your surroundings when you reach the river. A terrestrial pattern might be the fly of the day. Below the canyon the Gallatin broadens as it flows across the Gallatin Valley. Numerous fishing access sites along major roads leaving Bozeman offer the chance to fish blue-ribbon trout water a short drive from the city. Expect splendid mountain scenery and gin-clear water and the Gallatin will fill the bill and then some. •

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Beaverhead The Beaverhead River near Dillon is well known for its brown trout. PHOTO BY Ben Pierce

18 Hatch | Summer 201

By ben Pierce

If sight fishing is your thing, then the Beaverhead is your

river. Benefiting from crystal clear flows released from Clark Canyon Reservoir, the Beaverhead River just southwest of Dillon offers anglers the chance to stalk trout in tight quarters. “At times the sight fishing can be excellent,” said Travis Rehm of Frontier Anglers in Dillon. “When the water is low and clear in the slick below the dam there are really good sight nymphing opportunities. You don’t use an indicator as not to spook the fish. It is really technical and fun fishing.” The most popular stretch of the Beaverhead is the first few miles of river beneath Clark Canyon Dam downstream to the Grasshopper boat ramp. Here, the water is shallow, the pools, runs and trout plentiful. So too can be the fishermen. The Beaverhead is the home water for Dillon anglers, but many more from around the state and across the border in Idaho come to fish the river. Opening day can see the banks lined with fishermen. If you love the thrill of sight nymphing, the Beaverhead is a true gem. Bring your polarized sunglasses and walk the banks looking for

trout, they won’t be hard to find. They may however be challenging to catch, but that’s the point after all, isn’t it? The Beaverhead’s trout see lots of pressure and they have become adept at turning down even the best offerings from anglers. As such, plan on bringing a few flies apart from the standard playbook. Bob’s Outdoors, Backcountry Angler and Frontier Anglers fly shops in Dillon can clue you in to what’s been working. Downstream from the Grasshopper boat ramp the Beaverhead can feel like a different river. Gone are the crowds, but not the fish. Look for trout at the mouths of tributary streams and in shallow riffles. Often, with a degree of stealth, you can approach and cast to these fish and observe all the action unfold before your eyes. Below Dillon trout numbers taper off, but don’t shy away from this stretch of the river. Access points at Anderson Lane and Beaverhead Rock State Park off Highway 41 rarely see many anglers, and the fish, often tough to catch on the upper river, rise eagerly here. If flows and water temperatures remain reasonable in the late summer, this area of the river can be an excellent spot to cast hoppers. “If you look at the shock numbers,

“When the water is low and clear in the slick below the dam there are really good sight nymphing opportunities. You don’t use an indicator as not to spook the fish. It is really technical and fun fishing.”

beaverhead Quick facts River miles: 69 miles from Clark Canyon Reservoir to Twin Bridges Best hatch: When hay season hits, head to the Beaverhead to fish hoppers. These late-summer insects bring Beaverhead trout to a boil. Nearest cities: Dillon, Twin Bridges

there are lower densities and fewer fish, but still very high numbers for anywhere in the U.S.,” Rehm said. “The lower river is surrounded by hayfields. When they are swathing those fields in the August, September and October, some of the hoppers are ending up in the river. It can create amazing hopper fishing.” Major hatches on the Beaverhead begin in March with blue-winged olives. Caddis start coming off in mid-April followed by yellow sallies and pale morning duns in July. Tricos, craneflies and spruce moths become important in the late summer. Unlike the nearby Big Hole, the Beaverhead does not see salmonflies or golden stones in significant numbers. If you make the trip to the Beaverhead don’t miss the excellent Poindexter Slough. Located just east of the Beaverhead between Barretts Fishing Access Site and Cornell Park, this water is a favorite haunt of 20-plus inch browns with the rare rainbow thrown in the mix. • Summer 2014 | Hatch 19


Clark Fork By ben Pierce

Nick Romano of Bozeman fishes the Clark Fork River on March 9. The Clark Fork River begins at the confluence of Warm Springs Creek and Silver Bow Creek near Warms Springs. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

No other river in Montana has been as abused as the Clark Fork. And no other river in the state has displayed the indomitable will to survive. Beginning near the iconic Montana mining towns of Butte and Anaconda, the river for decades had mine tailings and heavy metals dumped into it, swept downstream toward Missoula. The weirdly-green pools and lunar landscape near the river’s headwaters at Warm Springs are testament to the river’s sordid past. Miraculously, the Clark Fork boasts respectable populations of more than respectable trout. From Warm Springs downstream to the Racetrack Bridge fishing access the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports 1,400 trout per mile. Each year a handful of lucky anglers pull browns in excess of five pounds from this stretch. And while the immediate surroundings are unlike anything else you will likely encounter in Montana, the fishing is just plain fun. The upper Clark Fork is in most places not wider than 15 feet. The pools are deep and often clear. You can see the big fish lurking below. Better still, the pools are no more than a stone’s throw apart. Around every bend is the promise of another lunker. While the Clark Fork grows by leaps and bounds as it courses toward Idaho, the confines of the upper river are perfect for technical nymph and dry fly fishing. Small nymphs such as Pheasant Tails and Wilcox’s Little Green Machines will draw strikes during the frigid winter months right through the midge and mayfly hatches of spring and summer. Caddis do come 20 Hatch | Summer 2014

off on the upper Clark Fork, but not in the numbers they do downstream toward Missoula. One drawback of the upper Clark Fork is that the river can get uncomfortably crowded. Anglers across the state know there are big fish in the water and they come seeking their shot at a trophy. Basic river etiquette—giving other anglers a wide berth, not wading through pools and being respectful of other river users goes a long way toward a great day on the water. If you head to the upper Clark Fork and find crowds, try checking out the nearby Anaconda Settling Ponds and Gold Creek Ponds. Just south of Warm Springs Bridge, these ponds are loaded with nice trout, some dandies exceeding 10 pounds. A float tube or pontoon boat helps access some of the better areas of the ponds, but even moderately-skill casters should have no trouble reaching a few risers. Callibaetis hatch on the ponds from April through August. Damselflies and caddis appear mid-summer. If you’re after the monsters, try troll a leech pattern behind your float tube. •

Clark fork Quick facts River miles: 200 miles from headwaters to Idaho border Best hatch: The Clark Fork is one of the best waters in the Montana for pale morning duns. Get to the river in midsummer and PMDs will surely be among the bugs trout are after. Nearest cities: Butte, Anaconda, Missoula

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Summer 2014 | Hatch 21


The Jefferson River sweeps south from Silver Star toward Whitehall, Montana. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

22 Hatch | Summer 2014

By ben Pierce

The Jefferson River has long been beleaguered by low flows, the combined effects of a decade-long drought and de-watering from irrigation taking a serious toll on the fishery. Fortunately, that’s an old story and one that could be thing of the past. Benefiting from several good water years and the efforts of irrigators in the valley to maintain minimum flows, the “Jeff” has come back with vigor. The Jefferson begins at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers near the town of Twin Bridges. Affectionately known to the locals as “Twin,” the town is home to the famed R.L. Winston Rod Co., Sweetgrass Rods and Four Rivers Fishing Company. If you forgot any of your gear at home, you’ll have no trouble finding replacements here.

Below Twin Bridges the Jefferson flows for some 80 miles to Three Forks. Boat access at Hell’s Canyon, Silver Star Bridge and Parson’s Bridge make good starting locations for full-day floats of the river. While a drift boat is not essential to fish the Jefferson, it certainly helps. The best pools can be some distance apart. The Jefferson is a river rife with side channels and sloughs and many are worth exploring. Take some time to park your boat and wade back upstream to explore an area of the river you missed on the way down. The river and most islands are graced with giant cottonwood trees and a walk or lunch stop along the banks can be enjoyable. Indeed, the river is lined for much of its length by ranches and farmland. The valley has been spared the development of other areas in Montana and a trip down the Jefferson still looks much the way Lewis and Clark might have seen it. As for hatches, the Jefferson has an emergence of blue-winged olives that come off from March through May. Caddis hatch in respectable numbers beginning in May. PMDs, tricos and golden stones fill out the mix as the summer progresses. Among the best times to hook into a big trout on the Jefferson are during the

Grasshoppers become an important food source for trout on the Jefferson River during the late summer months. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

jefferson Quick facts River miles: 89 miles from headwaters to Three Forks Best hatch: Though caddis, PMDs, baetis and golden stones hatch on the Jefferson, look for hoppers in late July and August to provide the best dry fly bite for larger trout. Nearest cities: Twin Bridges, Whitehall, Three Forks

late summer and fall when hoppers and streamers can draw powerful strikes. Owing to the region’s agriculture, hopper fishing can be exceptional, especially on blustery days when the awkward bugs are blown from their bankside cover onto the water. If you are coming to the Jefferson targeting trophy trout, think big. Size #2-#6 JJ Specials, Sex Dungeons and Bow River Buggers will draw strikes. Move fast and pound the slack water below cutbanks and at the tailouts of deeper pools. Think of the Jefferson as an old gem, newly discovered. For years anglers have turned away from the river to fish biggernamed waters like the Yellowstone and the Big Hole. In that time, its fish haven’t seen much angling pressure and some have grown to substantial size. Today, your chances of catching a trophy trout on the Jefferson are as good as on any other water in southwest Montana. Summer 2014 | Hatch 23


By ben Pierce

Perhaps no other stream in the state of Montana garners as much attention as the

Madison River. Fortunately, the esteem is rightly deserved and the river has responded well to its unmatched popularity. Formed by the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers in Yellowstone National Park, the Madison flows through storybook western scenery en route to Three Forks. Here, it’s as easy to get lost gazing at the high peaks of the Madison Range as it is watching your caddis pattern bob atop the river. Anglers generally divide the Madison into two distinct reaches. The upper section from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake is known as the “50-Mile Riffle.” Chocked full of healthy rainbow and brown trout, the upper Madison is popular with drift boat anglers. Banging the banks with streamers or running a nymph rig through likely holes will bring the occasional 20-inch fish to hand, but trout in the 14- to 16-inch range are most common. Dry fly hatches on the upper Madison are frequent and often prolific. “The salmonfly hatch is what the Madison is known for,” said John Way of the Tackle Shop in Ennis. “It is the epic hatch on the Madison River that people come from around the world to fish. I more like the golden stones that happen just after the salmonflies. You get all the best parts of the salmonfly without the crowds.” The lower Madison surges through Bear Trap Canyon below Ennis Lake, then works its way through pastoral ranchlands to its confluence with the Jefferson and Gallatin rivers at Three Forks. The lower Madison passes through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area and

24 Hatch | Summer 2014

madison Quick facts River miles: 126 miles from Yellowstone National Park boundary to Three Forks Best hatch: While the Mother’s Day caddis and salmonfly hatches get all the fanfare, the baetis hatch in March and April might be the best dry fly fishing the river has to offer. Nearest cities: West Yellowstone, Ennis, Three Forks Nick Romano of Bozeman casts during last light on the Madison River. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

provides those anglers willing to hike a true backcountry fishing experience. The Bear Trap National Recreation Trail, a nine-mile route along the east bank of the Madison River, provides canyon access. It’s a great place to escape the crowds. The first blue-winged olive mayflies usually appear on the Madison in March. Seek out cold gray days for the best shot at this hatch. Caddisflies are the next to join the fray, coming off in abundance during the Mother’s Day hatch in late April or early May. Catching the hatch just right often depends on water clarity. It’s a delicate balance reaching the river when the bugs are hatching, but before runoff hits and turns the water to a brown torrent. “The Mother’s Day caddis is going to vary by as much as 10 days,” Way said. “If I was going to throw a dart at a calendar I would

say the second week of May. You might hit it one out of three years. It is a tricky hatch to catch, but when you do it can be spectacular.” The salmonfly hatch on the Madison, which typically arrives in mid-June, is the stuff of fly-fishing lore. The big bugs crawl out of the river, emerge through their nymphal casings and buzz about the water in great numbers. Keep your eyes on bankside willows where salmonflies often perch during the heat of the day. Cast your imitation beneath those willows and close to the banks to elicit rises. And above all, have faith. Hitting the salmonfly hatch is as much about luck and timing as it is about angling skill. Once your day on the water is through, be sure to drop by the small town of Ennis for a drink and a burger. You’re likely to bump into a few other anglers at the Ennis Cafe, and the strawberry pie there is excellent. Summer 2014 | Hatch 25

Wilderness Water By ben Pierce

An angler casts to westslope cutthroat trout during the evening rise on Big Salmon Lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

Montana’s wilderness fishing opportunities offer anglers the chance to experience the natural world at­its finest. From the alpine cirques of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains to the crystal-clear steams of the Bob Marshall backcountry, the state’s wilderness areas harbor a lifetime of trout water. For anglers who enjoy the thrill of exploration, a backpacking trip to a remote stream or alpine lake is often the highlight of summer. Some species, such as golden trout, are found in greatest abundance within wilderness boundaries. What’s not found in great abundance is other people. Because motorized vehicles are off limits in the wilderness, the only folks your likely to see are those that have hiked, horse packed or paddled in. There’s a good chance you’ll find a stretch of stream or a lake all your own. While all of Montana’s wilderness areas harbor fish, several stand out for their excellent angling. Here’s a list of fishing favorites: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Location: In the Custer and Gallatin National Forests north of Yellowstone National Park. Description: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is wild mountain country at its finest. Glaciated granite peaks and broad alpine plateaus create idea topography for high country fishing. There are more than 1,000 lakes in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness that hold every species of trout found in Montana.

Bob Marshall Wilderness

Location: In the Flathead and Lewis and Clark National Forests west of Great Falls. Description: At 1,009,356 acres, “The Bob,” as it is commonly known, is the largest wilderness area in Montana. Within its boundaries flows the South Fork Flathead River. The river is a stronghold for westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout. Fishing the South Fork is a throwback to days gone by when rivers flowed gin clear and the trout where always ready to eat a fly.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Location: In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Gallatin National Forests southwest of Bozeman. Description: Designated in 1983, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness consists of four parcels: Bear Trap Canyon unit, Spanish Peaks unit, Taylor-Hilgard unit, and Monument Mountain unit. River anglers can explore the excellent Madison River within the Bear Trap Canyon unit. Fishermen interested in exploring alpine lakes will find fishing nirvana in the Taylor-Hilgard unit. 26 Hatch | Summer 2014

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Tara Kramer of Bozeman holds a brook trout in the Yellowstone National Park backcountry. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

28 Hatch | Summer 2014

By ben Pierce

The first time you witness it, it’s almost beyond belief: that big cutthroat rising from the depths so leisurely like he hasn’t a care in the world. He sucks down your fly. You raise your rod tip. And he’s on! If you’ve never had the chance to fish in Yellowstone National Park, you are in for some of the best fishing of your life. The park forms the headwaters of many of Montana’s most famous blueribbon trout streams including the Gallatin River, the Yellowstone River and the Madison River. But there’s much more to fish in Yellowstone than its big-named waters. Try exploring some of the many creeks and smaller rivers that feed those blue-ribbon streams. Names like Soda Butte Creek, the Lamar, the Gardner and Gibbon should be on every angler’s to-do list. They are fantastic, beautiful and fun waters to fish.

For the quintessential Yellowstone fly-fishing experience take a day or two to fish the Firehole River. Surrounded by some of the world’s most impressive thermal features including hot pots, geysers and thermal pools, the Firehole is unlike any other river on Earth. Owing to the region’s thermal activity, the Firehole is a warm river. Not surprisingly, its trout have adapted to the unique conditions found only here. You can expect hatches on the Firehole to be several week ahead of other rivers, and trout that would die in 80-degree water temperatures on nearby streams thrive here. If fly-fishing could ever be described as a surreal experience, it certainly would be on the Firehole. In addition to Yellowstone’s countless rivers and streams, the park boasts numerous lakes worth a visit. Yellowstone Lake is a favorite place to peruse the banks looking for risers. Cutthroat from the lake can exceed 20 inches. Be aware of the park’s special regulation on lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Illegally introduced into the system, all lake trout caught by anglers must be killed. Trout Lake off the Northeast Entrance Road is a great place for a day hike and the chance to catch a cutthroat. This small lake is easily circled and trout can often be spotted along the shoreline. Lewis, Shoshone and Heart lakes, to the west and south of Yellowstone Lake, are

known to hold some big fish. Lewis Lake can be reached from the South Entrance Road, but Shoshone and Heart lakes require a solid hike to reach. Rest assured anglers will be rewarded for their efforts. On your arrival in Yellowstone be sure to pick up a park fishing license. Anglers 16 and over can purchase a $15 three-day permit, $20 seven-day permit or a $35 season license. You can buy a license at ranger stations, visitor centers, and Yellowstone Park General Stores, as well as many fishing businesses in the Greater Yellowstone area. You do not need a state fishing license to fish in Yellowstone, so if you only intend to fish the park you can skip the Montana fishing license. •

A salmonfly clings to a willow on the banks of the Yellowstone River. The salmonfly hatch typically arrives on the Yellowstone River in late June. PHOTO BY BEN PIERCE

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Find A Fly Shop By ben Pierce

Southwest Montana and Yellowstone National Park are world-class fly-fishing destinations. As such, there is no shortage of fly shops to pick up all the local patterns and essential gear to make your day of the water memorable. Stop in and talk with the shopkeeps and the guides, they’re clued in on what’s happening on area rivers on a day-to-day basis and can help you find great fishing. Don’t forget to pick up a fly or two to say thanks. Here’s a list of dedicated fly shops in the area: Bozeman Montana Troutfitters 1716 West Main Street (406) 587-4707, The River’s Edge 2012 North 7th Avenue (406) 586-5373, Bozeman Angler 23 East Main Street (406) 587-9111, Fins & Feathers 81801 Gallatin Road (406) 586-2188, 30 Hatch | Summer 2014

Double rainbows on the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley PHOTO BY DUNCAN BULLOCK


West Yellowstone

Park’s Fly Shop 202 South 2nd Street (406) 848-7314,

Blue Ribbon Flies 315 Canyon Road (406) 646-7642,


Arricks fly Shop 128 Madison Avenue (406) 646-7290,

Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop 209 West Park Street (406) 222-1673, Hatch Finders Fly Shop 5237 U.S. Highway 89 South Suite 12 (406) 222-0989, George Anderson’s Yellowstone Angler 5256 U.S. Highway 89 South (406) 222-7130, Sweetwater Fly Shop 5082 US Highway 89 South (406) 222-9393, Ennis The Tackle Shop 127 Main Street (406) 682-4263, Madison River Fishing Company 109 Main Street (406) 682-4293,

Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop 39 Madison Avenue (406) 646-7801, Jacklin’s Fly Shop 105 Yellowstone Avenue (406) 646-7336, Madison River Outfitters 117 Canyon Street (406) 646-9644, Big Sky East Slope Outdoors 47855 Gallatin Road (888) 359-3974, Gallatin River Guides 47430 Gallatin Road (406) 995-2290,

Summer 2014 | Hatch 31

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Hatch 2014  

A pocket guide to flyfishing in Southwest Montana, 2014. A special publication of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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