It’s that time of year when the weather warms up and starts to melt mountain snow. The rivers swell up with snowmelt and get big and muddy. It’s when anglers in the Missoula, Montana area, and all over the mountain west have to forego fishing their favorite freestone rivers and find something to do during runoff. The Missoula area has hit the start of runoff and we have been getting lots of calls as to where to go fishing right now. The biggest question at the end of April, May, and beginning of June is where to go fishing during runoff. The weather is nice, we want to be outside and need to go fishing.
The great thing about fly fishing Missoula is that there are a lot of options available nearby. You don’t have to drive very far in any direction to find someplace to fish, even when our rivers are big. Just be ready to change up techniques or even species of fish if you want to get out. Here are 3 of our go to’s during the runoff that will have you fishing straight through runoff.
This is a pretty obvious one for most of you that have been in the fishing world for any amount of time. Most lakes aren’t affected by runoff like rivers are. They might have a dirty stream or river running into it that might affect one end of the lake, but there’s enough room for the dirt to settle and there will be clear water and hungry fish to be caught. There are plenty of lakes around the Missoula area and within a few hour’s drive that you might just stop fishing rivers altogether. Okay probably not, but lake fishing can be a blast and let’s face it lakes usually have bigger fish than rivers. Grab a map and you’ll find lakes within a ½ hour to a few hours away from Missoula filled with big fish. Some of those lakes are known for their trophy trout, others are known for their trophy bass and pike. You’ll just need to change up your techniques from river fishing to lake fishing. When you’re fishing for trout in lakes think about the food source. Lakes have different bug life than most rivers. Instead of fishing stoneflies, you’ll be fishing damselfly nymphs, dragonfly nymphs, bigger mayfly nymphs even or scuds. There are a lot of leeches in most lakes and fish love them. You’ll need a separate box of flies for lakes if you want to be successful. If you are fishing for bass or pike then you’ll need to beef up on your streamer box with baitfish imitations that match the forage or ones that are just big and bright if you’re after pike.
The 3rd Saturday in May all of our tributaries open up around Missoula. A lot of these streams run clear even during runoff and can be a great opportunity to get out and fish moving water that isn’t muddy. The streams are still big so you’ll need to be careful and make sure you’re looking for slower moving water where the fish can stay out of the fast water and conserve energy. You’ll want to use flies that the fish can see, so keep the tiny midge stuff at home. Big Stonefly nymphs, San Juan Worms, Flashy Streamers are all ones to use. Sometimes we’ll get Salmonflies that will hatch during this time so don’t forget those big dries too. Not all streams are running clear and have hatches, but if you find any that do you’ll have a blast. Also if you find a good stream, don’t tell anyone about it.
Dam controlled rivers, for the most part, aren’t as affected by runoff as well. The river that most of us fish all through runoff is the Missouri River near Craig, MT. It’s a great fishery in April and May and can be some of the best dry fly fishing in the state. BWO’s start coming off and can blanket the river with fishing rising everywhere. Not always the case, but when there aren’t fishing rising throwing in a tailwater sowbug or Czech nymph and you are set. With up to 6,000 trout per mile, you’ll have plenty of fish seeing your flies. There are other tailwaters like the Beaverhead or Madison that are a bit more of a drive that fish well during runoff. Make sure to check regulations for which parts of those rivers are opened or closed.
These are our 3 go to’s to still get out there and enjoy fly fishing Missoula, Montana. Of course, you might have a different list. Or you’d rather take a break from fishing and tie flies, bear or turkey hunt, look for mushrooms, go hiking, etc. There is a lot to do outside during runoff and now is the time to be outside. Remember to stay safe and healthy and follow social distancing rules while recreating.