The Best Time to Fly Fish Montana
We’ve been in the fly fishing game for a long time and every year we get one question asked almost more than any other. “When is the best time to fly fish in Montana?” It’s a great question, but it’s one of those questions that if you’ve lived and have been fly fishing Montana for very long, it’s really hard to answer. It’s a question that doesn’t have an exact answer to the person that asks it or to the person being asked.
If you asked 3 of us in the Missoula fly shop we might all answer differently. It’s not a straightforward answer and to answer it you have to ask questions back… “How do you like to fish?” “What do you want to get out of the fishing?” “Enjoy fishing in solitude?” “Are you targeting big fish?” “Do you want to catch numbers of fish?” “Are you wade fishing or boating?” “Are you looking for fairweather days only?”
It’s a loaded question, but the best way to answer it is to go through the seasons we have and what each one has to offer. After that, it’s really up to you as to when the best time to fly fish in Montana is.
If you like solitude and euro-nymphing there is no better time to fish in Montana than winter. You really can enjoy fly fishing Montana in the winter… Of course, it all depends on the weather and if we have had a really cold winter, you’ll be out of luck with rivers frozen over. When temps are in the upper 30’s and 40’s and the rivers are open, the fishing can be great. There are very few dry fly opportunities in the winter, although there are always a few fish rising to midges in the afternoons.
The main bulk of our winter fishing is done subsurface with nymphs. This is when Euro-nymphing is king and long leaders and jig style flies shine. Winter is also the time of year when you can find solitude. Not many people travel to Montana in the winter to fish and not as many locals are out on the rivers.
The middle of March through April is our spring season, pre-runoff. It’s when we get the first big hatch of the year that really gets the fish looking up. Skwala stoneflies start to hatch in mid-to-late March and last through April, or until runoff begins.
Pre-runoff can be some of the best dry fly fishing of the year, especially for big fish. This is when we see more fish over 20 inches caught on dries every year. The weather can be variable in the spring with temps ranging from ’30s to 60’s. But for the most part, you are fishing in the 40’s and ’50s with fish looking up! We also start to see March Brown’s, BWO’s and at the end of April Gray Drakes.
A streamer is another great way to target the big fish of the spring. Once the water warms up in early to middle of April some of our biggest fish will concentrate on big meals. The high water of late April through early May can be really good for fly fishing Montana.
Our summer season usually starts after runoff, typically in June. Depending on the year, we are fishing by the middle of the month on most of our rivers. Every year is a bit different as runoff can end earlier or later. It’s hard to predict and the best way to do so is to give us a call. Middle of June we start to see our big stoneflies like Salmonflies and Golden stones. These are on quite a few fly fishing rivers in Montana, but not all of them.
The Salmonfly is a hatch of epic proportions but can be tricky to hit just right. You might have a huge amount of bugs out and fish just aren’t eating. If you do hit it right it is one of those hatches that you’ll never forget how good the fishing is. The Golden Stone hatch is much more consistent as there are less of them on the water and fish will go after them with reckless abandon. Heading into the end of June we start to see Green Drakes and Caddis. Get a cloudy day in June and you’ll have some big fish up looking for Green Drakes. In the evenings there can be blizzard Caddis hatches until dark.
As we head into July, we start to see PMDs and Yellow Sallies. The fish are accustomed to looking up and the dry fly fishing is consistent as is the weather. This is the busiest time of year to be out here so if you’re looking for solitude this is not the time, but there is so much water to choose from that you can usually get away from most of the crowds.
As the summer continues on into late July some of our Montana rivers see a Spruce Moth hatch that can get the fish in a frenzy. This is a morning hatch where spruce moths come out of the trees and come to the water. These are terrestrials so the fish once they hit the water crush them. In August, we start to see the rivers get low and clear as well as warm from the heat of the day. We mainly fish in the early mornings to early afternoons at this point in the summer. This is Hopper, Ant, and Beetle time. A big foam hopper with a dropper becomes the norm.
September starts our fall season with Trico’s in the mornings most days as the temps are still getting into the 80’s. This is lights tippets and small flies time and presentation matters almost as much as the fly. If you like challenging fishing this is the time to be in Montana. Middle of September the nights start to get cooler and we start to see our major fall hatches like Mahoganies, BWOs, and October Caddis.
Fall is a magical time to fly fish Montana with great match-the-hatch-type dry fly action in the afternoons. On sunny days you can still throw terrestrials as well. October the fall hatches continue on throughout the month. Streamer fishing starts to be on a great way to target fish as they get aggressive just before winter and go on the feed bag. If you like fishing big streamers it’s a great time to be in Montana. Cloudy rainy days are the best days for all fall fishing. Don’t cancel your trip just because of the weather!
As you can see “When is the best time to fly fish in Montana?” is a hard question to ask. This is not an exhaustive list of seasons and fishing. Each area of Montana has its own unique fishing at times that may differ, but this gets really close.
If you find yourself fly fishing Montana any time of the year, be sure to check out our river-specific hatch charts to help guide your bug choice for the day!
Bitterroot River Fly Fishing Hatch Chart
Blackfoot River Fly Fishing Hatch Chart
Clark Fork River Fly Fishing Hatch Chart
Missouri River Fly Fishing Hatch Chart
Rock Creek Fly Fishing Hatch Chart