Every now and again, us guides get a little time away from tugging on set of oars and we get to hold the rod, getting back to why we love fly fishing after months of teaching it to others. Chris, David Decker, and myself were able to slip away to the Missouri recently to do just that, reconnecting with one another and the fish over a three day weekend.
We often lose sight of things as full time fishing guides and outfitters, playing host and mentor all summer long to our customers. Teaching many lessons for the first time or showing kids the joy found casting a perfect loop, we often simplify this complex art into just a sentence or two so our beginners can start to understand the bits and pieces that make up fly fishing. When the old masters have an opportunity to throw a line together, the level of intensity and precision steps up many notches to a place where no words are necessary and all are one with the river.
We simply guide the boat down the river on the perfect currents, whomever is on the rod needs no reinforcement, no coaching. Before I can nod to a rising ring in a hip deep flat, a perfect loop is already on delivery upstream of the fish, softly laid upon the water with a mend incorporated into the cast. Will he eat it? No doubt. It’s like watching a Picasso painting built in real time, the artist swiftly and smoothly placing strokes one at a time, never looking back to correct anything and always forging ahead with confidence and precision.
Always a pleasure fishing with certain people, and this father/son duet are some of my very favorites. Sean and I have fished together over ten seasons now, mostly the Big Hole, and his son Ryan first came out with me when he was 5 or 6, just a little feller. While Sean has fished the Missouri with me numerous times, this was Ryan’s first time with the big river and big rainbows that can kick your ass in a second. He did great after a little humbling from the fish, who mostly have the upper hand on you regardless of your skill, and started pulling them in more often than not by the end of our three day adventure.
Early season Mo fishing can be downright troublesome sometimes, and April can bring some nasty weather to the table all day, no escaping it. Occasionally you get some nice windows to find a fish feeding on the surface, but having the nymph handy will be the most useful, as those surface eats can be nonexistent most the day. Little march brown and baetis nymphs set to the right depth with a shot to sink em down where they need to be usually does the trick, finding the right spots on the big river is another thing.
I try to focus on all the ledges regardless of where they lie in the river, either banks or flats where the edge meets the main dropoff. Also finding a depth, even if its shallower, can prove successful by setting the depths of the nymphs appropriately and running that water style when you see it. It’s always a challenge this time of year, but well worth the effort to catch healthy powerful fish that this river supports year after year.
Holy cow! What a whirlwind of a season it has been this year! A damn fine season of fishing, with many many days back to back for this dude. From early spring on the ‘Root and Big Hole, to Salmonflies on Rock Creek and all the other western rivers, to the final fall wrap up on the Mighty Mo. Jim and I have fished the Mo together now three years, and he is always the final adventure before we switch into hunt mode. Hell, we fished through the opener of rifle season! If that’s not some serious angling dedication I don’t know what is. Oh yeah, steelhead are coming!!! Until next trout season, my friends. Look for some steel and birds in the future. JF
With all the running around the state this time of season, I always get the jitters when I’m scheduled for the Missouri River. Never knowing what to expect, the Mo can be your best friend or your nemesis, depending which way the weather and conditions go. Cool, cloudy, and calm, chances are we’re going to have a stellar trip hunting heads throughout the day. Bright, high pressure, and breezy, who knows?
This trip went off very well, even though the weather was not ideal. My fishermen were long time friends that have fished many rivers in Montana with me, so we were able to get right to the point on this big river. Right away Elliot set into a good fish with the boat ramp still below us, always a good sign from the gods. Running the nymphs for the first half of the day, we hooked into a good many of the Missouri’s finest rainbows.
With the ice broken, my crew and I switched almost entirely to dry flies for the next two days. Certain banks were alive with rising trout, too random to target specifically, but if one put the right drift out front and left it the hell alone, these big bows would fall for it every time. Sometimes it’s best to just get in the general area with the right offering, and let ‘er ride. Even if you feel like you’ve passed the fish, just keep it riding high and cross your fingers, they’ll find it!
Finally the Missouri is back to her old self for the spring/summer season, meaning some real bugs are peeling off the river and creating some excellent fishing. Not easy fishing, mind you, but excellent nonetheless if you are willing to put up with some serious weather and make that cast twenty more times before you get it perfect. Which is what Don and I did for three long, cold, windy, and rainsoaked days based out of Wolf Creek.
Fortunately on the Mo, when the weather goes to shit the bugs go nuts, which may be the only positive at times on that cruel river. Eventually those big trout heads can’t resist ten million Baetis popping at once and start feeding on the surface somewhere, though the chop on the water makes finding them difficult. With lots of flats, riffles, back eddies, and channels, finding these fish is a matter of searching that endless river for the areas that will produce today, and definitely not always the same lie from day to day.
In between spotting risers, the nymph game fished stellar at times for us. Finding the right bug and setting depth and weight was crucial, but once we solved the riddle those big bows were ready and eager to eat. Our final day was our best: good weather, only a couple hours of gale force wind, a damn good emergence of baetis and march browns, and heavy rising rainbows in a few riffles later in the day. Find them and they’ll eat right now, on the first good drift.
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 a Western Montana fishing guide, we all get the willies when we are headed to the big river, the Mo. We’re super stoked to get a chance at the big rainbows and killer dry fly possibilities, but we are also nervous as hell that we’re gonna get our asses kicked! This river can be brutal sometimes, challenging everything you have to make good casts and see the fly, let alone landing the heavy duty fish the Mo puts out consistently.
Fortunately for Chris and I, our group of four were up to the task and the Missouri river smiled upon our efforts. Caddis, PMDs, and a smattering of little mayflies peeled off the water from early morning to late evening, providing lots of visual targets for our fishermen. Many years guiding the Bitterroot and Big Hole with these guys, we wanted to show them what Montana dry fly fishing can really be like: huge rainbows sipping sub16 dries in shin deep riffles with finger burning runs after the set!
So thanks to our diligent fishermen and to the spirits of the mighty Missouri for giving us a great trip. Everyone stuck a few great fish and held in there when the going got rough, something one must power through on every Missouri trip. See you fellas next time.
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.