In Anticipation of Ice Out – Thoughts and Theories from the Lake

In Anticipation of Ice Out – Thoughts and Theories from the Lake

It was 3 degrees and snowing here in Montana as I wrote this a couple weeks back.  Skiing season.  Maybe ice fishing season.  But a few days before writing it was nearly 50 degrees, and now it seems like the first lower elevation melt is really on.  A couple of my lake fishing buddies have already texted me, excited for the upcoming Stillwater fishing season.  I’ll admit that I am a bit excited too.  I wrapped up a few (dozen) flies for my lake boxes.  And now, through writing this, I’ve organized my thoughts in anticipation of ice out, which is coming a bit later than normal this year.

Throughout the mountain west ice out is a much anticipated event for many stillwater anglers.  For those who do not live in cold climates or have never visited a frozen lake, ice out is the short period of time on a lake where conditions change from the ice capped, frozen surface of winter to the open water of spring, summer, and fall.  From the time that the ice begins to peel away from the shore, until two weeks or so after the lake becomes completely ice free, there is often a fantastic window of opportunity for anglers to get out on the lake shore, beat the cabin fever of late winter, and find some great fishing.  Anglers who don’t have the luxury of owning a boat really enjoy the ice out fishing, because the fish tend to concentrate near shore.  Even when things don’t completely work out when fishing ice out, it’s fun to get out of the house, see some country, and maybe connect with the first open water fish of the new year.

Why is Ice Out a “Thing”?

I believe that ice out is a “thing”, because of the trout’s desire to find ideal conditions when it comes to water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, and food or insect activity.

It’s well known that, when a lake is covered with ice and snow, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is not continuously replenished by the action of wind and waves.  Lack of light under the ice also reduces aquatic plants ability to produce oxygen.  By winter’s end, when the ice begins to recede from the lake’s margins, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water under the ice may be at it’s lowest point for the entire year.  As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the air and wind can hit the water again and reoxyegenate it.

Also, remember that water is less dense when it is frozen than it is when it is at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C).  That’s why ice is on the top of the lake.  It also means that the warmest portion of the water column is likely toward the bottom of the lake in winter.  As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the sun can hit the water and warm it up locally.

The unique physical and chemical properties of liquid and solid H20 make ice out a “thing”.

So, long story short, at ice out, the increased temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water at the lake’s edge stimulate the ecosystem, get some chironomids and perhaps other trout food sources active, and create conditions more favorable to the trout than anywhere else in the lake.

Once the ice fully dissipates, the effects of wind and sun warm the lake, and mixing or turnover evens out water conditions over a much larger portion of the lake, you will find that the ice out bite dies.  The fish spread out throughout a much larger portion of the lake at that point, making them harder to find, especially if fishing from shore.  When that happens, either find another lake that is starting to ice out, or fish the rivers for a while, until other factors on the lake begin concentrating the fish again into summer feeding areas.

Where are the good places to fish at ice out?

Well, IN THE WATER!  It’s a bad joke, but if you are really on top of things, or maybe just a bit over zealous and out at the lake a bit too early in the year, look for any open water you can find.  Remember , though, that open water doesn’t guarantee the presence of fish.  Some areas of a lake are always better than others.

A couple of days too early, but we fished it!

Think back to why ice out is a “thing”.  Water temperature is a hugely important factor. Warmer water is better at ice out.  So, inlets and outlets that alter lake temps are a good thing to look for.  Warmer water may be entering a lake and helping thaw the ice.  Warmer lake water from down deep (remember water is most dense at about 39 degrees F or 4 degrees C) getting pulled up and out the outlet stream if there is one.  Also, ice free shallows with dark bottoms that soak up the heat of the sun, or drop-offs adjacent to said shallows are great places to find warmer water.  These same shallows, if the bottom is soft or muddy, will also be the place where the first chironomids of the year emerge.

Another good spot to look for fish are submerged points that funnel fish into and along travel lanes, creating concentrations of fish and increasing your own odds of intercepting one with your fly.  It’s no secret that similar places are great Stillwater spots the rest of the year as well.

Gareth Jones’ quote “Stillwaters are NOT still” applies at ice out as well.  When only the edges of the lake are ice free, there may be currents in the lake from inlet streams, springs, or other factors.  If you have ever ice fished, and dropped a bit of bait down the hole with no weight, you may have noticed that it doesn’t always sink straight down.  Even under the ice, the water can be moving.  Just after complete ice out, winds begins to really have an effect on the movement of water, and warming of the water begins to slowly initiate the currents that will eventually turn the lake over.  A buddy of mine down in California (who fishes the high Sierra lakes passionately) once mentioned to me that at ice out it seems like either one side of the lake or the other is good, but not often both.  This is a clever observation that I’d not thought of, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the movement of water and its effect on temperature and dissolved oxygen.

In my experience there are also definite ice-out “hot spots” for fishing that must have some secret (to me) combination of several factors that draw fish back year after year.  If you are at a lake at ice out for the first time, and the spots you tried at first aren’t producing, it pays to be mobile, walk, look, cast, and explore.  If you find one of those zones where it all is happening, make a note!

What about Flies and Presentation?

On stillwaters, summer is all about the bugs – Callibaetis, damselflies, caddis, tricos, scuds, chironomids, and more.  At ice out, though, the insect activity hasn’t really gotten rolling yet.  With the exception of some early season chironomids hatching (which you should absolutely be prepared for), ice out fish seem to be very opportunistic, looking to put on some pounds, and are willing to at least consider eating more general and larger attractor patterns.  Buggers, leeches, baitfish patterns, and some of the other gaudy attractor type stuff seems to work best for me and my fishing partners.  Experiment with colors on your home waters for sure, but never fear starting with standby stillwater colors like black, olive, and brown.  If you have your own favorites, by all means give them a shot, too.  We’ve also had luck with bright colors or natural colored patterns with bright trigger points like hot beads.

Olive BH Woolly Bugger… never a bad decision.

In terms of presentation, it seems like slower is usually better in the cold water.  When casting and retrieving your flies on floating or sinking lines as the ice recedes, try hitting the very edge of the ice shelf and let it sink down for a bit before starting any retrieve.  Often the fish will come out from beneath the ice and eat it on the fall.  If they don’t eat it, and it sinks to the depth you want to target, work a slower retrieve with emphasis on the pauses.  Be ready for a grab especially during the pause.

If the ice is still very close to shore, it can be effective to cast parallel to the ice shelf, and retrieve your fly back along the edge of the ice, just like you might do on a weed edge in summer.

Once the ice is well off shore, or gone completely, cover water by fanning casts and moving your feet, and working around visible submerged structure like drop offs and boulders.  It maybe goes without saying, but if you actually see fish, cast to them!  If access conditions permit, this may be the time to launch your boat or float tube for the first time and really cover some water.

Another effective ice out presentation method uses a floating fly line and strike indicator system to suspend your flies and allow for an extra slow presentation.  You can do this with the typical chironomids and also balanced style leech patterns.  Remember, this isn’t just basic bobber fishing.  Adding motion in subtle ways to your indicator presentations is often a key to success.

Now, for the catch.  Even in cold water conditions where you’d expect trout to be lethargic and prefer a slow presentation, I have seen instances where the trout may follow, but will not commit to eating anything but a FAST moving fly.  If you have fish following your fly right to the rod tip, but not eating, or if things seem totally dead, change things up and move your fly in a different way.  Especially if you have seen fish cruising the area and they aren’t eating your offerings.  Speed it up, shorten the pause, make longer pulls, or shorter pulls, and experiment until you get some feedback!  When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing…

The rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.

Hebgen Dam Project Finally Nearing Completion

Hebgen Dam Project Finally Nearing Completion

We received the following press release from FWP and Northwest Energy this week, and though many of you would be interested.  Looking forward to things getting back to the old version of normal on the Madi!


NorthWestern Nearly Done With Hebgen Dam Project; Madison River Basin Water Conditions Hold Steady

Butte, Mont. – October 18, 2017 – September precipitation in the Madison River basin was 264 percent of the 30 -year average. This was a welcome change from July and August which were 44 percent and 63 percent of average, respectively.

As a result of the higher inflow, Hebgen Dam outflow and elevation are slightly higher than normal for this time of year. Currently, outflow is 960 cubic feet per second (cfs) and is expected to remain near this level through the end of the month. Hebgen elevation is 6532.35 feet, which is 2.52 feet below full pool. By month end, the lake is anticipated to draft to about 6532 feet.

The Climate Prediction Center’s forecast for the remainder of October indicates a higher probability for temperatures to be above normal and precipitation to be below normal.

Construction crews completed the installation of the new concrete lining in the Hebgen Dam outlet pipe by the end of September, significantly ahead of schedule. NorthWestern Energy was very happy with the quality of work on the concrete, and all test results show the work is in compliance with specifications.

The first week in October the crews ground and patched any surface irregularities, and installed and welded the steel transition section near the intake.  During the second week of October the transition steel was grouted into place and work began on removing the materials in the tailrace used for access, as well as cleaning up the site and demobilizing. NorthWestern plans to transition flows from the spillway back to the intake in the coming weeks.

In 2009, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) required safety repairs to the Hebgen Dam intake, spillway and outlet pipeline to meet current dam-safety standards and reflect advances in earthquake seismology. The approximately $40 million project is expected to be mostly complete by the end of 2017, with some minor non-structural work to be done in 2018.

NorthWestern Energy will hold a celebration of the completion of the Hebgen Dam Rehabilitation Project from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2017, at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Ennis. Feel free to join us. Please RSVP to Kristen Dawes,, or by leaving a message at (406) 497-2456.

Thoughts Regarding Callibaetis Nymphs

Thoughts Regarding Callibaetis Nymphs

A while back I wrote a post about Callibaetis and Chironomids where the punch line was that my buddy and I wanted the fish to be eating Callibaetis but they were really on chironomids.  Well that was then, and this is now…

Callibaetis and damselflies have been dominating the trout’s menu on my local stillwaters recently, so of course they are also the insects that my mind has been feasting on.  In particular, the morning Callibaetis emergences have provided my friends and me with some really fun fishing opportunities.  The great thing about being into a great hatch over the span of a couple of weeks is that you really get to dial things in and experiment with what works and what doesn’t work as well.  So with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that I’ve been having as it refers to the nymphal stage of Callibaetis in particular.

Lake Habitat

It’s fairly easy to tell where the best Callibaetis action is going to happen on a lake.  These insects LOVE the weedbeds.  What’s really cool is that trout will often move into very shallow water to feed on the nymphs before the main hatch starts.  But when they go shallow, those big trout get really spooky compared to when they are out on deeper weed flats or off the drop-offs. If you can find the travel lanes that fish use through the weedy halls of their world, you have probably hit the jackpot.

Fly Selection

There are A LOT of commercially available Callibaetis nymph imitations out there.  I’m not really interested in going into which specific ones to use here.  What I can say is that there are a couple of important elements to fly selection that I have found to be rather important.

First, and most important, is size.  Match the size of the most prevalent size of nymphs you can see in the water.   That’s usually a 14 or 16 around here.  Sometimes a 12 will do in the early season, but that may be because the fish aren’t quite as dialed in at that point, rather than because the bugs are actually bigger.

Second in my order of importance (and I think the most overlooked element) is fly profile.  Mayflies in general and Callibaetis in particular are thin insects.  In fact, there aren’t many fat insect in the water aside from maybe dragonfly nymphs and giant water beetles.  So, those obese, poorly proportioned PT nymphs that you scored for $0.89 each in the sale bin of your local hardware store probably aren’t the best choice of patterns.  Slim and sparse is what you need.  In fact, some of the most effective Callibaetis nymph patterns that I’ve seen look not only anemic, but also downright absurd in their simplicity and material choice.

Third in my order of importance is color.  The usual grayish-tan standard usually does just fine.  On a couple of occasions, it seemed like color was more important than usual, so if you spend a bunch of time fishing or travelling to fish stillwaters that have Callibaetis hatches, you may want to carry other tones, including grayish-olive, brownish-tanish-gray, and rusty-tanish-grayish-olive.  Got it?


This is a pretty big deal when fish are locked in on the Callibaetis nymphs.  At least as important as fly size and profile.  Maybe more important.  Callibaetis nymphs are good swimmers, but they are also still tiny bugs, so that retrieve you use when fishing Clousers for striped bass needs to be left at the dock.  It seems to me like they wiggle forward in short bursts that can be imitated by a series of 3-4 inch pulls, or some quick hand twists.  But then, the nymphs almost always seem to stop for a bit to take a break before heading back on their way.  So, a nice pause after a series of strips can be the ticket.  I’ll do that most of the time, matching my flyline to the water depth – floating line and long leader in the super shallows, slow intermediate when I need a hair more depth.  Fast intermediate lines seem too sinky for most of my work as I find myself hitting the weeds too soon on every cast.  If you are finding fish down deeper than say 8-10 ft you may want one to cut down on your countdown time.

I’ve also heard that Callibaetis nymphs will swim up to the surface and back down to the weeds a few times before finally committing to hatching from the surface.  So, a rising retrieve followed by a sink seems logical as well.  I need to fool around with this more.  Maybe an indicator and floating line or a short sink tip will do the trick.

Lastly, I’ve had a lot of fish eat a nymph suspended below a Callibaetis dry fly.  Heave it and leave it.  It works well.

Alright!  I’ve got myself fired up to fish now.  So, hopefully when you are reading this, I’ll be out on the lake.  If you’ve got any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear them.  You can reach me at

Take Care and Fish On,


PS – Like my last post, this one is running double duty both here and at


Hello there…we’ve been busy fishing…..

Flows and the damn Dam

River flows in the Madison Valley, from Hebgen Dam to Ennis lake, are sitting pretty good right now as we shift from summer to fall.  At the Kirby Gage, she’s registering at 994 cfs.  Over the past few weeks, the heat and high sun have been minimal and river temps are hanging in there on most days.  However, there have been some super hot days once in while and the river temps can still hit the high 60’s and low 70’s.  Once 68 degrees hits the river, you might as well reel up, sit back and take a boat ride.  Recently, we have been experiencing some very cold over night air temperatures and several mornings here on Horse Butte the thermometer has read 28-30 degrees.  That folks, has been the saving grace for the Madison River, well, that and decent flows from Hebgen.  This past week, Hebgen Dam began to pull from roughly seventeen feet below the surface.  This is NOT the point where we celebrate just yet. Apparently, this will only drop the river temp a couple degrees, but that’s better than top releases any day of the week.  Sometime in November (cross your fingers), Hebgen will hopefully be completed and the river will pull from 37 feet below the surface.  Right now, I am holding my breath and really won’t believe its fixed until it actually is.   This project has stretched out for way too long and we are all completely over it.

Madison River Fishing Report 08.25.2015

Inconsistent…to say the least.  Really though, I’ve had a bunch of great days on the Madison River this summer.  However, if you are gonna roll the dice and fish the river only one day while you’re in the neighborhood, you had better be on the good side of the trout gods…..or be a little lucky.  It also helps to bring your A-game and let the fish eat your fly.  Your day could be a dink fest, but please remember to pay attention as there are some really nice fish eating the fly and just when you think it’s a dink and you don’t set the hook, you’re hating life and wondering out loud where that big brown trout came from.  My only answer to that question is, “they live here too”.  The nymphing crowd is pounding rocks and mid river runs with various flies like: shelia sculpin, trevor’s sculpin, rubber legs, zonkers, midge larva, $3 Dips, olive dips, crystal dips, shop vacs and the traditional no bead pheasant tail.  The rest of us are fishing dry flies whenever possible with hoppers, ants, wulffs, beetles, trudes, small royal stimis and pretty much any reddish attractor  pattern.  I like fishing a single fly this time of the year as most of us, myself included, tend to get a better drift with just one fly on the end of the line.  It’s late August and the trout are not dumb, so tighten up that skill set and pay attention.

Hebgen Lake Fishing Report

I will never claim to know everything about Hebgen Lake, it’s almost impossible.  However, I’ve been playing around the lake this August and Hebgen has shown us some really good days with calibaetis spinners, duns and ants.  Slow stripping mayfly nymphs is a great way to spend any early morning in an unnamed bay on the south shore of Hebgen Lake.  I absolutely love watching the lake come alive from 8 am till noon.  Some days, like today, there was glass all over the lake till almost 3pm, but making the fish eat was a little difficult.  My best bug here lately has been a #14 Missing Link fished on 5X.

Writing and this blog

I would like to reach out and thank those folks who have asked me to keep writing and posting my random thoughts here on the site.  Running the business…aka…. full time guiding/outfitting, tying flies for what may be your trip tomorrow, answering emails and phone calls along with mowing the yard and running the bird dog has gotten in the way of writing.  Writing is hard, and while I don’t claim to be very good at it, writing is time consuming and after some 600 posts on the blog, I got tired.  With any luck, I’ll continue to find some time as I really do enjoy writing, but sometime it’s just hard to find the energy.  Thanks for reading!   If you enjoy social media, please check us out on Instagram, that folks, is the easiest way to get your fix without sitting in the boat with us on a river here in the great state of Montana.

Hebgen Dam Update….is the fat lady gonna sing?

Way back in late August of 2008, Hebgen Dam broke.  The day it happened we sat there and drank beers, watching the lake drop six inches in 24 hours.  A month later, PPL Montana got the situation “under control”, but none of us thought it would take this long to complete construction.  Where is the accountability?  For the past seven years, the angling could be hit and miss, more so than before the failure of the intake structure. During the past two seasons, it seemed as if the trout have come around to the warmer temps and fishing was pretty darn good.  However, the dry fly fishing wasn’t nearly as consistent and most guides in the float stretch relied on nymphing.   I’ve written about this quite a bit over the past seven years, so have others like Mike Lum down in Ennis.  We’ve been pretty hard on Northwest Energy (formally PPL Montana, this change happened in the fall of 2014) and only in the past couple of years has anyone at NWE really paid attention.  I’d like to give that credit to their biologist, Brent Mabbot.  Brent is a diamond in the rough and is putting in some time with regards to getting out and talking with the locals who have spent their lives on the Madison River and care for it deeply.  While we don’t agree on everything, he at the very least will listen and react.  Brent went to bat for the river and I personally have noticed the change.  While some of us would’ve held on to more water this winter in Hebgen Lake, at least we are sitting at a higher elevation that in past years…it’s not much higher, but it is better than it could be.  Trout in the Madison River are spawning and it remains to be seen how they’ll do with the recent drop in flows, which is a double edged sword.  Why?  Well, the lake is gonna need all the water it can to be filled by the end June and our snow pack is quite low (72% for the entire Madison Drainage, slightly lower locally).  Hopefully, this drop in flows (currently 654 CFS)  is early enough to catch the pre-run off snow melt that is occurring right now and also to not cause the spawning channels to become too shallow, too soon.

So, cross your fingers, cross everything really, as they are almost finished with Hebgen Dam project.  On or around July 1, 2015 NWE is going to begin testing the new intake structure.  This will take some time as they want to make sure everything is functioning properly.  Once this is the case, they will start to remove the coffer dam.

This is when things get tricky.

You see, there is roughly 56 degree water down at the intake, which is about 10 degrees cooler than what comes off the top of the lake.  In August, there are times when the top of the lake is 70 degrees.  If NWE switched out the flow from the warmish water on top of the lake to the cold water beneath the thermocline, this could “shock” the fish.   Mabbot would like to slowly introduce the cold water to the fish and plans on mixing the top water and bottom water for a little while to gradually change the temperature of the river.  Against the coffer dam sits quite a bit of silt and nobody knows exactly how much.  This silt will enter the river once the coffer dam is removed.  Will it blow out the river completely?  Who knows, but the river betwix the lakes will get some color.  With any luck, Quake Lake will act as a filter and the river from the Slide to Ennis will be green.  By August 15th, or earlier if all goes well, the Madison will once again have clean, cold water.  Honestly, nobody really knows how the river will react to this change, but the one thing we all know is that cold water is better than warm water.  When I talk about change, I mean go back to the way it was.  Back to when one needed waders to fish betwix the lakes in August.  Back to when most of us fished dry flies ramp to ramp with good success no matter how skilled the angler was in the boat.  This change will take some time as the river will adjust the way all ecosystems do – at their own pace.

I boldly predict that the fish, post runoff, will enjoy the river as they normally do.  However, when the river begins to warm up, like it has the past 7 years in late July, it will continue to be cold because Hebgen Dam is functioning properly from the depths of the lake.  Maybe, just maybe, the larger trout in the river will still be holding in the shallow riffles and boulder strewn runs through the month of August and early September and not retreat to the deepest, darkest and coolest runs in the river.  Sixteen years ago, I started guiding on one of the finest rivers in the world.  Some of the best advice I got was to learn the river by floating long stretches and fishing a dry fly against the banks, around the boulders and throughout the mid-river gravel bars.  Float long and fish it dry.  This has not been the most productive technique since 2008, with the exception of late June and early July or the random day they decide to eat it all day on top, but I want this back more than about anything else in my angling world….and I am not alone.

Winter Fly Fishing in SW MT

Winter is back in Montana for the next 5-7 months.  Most of the locals are the hill in BS for another powder day…….West Yellowstone narrowly missed getting pounded with the snow.  Shit, we needed it.

While November can feel like Winter, there is not one angler/hunter/outdoorsmen that would say November is winter…..winter-like, maybe, but not full on Winter.  Winter fly fishing is cold, the days are short and the dry fly fishing is minimal.  On the Upper Madison and Gallatin, it’s bobber time.  Tie on a rubber leg, epoxy back stone, prince, a zebra or something reddish-pink and success will be at your doorstep.  Fish those pockets, the deeper ones, and keep an eye out for the midges to start rolling down the surface.  If Mother Nature decides not to wave up the wind, then one can actually have some great dry fly fishing on the Madison and Gallatin in December.  January is questionable for the dry fly game, but February brings back some warmer air, longer days and insect activity.

Wind is a big factor effecting winter fly fishing at this altitude.  Air temperatures rank high as well, but any day the wind blows in winter, pretty much keeps the angler at home.

Remember this – Hebgen Dam is still under construction, so once the lake freezes up, the water below Hebgen is frigid.  This effects the insect activity and can make the trout more lethargic than normal.  However, the fishing is still pretty darn good on the warmer days.  My rule of thumb for heading out is 20 degrees and no wind….some days, I just go any way and throw in the skis just in case it’s too cold to fish.