The Sleeper Months: Fly Fishing in Montana

This was originally written back in 2010 and updated Fall of 2013.

I thought about this post for several days and almost didn’t write it.  Fact is, there are times of the year which have always been for the anglers who live and work in Montana.  There are even anglers who don’t fish in the summer as the solitude of late fall, winter and spring is what they seek.   If you live here, you as an angler have the opportunity to fish on the warmer days, essentially one is able to cherry pick the choice dates.  Days without wind, too much sunshine, rain, snow or the weekends.  If a prospective client chooses to come to Montana for a springtime fishing trip, then they roll the dice and get what they get.  Depending on how the weather works out, it can make or break the trip.  When the weather does get shitty, like wind and snow, most of the local anglers head for their fly tying benches or their local pub.  I have guided clients in April and May with snow and wind stinging us day after day.  The fishing was great – dry flies, streamers and nymphing.  We didn’t see many other anglers either.   However, at the end of these trips, only one of the groups said they prefer warmer weather and probably wouldn’t book during the springtime again.  These trips aren’t for everyone, but the fishing is usually pretty darn good.

Should you try a Sleeper Month Trip in Montana?  At least once……….


The month of March is tricky.  The snow is still falling, hard at times, and the chances of the super cold arriving is like the Cubs not making it to the World Series.  March is warmer than Feb & Jan and the fish are definitely waking up.  The past few winters in particular, the Madison and Missouri rivers have been at higher flows making them a couple of degrees warmer……every bit helps.  This is a good month to go skiing and hit the river if the daytime temps are in the high 30’s.  Taking a break from the Tram Line to get in a few hours of fishing in the afternoon is a great idea.  OR skip a couple of days on the slopes and float the Missouri near Craig or the Madison around Ennis.  March is midge month and they will rise if you search hard enough.  Trout also love dead drifted sculpins, stoneflies, midge pupa, worms and various pink flies.


Daytime temps are getting warmer, the days themselves are getting longer and it’s still snowy in the high country.  Will the wind blow?  Of course, you’re in Montana.  Deal with it.  Can’t cast in the wind?  Start practicing.  Your saltwater guide will thank you too.  Rivers across the state are warming up and hatches of BWOs and Midges are consistent.  On several rivers throughout Montana, skwala stoneflies are hatching as well.  If you are luckily, you just might hit the March Brown hatch on the Missouri.  Sure, you can go to the Big Horn, but everybody else will be there too.  Rainbows are full on spawning, but on some lower elevations streams they are beginning to come off the redds and hold in summer type runs.  On the Madison around Ennis, this is normally the month that the boat ramps are accessible, allowing float fishing to begin in our neighborhood.  Rubber legs, midges, eggs and a dead drifted streamer will produce as well.  From Varney to Town, there are channels which hold rising trout too.  The smaller streams, like the Gallatin (there are others, but won’t name them here), offer great wade fishing as well.  April is when the Missouri River near Craig really begins to wake up.  April is truly a sleeper month on the Missouri, but the word is getting out and more anglers are taking advantage of April’s angling.  Anglers must be versatile and enjoy fishing nymphs, dry flies and streamers during April – that goes for every river in the West.


For  2014, the General Season Opener in Montana is May 17th.  May is the month that fly fishing can really take off and depending on where you fish and whether or not you choose to fish during the week, there aren’t very many anglers around.  May still brings some cold weather and snow on the Upper Madison and the Missouri – gore tex and puffy jackets can be the most important pieces of gear.  Rain is more likely at lower elevations and rain showers mean clouds and warmer temperatures.  BWOs love to hatch on days like these.  Last May, on the upper Madison, we had some phenomenal dry fly fishing in the Wade Stretch.  I expect this once again when it opens on May 17th.  May on the Missouri is, well, really good.  This is pre-runoff time on the Missouri and snow melt shouldn’t start until the last week of May or the first week of June.  The trout are in the shallower waters and browns in the Canyon all the way down to Cascade are chasing streamers.  The weed beds of summer have yet to grow and while the weather is still a major player in the game, the flows in May are more predictable than June.  If you like October’s weather, then May is for you. Nymphing is king, but the opportunity for rising trout is getting much better and last season’s midging on the Missouri was fantastic.


Yes, this is a sleeper month…….most folks think that August is too warm and that the rivers are too low.  With the exception of this past season’s low water, August is looking like the new July.  There are three things about August that I love: spruce moths, ants and nocturnal stoneflies.  On parts of the Madison, August is proving to be less crowded and very fishy.  The spruce moth hatch is gentlemanly and begins around 9:30 or so.  In 2013, the Spruce Moth has was limited on the Madison River, but other rivers in our region had great hatches.   Remember – spruce moths are terrestrials and where ever the river bottom meets evergreen forests, you will find them.  A#12 Elk Hair works wonderfully during this hatch. Getting up early and fishing a nocturnal stonefly, close to the banks, is good clean fun.  This allows you to get ahead of other boats and float into the spruce moth hatch.  There definitely are sections of the Madison where these hatch more consistently. Late in the afternoon I like to switch out and fish one fly.  Either the ant or a hopper.  Since there are nocturnal stoneflies around, the hopper can cover both insects.

Now is the time to start planning your trip for 2014.  I have been on the phone with several clients discussing their plans for the 2014 season.  While not everyone has pulled the trigger, it’s the fact that they are planning.   In some regions, lodging is going fast.  The Missouri is one of these spots.  If you come out during the sleeper months, you will have your choice of lodging and good guides.  If I were coming to Montana to fish, I would think hard about time frame.  Sure, everyone wants to fish when it’s warm, but why do what everyone wants to do.

Broaden your mind.  Fish when everyone else isn’t……..