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Three Winter Fly Fishing Tips

Three Winter Fly Fishing Tips

Introduction

With summer crowds getting heavier and heavier, winter fishing is getting more and more popular in Montana. This is very different fishing than we have in summer, however. The fish are in different places and demand different tactics. Whole books have been written on winter fishing, but the following three winter fly fishing tips will point you in the right direction.

1. Find Warm, Walking-Speed Water from Four to Six Feet Deep

When winter fishing Montana rivers, you have to go where the trout are. The fast, shallow, bouldery areas where most trout feed in summer are devoid of fish in midwinter. The water in these areas is just too fast when trout have slow metabolisms. Instead, the fish gather in large, deep, slow-moving pools where the don’t have to work very hard.

On the other hand, the slowest pools are not the best places to catch fish. Simply put, trout need some current to bring food. So even though there might be a lot of fish in the dead-slow holes in winter, these fish aren’t eating. Instead, look for them along the edges of large, slow-moving current seams. Often the best spots are long midriver seams adjacent to big slow pools, the sorts of places where there’s a gentle interchange of current 100 yards long or more.

By the same token, avoid the very deepest runs. In summer, trout prefer to feed in water 2-4 feet deep. In winter, they may be a bit deeper. That bottomless deep run is unlikely to have any insect activity, because sunlight doesn’t penetrate all the way to the bottom as easily.

Trout are most likely to be feeding in seams that are a little bit warmer than the main river. Perhaps these are areas adjacent to hot springs or hot spring-influenced tributaries, such as immediately downstream of the Gardner River confluence on the Yellowstone or Hot Spring Creek on the lower Madison. Perhaps these are just areas that receive the most sunlight in the winter.

Winter is a good time to bring a stream thermometer. Look for water temps over 38 degrees. Anything colder and the trout tend to shut down. Once the water hits 41-42, you’re really in business.s

2. Fish Low and Slow

What do I mean here? Three things, even though “low” and “slow” are only two words.

First, “fish low.” By this, I mean your flies need to be on the bottom. If you’re not losing an occasional fly in the rocks, you’re probably not deep enough. Most bugs are in the gravel or cobble in midwinter, and even if a few are hatching, the trout are unlikely to move to mid-column to feed because currents are too heavy at mid-depth. The ONLY common exception to ticking the bottom is when heavy midge or BWO hatches occur, which may bring up a few nymph-eaters to mid-column and eventually some dry fly eaters to the surface. We love dry fly fishing here, but we don’t do it in the winter unless we’re seeing rising fish first.

“Slow” has two meanings. First off, your flies should not be “swimming.” If you’re fishing a run that’s moving at a slow walk, your flies should be moving the same speed as the current or just slightly faster if you happen to be fishing a streamer. No skating your bugs, no fast wet fly swings, no stripping & ripping streamers. Trout aren’t going to chase flies in winter.

The second meaning of “slow” refers to how quickly you should move. In high summer, we might cover over a mile of water in an hour on the Yellowstone River on a drift boat trip, and that includes time pulled over changing flies, fixing tangles, releasing fish, snapping pics, etc. Even on foot I might cover half a mile, skipping all but the best water. In the winter, I might fish a single hundred-yard stretch of river for two or three hours.

The fish bunch up in winter, the water they hold in reduces the chances these fish will spook, and the fish are more tight-lipped, requiring perfect drifts to eat. All of this adds up to mean that in winter you’re much better off pounding on one or two good holes than fishing fast and furious.

3. Think Small or Think Big

Here I’m talking about flies. Basically, you have a choice between matching the dominant food items in winter (small stuff), or of giving the fish such a large mouthful that they can’t refuse it. Is it a good idea to fish something big, heavy, and meaty with something tiny on the dropper to touch both bases? You bet.

Most “small” flies should run #16 to #22, with larger flies on rivers and the smallest flies on spring creeks. The predominant small food items you should plan to match are midges and Blue-winged Olive nymphs. If the fish are rising, it’ll be to small midges (or slightly larger midge clusters, imitated with a Griffith’s Gnat) or occasionally to tiny BWO. As winter progresses, a few late Winter Stoneflies might join these insects, though small black mayfly nymphs and black single midge dry flies do a good job of matching these bugs. Also as winter progresses, eggs begin entering the trout’s diet, as early-spawning rainbows start dropping an egg now and again. These eggs should be tiny, either #16 or #18. Even San Juan Worms, which can work on spring creeks and tailwaters, should be sparse and small unless the water (on rivers) gets murky.

Note that pink flies are very good choices on many area waters in winter, especially tailwaters where both early eggs and dead scuds can be matched by pink patterns. Sometimes these run a bit bigger than the typical winter small stuff, but #12 or #14 is still the upper limit.

At the other end of the spectrum are stonefly nymphs and streamers. While you usually don’t want to use the giant #4 nymphs or articulated streamers you might use in summer, a #6 or #8 Girdle Bug or Woolly Bugger is an excellent option. You’re not necessarily trying to match any specific food item except the occasional stonefly nymph. Instead, you’re just giving the trout a great big mouthful: lots of calories to keep warm in winter.

Conclusion

Winter is not the time most visitors think to fish Montana, but if you stick to the tips above and wear waders that don’t leak with plenty of layers underneath, it can be more productive than you might think. Fish in early afternoon when the wind isn’t howling and air temperatures are tolerable.

Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

The “Land of Giants” stretch of the Missouri River where we run our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips is a unique Montana fishery in which a short tailwater downstream of Hauser Dam leads into Holter Reservoir. This stretch has no boat ramp at the top, meaning access is via hiking or motoring up from the reservoir below. Tailwaters create large fish and lots of them. Reservoirs create large fish and lots of them. When you combine a short tailwater and a lake immediately downstream, close enough its fish can run up into the tailwater to feed and back again over a matter of days, you get lots and lots of large trout.

Simply put, our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips provide the best opportunities for lots of large trout of any of our trips.

Missouri River Rainbow Trout and scenery

Introduction to Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

  • Season: Ice-out in March through November, with the best overall experience in March and early April and from mid-May through early July.
  • The Fishing: Primarily nymph fishing deep slots from the boat, but some streamer fishing, wade-fishing good seams, and dry fly fishing are also possible. The dry fly fishing is best in late June.
  • The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout that run BIG. The average rainbow runs 14 to 18 inches, the average brown a couple inches longer. 20-inch fish don’t raise any eyebrows and we see quite a few in the 22″ to 24″ class each season. The largest fish on average in our operations area live here.
  • The Boat: Because this area lacks a boat ramp at the upstream end, access requires an aluminum jet boat modified for fly fishing. We use a 2000 Tracker Pro Team 18 Jet, an inboard model with a 120hp engine.

To fish the “Land of Giants,” we launch the jet boat at Gates of the Mountains Marina north of Helena, Montana, then run southeast across Upper Holter Lake into the Missouri River proper. Once in the river, it’s a short 3-odd mile run up to the base of Holter Dam. Most days, we do most of our fishing in the bottom mile and a half of this stretch, since no-wake rules and heavier currents upstream make fishing close to the dam less efficient. That said, most days we do wind up fishing up close to the dam, sometimes anchoring up to fish deep boulder fields in this area.

The season here is very different than on most of our fisheries, which is one reason we run these trips. While it’s possible to wade-fish this area all through the winter, Missouri River jet boat fishing trips begin sometime in March when the ice goes off Holter Reservoir. The fishing can remain good all the way until the end of November, when the ice starts forming again. The largest numbers of fish are available from late March through mid-May, during the rainbow trout spawn, but this is also when the largest numbers of anglers are present. This water can be obscenely crowded at this time, with 20-30 guides and as many as 100 bank anglers present on a bad day. There’s fish enough for everyone, but if you’d rather have a less-crowded experience, fishing either right out of the gate in March or waiting until at least mid-May is better.

Typical high average missouri river rainbow trout

From mid-May through early July is peak season here, in our opinion. The trout are coming off the spawn and feeding aggressively, which causes them to get fat, healthy, and hard-fighting very quickly after the rigors of spawning, but they spread out some and get a little harder to catch. The crowds therefore drop sharply, with 10 guide boats and 20 or so bank anglers or less much more common than the hordes earlier in the season. This is much more manageable. The fishing gets more varied, too. Whereas during the spawn the best way to catch fish is to free-drift egg imitations and assorted pink mayfly nymphs and scuds (which are probably taken as eggs), on Missouri River jet boat fishing trips in late May we usually fish scuds and Blue-winged Olive nymphs, whereas in June we fish a lot of PMD imitations. In late June and early July, good dry fly fishing on PMD cripples and caddisflies is possible. We also do some streamer fishing, particularly with clients looking for a big brown trout or two.

By late July it’s back to nymphing. From now through early October the fishing is harder than it is earlier in the season, though crowds are almost nonexistent. Because of heavy aquatic weed growth down towards Holter Lake, we do most of our fishing up close to the dam.

When the weather turns in the fall, the brown trout begin running up from Holter Lake. While this is not the “massive numbers” fishery it is in the spring, this is the time to take a Missouri River jet boat fishing trip if you want to fish streamers for big brown trout. The browns continue chasing streamers all the way until Thanksgiving, at least, making this our best option for LATE season fishing, long after everything else has gotten too cold to fish consistently.

Introduction to the “Land of Giants” Stretch of the Missouri River

The “Land of the Giants” stretch of the Missouri begins about 15 miles northeast of Helena, Montana, at the base of Hauser Dam. The river twists its way through a couple short canyons before expanding into Upper Holter Reservoir. This is a stunningly beautiful stretch of river. We launch for this trip at the south end of the “Gates of the Mountains,” so named by Lewis & Clark back in 1805. This narrow, deep limestone canyon has played host to a lot of history, from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 which claimed the lives of many wildlands firefighters, an event immortalized in the book Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean, who’s far more famous for his other book, A River Runs Through It, which you may have heard of…

The run across Upper Holter Reservoir is pretty in and of itself. The lake is shallow and in a wide bowl-shaped valley. It’s typically home to a wide range of bird species, including oddballs like Caspian Terns. It’s also home to a lot of trout; if the wind is calm (which it often isn’t), we’ll often fish the lake as well as the river upstream.

missouri river land of giants canyon scenery

Once into the Missouri River itself, the canyon walls close in, falling sheer into the river and occasionally shedding a boulder. The boulders are why we need to run jet boats here; hitting a car-sized rock with a prop motor would ruin everyone’s day. We’ll often see deer, ospreys, eagles, and a range of songbirds here in the river canyon, occasionally joined by black bear.

In the lower 1.5mi of the Land of Giants, the river flows wide and fairly shallow, though the current is often swift. Upstream of the small meadow near tributary Beaver Creek, the canyon walls close in, the river narrows and deepens, and flows get faster and faster as you approach Hauser Dam. This upper reach of the river is deep, fast, and turbulent, and is arguably the prettiest water on the trip, though also the hardest to fish.

Fishing the Land of Giants

This stretch of the Missouri is home to a vast amount of trout food, ranging from tiny mayflies and midges on up to crayfish, sculpins, and–believe it or not–perch. Because of the smorgasbord, even the largest rainbows can sometimes demand flies as small as #22. The vast amount of subsurface food also explains why dry fly fishing is seldom good here. Basically, dry fly fishing requires high water temperatures and heavy hatches. Occasionally you’ll find small pods of trout rising to midges of BWO, but the PMD and caddis hatches of late June and July are much better opportunities for dry fly fishing. Otherwise, expect to fish nymphs and streamers.

Early in the season when the water’s cold and high, most fish are caught nymphing deep with eggs, pink mayflies, and pink scuds. All of these flies are probably taken as rainbow trout eggs. The deep, walking-speed seams in the middle of the river are best at this time. Out of the boat, we usually free drift, cutting the engine and drifting with your strike indicator through good runs, then jetting back up to the top and repeating the performance. For shore-bound anglers or when our clients want to get out to fish on foot, the best tactic is to make a 15-25 foot cast slightly upstream, then stack mends as the flies drift past and downstream, feeding line into the drift as long as possible before pulling in the slack and starting over. This takes some practice, but it’s an extremely effective tactic whenever the trout are stacked in a few deep midriver seams.

large june missouri river rainbow trout

As the water begins to drop and especially warm in May, the deep bouldery slots can still be top spots, but some fish begin moving into cobble-bottomed riffles to eat scuds, sowbugs, and BWO nymphs. Streamer fishing can also be effective, particularly if you’re interested in capping off a day of solid 14-20″ rainbows with one big brown trout. Perch-pattern streamers are often just the ticket in late May and early June, and may produce walleye as well as trout. Instead of midriver areas, we’ll often target smaller targets along the bank or behind midriver rocks at this time. Sometimes we’ll drift. Sometimes we’ll anchor up or even use the trolling motor to hold in good areas. Bank fishing is less effective except in a few specific areas at this time, since the fish are more spread-out than earlier.

In June and especially in July, the fish shift to faster and often shallower areas, such as boulder fields and riffles. Nymphing deep in the morning, shallower in midday, and often hanging tiny nymphs below dries is often the ticket at this time of year. Except when fishing dry flies, we’ll usually do all fishing from the boat at this time, but anchoring up to pound specific boulder piles or riffles is often the name of the game.

For the remainder of the season, the fish move back out into the middle for the most part, often in fast, turbulent seams up close to Hauser Dam. Sometimes we’ll target these fish on the drift, sometimes anchored.

Except when fishing streamers, when bigger is often better, fly size here should be on the small size. While we get some fish in spring on “gob of protein,” flies like #10-12 Caviar Scuds and AMEX Czech Nymphs, #16-18 is better the rest of the year. #20-22 are occasionally required in late summer and early fall. Except in spring, when pink attractor nymphs of various sorts are good, these flies should generally match the food the trout are focused on: BWO and scuds in late May, PMD nymphs and caddis pupae in June and July, midges much of the time. Since “LoG” often isn’t crystal clear, small bugs with hints of flash are often excellent choices. Hatch-matching dry flies are better than attractors. Last Chance Cripples are excellent mayflies, while the Corn-Fed Caddis is a top caddisfly.

Early January Snowpack Report and VERY Early Summer Streamflow Predictions

Early January Snowpack Report and VERY Early Summer Streamflow Predictions

Introduction

Note that this is a VERY preliminary report. Right now long-range outlooks are still calling for a wet winter, with heavy weather predicted for the Northern Rockies in the second half of this month that could completely change the picture below. We’ll gain a better and better understanding of what our snowpack and summer streamflows will look like as winter and early spring progress. By April 1 we’ll have a pretty clear picture of how much snow we’ll have. By May 1 we’ll know if it’s melting early. So take the following with a HUGE grain of salt. At this point there’s no reason to begin changing trip plans you’ve made for late July and August.

The Importance of Snowpack

Visitors from many parts of the country are used to fishing tailwater and spring-fed trout streams that do not depend on winter snows for their flows. Most of our waters are fed by surface drainage and limited amounts of groundwater. Both factors are driven by winter snowpack: how much snow falls and when it starts melting in the spring. High snowpack that melts late means we’ll have a late spring melt that lasts into July, but strong, cold flows through the hottest parts of summer. A low snowpack that melts early means we’ll have a spring melt that ends in mid-late June, and we’ll be sweating our streamflows and water temperatures in late July and August.

High snowpack years mean a delayed start to some of our top fisheries (like the Lamar River for a chief example), but good fishing and healthy fish afterwards. Low snowpack makes for great early summer fishing, but high water temperatures, stressed trout, and the related stream closures come late July and August.

Winter Snows so Far

We saw a cold and wet October, including 18″ of snow on the ground in one storm here in Livingston. November and December have been warm and very dry. The closest ski hill, Bridger Bowl, didn’t open until about December 20 and still only has 18 inches of snowbase. My “rock board” is getting a workout for sure.

Current snowpack ranges from a low of 64% of normal in the Madison Basin outside YNP to a high of 105% of normal in the Yellowstone Basin inside and upstream of Yellowstone Park. The Madison Basin is more accurate, since the Yellowstone Basin includes areas near the Teton Mountains 150 miles from here that have gotten far more snow than the Lamar and Gardner Basins and the canyon stretches of the Yellowstone inside YNP where we actually do most of our fishing. The Northeast Entrance snow sensor on the upper reaches of Soda Butte Creek tells this tale: it’s currently at 71% of normal snowpack.

Summer Streamflow Predictions

Simply put, snowpack sucks right now and we need more snow, or we’re going to have low, warm water, stream closures, and lots of fires in late summer.

If things continue as they are, runoff will begin to tail off starting around June 10 and be over on all waters by July 1. The best fishing on most of the waters in the northern part of YNP and north to Livingston and beyond will take place from about June 20 through mid-July, with late summer fishing utterly dependent on cool weather that keeps water temperatures below the 70-degree mark. The Firehole and Gibbon on the west side of Yellowstone Park may begin getting too warm by June 10, as they did in 2015-2016, our last low-snowpack years.

2:00PM stream closures are likely throughout our operations area due to warm water starting by July 20 and lasting for a month or so. The Yellowstone is usually resistant to such closures, but I wouldn’t be surprise if closures have to be instituted all the way upstream to Gardiner, or even in Yellowstone Park.

Again, the above assumes that current low snowfall continues. Hopefully when I make the next update in a few weeks, I’ll have a completely different report.

Stillwater River Fishing Trips

Stillwater River Fishing Trips

I won’t bury the lede: The Stillwater River offers the best dry-dropper fishing for numbers of trout of any body of water within our operations area. Full stop.

At Parks’ Fly Shop, we mostly float the Yellowstone River. We do offer Montana float fishing trips on three other rivers, though: the Lower Madison, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers. The Lower Madison is our go-to float river in late May and June when the Yellowstone is muddy, Boulder River float fishing trips are possible in early May, June, and July, and the Stillwater is a great option from early July into September and sometimes through the fall. In this series of blog posts, Walter will discuss our float fishing trips on these rivers.

This is the third and final entry in this series, covering Stillwater River fishing trips. The first entry covered the Boulder River. The second covered the Lower Madison River.

Visit this page for more information on our float trips.

Angler with Stillwater River rainbow trout
July rainbow from the lower Stillwater. Notice how high the water is in the background. The river was at 1600cfs in this photo.

 

Introduction to Stillwater River Fishing Trips

  • Season: Late June or early July through August in low water years. In normal or wet years, the Stillwater can remain floatable until late October or later. Flows need to be above 450cfs for the lower float section to remain floatable.
  • The Fishing: While we do some streamer fishing and hatch-matching on Stillwater River fishing trips, the vast majority of the fishing is with grasshoppers or large attractor dries with fast-sinking attractor nymph droppers.
  • The Fish: While there’s an outside chance of Yellowstone cutthroat and brook trout, particularly on the upper float stretches between Nye and Absarokee, the vast majority of the trout here are rainbow and brown trout. Most fish run 8 to 14 inches, but we’ll usually see a few up to 18 inches. In late summer and fall, there’s potential for fish to 24 inches or more in the lower couple miles of the Stillwater that have come upstream from the Yellowstone. Almost all fish on the Stillwater are fat, healthy, and fight well for their size.
  • The Boat: The Stillwater River is a fast, turbulent, rocky, shallow river with numerous small rapids and several very big ones. As such, all Stillwater River fishing trips use the raft. Depending on client interests and goals as well as water levels, we may also get out to do some wade fishing.

I have never had even an “average numbers” day here. On most trips, two clients of intermediate or better skill can expect at least 100+ strikes between them, and fifty fish in the boat is common. That said, unless we hit an uncrowded day in July, the larger rainbows in the lower couple miles of river are crushing hoppers in August, or we hit the fall-run brown trout just right in late September or October, most trout will run 8 to 14 inches. Depending on the float we choose, we sometimes float a couple miles of the Yellowstone downstream of the Stillwater’s confluence with it. Larger fish on average can be found on this portion of Stillwater River fishing trips, allowing for days where we get our numbers early and then finish up trying for a couple big ones.

The Stillwater River offers one to five good float-fishing stretches depending on flows and how we opt to fish. Basically, if flows are high and we opt to stop to wade fish a lot, there are more possible trips, whereas if we opt to fish from the boat when flows are low, only the lower portion of the Stillwater out into the Yellowstone makes sense. Because the Stillwater is a long way from Gardiner (and even from Livingston), we usually opt to fish the first float upstream of Absarokee when flows are high and the lower float(s) downstream of Absarokee when flows are low.

The Stillwater is fast, rocky, and turbulent, which means casts must be accurate and line management must be good. Therefore float-fishing is tough for beginners and novices. That said, when flows are low, we can “run and gun” on Stillwater River fishing trips and use the boat as transportation and do most of our fishing wading. Such trips are suitable for novice anglers, though not really beginners.

The Stillwater enters the Yellowstone near Columbus, Montana, about 75 miles east of Livingston. The Stillwater River float that takes out on the Yellowstone in Columbus itself begins another 15 miles up the road, and other floats are father away yet. Thus you should plan for a 2+ hour drive to fish the Stillwater if you’re staying in Gardiner, roughly 45 minutes to meet your guide in Livinston, roughly an hour to Columbus, and roughly fifteen minutes to the launch. For this reason, staying in Livingston (or even Bozeman), Big Timber, Columbus, or Absarokee make MUCH better sense than staying in Gardiner, though the trip can work from Gardiner if you’re willing to hit the road at 6:00AM or thereabouts. Clients staying anywhere in YNP besides Mammoth should expect A LOT of windshield time.

The travel time is the only issue we don’t guide here much more. Walter is making it one of the pillars of his personal business for 2021, but that business is centered on Livingston rather than Gardiner, which makes it a lot easier.

Stillwater River rainbow trout
Stillwater trout are fat and healthy regardless of size (and this is a pretty good one).

Introduction to the Stillwater River

The Stillwater River begins in the Beartooth Mountains north of Yellowstone National Park, just over the “hill” (really 11,000-12,000+ foot mountains) from the headwaters of Slough Creek. It starts off flowing north from the mountains, then gradually curves northeast and finally east-northeast before joining the Yellowstone upstream of Columbus. Its total journey is more than 60 miles. Approximately the lower 35 miles of the Stillwater are floatable, from Buffalo Jump FAS near Nye downstream to the Yellowstone.The remote headwaters offer good fishing for small trout, mostly brookies, but require significant hiking and rock-scrambling to reach.

The section from Buffalo Jump FAS to Moraine FAS has the shortest season, only about three weeks in length. The season is slightly longer from Moraine to Cliff Swallow FAS and longer yet from Cliff Swallow to Jeffrey’s Landing FAS. Only the 14-odd miles downstream from Jeffrey’s Landing is typically floatable after late July or early August. This lower section begins at the confluence with Rosebud Creek, which is almost as large as the Stillwater itself and runs higher than the Stillwater later into the summer.

In effect, the best sections for Stillwater River fish trips split by season and flow. When flows are higher than about 2000cfs as measured at the gauge at Absarokee, the fishing is better upstream of the Rosebud. When flows are between 2000 and 1000cfs, fishing is good throughout, though float-fishing can get tough due to exposed rocks upstream from Cliff Swallow FAS. Once flows drop below 1000cfs, floating above Jeffrey’s Landing gets gradually more difficult and then basically impossible by the time flows hit 750. From 750 down to 450, the Stillwater is only floatable downstream of Jeffrey’s Landing and even this section often requires the guide and sometimes even requires clients to get out and help drag the boat over shallow areas. In addition, a nasty rapid called Beartooth Drop is easily floatable above 1000cfs but below that may demand clients wade around it while the guide rows an empty raft over the drop.

In dry years, the lower portion of the river gets too low for us to run Stillwater River fishing trips during the last ten days of August. In normal years, late September is pretty safe. In wet years, or even when fall rains help raise flows, we can continue fishing the lower Stillwater off-and-on through October. For reference, 2019 saw the lower Stillwater good to go except for a week or so through fall, while 2020 (a much drier year) saw it get too low intermittently around September 10 and then get too low for good around October 1.

Angler and Stillwater River
Trevor acting goofy at the Swinging Bridge launch, where we put in for half-day floats on the lower Stillwater.

The Stillwater remains a good wade fishery no matter how low flows get, though since public access points are somewhat limited, we do not run Stillwater River fishing trips after flows get too low to float, or at least use the boat for transportation.

The entire Stillwater River is fast-flowing and rocky. Even the “gentle” stretches near Absarokee and in the last mile or so feature short pools punctuated by heavy riffles and runs. Much of the river is almost continuous pocket water, especially when flows are high. There’s a suspicion that the river’s name is therefore a joke. In many respects, the Stillwater resembles a larger version of the Boulder. One difference is that the Stillwater has longer stretches or riprapped banks, primarily in its lower reaches.

Despite its fast-flowing and rocky nature, the portions of the river on which we run floats primarily flows through a broad and very pretty valley lined with cottonwoods, hay meadows, and homes. As the river approaches the Yellowstone, it begins cutting down through rock ledges, which make for the heaviest rapids on the lower river (the upper river is also wild) and also makes for a few “cliffy” stretches where one bank at least fishes like the river is down in a canyon.

The Stillwater River features excellent insect populations, both aquatic insects in the river and terrestrial insects in the hay meadows and bushes. Stoneflies are probably the most important aquatic insect, no surprise given the river’s fast and rocky nature. Salmonflies are uncommon, but Golden Stoneflies, Nocturnal Stones, and Yellow Sallies are numerous. The Nocturnal Stones (Midnight Stones) often hatch late into September, which is one reason large attractor-hoppers like Chubby Chernobyls and big Bob Hoppers work so well. In July and early August, tan caddis and PMD can also bring up good numbers of fish, while in September Tan Drakes and BWO may interest the fish. In regards to terrestrials, while you can fish ants with success on the Stillwater, there’s seldom any need to do so. The fish love hoppers in August and September on Stillwater River fishing trips.

It is uncommon to see more than one or two other guides per day on the Stillwater. This is due to the distance from Livingston and Bozeman. Simply put, most guides (and many clients) would rather not drive so far. That said, the Stillwater enters the Yellowstone only 45 miles from Billings, Montana’s largest city, and both Columbus and Absarokee are good-sized towns either on or only a few minutes from the Stillwater. In addition, Red Lodge is less than an hour away and is a popular summer resort community. This means that wade anglers are common sights near the public access points. Kayakers aren’t unusual no matter the water level, and recreational rafters are numerous on the weekends downstream from Jeffrey’s Landing when flows are about above 1000cfs. This said, total river traffic is a fraction what it is on the Yellowstone and Madison.

Lower Stillwater River brown trout
Lower Stillwater River brown trout.

Fishing the Stillwater River

Except when the river is still up in the bushes, when we’re fishing with novice clients, or when we’re trying for bigger brown trout, dry-dropper tactis are our bread and butter on the Stillwater. In July this means a big Chubby Chernobyl or the locally-loved Jack Cabe (sort of a tan-winged, oversized Trude, pictured below) trailing a heavy Yellow Sally nymph or caddis pupa. In August and early September, we’ll usually fish Big Bob Hoppers with slender but heavy jig-style nymphs that can either represent small stoneflies or mayflies.

Jack Cabe fly pattern

Match-the-hatch fishing is limited on our Stillwater River fishing trips, but we’ll often fish some sort of small attractor dry suggestive of the insects we’re seeing on the dropper instead of the nymph, especially when the fish are rising well. Good choices in this category are Clacka Caddis in July and early August or Purple or Copper Hazy Cripples in late August and September. During hopper season, we’ll sometimes go double hopper (that’s a hopper with a hopper dropper, in case you were wondering. Only two hoppers at a time to stay legal in Montana, though.)

When we’re trying for larger fish, we’ll oven throw medium-sized streamers for a while. This is most likely on the lower river in the fall. Zonkers and Woolly Buggers are good bets. No need to get fancy.

Nymphing is not really on the table most of the time here. There’s only three circumstances when we’re likely to nymph:

  1. When we have beginner-novice clients.
  2. When we are floating for the first week or so after runoff when the river is raging high and not clear.
  3. On the lower river when we’re targeting fall run browns in late September and October.

More than any one fly, the real ticket here is accuracy. The fish relate very strongly to structure, particularly in July and early August when the water is still rather high. Expect your guide to harangue you if you’re not hitting your spots. If you do hit your spots, you might catch more trout on a day on the Stillwater than you ever have in a day of fishing.

Did I pique your interest?

Stillwater River, angler, and rainbow trout
This rainbow came no more than 200 yards upstream from the Yellowstone confluence.

Drag Sculpin Fly Tying Video

Drag Sculpin Fly Tying Video

The Drag Sculpin is representative of the class of large 3-4″ sculpin-style streamer patterns guides on the Yellowstone River often have clients use under strike indicators when shooting for larger brown trout, fish averaging 16 to 20 inches and potentially reaching or exceeding 24 inches. While such flies can be stripped like any big streamer, fishing them under indicators allows even novice clients who can’t properly cast and retrieve large streamers effectively to have shots at large trout. All that such clients need to do is mend consistently with slight amounts of drag between the mends.

The olive variation given here is without question the most consistent color for large streamers in the area, but other good baitfish colors also work: black, gold/tan, white, brown over yellow, etc.

Full recipe and fishing tips at Walter’s blog at https://fishstories.ycflyfishing.com/