This is first in a series of three posts I’ll make about top March fisheries. I’ll profile one each in the first ten, middle ten, and last ten days of the month. Note that all three fisheries are actually quite good throughout March, and on into the middle of April at least.
I’ll be honest here. This year, there are few March fisheries near Livingston, at least not until the weather moderates. We had a drastically warm and dry December and January that had us fearful for summer water levels. Lately we have been blessed and cursed with a bitter cold and snowy February. We had about three feet of snow here in Livingston in the past ten days! March is coming in with temperatures reaching -20 Fahrenheit at night and below zero in the afternoon. Averages are in the 40s for daytime highs! While this cold and snowy weather is doing wonders for our snowpack, it means you are better off fishing somewhere else right now. Instead, use the information below for future reference on March fisheries near Livingston, and plan trips for “normal winters.”
This first post is about the Missouri River at “Land of the Giants,” downstream of Hauser Dam near Helena. Later in the month I’ll cover Depuy Spring Creek and the Yellowstone River. Remember that they’re all good throughout the month, though I have planned the blog posts to cover which I think is best at each time.
Fishing “Land of the Giants” on the Missouri River
This short section of the Missouri River runs about three miles from Hauser Dam to Holter Reservoir, the lake upstream of the famous portion of the Missouri. This is mostly fast, deep water, with steep canyon walls. The holding water is mostly composed of long, bouldery pools. Access is only on foot or via jet boat. This is certainly the top early March fishery near Livingston for BIG FISH! While there are some dinks, the HONEST average is sixteen to twenty-two inches, and there are fish caught here every March in the 25 to 28-inch range. These big fish are lake-run rainbows coming up from Holter Reservoir to spawn, as well as the resident trout that eat their eggs. As the weather moderates later in the spring, the crowds get very heavy here, and you’ll never be alone even in early March, but since cold weather keeps almost all boaters and most wade anglers away, early March is prime time here.
On this top early March fishery near Livingston, you want to look for the deep, walking-pace runs and seams. Except for active spawners you want to avoid, there will be few, if any fish in shallow water, and since water temperatures will still be in the 30s or low 40s, there won’t be any fish in fast water.
Trout Spey Tactics
You have two basic tactics to choose from if you’re fishing on foot. If you’re okay with fewer fish but more exciting fishing, utilize trout spey techniques. This is the top early March fishery near Livingston for this technique. It’s also good on the Missouri below Holter Dam, the Yellowstone, and the lower Madison. Fish a twelve to thirteen-foot 4-6wt spey rod with a moderately fast sink-tip and a short leader tapered to 1X or 2X. Choose your tip based on current speed and water depth. Use Woolly Buggers, sculpins, or trout spey streamers like the Skiddish Smolt or Montana Intruder. You can also fish egg-sucking leeches, since on every top early March fishery near Livingston have “egg on the brain” at this time.
Long-Range Nymphing Tactics
A better tactic for most anglers is long-range nymphing. Using stack-mending techniques to achieve long downstream drifts that give your flies plenty of time in the strike zone. That is to say on the bottom. If you don’t know how to stack-mend, I’ll describe the process below, but I suggest you also check out this excellent video. Except on the Paradise Valley spring creeks, stack-mending is an important skill on ever top early March fishery near Livingston. In fact, it’s a good skill whenever you’re nymphing on foot on larger waters, especially when the fish are holding well away from the banks.
This is somewhat specialized nymphing compared to other March fisheries near Livingston, and your normal rod and line probably aren’t ideal. Opt for a six-weight or seven-weight single-handed rod. The longer the rod, the better. I suggest a 10-footer. Rig this rod with a long-belly WF floating line, such as a line marketed as a floating steelhead line. Another option is to use an 11′ five-weight switch rod rigged with a floating general-purpose switch line. These long rods help with mending at long range, as well as setting the hook at poor angles that often result when stack-mending.
Leaders should range from nine to twelve feet depending on water level. The higher the flows, the longer the leader. I often use a standard nine-foot leader tapered to 3X, to which I attach a small swivel and a foot to eighteen inches of 4X tippet. Add split shot above the swivel (you will need two to three #B or BB lead shot), and a strike indicator.
The Basic Tactic, in Steps:
The basic tactic is as follows. Again see, the video above :
- Cast slightly upstream out towards the seam, starting close and gradually working farther out into deeper water. Make sure to have extra slack line ready, hanging in the water in front of you.
- Keep the rod pointed directly at your indicator at all times, at least to start. As you learn how the currents in the particular run you’re fishing interfere with the drift, you may find your drifts get better by slightly leading the indicator in its drift, or even lagging even more slightly behind it, but these are special cases.
- Give an immediate upstream mend all the way to the strike indicator, even if you jerk it slightly. This is your initial “set-up” mend.
- As the line comes straight in front of you, mend again. If you need to, feed line into the mend to avoid dragging the flies.
- Continue mending as needed as the indicator drifts below you, taking care to avoid dragging the flies. You can extend the drift as long as you like, certainly longer than you can cast.
- Assuming you don’t get a strike… At maximum fishing range, which will range from fifty to eighty feet of line out of the guides for most anglers, strip in line to get back to easy casting range and start the process again.
- When you get a strike… Set the hook HARD at a 45-degree angle above the water on your DOWNSTREAM side. Never set the hook upstream when using this technique. Doing so just pulls the fly upstream in the trout’s mouth and either results in poor hook placement at the tip of the fish’s mouth or missing the fish entirely. You also shouldn’t set with your rod just above the water on your downstream side. Because of water pressure, you usually don’t get enough power in the hookset when doing so.
Playing fish using this technique is hard. Use an aggressive downstream angle with your rod to pull the fish away from the fast current and into shallow water. Often your rod should be almost parallel to the water. Once the fish is in shallow water, you can bring the rod straight up to pull the fish upstream towards you. Don’t be afraid to follow the fish downstream, however! A good tactic sometimes is to get to shore and hustle downstream until you’re even with the fish. That way, when you apply downstream pressure, the fish feels the pull from downstream, and so feels prompted to run upstream. This turns the current into your ally rather than your enemy. Even so, you’ll lose a lot of fish.
Flies for Nymphing, and How to Rig Them
All nymphs used at this time should at least suggest eggs. They should be about the same size as eggs and usually contain pink or orange elements suggestive of eggs, even if they have the profiles of more-traditional nymphs. Fly size should range from #12 to #18. Except when flows are up and somewhat dirty, expect the smaller flies to work better. Nonetheless, it’s good to have a larger fly in your rig. Always fish two flies. The larger one often serves as weight and an attractor, even if the smaller one produces 75% of the fish.
I’ll reiterate the right leader here. Start with a standard 9′ nylon monofilament leader, usually 3X though if flows are up and clarity is less than about five feet you can get away with 2X. Add a tiny swivel or tippet ring. Add about eighteen inches of tippet. I suggest fluorocarbon. 4X is usually necessary, but you can get away with 3X if the water is a bit off-color. You will need two or three size B or BB shot, depending on water depth and current speed. If using tin shot, use BB or AB, which are larger in size than equivalent lead shot.
Tie your larger fly to your main leader. This fly should be heavier, bulkier, and be tied with more weight that your smaller fly: some combination of lead wire, lead-free wire, and brass or tungsten beads. I typically use flies suggestive of sowbugs or scuds. See the lists below for my top five fly choices. You can also try a large pink or red San Juan Worm, marabou jig, a small and heavily-weighted Woolly Bugger, or even a big egg pattern tied with a tungsten beadhead. This top fly need not be overly suggestive of an egg, but I’ll usually include “egg-like” components. The Rainbow Czech Nymph pictured is a good example: the “hot spot” is suggestive of an egg, even if the rest of the fly is not.
Tie an 18-inch tag of lighter tippet (usually 5X, though you can occasionally get away with 4X) to the top fly’s hook. Tie your smaller, dropper fly (usually #16 or #18) to this tag. This fly should be smaller and/or sparser than your top fly, and should almost always be pink or another egg-like color. Tiny egg patterns are probably the most popular choices, but other flies work too. I like small, pink sowbugs and scuds, often tied with an orange “fire bead.” I also like small pink or pale orange mayfly nymphs and midge pupae. See the second list below for my favorite dropper flies.
One thing to note: tie or buy a lot of flies for this water. You will lose a ton. You’ll bust off quite a few, but you’ll also break off a lot of fish, mangle a lot of flies getting them out of fish, and simply have a lot of flies beat up by fish teeth. Because you’ll break off a lot of fish, it’s vital to squeeze the barbs on your hooks. The big trout will thank you.
The following are my favorite large nymphs:
- Rainbow Czech Nymph (Regular and Firebead), #12-14
- Amex Czech, #12-14
- Pink Caviar Scud, #12
- Ninch’s Bubble Yum Scud, #12-14
- Pink Squirrel, #12-14
The following are my favorite smaller nymphs:
- Metallic Pink Lightning Bug, #18 (Here is a link to the Lakestream page posting the image linked above, including a tying video)
- Pale Pink Rainbow Warrior, #18 (note: just a standard Rainbow Warrior tied with pink thread, transparent pink Flashabou, and pink thorax)
- Pale pink Firebead Soft Hackle Sowbug, #18
- Pink Firebead Soft Hackle Ray Charles
- Pale Pink Flashtail Mini Egg, #16