Introduction to Fly Fishing Montana in Winter

Fly fishing Montana in winter is not for the faint-hearted, and winter starts early. Sometime before Thanksgiving, the last hearty tourists and even local anglers disappear from most area waters. For good reason. Fishing opportunities rapidly decline, as does the quality of the weather. Heavy snow is possible as early as late September, but it’s the rule rather than the exception after the middle of November. Most people who come to the region in the winter come either to play in the snow, on skis, snowboards, or snowmobiles, or to watch wildlife. Nobody comes just to fish. That said, there’s certainly fishing to be done, and it can be quite good for a few hours around midday provided it’s warm enough you can tolerate it, but it’s still just for diehards. You’re unlikely to share the water with anyone but locals.

Note that the Yellowstone National Park fishing season closes at sunset on the first Sunday in November. As such, all winter fishing is outside the park.

Weather and Water Conditions

Weather in the winter ranges from bad to worse. While it might occasionally reach 50 degrees even in January at low elevations, more-typical temperatures range from around 0 degrees on up to the mid-30s, and it can get a lot colder. When it does get warm and sunny, the nice temperatures and sunshine are usually accompanied by horrific winds out of the southwest. These are particularly common in November and December. Arctic blasts with temperatures well below zero are most common in December and January, but can happen at any point in the winter.

The heaviest snowfalls are usually in January at lower elevations, while the mountains actually see falls just as heavy in March and April. Snow is usually on the ground at least in windblown drifts (and often accumulates everywhere to depths of feet) at all locations starting sometime in late November or early December. It sometimes melts out at low elevations by late February, but not always, and it can always snow again. Snowshoes can be helpful in reaching some good winter fisheries, particularly the Madison River between Hebgen and Quake Lakes.

Late November through late February sees all rivers at their lowest flows of the year. This makes walking and wading easy, though of course a spill is far more dangerous at this time than at other times. Water temperatures range from “crunchy” (ice) on freestone rivers, particularly from December through early February, to about 40-45 degrees, with the warmest temperatures on the Paradise Valley spring creeks. Look for water temperatures in the 38 degree range or higher before going fishing, as trout do not feed well at colder water temperatures. Late January and February see warmer water temperatures than December, due to the longer hours of daylight.

Top Fisheries

“Top Fisheries” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like “only fisheries.” You don’t have many good options for fly fishing Montana in winter, even though almost all water in the central and eastern parts of the state remains legally open.

As noted, Yellowstone Park is closed to fishing in the winter. Lakes all freeze by mid-November and stay frozen until March. The only large rivers that are consistently good all through the winter are the Missouri River downstream of Canyon Ferry Dam (including the famous tailwaters below Hauser and Holter Dams) and the Lower Madison River below Ennis Dam. Even downstream portions of these waters can see ice during late December and January. Otherwise, the top bets through the entire winter are the Paradise Valley spring creeks and other spring creeks.

Freestone rivers can see fair fishing on warm days through November, but most portions of them will see slush or full-blown ice in December and January, often extending until the middle of February. Isolated stretches of all of these rivers can fish well through the winter, particularly portions near the mouths of hot springs or spring creeks, but these are often chunks of river no more than a couple hundred yards in length. If you do fish freestone rivers in December and January, be very wary walking and wading: ice shelves may break under you and drop you in the river, and drifting ice sheets have knocked anglers in and killed them.

Better fishing on freestone rivers, basically the Yellowstone, Gallatin, and the Madison between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake, begins in late January or early February when more light falls on the water, but the spring creeks and tailwaters remain better choices.

My favorite winter fisheries are isolated portions of the Yellowstone River near hot spring inputs, particularly the section right through Gardiner which receives warm water from the Gardner River (which has some hot springs on it), and the Paradise Valley spring creeks. It’s a long drive given the short fishing hours of winter, but the Missouri River in the Land of Giants section as well as downstream of Holter Dam is also a great choice. All of the above are wade-only options in the dead of winter. It isn’t safe to run boats given the potential for ice floes.

Fishing Tactics

Early winter may see the same tactics that worked in late autumn continue to work for a little while. This is especially true on low-elevation tailwaters (the Missouri and Lower Madison) and spring creeks. Some BWO and midge hatches may occur, fishing streamers relatively slowly can move larger fish, and there may still be enough brown trout spawning for their brethren or other trout that are sitting downstream of them to be willing to eat egg patterns. This fishing ends by the 10th of December or so even on the spring creeks, the places it lasts longest.

After this point, tactics diverge between spring creeks and other (colder) rivers. On the spring creeks, fish midge larvae and pupae, mayfly nymphs, San Juan Worms, and perhaps streamers all through the winter. On calm, cloudy days you may find a few fish rising to midges or even tiny Blue-winged Olive mayflies. By late January, some rainbows may start moving into the creeks in preparation for the early spring spawn, so egg patterns will start drawing fish. The fishing can often be quite good on the creeks in the winter, and rates are lower than at busier times of year.

On all other bodies of water, the name of the game is finding water moving at a slow walking pace that is between three and perhaps eight feet deep. Such areas are winter holding lies and are the only areas where trout will be found consistently. Top flies are usually small. Midge pupae and mayfly nymphs are good on all bodies of water. Sowbugs and scuds or Czech nymphs that resemble these crustaceans, all usually pink in color or at least containing pink “hot spots,” often work better on tailwaters. In February, egg patterns may begin to work. Stonefly nymphs can work on freestone rivers, while on tailwaters you might dead-drift a streamer. On warm, calm days, you might find limited-duration midge hatches on all rivers. In these situations the fish will move into slightly faster and shallower water, though they’ll almost never be in water that’s moving at more than a fast walking pace or shallower than two or three feet. Hatches will be most prominent near the mouths of spring creeks or geothermal (hot spring) inputs, such as near the mouth of the geothermally-heated Gardner River where it dumps into the Yellowstone right in the town of Gardiner.

Except possibly on the spring creeks, where midmorning might offer good fishing, there’s no point in getting out on the water before about noon during the winter. The best fishing will conclude by 3:00 or 4:00PM.

Who Should Consider Fly Fishing Montana in Winter?

With the exception of locals, nobody should consider fly fishing Montana in winter as the focus of their trip. Guides would love it if more did, but there just aren’t enough opportunities.

That said, if you’re coming primarily to ski, snowmobile, or wildlife watch, there ARE some opportunities to get out for a few hours most afternoons. Just bring plenty of warm clothes, fingerless gloves, and your midge and small fly boxes. Fishing can be solid in the winter, it’s just hard both in a tactical sense and on the body. Brrrrr…