Float Trips in Late Spring

Posted on January 26th, 2021 in Fishing Tips

Late Spring Float Trips: Introduction

Late spring, here meaning from the beginning of the heavy spring melt in the first or second week of May through its conclusion in late June or early July, is prime time for trout fishing in many parts of the United States. In the Rockies, it’s not. This is particularly true for anglers who want to float free-flowing rivers like the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater rather than those right below dams, like the Lower Madison and Missouri.

The issue is the spring melt that raises all area rivers and turns most into raging brown chocolate milkshakes for at least a few weeks. During this timeframe, river float trips turn to tailwaters: the Madison and Missouri Rivers. These rivers downstream of dams stay clear. Therefore all that the high water they experience does is flush lots of insects and other foods into the drift for the trout to gorge on. In contrast to other rivers, tailwater rivers offer great float fishing at this time.

There’s one other factor that can influence fishing in late spring: runoff breaks. Runoff breaks are periods of cool or cold and usually dry weather that pause the spring runoff for a day or two at a time on freestone rivers, particularly the Yellowstone upstream from Livingston and the Boulder.

When a runoff break occurs, the trout in freestone rivers go bananas, feeding heavily on stonefly nymphs and streamers. If you happen to be here in May or the first three weeks of June when flows are dropping and water clarity is 18 inches or more, fishing on freestones can be better than it is almost any other time of year. You just can’t plan for these breaks, because they’re utterly dependent on day-to-day weather.

late spring runoff break brown trout

This brown came on the Yellowstone River during a runoff break around June 20, 2019, right before the river blew out again. The Yellowstone did not drop into fishable shape for good until July 7 that year.

Other good guided trip options this time of year are our power boat trips and private lake trips. As a matter of fact, this is the one period when these alternative trips are definitely better choices than float trips if you want to fish from a boat. That said, for many anglers nothing can compete with drifting down a river on a boat propelled by oars. Read on for info on where and how we do it through most of May and June.

Late Spring Float Trips: Quick Facts and General Information

  • Best Waters: The top rivers in late spring are the lower and upper Madison and the Missouri downstream of Holter Dam. The Jefferson can be good some years late in this period, and during cold spells the Boulder and Yellowstone can be amazing. These cold spells can’t be planned for and the fishing only lasts a day or two at a time, though.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Late Spring: 1.) You are eager to fish the lower Madison River, 2.) You are eager to fish the Missouri River when it fishes “easiest,” if not “best,” or 3.) This is when you can come, and you would rather float a river than a lake or take a walk trip.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Late Spring: 1.) Most rivers are too high and muddy to float, particularly the Yellowstone and Stillwater, 2.) Crowds are high on the rivers that are floatable, and 3.) Except during hatches, dry fly fishing is poor.
  • Perfect Clients: Clients of any skill level who are coming at this time of year and would rather float-fish a river than fish a river from a power boat or fish a lake.
  • What Late Spring Does Best: Provides the best fishing of the season on the lower Madison and Missouri Rivers.

May and some portion of June is runoff season in Montana, when the high mountain snow melts at last and turns every river, stream, creek, trickle, and rivulet that isn’t immediately downstream of a large dam into a raging chocolate brown torrent full of sticks, logs, and debris up to and including dead livestock and game animals. Sometimes this period even extends into early July, though with the effects of global warming this happens less and less often.

Needless to say, this is not the time to float freestone rivers, as rivers that aren’t protected by dams are known. It’s not that the fishing is so-so. It’s that the rivers are dangerous to even float, much less fish.

There are a few rivers that remain good at this time within our operations area. The Lower and to a lesser extent the Upper Madison are closest to Livingston. The Missouri River downstream of Holter Dam near Craig and Wolf Creek, Montana is further afield and almost always the best option during this period. In fact, this is usually the best period on the Missouri overall, provided anglers are willing to fish deep with nymphs to rack up the numbers if the trout aren’t rising.The crowds that swarm the “MO” at this time attest to the quality of the fishing. This is also the most consistent period on the Lower Madison, though this is simply not as good a stretch of river as the Missouri below Holter.

late spring rainbow from the lower madison river

This Lower Madison rainbow trout ate a caddis pupa suspended beneath a dry. This is one of the larger fish you can expect from the Lower Madison using this technique rather than fishing deep with crayfish or imitations of other large food items.

Our primary float trip option in late spring is the Lower Madison River, which is located about 30 minutes from Bozeman, about an hour from Livingston. This puts it in closer range than many other options we fish regularly later in the season, including all of Yellowstone Park, portions of the lower Yellowstone, and the Stillwater.

While we run a few trips in both areas, neither the Upper Madison nor the Missouri below Holter are part of our core operations area. The Upper Madison is close enough to consider for day trips from Livingston. The drive is 1.5 to 2.5 hours. The Missouri below Holter Dam is 160 to 190 miles away, and therefore really too far for a day trip. The portion of the Missouri where we run power boat trips is 30 minutes closer, which makes things much more reasonable.

Crowds on all rivers low and clear enough to float in late spring are generally high. There’s just no getting around it. Lots of people come to Montana expecting everything to be good in May and early June, as it is in many other parts of the country, and they are all clustered onto fewer rivers than usual. The Missouri gets hit hard, in particular.

Late Spring Float Trips on the Lower Madison

On the Lower Madison, most large trout get caught on streamers, crayfish imitations, and San Juan Worms. Sometimes the highest numbers of trout also take these flies, but the Lower Maddy is an insect factory by mid-late May and most days see good insect hatches from sometime in mid-late morning through evening.

Caddis hatches in particular often blanket the river, as the photo below can attest. There can also be several species of mayflies as well as stoneflies. Because of all the bugs, we typically have clients fish dries and dry-dropper combos when feasible. The best dry and dry-dropper fishing here occurs when cloud cover is heavy. The Lower Madison is a shallow stretch of river, so the fish often don’t rise when the sun’s bright for fear of ospreys and eagles.

large number of caddisflies

Vast numbers of caddisflies on the Lower Madison.

Most rising trout on the Lower Madison run small. The fish above was a very good rainbow for the dry-dropper technique. Most fish caught this way except during ideal weather conditions will run smaller. Small browns and rainbows are most common, but there are also good numbers of westslope cutthroat now, a new addition to the Lower Madison in the past few years. Like all cutthroat trout, these westslopes like to rise. They average a bit larger than most of the rainbows and browns we see rising. The fish below is a good example.

Half-day and full-day trips are available on the Lower Madison, and both trip types make a good deal of sense. Full-day trips allow us to get out in front of the crowds, while half-days will allow us to slot in well behind everybody to “match the hatch” on the upper end of the Lower Madison most guides are well past when the fish start rising. The Lower Madison tends to be crowded, but we can shed a lot of these crowds by getting out in front of them or staying on late.

We often fish quite slowly on Lower Madison floats, especially when the trout start rising. There are many good riffles and islands where the guide can stop the boat to let anglers work to pods of rising fish, and anglers so inclined also have the opportunity to get out and wade fish good spots. In general, we’ll fish a longer float and move faster when fish aren’t likely to rise, and fish slow and methodical when the weather and water conditions look conducive to hatches.

Lower Madison River westslope cutthroat trout

Average westslope cutthroat from the Lower Madison. The numbers of these native trout are increasing due to a successful reintroduction effort.