Float Trips in Early Spring

Posted on January 23rd, 2024 in Fishing Tips

Angler holding brown trout. Snow in background.

Early spring is prime season for larger fish.

Early Spring Float Trips: Introduction

Early spring float fishing in Montana is the best-kept secret in area fly fishing. Larger rivers fish very well at this time as the trout wake up from the long winter. Some dry fly fishing is possible, but the real draw is targeting big fish using subsurface tactics.

Angler crowds are minimal, the big fish are on the hunt, and there’s even a shot at dry fly fishing when it’s warm (or skiing at Bridger Bowl or Big Sky on off days, if it’s cold). What’s not to love?

The weather and water conditions, mostly. It might be bitter cold and snowing, it might be warm with howling winds. The rivers might be crystal clear or they might be chocolate brown with an early taste of the spring melt. These are the dice you roll when you book an early spring float trip. Not daunted? Read on.

Early Spring Float Trips: Quick Facts

  • Best Waters: The top rivers in early spring are the entire Yellowstone except the shallowest stretches of Paradise Valley, and perhaps the lower Madison and Boulder Rivers.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Early Spring: 1.) This is prime time for larger fish, especially rainbow and rainbow-cutthroat hybrid (cuttbow) trout. 2.) Crowds are low to nonexistent on most rivers. 3.) The fishing in early spring is just different than it is the rest of the year.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Early Spring: 1.) Dry fly fishing is limited. 2.) Weather and water conditions are inconsistent (it might be 15 degrees and snowing sideways, 50 with good fishing conditions, or 80 and sunny with a chocolate milk river). 3.) Fewer fisheries are good in early spring than during peak season.
  • Perfect Clients: Experienced anglers eager to accept inconsistent weather and water conditions to fish nymphs and streamers for high-average and potentially really big fish, without the fishing crowds of summer and fall. Early spring is especially good for anglers who’ve been to Montana in the summer or early fall and want to see something different.
  • What Early Spring Does Best: Produces good numbers of larger rainbows and some browns using indicator-nymphing techniques.
large early spring rainbow-cutthroat hybrid

The largest rainbow and rainbow-cutthroat hybrid trout we see on the Yellowstone River are often caught on early spring float (or float-wade) trips. We got three this size in about two weeks, including two in one day.

Early Spring Float Trips: The Fishing

Early spring begins when the winter ice recedes enough to make floating safe and lasts until the heavy spring runoff hits freestone rivers like the Yellowstone sometime in early May, or once in a while the last few days of April.

This is the last truly “underfished” time of year in most areas within our operations area. On most rivers, we’re unlikely to see another boat during this period. Even on the Lower Madison, which sees the most pressure at this time of year, we’re unlikely to see more than a handful.

Despite the lack of pressure, this is a great time of year to float area rivers. The trout have the feedbags on to recover from the rigors of winter and the rainbow and cutthroat trout are preparing to spawn in tributary creeks, and are therefore aggressive.

It’s not uncommon for the largest fish of the year to come at this time, particularly rainbows. Because the crowds are low and the shots at big fish, we do more “personal” fishing on the Yellowstone River in early spring than during the rest of the year combined. One glorious day in late March Walter caught two fish over 23 inches long in an hour on the Yellowstone, and he never saw another angler or boat that day. Need we say more?

Early spring tactics are primarily subsurface. Our usual technique is to nymph with a big stonefly trailing something smaller, with a streamer rod at the ready as a changeup option.

The fish often gather in big numbers in small areas at this time, whether they’re sitting out the winter cold in pods or preparing for their spawning runs. For this reason, in early spring we often stop the boat and fish small areas hard, either anchored up or by using the boat mostly as transportation, then getting out to fish the likely spots on foot.

Unlike during the summer and early fall periods, we never fish dries in early spring unless we see rising fish. With the water still in the 30s or 40s, the fish simply don’t want to burn the energy to rise unless there are enough bugs to make it worthwhile. That said, the last few days of early spring on the Yellowstone can see some of the best dry fly fishing of the year.

This is the fabled Mother’s Day caddis hatch. This bug comes off in the millions or billions and drives the fish wild, provided the river is clear. This is a tough hatch to plan for, as often the river blows out with runoff right at the beginning of the hatch, but if you can hit it right, this might be one of the best days of fishing of your life.

Note that the Yellowstone does get crowded when the caddis pop, because every other guide in the state knows that this event causes spectacular fishing, too.

early spring brown trout

Large trout of all species often put on the feedbags right at the beginning of spring runoff. Walter caught this brown on the last day the river was clear enough to fish before blowing out for the spring melt. Notice how brown the water is in the background.

Early Spring Float Fishing in Montana: Where?

By far our favorite river to guide in early spring is the Yellowstone. It is clear most of the time, though warm weather can muddy it for a day or two as low-elevation snow melts, especially when the warm weather is accompanied by rain.

When the Yellowstone does get some early mud, the lower Madison is a great option. Further afield, the Missouri below Holter Dam is always great in early spring, and sees less traffic now than it does a few weeks later. The Boulder River is too cold through most of early spring, but it gets warm enough and high enough to float in late April and stays clear about a week later than the Yellowstone does, which makes it a great secondary option.

The major downside of early spring is the weather. “Spring” in Montana is not like spring in warmer places. It might be 15 degrees in the morning. It might snow all day. Worse, it might spit a mix of rain and snow. The wind often howls. It might also be 80 degrees and turn the rivers filthy with early snowmelt down from the mountains.

Floating can therefore be rather uncomfortable when the weather is bad, and the fishing can be unproductive when the weather is “good.” The somewhat variable water and weather conditions carry over to the fishing: it’s not consistent. Sometimes it’s great, but it can be tough too, especially if you’re after big numbers of fish rather than larger fish.

During early spring, half-day trips are better choices that full-days most of the time. This is especially true in March. Later in April, and especially in the few days of May before the runoff hits, the water warms and the fish get more aggressive, meaning full days are also a great option. Regardless of trip duration, we won’t meet early. There’s seldom any need to be on the water before 10:00AM.

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