It’s almost that special time of year when the fish can go crazy eating olive-bodied caddis for a few days on the Yellowstone before the river blows out. It’s been a couple seasons since the stars aligned, but because of recent heavy rains that should flush the low-elevation snow and a forecast for temps in the 60s (good) rather than warmer (bad) for the next week or so, we have at least a decent shot. Here’s a detailed outlook, plus tactics that will work on the Yellowstone (where the hatch can be epic or can be washed out by snowmelt) and on the Madison (where the hatch is usually decent but not epic).
I’d say we have a 50/50 shot at a fishable caddis hatch on the Yellowstone this year. It depends on how much it rains this upcoming week and where the snow line is. Late last week saw the warmest temps of the season, up to the low 70s at valley-level, and this combined with heavy rain yesterday (Saturday 4/20) and this morning has caused the Yellowstone to spike to 2900 to 3500 cubic feet per second flows, roughly twice the seasonal average.
The river is muddy right now. Provided on how much it cools off, and it is supposed to cool off sharply Monday-Wednesday, we should have a fishable window mid-late week to get us close to the end of April. I do not expect any or at least many caddis this week. Water temps will still be in the 40s and it takes consistent 50-53 degree temps to get them really popping. Streamers are likely to be the ticket instead.
The key is the period beginning next weekend, April 27 onward. Temps in the week thereafter will determine whether we get a fishable hatch. If the NOAA forecast pans out, we are in good shape. The forecast is calling for cooler than normal temps and below normal precip for this period. This would be ideal to keep runoff from starting early. We’ll see… The most likely period for the hatch will be the first week of May. After that, temps are supposed to spike and that’ll be the end of the spring fishing on the Yellowstone.
The entire river from Gardiner to the mouth of the Shields River should be clear enough if the hatch does pop while the river’s clear. Even before yesterday’s rain, the river was filthy below Biltman Creek in Livingston, but the rain should have blown out most of the remaining low snow in this creek’s drainage. Once it drops, this will open up more clear water. It is unlikely the Shields River will clear enough to make the area east/downstream of its confluence fishable again this spring. There’s too much snow in the Shields Drainage, which is south-facing and therefore melts quick.
Over on the Madison, expect the caddis to pop in mid-May. While seldom as epic as the Yellowstone hatches, the Madison hatches pretty typically offer at least decent fishing for a week or more in mid-May.
Subsurface tactics are usually more effective during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch than dry flies, and attractor dry flies are usually more effective than imitative ones.
Start your day of fishing with streamers or by nymphing deep. Flashy streamers like the Kreelex are good choices in the spring as the water gets dirty. Run a caddis pupa like my Mother’s Day Pupa as a second chance fly behind this streamer. A lot of fish will take the dropper if the caddis hatch is imminent. If nymphing, something like a Prince or my Hula Princess on the bottom with an upper dropper of a lighter caddis pupa is a good choice. Another option is to fish a stonefly nymph with the Prince or a heavier pupa behind it.
Once you start seeing a few rises and a few caddis fluttering, switch to something like a #14 Peacock Clacka Caddis or Coachman Trude with the Mother’s Day Pupa or Prince on the dropper. Except in intense hatches, you can stick with this rig for the remainder of the hatch. Look for hatches to be heaviest from early afternoon through early evening. Early and late in the day won’t do much for you.
If the fish really start going crazy, swap the pupa for an olive Mercer’s Missing Link Caddis or Lawson’s Spent Partridge Caddis in olive. These double-dry tactics will work best in areas where bugs will cluster: foam patches, large eddies, and the like. They’re also a better bet if you’re wade-fishing than floating, since when wading you can pound areas you find rising trout and sort of encourage them to rise. From the boat, you’re flock-shooting and so better off most of the time targeting the larger numbers of fish eating pupae subsurface.
Top March Fisheries Near Livingston: “Land of the Giants” on the Missouri River in Early March
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
Top Three Missouri River Flies for Late February and March
Top Missouri River Nymphs for Late February and March
Late winter and early spring are “pink season” on the Missouri. Whether the fish are taking these assorted pink bugs as eggs or dead scuds and sowbugs probably depends on the specific fish. Nonetheless, they work. The key is generally getting them down. These flies should be ticking bottom just on the edge of the current seam in 5-8 feet of water in slow walking-speed runs.
Rainbow Czech Nymph
This is a great multipurpose nymph that can look like a sowbug, scud, egg, or even a caddis larva. Also try it with the bead replaced with a fluorescent flame “fire bead.” Another good similar pattern is the AMEX, which basically just swaps the abdomen and thorax colors around and replaces the shellback with a tinsel wingcase over the thorax alone.
Hook: #12-18 scud. Note that you can also tie this fly as a “jig nymph” with the proper hooks and beads.
Bead: gold brass or tungsten
Thread: 6/0-8/0 black, pink, or tan.
Shellback: clear scud back.
Rib: black wire or midge/micro tubing.
Abdomen: Wapsi rainbow sow-scud dubbing (note that the Wapsi product is far better than others for this fly).
Hotspot/Thorax: Bighorn pink sow-scud dubbing, or other hot pink dubbing.
Head: one or two turns of rainbow sow-scud dubbing.
Pink Firebead Soft Hackle Sowbug
Various bright pink sow/scud patterns are always favorites on the Missouri at this time, and some get surprisingly complicated. Most years, I do better by following the KISS rule. You’ll use up a lot of firebead flies, mostly because the beads get banged up and lose their effectiveness, and it’s easy to fill your box with this pattern. Experiment with different shades of pink on the body (I typically carry four subtle shades) and tie some of each with light dun and some with cream or white hackle.
Hook: #16-18 short shank nymph.
Bead: fluorescent fire orange brass or tungsten “fire bead.”
Thread: fluorescent fire orange 8/0
Body: pink dubbing blend.
Hackle: one or two turns of light dun, cream, or white hen.
Pink Lightning Bug
This one likely crosses over between eggs, scuds, and Blue-winged Olive mayfly nymphs. There are many competing variations of this fly. I’ve given the recipe for the one I use the most. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different tail materials, bead colors, metallic or translucent pink body materials, and dubbing blends for the thorax.
Hook: #16-18 scud.
Bead: nickel brass or tungsten.
Thread: hot pink 8/0.
Tail: A few strands of shell pink Antron yarn, or similar yarn.