Fall fly fishing in Montana is a favorite of both our anglers and fly fishing guides. The rivers are quiet, the air is cool, hatches are solid, and the fishing on our blue ribbon rivers is good. Fall also brings changes in river dynamics and by late-September anglers in Bozeman, Montana need to adapt their fly fishing tactics in order to have continued success through October and into November. Hiring a Montana fly fishing guide is always a good way to even the odds between man and trout, but these 5 tips are the best next bet for anglers coming to fly fish in Montana in the Fall. While geared towards our home waters of the Yellowstone River, Missouri River, Madison River, and Gallatin River, these tactics apply to waters all across the state and should help you keep rods bent all day long.
1. Start Late and Finish Late
It is never a race to the boat ramp once Fall is in the air. Cool mornings, afternoon hatches, and warmer evenings mean that the bite is usually best from mid-day on, especially for the dry fly fishing anglers. Our anglers and guides will often meet as late as 9am or 10am for guided fly fishing trips in October and November, but stay out fishing until 6pm or later. If the bugs are hatching and the fish are biting you’ll see our fly fishing guides out until dark. Some of my best memories of October dry fly fishing on the Missouri River are during the evening midge hatch that end with rowing into the Craig boat ramp well after the sun has gone down. Many of our rivers closer to Bozeman, MT will see water temperatures that will dive significantly through October and into November. Makes for happy fish, but bug hatches are often delayed until the morning cool breaks early afternoon. Sleep in, have an extra cup of coffee, stay out a little later, and enjoy some of the best fly fishing of the year.
2. Look to the Middle
By early Fall all of our freestone rivers near Bozeman, MT have flows that have dropped well below their summer flows. Rivers like the Yellowstone River, the Madison River, the Gallatin River, will often see Fall flows 50%-90% below their early summer peak. As flows drop, a lot of the structure that made for great fly fishing along the banks is well above the water’s edge, leaving only exposed cobbles and gravel in their place. We often target 2.5-3.5 feet of moving water as likely holding water for trout when fly fishing these rivers, and while this doesn’t change once fall rolls around in Montana, where you find this water does: anglers looking for consistent fall fly fishing success must leave the banks and target middle of the river lies. Sure some banks continue to fish well. But anglers that discount mid-river depth changes, shelves, seams, and physical structure will find themselves coming up short. A favorite fall tactic of many of our Montana fly fishing guides is to fish a larger attractor dry fly with a heavily weighted large nymph or smaller streamer dropped 2.5-3ft behind the dry fly. The results: nothing but snags if fished up on the bank, but fished in the middle, lots of bent rods.
3. Go Big or Go Small
Fall is one of the best times of the year to target the largest of brown trout in Montana. These predator trout become aggressive pre-spawn and will move into more predictable, and targetable lies than they often hold the rest of the year. How do our fly fishing guides and anglers target them? Swinging for the home run or playing small-ball. The home run strategy means stripping and dead-drifting large streamers. We employ both floating lines and sinking lines when fly fishing with streamers in the Fall, and target structure in deeper water close to shallow gravel shelves. We do not target fish on spawning redds and would encourage you to avoid fishing or walking anywhere near spawning fish. Many lake-run brown trout enter the Madison River system throughout the Fall and streamer fishing can often be the best way to target these larger than average fish. Don’t want to cast your arm off with streamers? Small ball works great too. The bugs of fall are small. Midges and BWOs often run sz 18-24. But even the biggest of fish eat them. Diligently nymphing with smaller nymphs produces great results in the fall. Our fly fishing guides will commonly use a two fly nymph rig consisting of a flashier tungsten BWO nymph sz 18-20 followed by a sz 20-22 zebra midge. This tactic can be especially productive on our tailwater rivers like the Missouri River or when wade fishing deeper guts on our freestone streams.
4. Don’t Leave Fish to Find Fish
This applies anytime of year. But especially in the Fall. As water temperatures and flows drop, our trout in Montana move into predictable lies where good depth and current allow them to efficiently feed. The fish are less spread out than they are in the summer months when fish can feed from bank to bank and top to bottom of many runs. If you find one, there are often more, even in seemingly small spots. On our rivers near Bozeman, MT this means wade fishing can be especially effective. Get your feet wet and take advantage of multiple drifts through the same hole. The Madison River, both upper and lower is a great river to take advantage of the concentration of fish. The trout in the Madison River tend to congregate in deeper buckets, and stopping to wade fish them can mean multiple hookups. Same goes on the Yellowstone River and the Gallatin River. Take your time and enjoy the catching.
5. Stop to Smell the Roses
If the number of fish you catch is your only metric for success you can skip this one. But if the pursuit of the full experience is why you fly fish in Montana, read on. Fall is probably the most amazing time of year to fly fish the many rivers of Montana. Taking time each day to stop and take it all is an important and rewarding part of every successful fall fly fishing trip. Between the snow capped peaks of the Absaroka Range on the Yellowstone River, the bright yellows and oranges of the cottonwoods on the Missouri River, and the tundra swans flying in formation through the Madison River Valley, there is something to enjoy on all of our rivers during the fall, that add to the phenomenal fly fishing opportunities. It is easy to start fishing and never look up, but so well worth your while if you do.