2018 Fishing Season in Review
The Year of the Dry Fly
This past years fishing season might just be one of the best we have ever seen. Huge amounts of snow fall and reserves kept most rivers cold and clear all summer. The completion of the Hebgen Dam on the Madison River to a true bottom release and a favorable summer season made for some outstanding fishing.
Our season started like most do in March on our home water of the Madison. Fishing got going a little late with old man winter hanging on longer than expected. The really early March fishing on the Madison was slower than normal. Winter hung on and you needed to pick your days.
April we transitioned to the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers in the Missoula are for the famed Skwala hatch. We love our spring trips to Missoula and this year was especially great. While there was more water in the Bitterroot than in past April’s the fish did not mind. Fish ate dry flies and droppers most of the month. The best fishing was again the first two weeks of April. Each year we find that the fish like the low riding skwala dries more than the flutterers and this held true this year. Think low floating foam stoneflies in a size 8-12 with a dropper of a worm, small pats rubber leg or a march brown. We spent almost two weeks fishing the skwala hatch in the Missoula area. and had good fishing the entire time.
While some of us were on the Bitterroot the rest of the guides were busy with our Spring Special on the Madison River. April the water warmed up and the fish started to eat in the big way. Lots of success with nymphs and streamers. The fish are stacked up this time of year in the deeper green slots. Once you recognize this and start to target them it can be really great. Eggs, worms, stonefly stuff and general attractor nymphs were the name of the game. It feels like this time of year the size of fish caught is much larger than the summer average. I think the big fish wake up and get hungry earlier or are more aggressive in the spring.
We transitioned back to the Madison after our stint in the Missoula area. May on the Madison was a tough one this year. Usually we have great hatches of March Browns, skwala, and Mothers day caddis. This year the uncertain weather and the higher than normal water put a kink in our dry fly plans. The nymphing stayed good with the turd and worm options but the dry fly fishing was less than spectacular. Blame the demise of the Mothers day caddis hatch on the high cold water this year. While we lost this hatch of dry fly fishing it set us up for some great stuff down the stretch.
When we were dealing with flows over 5000 CFS on the Madison we transitioned to the Missouri River near Craig. Flows here we very high as well. Most of the time they were over 19K CFS and even one day topped the 21K. The thing about the MO in the spring with high flows is that the fish are still eating. Deep nymphing with pink scuds and worms is always good. Think 10 feet from the indicator to the weight and then two flies. We only fished the soft inside bends and flats but the fish we hungry. If you could get it to them they ate it. Another great thing about the Missouri River that time of year is the fish are BIG and STRONG. Average fish was over 18 “ and we got many over that 20” mark. May and the start of June is the time to fish the Missouri. While the dry fly fishing this time of year can be a wash out the bobber following is epic. We did find some dry fly fishing on certain days. Cloud cover and rain helped. Good hatches of PMD’s made fish look up. These fish on the Missouri river are PHD’s when it comes to dry flies. Long leaders and perfect drifts are the norm and anything else will not be tolerated.
From the Missouri we moved back home for the meat of the season. Starting about mid June the Madison went off. Salmon flies started and the hatch this year was epic. Lots of days floating large dry flies along banks and rocks in the warming June sun. The hatch progressed upstream in a logical and historical pattern and gave anglers a good two to three weeks of steady salmon fly fishing. We usually find even in the meat of the hatch fish will eat caddis much better than the large stone flies. Floating a salmon fly imitation with a X-caddis dropper was the ticket this year.
Once the salmon fly-fishing started to slow down the caddis, yellow sallie, PMD and large golden stones kept the fish looking up the entire months of June and July. It was by far some of the best most consistent dry fly fishing on the Madison Rive we have ever seen. Pick your poison, large goldens or caddis, mayflies or attractors they all worked for a very long time. The water stayed cold and the fish kept looking up.
August and the beginning of September are usually slower months on the Madison. In the past few years with broken dam water temps got high and the fish got lethargic. Dredging with nymphs and streamers was the norm. Not this year. Flows stayed above 1000 CFS which is right in the sweet spot for the Madison. Lost of water so the boats can float all areas but low enough where the wad guys can access the water. It was also low enough to create the proper head space for fish to eat dry flies. If we have to much water and to much head space they stay sub surface. To little water and the fish get spooky. We feel this is the perfect summer flow. When the major hatches started to wane the terrestrials came out in a big way. It has been years since the last great hopper season and 2018 was one for the record books. Hoppers and ants were abundant river wide and the fish were on them. Our standard day started with a hopper and dropper nymph till lunch. After lunch it was dry or die. A small hopper pattern and ant trailer was the go to for a month and a half. The thing that surprised us most was the size of the fish looking up. Yes all the fish were fat and happy with the cold water but the big fish were eating hoppers daily. It was not uncommon to catch fish above 18” on dry flies during the middle of the day. What made the abundance of hoppers this year we have no idea. But, whatever it was please do it again. The size and abundance of fish made this hopper season the best we have ever seen. If you were here you know how good it was.
The epic hopper fishing continued into the end of September. The cool days compressed the dry fly window but the fish were still hungry for the big dry fly. In fact we even caught dry fly fish on hoppers and ants in October. Usually the fall is streamer time. This fall we did catch some nice fish on bunny fur. The problem was keeping folks focused on throwing streamers when we knew we could catch fish on dry flies. We probably fish streamers less than most years because of the epic dry fly fishing. Not a bad problem to have. When we did stay with the bunny fur we caught some really big fish. The browns were hungry in the pre spawn mode. The thing we did not see was the big influx of true monsters coming out of the lake. We did have lake run fish but it was not as noticeable as past years. It may be that the river was colder than normal and when fall it the temps dropped even more. Our thought is the big fish ended up spawning lower in the river than normal and not making the big runs up river.
The late fall fishing stayed good till the end of October. Streamers, nymphs and even dry flies keep anglers happy and bent. We had some great days with BWO’s in October. These are days you dream about. Overcast and spitting snow and rain, sailboat like dry flies dotting the surface and heads behind each rock and on each slick. It is a great way to close out the season and after one of these days an angler feels complete.
Generally we fish more dry flies this year than the past few years. Was this due to the dam on the Madison being fixed or the huge amount of snow we had in the mountains. We feel it was a combination of both. Cold clean water all season make fish happy and happy fish eat dry flies. It was an unbelievable year and one we will never forget.
As we look forward to the 2019 season things are still looking good. Our Madison River Dam is working great and the early season snow pack is strong. Will this produce the epic dry fly fishing of last year is anyone’s guess. Have a great Christmas season and lets float a few flies in the New Year.