Winter is nearing its end here in Montana, although begrudgingly. One day it’s sunny and nearly 70 degrees, and the next it’s 30 degrees with snow squalls. But spring inches its way closer every day, evidenced the trees beginning to sport their spring-green canopies.

fly fishing Montana's spring shoulder

“Greening-up” on the Ruby River

Stream conditions change quickly as well, vexing fly fishers eager to cast a fly. On warm days, the mountain snow melts, the streams rise, and their water becomes turbid. Wading is made more difficult due to the higher flows and reduced visibility. On cold days, the melting stops, the streams fall, and their water clears a bit. Wading is easier.

fly fishing Montana's shoulder season

The Madison River, high but clear

The trout hope that spring is coming soon. After a long winter, they are skinny, and lack the stamina for a long fight.

fly fishing Montana's spring shoulder

a skinny winter brown trout

The water remains cold, low 40’s. Thus the bugs that trout feed on are still  growing slowly, and remain small. You can almost hear the trout grumbling to one another, “I’m tired of midges! Where’s the meat?”

Angling is challenging at this time of the year. The trout sulk in the cold water, with its lack of bigger fare. They still mostly take small nymphs, size 18 or smaller. On cold days, even a bump on the nose with a nymph may still not result in a take. A good day is 1-2 fish/hour.

On sunny days, the water temperature reaches the mid to upper forties. This prompts scant midge hatches in the afternoon in the quiet stretches of water. Some fish move in, and warily feed on the surface. Some will take a size 20 Adams or Griffith’s gnat, but a Klinkhammer emerger or a Quigley cripple gets more takes.

Small black stoneflies and size 14 black caddis may also emerge on sunny days. But the hatches are modest at best, and little surface action occurs.

On cloudy days, blue wing olive hatches sometimes occur in the mid-afternoon. This is the singular winter and spring shoulder hatch that seems to really excite the trout. What BWO’s lack in size, they must make up for in taste! When a hatch happens, the fish come to the surface and feed aggressively. But once again, an unweighted nymph trailed behind a dun imitation, gets most of the attention.

With such scant hatches, fishing the subsurface is much more productive than fishing the surface. I usually fish a tandem of a stonefly nymph or a woolly bugger, size 8-10, trailed with a size 16-22 nymph. Almost all my hook-ups are on the smaller nymph patterns. Streamers catch a few fish as well.

The spring shoulder has lasted only a few weeks, brought to an end by rising temperatures resulting in surging spring run-off from melting snow.

fly fishing Montana's spring shoulder

Spring runoff on the Ruby River

The shoulder offers a nice mix of surface and subsurface fishing for trout, brought out of their winter doldrums by the warming waters. But in all honesty, like the trout, I am now eager for runoff to end, and spring to arrive in full, with its robust hatches of bigger bugs!

written by Al Simpson, June, 2020.