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Blog > Fly Fishing > Getting Started > Where to Fly Fish in Montana? Part Two - How to Plan a Guided Trip

Where to Fly Fish in Montana? Part Two - How to Plan a Guided Trip

Published by Dave Kile [dkile] on 2013/11/18 (3451 reads)

By Brian McGeehan at Montana Angler Fly Fishing

As the 2013 season winds down many of us put our fishing ambitions on pause until the thaw arrives in spring. For those folks that enjoy blending their travels with their favorite pasting, fall is also a great time to start planning a destination fishing trip for 2014. When Dave Kile asked me to put together a post for planning a Western fly fishing trip I realized it was a pretty broad task so I decided to limit the advice to my home state of Montana (although a lot of these tips can apply to other states as well). Since planning a trip where you are fishing unguided is very different than going with an outfitter part 1 focused on DIY anglers. I make my living helping anglers plan their Montana fishing trips so hopefully this post won’t come across as too much of a sales pitch, but rather a useful guide for planning a guided fishing adventure to the big sky state. Montana is a huge state and there is also a much larger diversity of types of rivers and streams than encountered in the East so teaming up with an experienced outfitter can definitely streamline your trip. Quality Montana fly fishing lodges and outfitters can offer several advantages to out of state anglers: local river knowledge and timing, float fishing access for the larger rivers, private access on ranches and assistance with lodging.

Montana Fly Fishing
Montana Fly Fishing


Most of the folks that email and call us about a trip to Montana don’t know where to begin. The first thing we try to do when someone approaches us bout a possible trip to Montana is to determine what type of trip they are looking for. I generally start by asking about fishing priorities, budget, trip duration, flexibility in dates, lodging preferences, and experience level. The dream trip for one angler can be a frustrating disaster for another so we invest a lot of time into communicating with future clients to try to come up with the best possible plan that will meet all of their expectations. Here are some tips that can help you narrow down your selections of guides and lodges and ensure that the trip you set up has the best chance of meeting your goals and being a success.

Be as specific as you can about your trip constraints
Before you begin surfing the web or contacting different outfitters and lodges take some time to think about your budget, trip length and how much flexibility you have in the time of year you come. For trip duration we think of trips in terms of number of nights and days – for example 6 nights and 5 days. It is also helpful to know if every day is spent with a guide or if some days will be either self guided or left open for other activities such as sight seeing. Even though most lodge trips are presented as packages – they can almost always be customized to modify the number of fishing days. Time of year is also important – some locations are outstanding in spring and fall but are too warm in mid summer and others are best fished in mid summer. Finally, have a rough number of your target budget excluding airfare. Remember that most trips will have some extras that are not included in the package price. These may include shuttles, guide gratuities, meals, alcohol, etc. When communicating with lodges and outfitters make sure to have them provide an estimate of both the costs paid before the trip (most guides and outfitters require full payment before arrival).

Arrange your fishing priorities
Most outfitters in Montana operate on multiple rivers and streams. Time of year also has a great impact on fishing conditions. One of the most important aspects of a successful trip with a guide is to determine what your goals are when fishing. Examples include lots of action, big fish, dry fly fishing, variety in fishing condition, all float fishing, all wade fishing, etc. There is so much variety in the fishing in that it is very helpful for an outfitter to know what you are hoping to achieve on your days on the water. For example mid June can be a great time to flat out catch lots of fish but in some areas the dry fly fishing is not great (except for the spring creeks) because of the higher flows but the nymphing and streamer fishing can be epic. Late summer and early fall can produce great dry fly fishing but it is more technical since flows are lower than early summer so it might be a terrific time for an experience angler but more challenging for a beginner.

Montana Fly Fishing
Guided Montana Fly Fishing

Select a time of year
This is a difficult topic and could really take up an entire post. Different fisheries perform better at different times of the year and how you prefer to fish also factors into the equation. Here is a down and dirty guide to different time windows:
April to Mid May – This is an incredible time for both beginners and expert anglers. There are lots of early season hatches and potential for explosive dry fly fishing. Catch rates tend to be high nymphing as well. The only caveat is that weather and river flows are very dynamic and sometimes can spoil dry fly fishing and you always need to be prepared for a late season “winter” weather event (usually still fishable if you are prepared for weather).

Mid May to mid June – Tailwaters below dams like the Bighorn, Missouri and Beaverhed are popular then and besides these fisheries most out of state anglers avoid the “run off” season. We have come to really love this window and I would make a strong argument that it might actually be the best window for high catch rates and very few anglers as long as you avoid the tailwaters. The Missoula area and Northern Montana are tough during run off with few options but the area Southwest of Montana from the Bighole to the Yellowstone Valley can be amazing with a mix of lesser known tailwaters, private ranches and spring creeks. The only catch is this is not the best time to dry fly fish – but if you want lots of action and big fish it is outstanding.

Mid June to Mid July – This is another amazing time to fish and arguably the best for the most diversity. The tailwaters are still fishing well, spring creeks are at their best with the PMD hatch and the tailwaters are clearing producing great action. This is another great time to catch aquatic hatches like PMDs, Caddis, Salmonflies, Golden Stones and Yellow Sallies (to name a few). This is also the beginning of the busy season but there are still a lot of “off the beaten path” locations that are either permitted, private or just tough spots to get to that can yield amazing fishing with few other anglers but expect to see other boats on some of the famous blue ribbon rivers you see in the books (although not really crowded by Eastern standards with a handful of exceptions). All in all this is very safe window to plan a trip with good weather and great fishing.

Mid July to Early August – Although trout on the big public rivers have seen some flies, this is still a great time to fish and also a good time to target if you really want to throw dries. Mid June to Early July can still have pretty heavy flows if it is a big snow year and you might need to toss big ugly nymphs (with exceptions like spring creeks) on those years but even on a big water year dry fly fishing is always an option by mid July. This is also a great time to wade fish smaller ranch streams and the backcountry.

August – The big blue ribbon rivers on most years start to get tougher in August – fish have just seen a lot of flies by then. They can still be good and shouldn’t be discounted but it isn’t always peak catch rates then. This is a great time to target back country streams, private ranch waters and any other areas that see less pressure. Hopper fishing is at its peak in the late summer but you just have to work harder to get away from more popular floats. When planning a trip in August definitely make sure to ask the outfitter what the options are and how much pressure are on these rivers then. If they are just planning on fishing big public waters with you every day you might ask about other options.

September – Fishing pressure drops dramatically once kids go back to school in late August. September weather is ideal and hopper fishing is still very good. Several rivers like the Lower Madison, Lower Gallatin, Upper Missouri, Jefferson and a few others that were too warm to fish successfully in the mid summer months (they are lower elevation) wake back up to produce some very good fishing to trout that haven’t seen flies in several months. Other rivers also pick back up as soon as the pressure drops off and fishing can be really good. The flows are now at base line so the fishing is a little more technical and the trout are a touch spookier so having at least some fishing experience is more important than spring and early summer.

October – This is a favorite time for our guides. Pressure is almost non existent on most waters and the fishing really gets good. Dry fly fishing can be outstanding on cloudy days over the fall baetis hatch both on big rivers and spring creeks. Huge brown trout move out of lakes and into the rivers and streams that feed them and this is probably the best time of year to catch trophy fish over 23”. Weather is generally dry and very nice in October but you do have to be prepared for the possibility of an early cold front that can push temps down.

Fly Fishing Madison River
Fly Fishing on the Madison River

Decide what type of lodging you want
Once we decide the best time of year for our guests based on fishing priorities and their available windows for a vacation we spend a lot of time reviewing lodging options with folks. Most days you are only on the water for about 8 hours or so which leaves a lot of time spent at your accommodations so planning where you will stay is a big part of your vacation.
Fishing Lodges – Lodges typically offer an all inclusive or mostly inclusive package that includes meals and rooms with a lot of character in beautiful locations along rivers. Lodges are also the most expensive way to go but many folks enjoy the idea of “fish, eat, relax”. Not all lodges are the same so you need to make sure you find the right match. Some lodges aren’t truly “fishing lodges” even if they market themselves that way so ask if all of the guests are fisherman. If you are planning a mixed trip with other activities like riding horses or touring Yellowstone a general lodge might be just right but if you are fishing every day I think it is nice to go to a lodge where all of the other guests are anglers. Also ask about the fishing variety – do you fish just one river or a variety. Finally ask about the “extras” – often shuttles, taxes, lodge gratuities, staff gratuities and sometimes alcohol can all be extra but most lodge managers can give you an estimate of those.

Hotels – Usually you can access the same fisheries from a hotel that you can from a lodge. If you have a tight budget it is hard to beat a hotel package. Hotels also give you some freedom to experience local towns and go out to different restaurants in the evening.

Vacation Rentals – There are lots of nice vacation homes and cabins that can be rented so this can be a great option if you like to prepare your own meals. Some of the nicest rentals go very early so plan to book as soon as you can (early winter at the latest) – especially if you have a big group and need a larger house.

Camping – A few outfitters offer river camping trips and there are also several outfitters that offer backcountry pack trips. The guides on river camping trips are usually the same guides that you would get on day trips – highly professional and experienced. On river camping trips your camp is moved each day while you fish and you roll into camp with everything set up and dinner already cooking. On pack trips make sure to ask about the “fishing experience” of the guides. Many pack outfitters higher younger guides and the pay is much, much less than river guides that are usually career guides. Many back country guides are young guys in their early 20s that are amazing with horses but their idea of guiding is pointing and saying “there are fish in that crick”. If you are an accomplished angler you probably don’t need to much on stream coaching but if you have some novices in your group make sure you carefully select an outfitter that has “real” fishing guides.

Fly Fishing Madison River


Book early
The quality of your guide can make a huge difference in your enjoyment level of your trip. Top guides often book their return clients a year in advance and by early winter are mostly booked for the season. There are always younger and less experienced guides open even a week in advance but to get the crème de la crème you should book as soon as you can nail down dates. Fall is a great time to plan and usually there are still good guides and lodge options even into February but for peak season dates things go very fast.

This is part 2 in the Brain's post Where to Fly Fish in Montana? Part one - A DIY Trip Guide can be found here.

Brian McGeehan is a Pennsylvania native and has been guiding Western rivers in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado for 19 seasons. He is a licensed Montana outfitter and owner of Montana Angler Fly Fishing based in Bozeman, MT.








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