Top 5 Flies for Spring in Western Montana

Written by: John Herzer of Blackfoot River Outfitters

Montana is one of the most popular fly fishing destinations in the country, but most of its visitors arrive during the relatively brief summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Anglers who are willing to brave the elements during the shoulder seasons, particularly during March and April, will be treated not only to fewer crowds, but will also avoid problems caused by either excessive runoff (usually) or overly-warm water. Because the fishing is a bit different during the early season, we asked John Herzer, co-owner of Blackfoot River Outfitters in Missoula, about his favorite springtime patterns. He was keen to remind us that Montana is a big state with a wide variety of environments, so his advice is for the Western part of the state, specifically the Clark Fork drainages, including the Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and Rock Creek.

This fly is the big draw for our area in spring. Given our relatively low elevation, Clark Fork drainages see good Skwala stone dry-fly action by the second week of March. The critical element of this pattern is how flat it sits on the water, due to a very low profile. We’ll seek out long, smooth flats and even backwater eddies where the adult stones will slowly drift. Be patient, as picky top-end trout will hunt those areas snouts-up, and the slow drifts give them a long time to examine your fly. Other popular variants include the White Wing Skwala, Oswald’s Rastaman Skwala, and the Rogue River Stone Skwala

Several different variants of the March brown work well, but we prefer the Copper Haze Parachute. Even during spring, the best mayfly action is under cloudy conditions, so fly visibility is paramount. If you can’t see your fly at all times, you’re not fishing as effectively as possible, and the parachute design is the best solution. In addition, we find that thinner-bodied patterns are always better, even though March browns are rather chunky. This pattern is obviously most effective in the midst of an afternoon hatch, but we’ll often fish it behind a Skwala all day, with reasonable success.

Whether the mottled tan or dark brown variant is better remains an ongoing guide debate, but both work exceptionally well. Our guess is that trout mistake these for Skwala nymphs, but they also resemble small crawfish. The tungsten head sinks fast, allowing short-leash nymphing without extra split shot, or this fly can be suspended under a dry fly using a dropper tippet up to three feet. The jig hook results in minimal snags, regardless of the application. Our advice is to Fish ’em hey-diddle-diddle, right down the middle. This is a go-to bug even when fishing is challenging. The TJ Hooker variant with added marabou tail (above) is always a great option, as well.

Red hot-bead worms are a mainstay in our rivers all year long, but especially in late winter and early spring. For reasons unknown to us, the hot bead and red color is always better in colder water. Fish smaller/lighter sizes of this pattern under a Skwala dry, or double-down under an indicator together with the Tungsten Rubber Leg Jig. Some anglers are unwilling to fish a worm pattern and that’s just fine by us, but you’ll be missing out on catchable fish that way. 

We were fishing streamers long before it was cool, but we have to admit, Coffey’s Sparkle Minnow literally changed the game. There was a time when spring streamer action was limited to overcast days, but sparkle changed all that. We now swing, strip, and even dead drift with confidence all day, any day. We fish these in deep slow runs, riffle drop-offs, or up tight to the banks–wherever you might expect a trout to sit. Don’t be afraid to trail one of those rubber-leg jigs or even a power worm behind it. Just be sure you’re fishing 2X tippet or stronger, because the takes are rarely gentle.

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