The New Year is always an exciting time to be an angler. For some, the season we have been waiting for is about to kick off. Where others are closed either by regulations, the weather of our environment, or the seasonal movement of the species. I have been fortunate enough to cast flies in every month of the year. Swung streamers in the Pacific Northwest in January, stripped small sand crab imitations in April for surf perch, grasshoppers in August. However, if there is anywhere I’ve lived and been as an angler, I can safely say that I am grateful to call Montana home. Despite what industry numbers may indicate, the rivers and streams of the state are largely open year-round, with some even peaking in months hardly conceivable.
From October to May, the weather in Southwest Montana is as unpredictable as it gets. We joke about how if you want a career where you could consistently make mistakes and still have a job, become a meteorologist in Montana. We could have a cold front come down from Canada in mid-October and give us blizzard conditions with subzero temperatures for a week straight. All the while in January having a week of 55-degree days and fish rising to midges as if it were the Mothers Day caddis hatch.
Of course, the fame of old man winter still holds true as February and March typically take the cake for many anglers to hang up their waders and grab their skis for the joy of cold smoke on our frosty alpine slopes.
But for the brave, a solitude of wonderment lay and wait for those willing to slip on those wool socks, long underwear, and gloves for a chance at some of the most peaceful fishing you could ever have.
The snow crunches beneath your feet, snowflakes gather on your shoulders, and the line careens out of your reel, barely unfreezing through your guides as you place your line in some of the smallest water rushing through that particular river all year. Perhaps it’s safe to say that our lakes are as frozen as can be, but the rivers, despite the arctic temperatures, don’t really get frozen over. Timing is everything, as you don’t want to fish temperatures below freezing for not only being able to successfully fish without your line freezing through your guides, but also to minimize the impact you have on the fish. You aren’t the only one who is cold in this aspect. Warmer days do happen more consistently than people think, and couple that with an overcast day or a day before snow and you could have a day rival any hatch from any time of year.
If there’s a season Montanan’s hate the most, it’s Spring. From late March through to June, flip a coin to see how things can go. March has brought 70 to almost 80-degree days in recent years where just five years ago I saw the needle dip to 30 below zero. Whereas June has tickled even hotter temperatures than normal, setting records last year with our heat index. All the while, bringing a consistent snowstorm with inches of snow to even our lowest elevations on the first day of summer. The warmer days bring heightened joy for an angler as it means snow is melting and waters in elevation could begin to thaw. The time change also grants more daylight and fishable hours on the water. But that also means that rivers begin to blow out and turn to chocolate milk, deeming them nearly unfishable. But when one door closes, another opens, and when the rivers are blown, the lakes are frolicking with hungry fish that have been locked away beneath a layer of ice for months, waiting for a fly imitation for the season.
Despite the mixed emotions of spring, the beauty of the environment exposes itself, painting the landscape with an array of colors. Flowers line the shoreline of the lakes and riverbanks, animals forage at their leisure, and anglers nap between casts in the newfound grasses of the season. The insects begin to return and trout look to the surface to sip away like a drunk at a bar. Not leaving until that last call is casted.
Lucky for Montana, we like to drink as a state, and summer is certainly the season where happy hour is daily and the bartender is constantly pouring. With an array of beverages to choose from, the trout have options with a multitude of insects buzzing the air. With the return of the bugs, so too are the tourists. The fishing industry in the state of Montana brings in one billion dollars a year, most of which comes through our summer. Rightfully so as in the early mornings, an angler can strip streamers from a drift boat on many of the blue-ribbon trout streams and land a trophy fish before the first sips of coffee. While the mercury climbs, the terrestrials begin clicking away as the grasshoppers clumsily splash the water or the ants and beetles accidentally fall onto the river’s edge. Ambushed by the lurking brown trout beneath the reeds of the riverbank.
Despite all the action and congestion of anglers in the classic lower elevation waters, up high, beauty is stirring largely untouched by most of the revenue stream. Though it is far from easy and the quality of the fish deteriorates, the solitude of the alpine and the beauty of the environment and its fish make every drop of sweat and calorie burned to get there worth it. Granite dominates the landscape and with what little soil there is clinging to whichever crevasse it has gathered in from, alpine flowers paint the landscape where they can. Mountain goats and marmots greet anyone who arrives and the alpine trout rival the flowers and landscape in their color and beauty, dwarfed in size by their lower elevation cousins and the towering mountain peaks.
As late summer approaches, schools begin session and the tourist season slowly begins to shut its fire hose effect. The very first alpine snows begin to dust the elevations and rains deliver much-needed moisture to the fires that sparked during the last few months. Some grasshoppers cling on through the colder nights, but the layers become necessary and the streamers and trout speys are the tool of choice for the hard-working angler. Trout slowly stop feeding on the surface and gorge themselves on anything swimming.
Some of the leaves start flowing downriver to their grave while others dominate the landscape floor or cling to the trees in their brilliant reds, yellows, and browns. With the holiday season seeming to approach faster than most think, the holiday planning and shorter days take over, leaving some of the fisheries untouched even on a weekend.
Summer may take the cake for the ultimate combo for the angler; weather, sun, temperature, and trout sipping dry flies. All the things that, A River Runs Through It, romanticized in its scenes filmed in this corner of the state. But for those willing to stop at REI or any outdoor store and grab base layers and pullovers, the fishery remains intact and comparably untouched from its summer counterparts.
The point is that I am grateful for the days of wet wading and grasshoppers but lust for the days where you’re breath can be seen and the only fresh tracks of the day aren’t on someone else’s coattails, but of the bighorn sheep cruising the river banks or the river otters and dipper birds thriving in the water and winter wonderland that is southwest Montana. We have a saying that Montana has two seasons: Winter and July. Arguable being very accurate, the angler that dodges the storms and waits for the perfect day will largely never get it. So with some acceptance of whatever Montana meteorologists decide to make up for the day, grab your rod and just go cast into whichever river system you wish during whichever month you choose, and likely, you won’t be disappointed.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.