Spring fly fishing in the Flathead

Story by MYERS REECE, Photography by LIDO VIZZUTTI
For casual fly fishermen and women, spring may bring decent enough weather to entice them onto the river for a few select days. For more serious anglers, there’s no question: When spring arrives, they head to the river. Then for the more worrisome addicts who have been fishing regularly throughout the cold winter, like me, spring is merely a continuation of the norm, only with increased frequency, new scenery and better odds.

While a great many well-balanced members of society were running from the frigid rivers to snow-covered mountains, or even running to sunny tropical beaches, some of us were succumbing to entirely irrational winter behavior: searching for stretches of river uncovered by ice, standing in that bone-chilling water while casting and chipping away chunks of ice from our rod guides, all in the hopes of hitting a trout on the nose with a fake insect. With spring, our behavior becomes no more logical, maybe even less, but at least it’s more compatible with the weather.

Even if you don’t share the depths of this addiction, so long as you’re a fan of fly fishing, spring can be a wonderful and exciting time in western Montana. Big mayflies like March browns and gray drakes start flying around, and the elusive skwala stonefly also begins hatching. Both the air and water grow warmer, but anglers still have a comfortable window between winter and late-spring runoff. Depending on where you are and what you’re seeking, pre-runoff spring can offer as quality of fly fishing as any other time of the year, even if you have to contend with unreliable and sometimes downright bad weather.

On the Flathead River system, spring means expanded opportunities for dry fly fishing, even if nymphing still often rules the day. But any consistent surface activity is highly welcomed, following a months-long stretch when there were precious few opportunities to see a trout sip your fly on top of the water. Now, bigger bugs are hatching and trout are starting to look up. And with warming water temperatures, the fish shake free of their stagnant winter routines as their metabolisms speed up.

Perhaps the most revered – or notorious – spring insect is the skwala, a dark-colored stonefly that hatches far earlier than other species. The hatch happens in March and April, with the most famous occurring on the Bitterroot River, though the big bugs can be found throughout western Montana, including the Flathead drainage. Hitting the hatch just right can be tricky, and it’s not uncommon to feel like the trout and skwalas are conspiring against you. But the opportunity to toss large dry flies at hungry fish this early in the season is a rare treasure, and the bug’s wiliness only adds to its mystique.

If you want tips on local waters and bug activity, there are several fly shops in the Flathead. Whitefish’s Lakestream Outfitters maintains an up-to-date fishing report, and has knowledgeable staff manning its phones throughout the week. Bigfork Anglers is another good option, with an insightful fishing report and helpful staff. Glacier Guides in West Glacier, Arends Fly Shop in Columbia Falls and Stumptown Anglers in Whitefish can all help point you in the right direction as well.

Keep in mind that a number of streams are closed until general fishing season starts on the third weekend in May, though most primary rivers are open year round for catch-and-release fly fishing. Consult Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ state regulations before heading out.

One of the most fundamentally gratifying sensations in fly fishing is seeing a fish take a dry fly on the surface. At this stage of the year, there’s a good chance most anglers haven’t had that sensation for a long time. Spring’s arrival increases the likelihood of experiencing it once again, though nobody’s going to complain about a solid day of nymphing, either.