Montana Tailwaters Near and Far

 by James Anderson

(first published in Outside Bozeman Spring 2008)

As a year round angler, there are always a few things that I look forward to. Saying goodbye to snapping the ice out of my guides is definitely one of them.  Once the Spring rolls around, it’s time to grab my rod and head out the door for a good solid fishing fix.  Usually it is well needed as there is only so much ice fishing I can handle, and snapping the ice of the guides gets a little old after the 15th time of the day. 

Where to go? 

Aside from honing your angling skills, the number one thing you can do to improve your fishing is knowing where to go and when.  This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people settle for second best, when they know in the back of their mind there is a better option.  My Dad has always emphasized how important it is to pick the most productive water available to fish, even if that means a longer drive.  In the February and March you have a lot great rivers to choose from, but the Bighorn and Missouri are by far your best options. True, you’ll have to spend a little more time behind the wheel, but those 2-3 hours on the road are soon forgotten when you’re looking back at an epic day on the water.  My days off are often spent getting things done around the house, running errands, or even worse - going to work for a while.  Therefore, when I choose to spend the day fishing, it only makes sense to make it quality time on the water, even at the cost of extra gas and driving time.  

Where to Stay?

Unless you’re a weekend warrior that can wake up at 4:00, fish hard all day, and drive home in the dark, it’s a good idea to spend the night. Camping is a great option for folks who don’t mind rolling out a sleeping bag.  You’ll be right on the river, so you can easily catch the evening midge hatch, or swing some streamers before breakfast.  My favorite spots on the Horn are the Bighorn access (13 mile) and Mallards Landing.  For the MO I like camping either at the Wolf Creek Bridge, or in Craig.  Sites are $12 a night for non-anglers, and $7 a night for those with a current fishing license.  The camping areas are often limited to 7 consecutive days.  If isn’t your cup of tea, Cottonwood Camp (on the Bighorn) has some great cabins that are relatively cheap and close to the river, located near the 3 mile access.  As for the MO, the best place to stay in Craig is the Trout Shop.  If don’t mind staying further down stream, the two places I like in Cascade are the Badger Motel and the AC. 

I always like to call up some fishing buddies a week or two ahead of time and see if they are in.  If their “kitchen pass” is granted, we’ll split the cost of the gas, food, and lodging, making it an affordable trip for everyone.  Plus, a good fishing vibe spreads like wildfire and improves group moral.  There’s nothing like giving your buddy a high five after you help him net his 22 and half inch brown.  On the other hand, if the bite happens to be off that day, (which eventually happens) at least you know it’s not just you and your friends are there to agree – Ouch, that was some tough fishing!

So what if driving that far is simply not an option?  No worries, if you’re in need of a quick fishing fix, the lower Madison is just 15 minutes from 4 corners.  Here you’ll find great wade fishing access, deep grassy runs, and some hog browns.  The dry fly fishing isn’t nearly as good as the MO or the Horn, but your chances of catching a fat fish on crayfish or streamer pattern are still fair.

What section to fish?

Big horn

If you don’t have a boat you can always rent one.  Most places will charge you $110 - $130 a day (2008 rates), which includes your shuttle.  Call Bighorn Fly and Tackle (888-665-1321) Cottonwood Camp (406-666-2391) for reservations.  Split that 3 ways and you’re down to about  $37.50 each.  The best section with the highest fish count is from the Afterbay (Yellowtail Dam) down to 13 Mile access.  You can float this section 3 ways:  1.  Do a shorter float from Afterbay to 3 mile, getting out more often and wade fishing more thoroughly around the red cliffs,  2.  Float from 3 to 13, hitting up the grey cliffs, duck blind channel, and drive in, or 3.  Float the whole thing, pushing through the slower less productive water, and fishing the better holes hard.  I prefer the last option but I’ve also had plenty of excellent days on the Horn on foot.  Streamer fisherman will also enjoy floating fishing from Mallards to Two Leggins.  There aren’t as many fish in this lower section, but the ones that dwell down there often tip the scale at 2-4 pounds.

If you’re going to wade fish the Horn, the two best spots to access the river are at the Afterbay and the 3 mile.  If you go for the Afterbay, don’t forget to pay your $5 before you head over the dam (unless you have a national park Golden Eagle card).  3 mile access also involves a $5 fee, but the Bighorn Access (13 mile) is state run and is covered by your fishing license.  When I wade fish from the Afterbay, I like walking down to the first couple islands before wetting a line.  There will be plenty of 12- 16 inch browns sipping midges along the way, and occasionally you’ll see a larger snout that requires your full attention.  For the most part however, I go straight for the jugular and head down to the second island just above from the red cliffs.  3 mile access is a beautiful place to wade because the river braids up into several branches.  Not only does this make the river easier to cross, but it also creates a lot of seems, drop offs, pockets, runs, and deep buckets where fish like to feed.  You will probably see a few more people at this access, but there is plenty of water for everyone.  I like to hike up the left side of the river and make a round trip loop coming back down through the braids.   Less people walk down stream, which also presents some beautiful riffles and the famous “drive in” hole, recognized by it’s Michigan riprap.  Although the drive in is fun to see, I’ve had better fishing in the riffle corner below it.

The best place to stop for tackle, flies, and info is the Bighorn Trout shop.  You’ll find them on the left hand side of the road in downtown Fort Smith.  These guys will know exactly what’s going on and will be able to assist you with a few ideas on where to find the big ones.  You can also feel free to stop by the Yellowstone Angler in Livingston anytime for a hand drawn map and a handful of flies “to go.”      

Missouri

From Holter Dam to the Wolf Creek Bridge there is a high count of large and healthy fish.  This section is easily waded from either side and presents solid opportunities for larger rainbows and browns, sipping on tiny midge dries and emergers.  Wind can sometimes be an issue, however the nymph fishing in the spring is seldom considered slow.  My personal all time favorite section is from Wolf Creek Bridge to Craig.  Here you’ll find some true shark holes and highly prolific holding water for wide shouldered browns. You can access the river from either bridge.  I’ve found the further you are willing to walk, the better the fishing gets. 

If you brought the boat along, perhaps the most scenic float is from the Dearborn boat ramp to Pelican Point.  You’ll get to float through the heart of the canyon, which not only has spectacular, tall, neck kinking views, but superb tailouts and slicks.  Later in the season, floating from Pelican down can be fun hopper and streamer fishing, but isn’t the best pick for a spring float. 

The best fly shop in the area is the Missouri River Trout Shop in Craig.  Here you can pick up some technical dries, the usual nymphs, another spool of 6X, and arrange a shuttle.   These guys also rent Clackacraft driftboats for $130 day, including your shuttle.  Izaac’s restaurant in Craig caters towards fisherman and is open for dinner from 4:00PM to Midnight.  (406-235-3456).  They open for the season on March 15th and will stay open through December. 

Lower Madison

The Lower Madison can be very a deceptive river. To those passing by, it looks like a slow flowing, flat river with no structure.  Upon a closer inspection however, the Lower Madison is composed of several different weed lanes, runs, and buckets.  Finding these honey holes can take a while, but once you know where they are and how many split shot to add, you’ll have a better chance at catching the big one.  A spring hike into Bear Trap Canyon is always on my annual list – not only can you have some incredible fishing with midges and baetis, but you’re hiking before the rattle snakes and Poison Ivy are around.  Typically the canyon fishes better on cloudy days, as the fish can become a little shy on a brighter day.  A size 18 black midge larva has been my best bright day fly.

 

What to Use?

Selecting the right fly is critical to catching fish.  During the frenzy of the hatch, trout can become very selective in terms of what they are looking for. This is why you will want to have a variety of different patterns that represent every stage of an insect’s life cycle.  The fish may be feeding heavily on midge larva for a half an hour, and then switch to midge emergers, and on to dries as the hatch evolves.  Be sure to pick up 2 or 3 patterns of each metamorphic stage, as it’s always painful to find that you only have one of the “hot” fly left in your box.   Over the years, I’ve found that certain patterns work better than others in general.  On the adjacent page you’ll see some of my favorite patterns for tailwaters fished during the spring, along with some ideas on how to fish them.

Tail water Tactics

Now that you know where to go and what you use, you’ve conquered half the battle.  The next crucial element you need to know is how to do it. I’ve put down a lot of rising fish due to an oblivious approach or poor casting.  I’ve also been able to fool a lot of fish that I otherwise would have never even seen much less caught without slowing down and planning my approach.  What you’ll read here is much of what I’ve learned from fishing with my Dad and through making mistakes.  

 

Sight Fishing

Perhaps the single greatest factor that improved my success while fishing tailwaters was the act of seeing the fish before my cast.  Unless you’re dredging with nymphs or a dead drifted streamer from the boat, you’re a lot better off spending your time looking for trout then fishing for them.  Taking the time to observe your surroundings not only makes you feel like you are more connected to the river, it also transforms you from a leisurely absent angler into a trout hunting, fishing machine.  Look through the surface of the water with the same intensity that you would look for a lost waterproof camera.  Be sure to scan the bottom with focus, looking for shadows, sudden movements, or silver flashes.  Most importantly, remember to walk slowly.  Although you want to catch as many fish as you can, the most memorable fishing experiences I’ve had were never rushed.  Walk slow enough that your shins don’t make any waves, as trout can sense these on their lateral line.  Once a fish become aware of your presence, they flip their switch from feeding to fleeing and will often bolt out of sight.  If you wait a few minutes sometimes you can sneak up on them again, but usually you’re done.  Once I finally get a visual contact with a fish or a pod of fish, I carefully back up a foot or two.  This way they are less likely to see any of my movements while I tie on a new rig or plan my attack.

 

Selecting the right fly

Once you’ve spotted a fish, each situation is different.  Like a puzzle you have to pull all of the pieces together and take into consideration what the current is doing, where is the light coming from, what is the wind doing, and most importantly what are the fish eating.   In order to determine what the fish are eating, one of the most obvious things to do is to get directly below the fish in the exact current line and try to collect the food source.  The best way to collect bugs is with a small screen.  You can either make one of these with some small dowels, some screen, and some staples, or you can pick one up at any specialty fly shop.  If you don’t have either, you can split your fingers (like Spak’s live long and prosper sign) and collect bugs in the palm of your hand.  If you don’t split your fingers, the water pressure will push he bugs around your hand.   Once you’ve figured out what the most common food coming down the pipe is, you have a good clue as to what the fish are keying in on.  Flip through your fly box and tie on the fly that matches most closely to the color and size of the insect.  Once you’ve caught a fish, with care, you can use a stomach pump to find out exactly what the fish are eating.  You’ll want to suck up some water into the pump before you squirt it into the trout’s belly.  Also, keep in mind that you should not use a stomach pump on larger fish, since you won’t be able to reach the stomach effectively.  The larger fish will be feeding on the same food source as the smaller fish anyway.

Finally if you’ve found a fly that is working well, don’t assume that you can fish it the rest of the morning with the same success.  Hatches are continuously changing, and the best anglers are good at paying attention to this. The clues may include a different type of rise form, the emergence of dries or cripples riding in the surface film, or the cease of rises all together.  Again, you’ll have much more success on the water if you take the time to slow down and observe what is happening around you during any given moment.

Planning your attack  

Now that you’ve spotted your fish and have figured out what they are taking it’s time to put the hurt on them.  Look for the largest trout.  Big trout are often just as easy to fool as smaller trout.   Therefore, it really pays off to spend your time fishing to the biggest fish.  Whether you hook a big fish or a small fish, both will equally disturb the hole when they come cart-wheeling out of the water and do a few massive headshakes in front of their friends. So no flock shooting; pick the biggest fish in the run and try to cast 1 - 2 feet in front of his nose.   The toughest part is making your first cast count!

Depending on the circumstances, decide which type of cast gives you the best drift over the fish.  A dragging fly (one that is either floating faster or slower than the natural flow of the current) not only leaves fish disinterested in eating but will sometimes spook them as well.  If this happens to you, give the fish a few minutes to settle down before you drop them a line.    When the time is right, here are a few of the most effective casts I know:

 

The Reach Cast

One of my personal favorites, the reach cast only works when you are fishing down and across to your target.  Therefore, you must position yourself away from the fish (so it doesn’t see you), but also up stream from the fish to allow a better drift.  As you make your forward cast, slide or “reach” your rod upstream.  When your fly hits the water, immediately point your tip back downstream at the fly.  This motion instantly builds a mend in your line and allows your fly to float over the fish with a deliciously natural look to it.  Expert anglers will often feed a “stack mend” to their line, which involves pulling line off the reel and mending it to achieve a longer dead drift.  Sometimes you’ll see a fish float backwards underwater while checking out your fly, as if he is testing to see if it will drag.  A tiny twitch at this critical moment can often trigger an attack.      

 

The Slack Line Cast

The slack line cast is useful wherever the current is prohibiting a decent drift.  Often the fish will line up just on the inside of the faster current where they can see the food coming, but don’t have to waste energy swimming hard.  I prefer to use the shoot and snub technique for these fish from below, but if that is not possible, a slack line cast can get the job done.  With a slack line cast, aim high over the target and while your fly is falling, pull your line back towards you two or three feet.  When your leader and fly hit the water, you’ll have 2 or 3 feet of perfect drift.  The only disadvantages of this cast are that you loose a bit of accuracy and if the fish hits your fly instantly, you have more slack in the line to get rid of.  A quick yet gentle strike can get rid of this slack, especially if you pull line down with one hand and strike up with your rod hand.  If you are a skier who likes to catch air, this action is similar to pulling off a daffy – one foot goes up, and the other goes down.  This way you clear double the amount of slack as you would with a regular strike. 

Shoot and Snub

The shoot and snub technique is a little more advanced than the others.  It works best when positioning yourself directly below your target, in the same speed of current that the fish is located in.  If you are to the inside of the fish (where it is often easier to stand), your fly is going drag just as it goes over the trout’s head.  Being careful not to go over your waders, sneak out into the current about 25 to 35 feet below the rising fish.  To gauge your distance, make a false cast over the slower water, about 3 or 4 feet short of the fish.  If your dry fly is wet, you can “pop” it dry by making a quick snap of the wrist at the end of your casting stroke.  On your next and final cast, aim short of the target and shoot the extra 3 to 4 feet, “snubbing” the line with your line hand.  This abrupt stop accelerates your leader and tippet, allowing a tighter loop to turnover.  Not only will this technique help with accuracy, but it also allows you to use longer leaders and tippets – which in the end improve your drift.  A short double hall can also increase additional line speed, especially when you are faced with a strong headwind.  Always try to get your fly to come in low and fast without slapping the water.  As soon as your fly hits the water, you’ll want to strip in at the same speed of the current, if you don’t, there may be too much slack in your system to hook the fish when you strike. 

 

The Downstream Drag

Some of you may think of this technique as a bit down and dirty, but I can assure you it is a legitimate way to catch large predatory trout, especially for those of you who like to fish the lower Maddy.  You’ll want to use a streamer or crayfish pattern – many times I like to use both with the crayfish as my dropper.  Use a large white or tan streamer for your first fly – something that will catch their eye.  I like to use a sink tip while fishing this rig, but putting a couple size BB split shots 1 foot ahead of your streamer will put you in the game.  Load too many slit shot on there though and you’ll picking weeds off all day long.  If you never have to pick weeds off, chances are you’re not fishing deep enough in the water column.  Cast a lob shot upstream and take a few strips to get tight.  Now you are ready to feel a strike.  As your flies coast over the weeds, sometimes you’ll feel a little tug and mistake it for a bite.  If you are suspect of a fly invasion, give your line a quick strip strike, (where you keep your tip in or just above the water as you pull in some line quickly).   Sooner than later, you’ll get the hang of what’s a weed and what’s a fish.  You can drag a rig like this behind the boat all day, but it more productive to cover seems, drop offs, underwater rock gardens, and deep buckets.   Towards the end of April you can give your flies a few more twitches and strips, but in February and March I’ve found a slow drag is the most deadly.  If you try this technique wade fishing, don’t forget to strip in to keep up with the current – otherwise you won’t be tight enough to feel a strike. 

With the increase of fishing pressure on Montana’s blue ribbon streams, trout certainly seam to be getting smarter.  The good news is that in the spring, many of these fish haven’t seen a fly in months.  Still, the spring is a great time to practice these tailwater techniques.  Once mastered, they will give you the edge you need to catch even the largest and most sagacious fish in the river.  

James Anderson, George Anderson’s son, is the webmaster for the Yellowstone Angler in Livingston Montana.  He has recently started a fly fishing photography business.  To view his photos, please check out photographyonthefly.smugmug.com.