Don’t Underestimate Fishing in Winter in Montana


Not too long ago, I took my raft in for its yearly tune-up.

I spent a lot of time on the Blackfoot last summer so, needless to say, my raft was about to fall apart. The floor was almost totally wrecked, and not one single handle on the raft was able to survive the Sunset Hill take-out.

As I stood there admiring the fine work done by our friends at the Trailhead, I heard a voice shout sarcastically, “Hey man, when’s the last time you took that out?”  The friendly passerby was surprised by my reply when I yelled back, “Oh, we were out a couple of days ago, and the fishing was actually pretty good.”

People often underestimate the potential of winter fishing in Montana. Sure, you might have four days of catching a fish a day if you’re lucky (or no fish at all), but the fifth day you go out, you might catch the biggest trout of your life.

The look of winter fly fishing in Montana.You have to pay your dues sometimes while fly fishing in the middle of a Montana winter.

Your guides freeze, your hands are pretty much numb all day, the snow forces you to clean your shades every five minutes, but when you look around and don’t see a single person on the river but yourself, it’s all worth it. It’s especially worth it when the fishing is actually good, and you get the first shot at every fish in the river.

We have been getting humbled on the Bitterroot the past couple of weeks, so we decided to brainstorm places to go that will fish very well on a consistent basis (even when it’s below 30 degrees all day). After about ten minutes of deliberation, we decided to roll to Ennis and check out the Madison for a day of wade fishing.

It took us about two hours to find the right bugs, but once we did it was nonstop hook-setting. If we weren’t quite as hungover we probably would have caught 50. At one point, all three of us were fighting a fish at the same time, and as I watched my friends smile uncontrollably I was reminded once again why fly fishing is a life-long sport for most.

If it was easy every day, none of us would fish longer than one season because it would simply be too boring. The challenge is what brings us back.

The best part of overcoming that challenge during the winter is that at the end of the day, you get to sit down by the river and look at it in its most peaceful state. There are no beer bottles floating by, no raft trains, no overly confident “bros” shouting across the river, and most of all, no inner tubes bouncing off the back of your boat.

Rainbow trout are just as pretty in January.Winter fishing has a lot to offer if you’re willing to put up with the weather. It’s surprisingly rewarding to be able to text your friends a picture of a 22″ brown with snow falling behind you in the background.

So just in case you are having trouble finding a spot to go, here are three ideas. You might notice that these are all regulated by a dam. This is because tail waters are always the most consistent fisheries during the winter.

1.  The Bighorn – This river will fish all day, pretty much every day. Just try not to kick fish as you wade in to the water.

2.  The Missouri – Can be a little windy this time of year, but catch it on a good day and you can fish dry flies in January.

3.  The Madison – Most say the lower Madison is the best option during the winter. You’ll be nymphing, but you can pretty much catch as many fish as you want.




Need more tales from the river? Check out Matt and Bryce’s other blogs: Skwalla Stonefly Season Countdown,  Fall is for Swinging for Steelhead, Fly Fishing: The Comedy of Tragedy, and An Ode to Brown Trout, or visit the Fish It archive.

Be sure to visit the Make it Missoula fishing page.


Photos of Missoula Fly Fishing Experts Matt Devlin and Bryce McLean

Matt Devlin (left) is originally from Annapolis, Maryland and learned to fool trout on the technical waters of the Gunpowder River. He has fished in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Indiana, North and South Carolina, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. He thinks about flies and fishing a whole lot.

Bryce McLean (right) was born and raised in Montana, and has been fly fishing here for almost 20 years. He first learned to fish on the Missouri River, but when he was ten, his family moved to the Bitterroot Valley. He’s been fishing the Bitterroot River ever since. This has been his second season guiding the Missoula area rivers, which he consider to be some of the best trout fisheries on planet Earth.