Max in Montana

A recent trip to the USA to visit my daughters in California, would not have been complete without taking a detour to one of my favourite places to flyfish, Montana. This was also a great opportunity to meet up with one of my fishing buddies, John, who lives in Detroit.

Montana is known for its flyfishing and its legendary rivers such as the Gallatin, the Yellowstone and the Madison. But for me, it’s also about the grandness and sheer beauty of the place. As the name “Montana” suggests, this is mountain country for as far as the eye can see. Here, everything seems larger than life: big rivers, big wildlife such as black bears and grizzly bears, moose, wolves, elk – and occasionally some big trout as well.

Another aspect which appeals to me about Montana, is towns like Bozeman. The architecture is quite beautiful and curated in harmony with the natural landscapes and environment. Log cabins scattered here and there amongst the forests and plains, or commercial buildings in town with their stone facades and extensive use of timber.

To top things off, the people are so friendly, and they love Australians!

But onto the fishing, and all the rivers we visited were in great condition. Being early autumn, water temperatures were cool, and the flows seemed above average for this time of the year. The legendary Montana hatches were all but gone by now, but the hoppers persisted, and offered some good dry fly fishing.

Gallatin rainbow on a big Stimi.

The Gallatin, superbly picturesque as usual, did not fail us. Typically, running a nymph (yes, a Copper John – Gallatin trout seem to be addicted to them!) under a hopper or Stimulator, worked well. Drifting the flies in quieter water and in the lee of big boulders was key. The river was running fairly hard around and below the gorge. Crossing wasn’t possible, so we just stuck to fishing tight along the accessible banks.

Later that afternoon, we moved above the gorge and picked up a few nice browns right on the edge of the Yellowstone National Park. Here, the river is smaller and meanders blissfully through alpine meadows.

Meadow brown.

On our second day we decided try the Madison River above Innes. The river appeared in great condition, and running at a pace where we were again pretty much restricted to one bank. Unfortunately, not much was happening. I briefly had a good fish on when it took the huge stonefly nymph I was fishing, but it got off.  At that very moment, a few fish started rising but by the time I switched from my heavy double nymph rig to a dry, the action stopped.

I stood on the riverbank looking at possibly the 30th drift boat float past, covering the same water the previous boat had covered before, and the boat before that… and so it went!

Fish stocks are high here and can easily absorb the pressure, but being a bit ‘old school’, I decided we should move on and try to find some less pressured water.

We drove up the valley, thinking we might cut back to the upper Gallatin an hour or so away. However, along the way we came upon the upper Madison Lakes, Quake Lake and Lake Hebgen. A quick Google and FlyStream search revealed that these lakes did indeed have trout in them, and that the fishing, whilst very challenging, could be good.

Hebgen Lake

I switched the mayfly pattern and 5X I had already on, to one of the few streamers I had in my fly box and muscled up on the tippet. I really didn’t have much of an idea what to use or how to fish these lakes, so I defaulted to a size 10 olive Magoo and a slow figure of 8 retrieve.

As I put out a few casts, I noticed several spent spinners and small mayfly on the water, and a few rises here and there. Unfortunately, they were too far out to cast to, and even further out, some absolute whales were leaping out of the water.

I decided to persist with the Magoo, hoping the hatch might intensify, and the fish would move in a bit. Instead, I was soon rewarded by an aggressive take and hook-up to a beautiful brown. Chuffed!

Hebgen brown.

I fished for another 30-40 minutes before deciding to have a late lunch back at the car where I could observe the water from a higher vantage point. The sporadic rises continued.

I got back on the water, slowly retrieving my fly without any more bumps or takes. At this point I started to wonder if I should tie on a bigger streamer? Or perhaps search a bit with a dry fly? Or stick with the Magoo and focus on varying my retrieve speed? I chose the latter option. After a few casts, and on a very fast strip, my fly got destroyed by a good brown. Mixing things up a bit can sometimes be rewarding.

We hung around the lake for a while longer, enjoying the warm evening sun and just reveling in the sweet mountain air and the gorgeous views, before heading to a local saloon for some bison burgers and a local beer.

John and the boys set up to fish a smaller stream.

On our last day, we linked up with young Cody who I met back in Australia earlier this year, and his buddy Isaak. These are Montana boys, talented fishers and fly-tiers who know their way around their local streams. The boys fish carrying two rods apiece. One rod rigged up with a big weighted articulated streamer (see pic below from one of their previous trips) and the other with big hopper imitations. The ‘meat’ flies were intended for the large browns which we were hoping had started moving up the systems to spawn.

We fished a ‘small’ local creek, very reminiscent of our north-east Victorian streams. We found a good population of resident trout, but seemingly nothing bigger had started moving up the system just yet.

A smaller Montana creek looking quite like north-east Victorian stream – except for the moose footprints nearby!

I chose to fish light and long, deploying a small foam hopper with a size 16 copper/claret nymph trailing behind it. We caught lots of pretty river browns and rainbows, and Isaak managed to nail a brookie on his big articulated fly.

While we had a blast fishing with these boys, we also enjoyed the nature study as they pointed out and identified the various animal prints on the riverbanks. Moose, deer, racoon! They also reminded us we were in bear country, both blacks and grizzlies. There were rattlesnakes in the hills and perhaps the odd mountain lion.

A pic of a streamer-eating brown that Isaak showed us from an earlier trip.

Whilst there are similarities in how we flyfish pretty much anywhere in the world, the possibility of running into a bear or a moose certainly sharpened our senses, and added to the feeling that we were fishing in a totally different environment to anywhere else.

Montana this time around has again provided some lovely memories, some very good fishing; with perhaps the highlight being the impromptu and successful lake fishing. This was one of those trips where I spent almost as much time looking up and around me at the stunning scenery, as I did with my eyes on the water. Such is the distracting beauty of this very special place in the mountains.