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10 Montana Fishing Tips to Catch the Most Fish

Posted by: Toby Swank
Date: 03/10/2024

Montana is full of trout. From world-renowned rivers like the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson, and Missouri, to smaller secret creeks and high alpine lakes. Finding trout water is easy; catching good numbers of fish can be more difficult.

10 Expert Montana Fly Fishing Tips to Catch More Fish

1) Go Subsurface

The old adage goes that 90% of a trout’s feeding occurs below the surface. While that may not be entirely true, Montana trout do feed underwater a lot. Learning how to effectively present flies throughout the water column—from the surface to the substrate—will significantly increase your success.

2) Learn to Use Strike Indicators and Dry Droppers

Conventional tackle anglers call them “floats” or “bobbers;” fly fishers call them “strike indicators.” Semantics aside, they do the same job. When you’re fishing below the surface of the water, you need something that lets you know when a fish eats your fly. In certain situations, you can use a dry fly as a strike indicator. Knowing how to fish with strike indicators and dry droppers will drastically increase your fish catching opportunities in Montana. Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis explains everything you need to know about setting up and fishing with strike indicators and dry droppers.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: Indicators in natural colors like gray, white or raw cork brown can be more effective than brightly colored ones.

3) Try Tightline Nymphing

Sometimes referred to as “Czech” or “Euro” nymphing, this technique is very different from traditional dry fly or strike indicator fishing. Tightline nymphing requires an angler to gently “lead” a weighted nymph rig through holding water instead of letting a fly or indicator drift on the surface. When executed well, anglers can get their flies down quickly and achieve near perfect drifts, resulting in high catch rates. If your primary goal is to catch the most fish possible in Montana, learn the fundamentals of Euro nymphing.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: This technique is especially effective in heavily bouldered pocket water where conflicting currents make standard presentations more difficult.

4) Use Streamers Effectively

Streamers usually imitate baitfish, leeches, or crayfish. While trout eat a lot of aquatic insects, bugs aren’t their only subsurface food. Big trout in particular can be predatory, so successful anglers carry a selection of streamers and understand how to use them. Streamer fly fishing well requires more than tying a baitfish fly to the end of your leader, casting it out, and stripping it back. Maintaining constant connection to your streamer and executing a variety of retrieves will greatly improve your success. Having a variety of styles of streamers and fly line densities on hand will help stack the odds in the angler's favor when streamer fly fishing in Montana.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: Streamers drifted and twitched under strike indicators are highly effective for catching trout in Montana. Most guides have at least one rod set up this way at all times.

5) Don’t Fear Change

Success isn’t determined by how much water you fish but how well you fish the water. If you’re not catching fish, change what you’re doing. Understanding the most important variables and how to effectively alter them will help you catch more trout on Montana rivers.

6) Change Depth

The general rule for nymph rigging suggests separating your indicator and weight by one and a half times the depth of the water. So, if the water’s two feet deep, set your indicator three feet up the leader from the weight. That’s a reasonable starting point, but rivers are complex and dynamic; one hole can hold fish different depths. Say you catch a couple trout on a stonefly nymph three feet below a strike indicator, but the next dozen casts come up empty. Before changing flies or locations, adjust your depth. Add more weight (either with heavier flies or by attaching split shot to the leader) and extend the length between your indicator and your flies. If you know you’re in a productive area, cover every layer of the water column before experimenting with new flies or moving to a new spot.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: Start shallow and work your way deeper, lengthening the distance between your indicator and flies in six inch increments. You’re too deep when you hit bottom consistently.

7) Use Lighter Tippet

Decreasing tippet size can help you catch more fish. Why? Much ink (and some blood) has been spilled arguing over how trout react to leaders and tippet. In short, fish sometimes reject flies because they can either see the tippet or the stiffness of the material causes the fly to drift unnaturally. The most obvious examples of tippet shy fish can be seen on the surface. If trout are rejecting your dry fly, add a section of lighter tippet before changing patterns. The same thing might be happening with your nymphs under the water, you just can’t see it.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: Thin, supple leaders are particularly important in slow, clear water. If the current is fast or off-color, fish thicker tippets.

8) Change Flies Thoughtfully

Professional Montana fly fishing guides carry thousands of different flies for a single day of trout fishing, but you don’t need your own fly shop to catch a lot of fish. You need a handful of patterns in a few different sizes. The trick is figuring out which flies to bring. Seek local advice. Consider starting your trip with at least one day of guided fishing. Visit a trusted local fly shop and ask for their local fishing tips. Be specific. Get suggestions on particular stretches of rivers and times of day. When you get to the river, choose your flies based on the advice you’ve been given, but don’t be afraid to change. Look for insects on the water, hovering above the surface, and in streamside vegetation. Pick up rocks from the river and inspect the life crawling on them.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: You can catch trout on most Montana rivers most of the year with the following 10 flies—parachute Adams, elk hair caddis, chubby Chernobyl, parachute ant, bead head hare’s ear, bead head prince nymph, brown rubber legs nymph, bead head pheasant tail, olive wooly bugger.

9) Think Differently about Drift and Presentation

Conventional wisdom holds that flies dead drifted at the exact speed of the current fool the most fish. While often true, don’t be afraid to experiment with slow, subtle motion if your best attempts at natural drifts aren’t fooling fish. When nymphing with an indicator, let your line come tight at the end of each drift to make your flies swing. Try leaving a few inches of flyline downstream of your indicator so that your flies move just slightly faster than the speed of the current. If you’re fishing large dry flies like grasshoppers or stoneflies, give occasional, subtle twitches. Small, slow movements can sometimes entice strikes when conventional drifts aren’t working.

Bozeman Fly Fishing Guide Pro Tip: Fish a small streamer (like a wooly bugger) and a soft-hackled bead head nymph under a strike indicator with a little bit of motion to catch more fish on Montana rivers.

10) Fish With an Expert

Hiring an experienced, knowledgeable Montana fishing guide will give you the best shot at catching a lot of fish in Montana. Good guides are on the water nearly every day. We know where the trout are holding and what they’re eating. Even if you enjoy DIY fly fishing, consider hiring a guide for the first day or two to pick up a few helpful tips about fishing local waters. We’ll be happy to get you dialed in so you can make the most of your Montana fly fishing trip.

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