"Fishing the Small Tributary Streams of Montana"

    Montana is blessed with 26 major river systems, many of which have been designated by the state as a nationally significant fishery resource and classified as "blue ribbon" trout water. Most of these major rivers have received much attention from outdoor writers and it is often impossible to pick up one of the numerous fly fishing magazines without reading an article, editorial or newscast featuring one of these outstanding trout fisheries. In addition several of these world-renowned rivers such as the Big Horn, Missouri, Madison and Beaverhead are frequently included in various Top 20 Trout Streams of America listings. However, Montana has literally hundreds of productive smaller tributary streams to these famous rivers which have never graced the cover of Fly Fisherman magazine. Here, for the angler willing to explore one can often find excellent trout fishing which is uncrowded and unsurpassed.

    These small streams can be categorized into three primary groups. First, there are the headwater tributaries, located at the upper end of watersheds and closest to the snowmelt of mountain ranges, which produce cutthroat trout (The only trout historically native to Montana.). Cutthroat streams are often remote or isolated, located away from development and frequently found on public land such as National Parks, National Forests, Bureau of Land Management and/or state land holdings. These streams are high in water quality, can be in forested areas or open foot hill country and can range in size from those which one can jump over to those which are 20-30 ft wide.

    Secondly, there are the low land/foot hill tributaries, often found in the middle sections of a primary river. These streams are somewhat warmer than the headwater tributaries and tend to produce rainbow and brown trout rather than cutthroat. The low land/foot hill tributaries are most likely to be located on private ranches, running through pastures or hay fields, but can also be found closer to developed areas such as roads and towns. These streams may have sections, which have suffered from the destruction of riparian vegetation and stream bank erosion (Due to manís interference or cattle overgrazing.), but in the other areas in which the streamside habitat remains in a natural state, the trout populations are high.

    Finally there are the spring creeks, which are also most likely found in the middle sections of a major river and on private land. Spring creeks are dependent on natural springs as their main source of water, which run at more constant temperatures than the headwater and low land/foot hill streams, which are more dependent on snowmelt. These streams usually possess abundant aquatic vegetation, vast numbers of invertebrates and tremendous trout populations. Similar to the low land/foot hill tributaries, the spring creeks commonly produce rainbow and brown trout, can be found in hay fields and pastures, as well as near roads and towns.

    Fishing the small streams is best done with 8-8Ĺ ft. graphite fly rods for 4-5 wgt. lines, using 9-12 ft. leaders tapered to 3-4x tippets. My favorite strategy for fishing these streams is to work upstream, casting to each and every spot likely to hold trout. I make several casts to each of these prime locations, including: undercut banks, pools, runs, riffles, back eddies, under overhanging vegetation and around exposed structure (i.e. rocks and logs). After fishing one area I adjust my position and cast to the next spot likely to hold fish. I try to fish each prime location thoroughly, without spending too much time in one area. I continue fishing this way throughout the day, covering as much water as possible and always moving upstream.

    One can fish upstream using dry flies or nymphs. If searching with dry flies, fish attractor patterns, such as the Royal Wulff, Elk Hair Caddis and Stimulators, #14-#18, or terrestrial patterns, Daveís Hopper and Letort Hopper, #12-#18. If searching with nymphs, try the Hareís Ear, Pheasant Tail and Prince, #12-#18 (including bead head, flash back and color variations). Most of the trout caught in Montana small streams will range from 10"-14", however fish 16"-18" are not uncommon, particularly in the low land/foot hill and spring creek tributaries.

    Identifying small streams, which are likely to be productive fisheries, is a task I prefer to do in the offseason. First I acquire a good topographic map of the watershed I am interested in fishing. This map should show rivers, streams, roads, bridges, trails and elevation. Then I look for various tributaries in the headwater and middle sections of the primary river, taking into consideration ease of access and stream gradient (A stream dropping quickly in elevation over short distances is not a good candidate.). Once I identify a stream, I simply add it to my list and attempt to fish it the following summer. Invariably I discover some great fishing, which hopefully will never grace the cover of Fly Fisherman magazine.

    Greg Mentzer is a licensed outfitter/guide operating Montana River Guides in Craig, Montana.  He has been guiding fly fishermen for trout on the Missouri River since 1985.

All photos by Greg Mentzer.

Copyright © Gregory G. Mentzer, October 1998.  All rights reserved.

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