High Water Ants

Early May in Missoula, Montana. If you’re an outfitter, you don’t book too many trips this time of year. Too hot, too cold, too high, too dirty, too unpredictable. The skwalas have usually tapered off, the runoff has usually started in earnest and unless you’re headed over the hill to the Missouri, your luck can go bad in a hurry. Not always worth the gamble.

This year I’m betting there are a lot of guides who would love to take their chances with a trip. Will we ever have a real runoff? Your guess is as good as mine, but the Blackfoot shuttle guru says no. Sure, we’re seeing bumping waters, high water and some color to the water in all the rivers, but the usual early settling water is settling fast, and it’s been fishable somewhere throughout the spring. Hell, we’ll take it.

This greasy brown trout thought he’d take an ant pattern six inches from a log in the slow stuff.
Too bad for him it had a line attached to it. A fighter who dove under every piece of wood before we netted him.
Yesterday we got out on the upper Clark Fork on a section where we figured if the fishing did go south we could always stop and hunt for the lowland morels. (Though this year the dry spring hasn’t done the mushroom hunting too many favors, but that’s another story.) We hit the Lewinsky float, which is shuttle speak for a section of the Clark Fork, Beavertail to Clinton. Yep, us shuttle dudes are super witty. This float has some great water – long cut banks, big backwater eddies, side channels and a pass at the most of Rock Creek. Not half bad, most days. 
What we found was an overabundance of early season moss, only slightly off color water, and fish willing to take a dry fly. May in western Montana, and the fish were right where they should be a month from now. Pushed into all lanes of the river, sucking up to structure and gobbling a well-drifted fly. What were they eating? Most likely thousands of the monster March Brown mayfly hatch we were in from noon until takeout. 
It was a hatch that would’ve looked more at home on a tailwater, and the bugs were unusually large. This spring has been a funky one, but no one’s complaining. Well, not exactly true. With the water still pushing a ton of volume, we had trouble getting a good presentation with the smaller fly that the hatch required, and it required some tinkering before we found the right combination to start seeing tight lines. When trout are faced with thousands of bugs, faster water and bright sun, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive in hitting the bugs on the surface. What they are eating in abundance are the nymphs as they head toward the surface to hatch. Cripples work, but they are tough to track in the fast stuff. A dry fly tailed by an emerger would be the ticket, but how to get a good float with a small bug trailing a dropper? Not so simple. We opted with high floating ant patterns holding up mayfly droppers, and saw big browns on both.

This shiny brown looked up at the ant and took a well-tied soft hackle pheasant tail dropper before running line like a champ. Zach Orth finds some Montana gold above the mouth of Rock Creek.

What makes ants so effective in spring? Same thing that makes a hopper so great in August. They’re along the shorelines, they are foraging for food and falling off of tree branches because they are stupid dumb idiot ants, and they are really bad at swimming. Carpenter ants are a big part of the ecosystem in the ponderosa pine forests of western Montana, and trout see a lot of them. And a big foam ant is just easy to fish. Supports a dropper easily, floats like a cork, and gets those greedy fish looking up. 
May might be gambling time, but it also can be a time to dial in all the tricks you’ll need when fish get picky. Don’t rule out terrestrial patterns in spring, and don’t rule out western Montana right now. It’s good and getting gooder.

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