Category Archives: Guide Advice

Tips, tricks, and general bad advice from real Montana river guides. There’s nothing new under the sun, but sometimes its the hundredth time you holler, “Mend it!”. Catch more fish, or at least hear about how we do it.

How To Dress for Winter Fishing

Winter fishing can be a blast. Or it can be a miserable experience. And almost always, the difference between the two comes in how you dress before you hit the water. Investing in a few key pieces of clothing can make a big difference in your winter fishing, and can keep you fishing right through the season. Why fly fish in the winter? In my opinion, the lessons you learn on the water in the lean months go a long way toward making you more successful when the weather turns over in the spring. Fish will still eat a fly all winter long, and you find them in spots where they feel the safest and can expend the least amount of energy to get some easy calories. This same behavior occurs in the regular season. Figuring out how to make lock-jawed fish eat in the winter makes your success in the regular season more likely and pays off in big dividends. To really enjoy your time on the water, dressing the part is the first step.

My winter fishing starts with quality synthetic long underwear, and good wool or synthetic socks. Some people like to double layer their socks, wearing a thin silk or synthetic layer under a thicker insulating sock of wool or fleece. While this is a great approach for ice fishing, when you’re largely stationary, it isn’t ideal for fly fishing. Double layers under a neoprene wader bootie is a recipe for bunching up and folding over and generally making for a real pain in the ass foot issue when combined with lots of walking and wading. Trying to unlace a frozen boot to fix a folded sock in your waders is the worst. Rather than double layer your feet, get a study winter sock designed for fly fishing from Simms, Patagonia, or another reputable company and make sure it fits.

Long underwear is a must, and most days I’ve got a couple of pairs on. A mid-weight bottom layer and a thick fleece layer. Why? Because warming the blood going to those feet is more important, and we’re standing in the water. Sometimes those two layers are bolstered by winter fly fishing bottoms, the kind that look pretty dumb but better than walking into the convenience store in your waders. When you’re planning on standing in a river in the winter, then trudging through snow from spot to spot, your leg insulation becomes that much more important.

I don’t use neoprene waders much anymore, so my waders and boots are the same that I’ll use all season long. But I spend extra time making sure those neoprene booties and socks are comfortable in the boots before I leave the truck, and that my laces are tied well. I’ve done enough messing with frozen boots and numb fingers in the past to know that if they aren’t comfortable when you leave the truck, you’re in for a long day.

Layers are the key on the top of the body as well. I do the same on the top as the bottom, which is a thin layer of long underwear, and lots of wool and fleece between me and a nice weatherproof shell. Often we’ll roll around in a nice comfortable jacket most of the winter while we’re running errands and in and out of the house. Don’t take this one fishing, get a quality shell that will keep wind and sudden piercing snowstorms at bay. All too often a bright and sunny day that looks right for winter fly fishing can be a lot colder in the shadows of a river canyon with the wind pushing plumes of snow in your face from time to time. A good shell with a hood is the key to happiness when these situations arise.

Anything else? Yep. I want a good warm beanie, a buff, and fingerless gloves. I sometimes pack a pair of shell mittens to stuff my hands into when they’re really cold,  but I’ve found if you layer right on your upper body, your hands can stay nice and warm with just a cheap pair of fleece fingerless gloves, and allow you to still have the dexterity to tie on flies, feel your line and do all those fishy things we’re hoping to do in the first place. There is a growing offering of gloves made specifically for flyfishing that are completely waterproof, and if you’ve got the budget these can be an awesome addition to your arsenal.

Lastly, a few accessories are a good thing to carry in your rig, throughout the winter. The kinds of things that come in very handy if you have the kind of emergency like dunking your waders or slipping through the ice. A fleece blanket and a couple of towels and a change of clothes can go a long way when disaster hits.

Dressing for fly fishing in the winter doesn’t have to be complicated. But investing in a good layering system is well worth the money, and can help open up the hidden season of winter fly fishing and keep you comfortable all season long.



THE BANK: Fall Subtlety

The folks at Jensen Fly Fishing are doing a bang up job with their web series, THE BANK. Too good, maybe, as they give away so many great tips you won’t need a guide for your next trip. One of my favorite episodes is all about the inside water of big river bends, and subtle presentations for fall. I love fishing middle river troughs. Anchoring the boat and giving some attention to spots that hold fish outside of the hot spots. A great video for a nice easy Wednesday morning, and a great series to get into for the long off season. Give this one a watch and subscribe to their videos on YouTube, you’ll be glad you did.

Blackfoot Buckets

Late July on the rivers in western Montana means low water, and the Blackfoot turns into a series of deep buckets between runs that take good setup and approach to fish well. We’re seeing some spruce moths hitting the water, which usually make the fish a little giddy, but matching the hatch is still working for the PMDs in the mornings and then big chunky terrestrials in the afternoons. Yes, the fishing shuts down for a bit after lunch, so early and late are always the way to go. How do you fish those big Blackfoot buckets?

Catching a handful of little fish in the same run moved this big bull trout into the skinny water. When Jayme Erickson hooked it with a size 12 PMD, we knew it was going to be a tough fight. Quick shot and back to the depths for this beauty.

I like a longer leader as summer wears on. A little distance from the fish helps those pressured trout to feel comfortable enough to eat, and a longer leader definitely helps. You can start with a 9 foot leader, add a good bit of tippet and be happy, though a 12 foot leader will really change the game. Make sure it is stout enough to turn over your bug, but sizing down the tippet will give you an extra edge. I’m using fluorocarbon from my poly leader to my dry flies, and a dropper below on fluorocarbon as well. we’re seeing fish happy to eat a nymph throughout the day, and the well-drifted dry will get that slow-rolling cutthroat eat in the right places. Modify your technique from the “anything goes” days of June and get into more fish. By now your cast is dialed in, so use it well. Approach holes with a game plan, tie on your confidence flies, and make sure your knots are strong. When you hook into the fish you’re looking for, it will take good knots and lots of work to get them in.

Don’t Row the Big Water

We’ve got some big and brown water flowing through town this week, and that means one thing and one thing only when it comes to fishing tips: Don’t row the big water. It’s spring, and the new boat smell is drifting around Missoula from driveways and garages all over town. Anglers who have made the plunge and dropped big dollars for a nice new boat are anxious to get those puppies out on the water, come hell or high water. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t take very high water to turn your inaugural float into a hell ride. Sure, you see plenty of other boats out there and they seem to be doing just fine… Well, guides make it look easy for a reason: they row like old vikings and deal with all kinds of currents and obstacles and weight shifts in the boat and broken oars and a whole list of other things that can turn things funky in a hurry. And iffy situations in a boat come up quicker than you think. So the best fishing advice for spring if you’re new to rowing or just rusty from a long winter of waiting is to simply not row that big stuff.

This is no fun. And can happen faster than you think. Take it easy out there.
Photo via

Lets talk about what constitutes “Big Water”. Of course big water is all that churning, bumpy stuff the whitewater guys love so much, but that isn’t the only thing that can make for very tricky and dangerous rowing. When fly fishermen think of the perfect western river, filled to the brim with native trout and meandering past snow-capped mountains and hopper-filled meadows, the Bitterroot River looks just about perfect. And it seems like an easy row: no real rapids to think about, lots of flat looking sections and lots of access points. Sure, it’s got all that. But it also has a whole lot of sweepers and tricky currents, and it’s meandering channels can change in a hurry. It isn’t uncommon for an industrious beaver to fell a tree and block the only “safe” channel and change a float overnight. Likewise, there can be surges of water that happen on the Bitterroot thanks to releasing water from the Painted Rocks Reservoir on the West Fork. And lets not forget those diversion dams and plunge pools. All of this adds up to a very dangerous river when not treated with the respect it is due. Taking your eye off the ball, not having an exit plan, and risking your boat and safety to get to that “really good looking water over there” can all have serious consequences on the Bitterroot. In the Missoula area, the Bitterroot claims more lives than the Blackfoot and the rest of our “big water” combined, but rarely does it get treated as dangerous water. Well, it is. Boats flip easily. Rafts get pinned to trees fast. And sweepers don’t let you wash out to safety if you go in the drink. Somber stuff, but its stuff you should think about before you head out to the door toward new water you haven’t rowed before. What can you do to make your float as safe as possible? Here are a few quick tips.

Research: Get a good float map, and a river guide and study it. Really. Not just the milage and the location of boat ramps. Good float maps (like River Rat Maps) have more than just simple blue lines and black roads, they help detail the kind of water you’ll encounter, the known obstacles, and the overall personality of the rivers. Get one for every river you want to row. Check the river flows. Read the reports. Talk to fly shop rats. I’ll say it again: TALK TO FLY SHOP RATS. They fish and row, and more importantly they get the daily info from the guides they send out on the water. If you haven’t been in a section of a river in a while, call them up or stop in a shop and ask about anything new and relevant. When a log goes down in that side channel you caught a big brown in last season, these guys know. And here’s yet another reason against self shuttling: the professionals who move 20-30 guide trucks a day know exactly where the traffic is, where it isn’t, and why. They won’t let you run through stuff that could get you killed. And lets remember that: it could get you killed. So lets not skimp on the research. (Or the $20 shuttle.)
Practice: Anyone can row. But not everyone should be on the sticks when things get sticky. If you’re new to rowing, don’t pretend you’ve got it covered. Here’s a typical “river town” scenario: guy with boat asks guy without boat to jump in for the day and get after them trouts. Guy without boat says, “Hell yeah! But I haven’t really rowed before.” Guy with boat says, “Oh, its no big deal I’ll teach you as we go.” Guy without boat should say, “Yeah, no thanks.” Learn to row on some easy stuff, and when the fishing isn’t the focus. Get a few days under your belt just fun floating and learning how the boat moves. Leave the rods at home. There are plenty of sections of river that are safe for beginners, and have just as many trout as the dangerous stuff. You don’t hit the L.A. freeway when you’re learning to drive, and you shouldn’t hop behind the oars on tough water your first time either. Be honest about assessing your abilities, and you’ll stay safe.
Scout It Out: Whenever you can’t tell what’s ahead on a river, you should take a walk. Park the boat and head downstream to check out what you’ll be rowing, and plan your attack accordingly. This goes for rapids, rock gardens, funky bends, or anywhere that your river’s eye view doesn’t allow you to see what’s coming. Sometimes this walk will result in a false alarm, and you’ll know its safe to proceed as planned. This is called success. Other times you’ll find dangerous conditions await, and you’ll know you need a strong, experienced rower behind the sticks and all involved should be prepared for worst-case scenarios. This is also called success. Take a walk, scout it out, and get it done.
Be Flexible: I don’t mean start stretching. Nobody likes a guy that can do the splits. It’s just weird. But it is important to be flexible when it comes to choosing your float. Don’t get tunnel vision on a section of the river, or a certain river, just because Timmy in sales caught a big brown there last week, or the hatch is on, or whatever the reason. There is plenty of great water, and safe water is your best choice. When you’ve researched well and gotten the latest information on a float, you’ll know whether or not it is still a good choice and should plan your day accordingly. There is nothing wrong wth fishing safe and reliable water.
Simple tips, and really only scratching the surface. But we want a no fatality year on our rivers this season, and every season. Even experienced rowers follow this same advice every single float, all season long. But when the rivers are big, and the water is moving its the most important thing you can do to prepare for your day. Get after it, but do so safely. And make that new boat last season after season.

Five Tips For Winter Fishing

With the snow packing in the hills and the ski resorts in full swing, you can expect the rivers to be quiet, calm, and perfect for fishing if you’ve got the right gear and the right attitude. Winter fishing isn’t a numbers game, and you might not move the big boys too often, but the fish will eat. The real trick is staying comfortable in the cold and keeping your gear in working order when the temperatures dip. Here are five quick tips to hook up with a few fish this winter that will help you stay out longer and find more fish.

Zach Orth sets the hook on a winter bite at the most secret Missoula fishing spot ever.

1. Hit the Popular Spots

Most days, a “crowded” winter spot might have one other angler parked in the same access. There’s really no need to drive way out of town to spots you might love to wade in the summer, and some of the most beaten up spots of summer fish just fine in the winter. Some of the benefits of hitting the popular spots in winter are established access trails (which help when you’re trudging through snow) and known trout lies. Open water that gets a lot of sun during the day is great stuff, and the close and consistent spots are where you should head when the weather gives you a break.
2. Layers. 
This might seem like the most over-stressed and simplistic aspect of winter activities, but there’s a good reason why: most people still don’t do it right. A single layer of long underwear and a flannel isn’t going to keep you comfortable for a day of wading through snow and water, then back into the snow. Frozen waders and boots make excellent conductors for cold right to your core, so do what you can to start the day with plenty of armor. Got cold feet? You haven’t layered right. Same for cold hands. Bigger gloves and thicker socks aren’t the answer. What you need is to heat the blood that hits those extremities. Invest in a good layering system of different thicknesses of long underwear of reputable materials, and you’ll have a lot better time on the water.
3. Hot Lunch
I was watching a series of Youtube videos about some Scandinavian gear anglers who put tons of time in on the water in the colder months. One thing they did every day is lunch. Done right. Hot dogs in boiling water in a Thermos. Soup. Chili. Your trusty Hydroflask is good for more than just cold liquids, and a good meal to warm you up when the fishing gets slow (or stays slow.) will keep you from heading to the truck too early.
4. WD-40
Iced up guides are like iced up windshield wipers. Sure, you can just deal with it all day and make it part of the neverending grumble and mumble of winter fishing, or you can nip it in the bud before the day starts. A small can of WD-40 costs all of a couple of bucks, and can keep your line running smoothly all day long. Hell, you probably already have a can in the truck! A quick spray of each guide and a wipedown with a rag at the end of the day and you’re in business.
5. Throw the Ugly Stuff
You ever seen what ice fisherman are using these days? Lots of hot colored jigs and what they like to call “caviar” just to make themselves feel a bit more sophisticated. Or take for example the pegged beads of a steelheader. Eggs and worms, worms and eggs, franks and beans, beans and franks. When the going gets slow on the river in winter hot colors and downright dirty flies sometimes are the only way to find a willing fish. Trout can rarely resist eggs and worms, they’re just hardwired to eat that easy protein, and when all else fails you should probably have a few of both ready for action in the winter.

Winter fishing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’l rarely find more quiet beauty on a popular piece of water than in the winter, and it’s worth the effort to get the gear out of the garage and give it a go. Make it a point to fish all twelve months of the year, even if it’s just the once. You’ll learn something new and find new ways to look at your rivers if you do.

Fetching Finicky Fish

Catching pressured fish can be maddening. What is a pressured fish? Pressured fish are those that live in high traffic areas and popular rivers. These fish see high amounts of boat traffic, anglers and most importantly, lots of flies. Pressured fish get wary or they don’t survive. In the height of summer, when water runs clear and fish are looking up, remembering some simple rules can help set yourself apart and hook into the fish others are missing.

Catching pressured fish doesn’t have to be frustrating. This cutthroat trout ate a well presented fly on the Clark Fork in the middle of the afternoon on a busy weekend day.

Approaching wary trout is of the highest concern, and should be on your mind from the moment you hit the river. If you are wading, take your time getting into position and be aware of where your shadow falls – predators like eagles and osprey know this instinctually, and will often spot fish from much higher than might seem necessary before diving. This allows them to obscure their shadow and profile, which as a trout hunter you should take into account as well. Limit the number of false casts you make, approach from an angle that will give you room to make a quality presentation, and think like a predator.
Fly Selection
As a fishing guide, I’m often asked what the “hot” fly is at a given time. My answer is usually disappointing, and revolves around the same common patterns that all the fishing reports name. Knowing the hatches and what is most likely to be in the river system at any given time is important, but not as important as the other factors when it comes to finicky trout. In my experience fish care about size, profile, and color in that order, and all three matter much less than a good presentation and a drag-free drift. It might sound like blasphemy coming from someone who makes their living tying and fishing flies, but it boils down to simplicity and opportunity for fish: they have to eat, and they spend a whole lot less time examining the hot patterns than us anglers do at shop fly bins. If it rides right, it gets eaten. Pick up some patterns from a local shop and ask what hatches are happening before you hit the water. If all else fails, go down a size before switching flies. I’ve watched picky trout during a blizzard caddis hatch on the lower Clark Fork refuse a size 14 Elk Hair Caddis time and again only to snatch a size 16 with abandon. Size it down, get the presentation right and get into fish.
This one you could probably see coming, as I’ve been building to it with the last few tips. Practice your cast. Practice into the wind, with the wind, across the wind and every which way you can as often as you can on the water. Fooling pressured trout takes maddening presentation perfection sometimes, and the best way to get fish to eat is with a cast and mend that puts food in their lane with as little drag as possible. Practice your mend. Fish, fish, and fish some more. Casting on the lawn or at a local park is a great way to keep the engine running smoothly. I’ve caught more pretend fish on my lawn than I have trophy trout, but all that practice makes fooling trout that much easier. As a guide, early on in the day with clients I can tell whether we’ll be into fish all day or whether it will take work to find them. That depends largely on the client’s casting ability, and more importantly their ability to take my coaching and turn it into action. Those that do find the big ones in pressured water. You don’t have to be an expert caster to catch fish. More important is what happens once the line has hit the water. Mending, learning the water and what different currents require to keep your fly in the lane as long as it can is essential. A day with a guide can do wonders for your presentation, and on the water practice is everything. Practice your cast on water as much as you can, and the result will be more fish to hand in the long run.

Two Tips for Beating the Heat

These summer days are the ones we wait all year long for. The ones that keep us anglers going through winter, sustain us through the day jobs and inspire long February evenings of tying hoppers and stoneflies in anxious anticipation of the hatches we love. While the bugs are here, that doesn’t always mean the fishing is easy. The height of summer brings its own fishing challenges, not least among them are the long bright days and heat that drives fish into the deep pools and shade. Fish have lots of bugs on the menu, and clear water means they can see your approach a mile off.  Depending on the day, sometimes this heat can throw the bite off and rivers can seem like they’ve shut down completely and the fish have all but disappeared. Heavy floating traffic and finicky fish on the river can also send some fly anglers into fits of rage, but this doesn’t have to be the case. We’ve all been there. You’ve read the reports, talked to the guys in the shop, loaded up on the hot fly and hit the river for a healthy dose of no action whatsoever. Ain’t fishing grand? In these times, experimentation can change your day for the better. Here are two tips to beat the heat this summer.

This healthy cutthroat trout was caught in the middle of a 90 degree day using a size 16 flash emerger on a long leash. Experimenting with the depth of your dropper can get you back into fish when the sun is out.
Drop it Deep 
Summer means tossing the big dry flies to rising trout. But what happens when they just aren’t rising? Oftentimes, the fish are eating the bugs that are rocketing toward the surface well underneath the water. Tying a smaller nymph behind your dry fly on a 3 to 4 foot section of tippet can help find fish when they’re not eating on the top. Experimenting with the length of the tippet and changing the dropper fly often until you find the depth and fly combination of the day can get you back into fish when the heat is on.
Double your Dry
Summer means big dries in western Montana. Size 10 or larger stonefly and hopper patterns are great – we can see them for a mile, they float high and catch lots of fish. But when river traffic gets high, the fish can see a whole lot of the big stuff, and refusals can be maddening. Tying a smaller dry fly off the back of a big dry fly lets you cover more bases. On rivers where multiple bugs are hatching at the same time it’s worth doubling your chances by imitating two at the same time. A favorite combination for guides in western Montana is a large stonefly pattern trailed by a smaller parachute adams or purple haze. The second fly covers the many mayfly hatches, and oftentimes fools those wary trout that have seen the big ones and left them alone. The added bonus of being able to actually see your larger fly when the little one seems to have gone invisible is always nice as well.
Summer goes by fast, and fishing is red hot here in western Montana, so get out while you can! Keep these tips in mind when the heat slows them down, and don’t be afraid to experiment on the river, it can save your day and keep you smiling.