Montana fishing seasons are difficult to identify on a calendar. For example, winter can start in October or December. Spring can start in March or April. Snow can fall in July and t-shirts can be worn in January. Variability and unpredictability define Montana’s weather. The saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes.” couldn’t apply more to Montana. The key is to remain flexible and open to the changing conditions and to be prepared with the proper equipment to stay comfortable in any situation.
In general, here are Montana’s seasons:
Winter – November 15 to March 15
Spring – March 15 to June 15
Summer – June 15 to September 15
Fall – September 15 – November 15
Montana’s Monthly Weather and Fishing Conditions
January – Historically one of the driest months of the year. We can have below zero temperatures, but it is also very common to have a mid-winter thaw as well. Madison River hatches are nearly non-existent due to frigid water temperatures. The Madison River near Ennis will probably have ice flowing through it on cold days. Most anglers head up to $3 Bridge or Reynold’s Bridge in January. Fly selection is pretty simple. A girdle bug and a zebra midge will do the trick. Not many fish are willing to chase streamers. Warmer, overcast days provide excellent midge adult hatches between late morning and early afternoon. Be prepared for cold temperatures with proper layering, waders, beanies and gloves required.
February – You can expect it to be similar to January. Some years February can be absurdly cold. The river is normally always gorged here in town and all the way up past 8 Mile Ford. Midges are still the primary insect to focus on. Brown trout are relatively inactive in these temps compared to rainbows. February is usually too early for the BWOs.
March – Can be spring or winter depending on the year. Some years we’re in t-shirts, and others we are fully layered up head to toe. Midge adults give way to Blue winged olive mayflies that are the highlight insect hatch as we start to see temperatures consistently above freezing. A 4-weight, 12 foot 4x leader and 5x tippet are in order for #18-22 BWOs. Look for overcast days for the best hatch activity. These small mayflies will congregate in slow moving pools or eddies, and so will the fish. As March progresses you can be assured a stretch of spring like weather and like clockwork the water temperature will break out of its near freezing range and creep into the low 40s. This is when the rainbows lose their minds and start their spring spawn by eating like there’s no tomorrow. Girdle bugs, prince nymphs, copper johns, eggs and streamers start to become big players as we move into spring.
April – This is a month that should be experienced by all serious anglers sometime in their life. It is during this month that you can expect it all from blizzards to balmy afternoons. It is not uncommon for anglers to start the day in full layering, beanies and gloves, only to end the day in a t-shirt. BWO remain active this time of the year as midges become less and less important to the Madison River trout’s diet. With water temperatures in the 40s we see the rainbow trout spawn kick into high gear. The same goes for their metabolism as they feast on just about anything that drifts by them. Some days in early April, the rainbows are so dominate that you’ll scratch your head wondering if the brown trout even survived the winter. Come late April though you should find the browns joining in on the party. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, there isn’t anything quite like the upper Madison River in April.
May – The first week of May is typically no different than April, unless the water temperatures have moved into the 50s. This will usually happen in the first two weeks of May and it means that a blizzard is coming. No, not that kind of blizzard. We’re talking about an insect blizzard. The Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch. This hatch is best experienced on the lower Madison River. If you’re driving along the river on highway 84 in early May and you hear hundreds of insects smacking your windsheild you should pull over and fish #16 elk hair caddis. The upper Madison River will see plenty of caddis this time of the year, but the best dry fly fishing is usually on the lower. That’s doesn’t mean that fishing the upper Madison River isn’t a good idea though as nymphs and streamers can be ultra productive. Looming on the horizon you can expect the runoff to occur around May 15th. Our trout don’t like the initial stages of runoff when water clarity worsens and flows increase. But if you give them a few days they eventually settle in and continue doing their thing. One distinct advantage of fishing during runoff is that the fish tend to move out of the swift water and into the softest and deepest water available. This means that they stack up together and can be quite easy to target if you adjust your tactics to include plenty of split shot on your nymphs rig. One thing for sure, the Madison River’s trout handles runoff better than any river in Montana and the fishing in the heart of the runoff can be spectacular.
June – Early June is usually the tail end of runoff. We see the fishing really turn on when the flow rates begin their downward trend. June is one of the wettest months of the year so it is not uncommon for us to see some temporary spikes in runoff as rain storms move through the high country. Caddis dominate the insect hatches this time of the year. Some great evening dry fly fishing is possible using large sized caddis patterns. Once we get into the second half of June though we start to anticipate “The Hatch”.
If there is one thing that put the upper Madison River on the map it’s the annual emergence of the Pteronarcys californica insect, also known as the salmonfly. This 3-inch long aquatic insect begin’s it’s emergence into its adult form when the Madison River flows decrease and when clarity improves. As nymphs crawl towards the banks they become the main focus in the trout’s diet. Dragging or swinging a heavily weighted stonefly nymph this time of the year can be deadly! Many of the bugs will survive their journey to dry land where they then climb up the dry vegetation to break through their wing casing. During their reproduction phase the salmonflies will fly over the water numerous times in search of a mate or when depositing eggs, and will eventually come to the end of their life cycle near the water. From the time they first fly to their last fluttering flap of their wings the salmonfly is a trout’s dream come true.
Chasing the salmonfly hatch is an art in itself and this is where an experienced fly fishing guide can really pay off. Regardless of whether or not you time the hatch right, it is always fun to cast a big foam body dry fly to potentially the largest fish in the river. To sweeten the pot we start to see golden stoneflies not long after the salmonflies. Sometimes it is these smaller stoneflies that the fish will prefer over the salmonflies.
July – The salmonfly hatch will linger into July depending on many different factors. Some years it is over before July 4th, while during others it will push well into the second week of July. Regardless, the golden stoneflies are out in full force along with the caddis. We also will see the underrated PMDs and yellow sallies in early July. This month is arguably the best month for dry flies on the Madison River. Dry fly fishing tends to remain solid through the whole month. July is our top recommendation if you’re looking to come out for dry flies only.
August – Most aquatic insect hatches have played out come August on the Madison River. Fortunately though we turn to the terrestrial insects for our dry fly needs. Hoppers, ants, spiders, beetles and bees are all fair game. Many veteran anglers cherish the challenges of August fly fishing on the upper Madison River. Size, color, presentation and tippet become very important factors for successful dry fly fishing. If you’re lucky enough to get it right though, you’re in for treat. Come late August we experience dry, sunny and warm conditions. Quite often anglers have to tie on small mayfly nymphs in the #16-20 size range to fool the fish. But in true late summer fashion, August can be among the best streamer months of the entire year as big brown trout inhabit the shallowest runs on the river to ambush sculpin and small rainbows.
September – This is our transition month as we move from summer to fall. September can be similar to August or October in terms of weather, meaning you have to be prepared for it all. September is locally regarded as the favorite month of the year by Ennis, Montana residents for its beautiful lighting and crystal clear days. It is also a month that tourism begins to drop off for Montana and so does angling pressure on the Madison. Aside for some evening caddis, insect hatches are relatively sparse this time of the year so much of our angling efforts are performed sub-surface. Late September is when we start looking to streamers for aggressive takes from big brown trout.
October – This is streamer month on the Madison River. A 7-weight and corresponding sink tip is in order for presenting big articulated sculpin patterns. Lots of casting is required but anglers have a good shot at a 22-26 pre-spawn brown trout in October. Aside from streamers we have the October caddis hatch which can be hit or miss depending on the year. If you’re a trophy hunter, don’t miss October!
November – Winter is close by the time November rolls around. Most resident anglers and guides are taking a break from fishing and are more focused on filling the freezer with elk or deer meat. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good fishing to be had. Many anglers find the river completely void of angling pressure. This is the best month to have the river all to youself!
December – Honestly, not many people fish the river in December. Unless it is unseasonably warm you can find them skiing or chasing saltwater fish.