Summer in Montana - Fishing for trout in the Montana Summer Months
It was your typical August day in the rockies. Sunny, warm, a few thunderstorms off in the distance but the weather on the river was perfect. Jack had traveled out west from New England and a mutual friend set him up to fish with me for the day. Seeing a few hundred grasshoppers on the walk down to the river made fly selection fairly obvious. Jack was an experienced angler and a good caster. He started making elegant casts over the run in front of us, and after several pretty but fishless drifts, he started moving upstream. “Hold on a moment” I said. You need to cast closer to the bank. He obliged by laying the line upstream, closer to shore than he had been casting, but still a good five feet from the shoreline. Still nothing. When I suggested that he needed to get closer, he turned around and as politely as he could muster pointed out that the water looked to be 6 inches deep, and he could plainly see that there was nothing there! “Humor me” I replied. With a shake of his head that made it clear that he would make the cast only to make me happy, he landed his fly just about a foot from the bank. As his hopper twisted in a tiny eddy, a nose materialized and gently closed on the fly. When he set the hook, a deep bodied 18 inch brown bolted into deeper water and the fight was on!
After releasing the fish, and taking a moment to catch his breath, he shook his head and calmly exclaimed “I would have never made that cast”. I just smiled and suggested that we do it again. We proceeded to work up the river, and Jack probably landed another 6 or 7 fish over the course of the afternoon, most over 15 inches, and all but one coming right off the bank. I can’t tell you how many times this story has repeated itself in one form or another. Even in the colder months, when everyone “knows” that the fish are holding in the deep slow holes, I find myself searching the shallows, and more often than you might think, finding fish. But more than any other time of year, summer is the time to look for fish in the shallows. If trout are holding in the shallows, or right up against the bank, you can be pretty certain that they are feeding. This is something that holds true in lakes and ponds as well as in rivers and streams. I have watched large cutthroat trout in our high lakes, moving slowly just inches from an overhanging grass bank. They know that in the brief summer season, overhanging grass and shrubs are a source of food (or at least the bugs that fall from them are), and most of the time will take a well placed fly.
There is definitely something seductive about deeper water. The dark shadows give rise to our imagination and fantasies of giant fish just waiting to grab our fly. We spend hundreds of dollars on high quality waders, and it just feels right to be standing waist deep in the water, knowing that by wading out we might be able to make a cast to reach those big fish. Reality however, is a bit more complicated. Yes, there are fish in deep water, and some of those fish are big, and sometimes you will catch them there. But more often than not, deep water is a place for resting and for shelter. Much of the time there is more food available in shallow water, and in the summer, trout will follow the food.
It’s easy to see why people overlook shallow water. Here in Montana we have a lot of clean clear water, and when we can see details on the bottom (and no obvious fish), it’s easy to make the assumption that the water is empty. In the excitement of getting our line out, most people fail to notice the subtle shadows of fish leaving feeding positions and slinking away to a safer location. I can’t tell you how many times when working with more than one guest during a wade trip, that as I am helping to get the last person rigged up, I look out to see the first person in the river has waded out to knee deep water, eagerly casting to the deeper water beyond. Once everyone is rigged, I then must politely explain to the first guy that the spot where he is standing was holding a bunch of feeding fish. On a few occasions, I have been able to make a cast directly upstream to the same depth of water, or even shallower, and hook a fish just to illustrate the point! The truth is that most fish, but trout in particular, are well camouflaged. The only way they can survive the gauntlet of ospreys, eagles and herons is to be very good at not being seen. Spotting fish takes a lot of practice, and even experienced guides will occasionally miss a large fish in clear shallow water. Because of this, I have learned to always put a few casts into the nearby shallow water even when I don’t see fish. It’s amazing how often someone will be home!
The Madison River in particular has many sections of large shallow riffles. While it is true that in the winter most fish move into deeper slow water, in summer these riffles are food generating machines. Fish will spread out throughout these sections in hopes of finding a good feeding lane where it won’t have too much competition from other fish. I have stood on elevated banks or even bridges and watched these flats in amazement. It often seems that the more time I spend watching, the more fish I spot. Even in the shallows, there are often micro structures that make some sections slightly better than others from a fish holding perspective, but the key here is to assume that fish will be there and take some time to look the area over. Even if you don’t see fish, try a few casts. I am amazed how many times I watch both wade anglers and even folks in drift boats completely ignore shallow water that is full of fish in favor of the more obvious deeper looking runs.
The advice I give here is to Always expect fish in the shallows, and approach the water cautiously, with the expectation that the trophy of the day is just off the bank. When you expect to see something, you are actually more likely to find it. Take your time! People have accused me of being painfully slow when I first get to the water. I spend a lot of time just watching before I tie on a fly. That time is often rewarded. Fish don’t stand out, but by watching the water and being patient, little movements or shadows start to appear. Rarely do I see the whole fish. More often it’s just the movement of a tail, or a hint of white as a fish opens its mouth to eat a nymph. Maybe it’s the dimple of a nose breaking the surface. Maybe a shadow right against the bank that moves just a little bit. This is definitely a case of the more you look the more you find.
I think back to another day, when in between running errands I made a quick stop to look at a favorite stretch of water, just to see what was going on. At a point where a shallow riffle dropped into slower water, there were three large trout actively feeding just below the surface. The water couldn’t have been more than 12 inches deep, but with the waves from the riffle, I guess that they weren’t all that easy to see. Another angler walked up, stepped into the stream and started casting. He was standing right were those fish had been feeding, and casting into the deeper water. Don’t be that guy! I actually chuckled as I moved on. Those fish were in no danger at all. They would be there tomorrow, and I would be back with my fly rod.
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images
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