Must Know Techniques for Winter Fishing the Missouri River
Missouri River Overview
When winter hits Montana it can create a block for many of our favorite rivers. A river that will remain reliable even in the coldest weather is the Missouri River near Craig. Being a tail-water controlled by a bottom release dam the MO has a very consistent water temp all year long that is generally much warmer than the free stone rivers around Bozeman. The warm water means that fish are a lot more active and spend more time feeding. This is great news for avid winter fly fishers or folks that aren’t big into hitting the slopes. The best section for winter fly fishing that maintains this nice warm water temperature is going to be the Dam down to Craig. Here are some tips from your Bozeman Fly Shop to ensure success next time you hit this section of the Missouri River.
Where to Fish
The best water to fish on the MO between Holter Dam and Craig is going to be slower moving deeper holes. Slow moving refers to water that is walking speed or slightly slower the depth you want to look for will be anywhere from about 5 to 8 feet deep. These perfect little fish holders are most often going to be the inside bend of any curve in the river or next to islands. A good example would be fishing right of the island below the Bull Pasture FAS.
The majority of fishing opportunities will be nymphing in these runs or buckets where fish will be very focused on bugs like scuds, sowbugs, and worms. I tend to run a standard nymph rig with two flies, one being a hot bead pink Ray Charles the other being a rainbow Czech nymph. If these fail to produce fish I like to switch it up to a red or wine san juan worm and a natural colored mayfly nymph or midge patterns like a pheasant tail or plain black zebra midge. While nymphing will be the best tactic both swinging and dry fly can be good options under the correct circumstances.
Dry Fly Fishing
Midge hatches can be surprisingly large on the MO in the winter and can actually get a good number of fish focused on the surface. More often than not, the rising will be inconsistent and sporadic with rarely two rises in the same spot. If one is lucky enough to be out on a warmer cloudy day it’s possible to find a pod or even consistently rising fish. These are best targeted with a 9-12’ leader down to 5x and a small midge pattern like a Griffiths gnat, cluster midge or even a #20 rusty spinner. These fish will be much more likely to take the fly if you cast down stream at a 45-degree angle.
The next option will be swinging small flies like buggers or non-articulated sculpin patterns. Cast slightly down river throw a big mend in and let your fly ride until it doesn’t have much motion. Sometimes some slight twitches will increase success. Swinging is best accomplished with a trout spey rod in a 3 or 4 weight that has a 6-10’ sinking head. I like the 6’ with a faster sink rate like 6 ips. Keep bugs natural, black, or brown and pretty small. I really like just a standard black wooly with a bit of flash, a natural or olive sculpzilla, and a thin mint.
Use these tactics the next time you head over to the Missouri River this winter and expect some great success!