Nymph Fishing the Upper Madison
The upper Madison River is a premiere wild trout fishery located just about an hour’s drive from Bozeman, Montana. The fly fishing guides and staff at Fins & Feathers’ Bozeman fly shop consider early spring to be one of the most productive times of the year on this world-renown river. Infamously crowded during the “high-summer,” spring is the time to find both solitude and feeding trout.
Warming water temperatures allow aquatic insects to become active for longer periods during the day which keeps the fish eating more throughout the day in turn. Midges and Mayflies such as Blue Winged Olives (BWO’s) and March Browns become are the predominant hatching insects on the river in March and early April. Although there are dry fly opportunities to be found on those mild, cloudy days that hatching insects tend to favor, the nymph-fishing is almost always a great way to find feeding trout.
The standard nymph rig for the upper Madison this time of year consists of a 7 1/2” tapered leader with a 3X tippet. A strike indicator is typically placed on the butt section of the leader (closest to the fly line) about 1-2 feet from the fly line. The first fly is typically an attractor or generalist pattern such as a Stonefly Nymph, San Juan Worm, or an Egg pattern this time of year. A second fly or “dropper” is tied off of either the eye or hook-bend of the first fly with approximately 1 ½” of 4X tippet. A small split shot is often added to the leader about 1 1/2” above the first fly. The goal is to get the flies down near the bottom of the deeper holes and runs where feeding trout are most active this time of the year.
Fly fishing with nymphs can be confusing and overwhelming for many novice anglers as casting is awkward compared to the “lawn casting” scenario where most anglers learn the basics. A couple of things to keep in mind that will help minimize the frustration include increasing your acceleration and length of pause on the back-cast. With all of those pieces on the leader, the “loop” needs more energy which is created with acceleration of the rod while the pause allows more time to “unroll” at the end of the casting stroke.
The next – and most important – aspect of fly fishing with nymphs is learning how to present the flies underwater. The split shot helps the flies sink to or near the bottom of the river where they ideally will drift or roll through the water column. The phrase “dead-drift” is commonly used to describe the goal of making the flies appear as if they are natural insects that are naturally drifting in the current. Tension in the nymph rig causes “drag” which can occur both on the surface or underwater. Fly line, strike indicator, improper leader length, tricky currents, and weighted flies can all contribute to “drag.” Understanding that the strike indicator should be floating freely on the surface with no “wake” or movement is the first step in recognizing an effective “dead-drift.” Learning to mend successfully – essentially moving the floating fly line into the same current as the nymphs – is the key to achieving that “dead-drift” with a standard, nymph rig.
As the weather and conditions continue to improve as we head into April, expect the nymph-fishing opportunities to only improve on the upper Madison River. Fins & Feathers of Bozeman’s guides and fly shop staff will be on the river quite a bit in the coming weeks, so stop in and pick our brains for the latest in fly selections and fishing advice. Rainbow Trout are starting to spawn throughout the area, so always be mindful of walking around fine gravel areas and avoid fishing to trout that are holding in shallow waters. Guided fly fishing trips on the upper Madison River with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman is a great way to improve your nymph-fishing skills while also finding success on the water.