The classic image of fishing in Montana is an angler standing in the front of a drift boat, legs planted firmly in the knee locks, casting to the bank and covering mile after mile of beautiful river with little effort but the guides oar strokes and the occasional recast and mend. To be sure this is a wonderful way to fish and see Montana but there is another option, especially for the do it yourself angler with strong legs and good balance. Wade fishing our large rivers has its limitations but can be both rewarding and productive.
First off, the wading angler should be prepared to as much waling as wading. It’s amazing how many visiting anglers seem to think the access points and pull outs on the highway are strategically placed directly across from the best fishing. Sometimes the access points are indeed very close to prime fishing but more often than not a hike after leaving your car will be worth your time. Also, once a fishing hole that has produced well and begins to slow down, it might be time for another hike. Montana fish are usually wilder than fish in more populated states. Fish in heavily pressured rivers often become accustomed to fisherman and the sight of their (the fish’s) buddies being pulled from the water and returned. An angler can fish one hole for a long time and remain relatively productive. As a rule Montana trout won’t tolerate this. Once the first few aggressive fish have been caught from a hole it’s usually better to move on than try to pick up the stragglers. Wade fisherman should count on changing flies more often than boat fisherman since floaters are showing their flies to new fish every couple of seconds, but usually after a fly change or two it’s time to move on. The exception to this might be rivers like the Madison below Quake Lake and the Beaverhead, both of which see heavy fishing pressure in the summer months.
Along the same lines, it might be a good idea to get the bulk of your wading done right of the bat. Often times it’s a good idea to cross the river and get on the far side from the access point when safe. Be very careful when attempting this, and if you not a confidant and experienced wader don’t bother. Montana Rivers, especially the big freestones like the Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Big Hole can be extremely difficult to wade. Studded boats are a very good idea if you plan on wade fishing these kinds of rivers and probably a better idea for everyone than a lot of us would like to admit. That being said, if you can make the cross safely, you’re likely to find less pressured and more aggressive trout. Also keep in mind that there is usually one side of a run that’s easier to fish from and this will often override the advantages of crossing to the far side, especially once you’re already a good distance from the access point.
Once you’re actually fishing you usually don’t need to wade near as deeply or aggressively as you might think. Most of our rivers have plenty of fish close to shore. Look where the drift boats are fishing, often right up along the bank. The fish don’t magically hold in different places for wade fisherman than they do for drifters. Wading conservatively also makes it easier to move on to a new pool when the time comes. You’ll also find it easier to move along as you’re fishing, again much like the drift boats do. Still, when you find a great piece of holding water make sure to take advantage of the fact that it’s easier for you to cover it thoroughly than the guys in the boats.
Wading anglers are also more likely to find themselves fishing on top of other anglers. Most of the secrets in Montana are out and a lot of people really like the fishing here. That’s understandable, so do we. Keep in mind how ever, that with all the great water here you don’t need to fish as close to some one else as you would in, say, New Jersey (that’s nothing against New Jersey, we know some fine anglers from there). Please be respectful of the fact that many anglers choose to vacation in Montana to experience solitude they don’t normally get in their daily lives, but also be respectful of the fact that you’re not going to get that kind of solitude on a river makes the cover of at least one national fly fishing publication once a year (we have a few of those). Just pay attention to your surroundings and try to go with the flow. If you only see one angler on a stretch of river, don’t jump in next to him because he must know the best spot. Also don’t get mad when you’re the thirteenth car to pull up to an access site and car number fourteen pulls in behind you.