February 2019 brought record snows and brutal cold to southwest Montana. Early March saw more of the same, with shocking low temps down below -30F. For a while, it felt even a bit too cold to spend the day on the ski slopes or inside an ice fishing hut. Each winter is a bit different here in the Rockies, but, they all have one thing in common. At some point, every winter gives way to spring.
As anglers fortunate enough to call this area home, winter is a time to tie flies, to fish some of the open waters if the weather cooperates, to enjoy snow sports, and to dream of the season to come. As the days lengthen and warm, the snow starts to melt, and the birds begin returning to the yards, I always start to feel a bit of energy from within. An anxiety and excitement that says, “get ready to fish”.
Gearing up is a big part of that excitement. In a perfect world, everything was cleaned and organized when I put it away at the end of last fall. Yeah. We will just go with that. Of course, a couple of rods are always ready to deploy during the winter though. A good 5 or 6wt nymphing rod, and a trout Spey kit, certainly. Some winters, the 4wt even sees the water if the weather is right for midge hatches. But the rest of the gear spends winter like the grizzly bears, snoring away in some dark corner.
The biggest difference between winter and spring/early summer fishing opportunities here is that there is a huge increase in the diversity of angling options in the Springtime. Winter fishing is essentially confined to wade fishing or occasional floats on reaches of the larger tailwater rivers. As things warm up though, the lakes ice out, and the numerous freestone rivers and creeks become fishable again.
Diversity also increases in terms of food sources and fly selection. Winter is pretty simple. Your favorite down and dirty nymphs, some with hot beads, a few midge larvae, San Juans, a couple of glo-bugs if you are so inclined, and a couple of streamers cover 97% of the opportunities. The other 3% of the chances will call for some sort of floating midge cluster and a midge pupa or emerger. Come spring, though, the pockets of my fishing pack swell up with more fly boxes like the expanding buds on the streamside willows. Temperature increases trigger a whole suite of insect activity, and fly selection becomes more complex. Hatches of Skwala stoneflies, baetis, more midges, march browns, and then the Mother’s Day caddis all demand specific imitations. By early summer, Montana is a hatch matchers delight, and the number of patterns increases even more. The stillwater boxes need to be ready as well, with buggers and chironomids doing the bulk of the fishing before mid-May. Streamers get bigger, especially as runoff begins.
Boats regain their place in the fishing scene. Shoveling out the drift boat is a ritual and rite of passage. Charging up the starter battery and trolling motor batteries on the lake boats is another. The first time you tow it out to the lake each spring it’s always exciting to see if it will start up like it did last fall! Float tubes and rafts become reacquainted with compressors and air pumps. It’s all happening. A warm, sunny spring day spent floating on a favorite body of water is like a dream come true, with or without fish.
All of these seasonal changes in fisheries and presentations, of course, require some sort of preparations in terms of rigging rods, reels, lines, and leaders. If I could only have one rod for all of my fishing in Montana, it would be a 9ft 6wt. Fortunately, many of us aren’t limited to only one setup anymore, and having a few different options can not only improve your catching success, but also really up your fun level on the water, and that is, after all, what it’s all about. So, in my own perfect world, as I gear up for spring and early summer fishing here in southwest Montana, I find myself setting up some of the following kits depending on my own fishing plans. Of course, there may be other rods and lines that fill these niches as well, but these kits are in terms of T&T rods and fly lines that I have fished and am familiar with.
Take Care and Fish On!
THE do-it-all MT Rod. Avantt 906-4
As I mentioned above, you can basically do it all here in Montana with a 9 foot 6wt. A real 6wt, not a 7 or 8wt in disguise, as some of the modern rods seem to be. The Avantt fits that bill for me. Dries, nymphs, streamers, floating and sinking lines, rivers, lakes, and creeks. Scuds to Salmonflies. For me, this is the most versatile of the T&T rods right now. Smooth, crisp, and powerful. A competent caster and anglers will never be held back by this rod. Modern fly line choices are also extremely diverse in the 6 weight category, allowing you to really tune the rod to your needs. For example, for dry fly applications, you could go with a longer head with longer front tapers for delicate presentations.
For nymphing or big dry flies, go with a more aggressive, shorter front taper. If you know you will be working at close range, a line with a heavier front 30 feet than the AFFTA standard might suit you well. For lakes, a full suite of sinking lines will be available, and for streamers, the sinking tip line options are many. My personal floating line of choice for this rod is the Airflo Distance Pro, which I feel has a great combination of features that make it an all-around perfect floating fly line. The only real place it might fall a bit short is if you are trying to chuck massive streamers that need 250 or 300-grain lines to sink ‘em super deep.
My Personal Favorite. Avantt 1005-4
I fell in love with this rod as soon as I got my hands on one, in part because it is so light and fun to cast for a 10 ft rod, and because it is really a perfect tool for a lot of my favorite types of fishing. The designers at T&T recommend the Mastery Trout WF5F or the RIO Gold WF5F for general use on the rod, but like a 9ft 6wt, this rod can be tuned in many different directions based on your specific application.
The 1005-4 is just brilliant for stillwater fishing with a full suite of floating and sinking lines, where long casts and larger fish are the norms. From a boat, you can really open it up and bomb overhead casts, and from shore, you can take advantage of the length and action for easy roll casting. For turning over indicator and chironomid rigs with long leaders on the stillwaters, I’ll string this rod up with an Airflo Distance Pro or SA Trout Taper in the 6wt size. For sinking lines, if you prefer longer heads and a bit more delicate turnover like I do, the Airflo Sixth Sense series of sinking lines in the 5/6 line weight is a great match. If you prefer a shorter head and faster load on your sinking lines, the Intouch series of sinking lines in the 5wt is your line.
Single hand Spey casting and fishing is another one of my passions that the 1005-4 is perfect for. That extra rod length over a 9 footer makes a world of difference in terms of line control, mending, easy distance, and roll/Spey casting. This rod is so light in hand that swinging it around all day like a magic Spey wand is nothing at all. Going down the rabbit hole of Spey lines can be dangerous, but also fun if you are anything like me. Many anglers have different preferences in terms of what they really like. With that said, I’ll give you a couple of suggestions that I really like as places to start with this rod and let you take it from there.
For delivering streamers and sink tips, I really like the Airflo Skagit Scout, in 240 grains, looped to an 8 or 10 ft extra fast sinking poly leader. Small and medium-sized streamers just fly on this rig and swinging such a light one-handed rod makes the grabs seem like lightning in your fingertips. For those dedicated to swinging smaller nymphs and soft hackles, the Airflo Super-Dri Switch Float in 210 grains is a real blast. It’s designed as a line for short 2-handed rods, but it is great on a 10 foot single hander as well. If you're like me and find yourself Spey casting even when you are fishing nymphs or even dry flies, don’t sweat getting a specific line. The floating line you like for nymphing or thrown big dries on this rod should roll and Spey cast just fine for you!
This is a great choice for indicator nymph fishing on foot or from a boat as well, for many of the same reasons that make it great for single hand Spey casting – mending and line control. Like it or not, “bobber fishing” with a team of nymphs is probably the most likely way to bend your rod around here from late winter through spring until the water warms up a bit. For nymphing, I run the same line I use for chironomids fishing the lakes - an Airflo Distance Pro in the 6wt size. The extra weight really turns over the junk, and the long head makes for great line control on long drifts in slow pools. Another great option for nymphing is one of the dedicated nymph taper lines from your favorite line manufacturer. This kit will even double as a great setup later on in the year when big dries like salmonflies, golden stones, and hoppers are on the menu.
Match The Hatch. Horizon HS 904-4 & AEROS 905-4
A blast from the past, yes, but the Horizon 4wt that I purchased nearly 20 years ago now is still my favorite match the hatch dry fly rod. I’d consider this a true testament to the quality, craftsmanship, and durability that goes into every T&T rod.
Of course, the Horizon is no longer in production, so from the modern lineup, I’d go with the AEROS 905-4 as my hatch matcher.
It's a rod that helps me put the fly on a dime, and land it oh so softly when the conditions and the fish demand it. For this type of fishing, I like a line with a long head, so I can carry more line and present with precision at distance. SA Trout Taper or Rio Gold are two that I’d recommend highly, in the line weight to match the rod. I like a long-ish leader for my hatch matching as well. Try out this simple leader formula and see what you think. Start with a 9ft 1x Rio Powerflex Plus leader. Cut back 1ft off the skinny (tippet) end, and add 12-18” of 3x, followed by 3-4ft of 5x.
Drift Boat Streamer Junkie. EXOCETT SS 250
Banging the banks, and dredging the pools with streamers from the comfort of a drift boat is one of those things that really is a part of the modern fly fishing culture in the west. It’s not the ONLY way to fish by any means, but it can be really fun, especially when the fish are switched on. Rapid fire casts to pick pockets are often required in between stretches of longer casts and deeper retrieves if the fish are laying low in the colder, higher flows of spring. The Exocett SS series were designed just for this, with stiffer tip sections that help with pulling sinking tip lines out of the water. I’m not sure if it is related to the 8’8” length or another design factor, but these rods also are really light in hand, nice for really twitching and popping a fly with the rod, and have a ridiculous amount of feel compared to some of the standard issue broomsticks out there.
The 250-grain rating essentially equates to a 8wt, which is a really good all-around size for fishing here in my neck of the woods. It will handle both small and large streamers well, and by choosing lines with super fast sink rates you can really get deep on big water when you need to. I’ve matched this rod up with the SA Sonar Sink 25 Cold (250 grain) and been very pleased with it in most fishing conditions. If I feel like I need to get mega deep, either on a stillwater or in a really deep river scenario, I’ve had good luck with the Rio In Touch Striper 30ft Sink Tip (250 grain) which has an intermediate shooting line. Either way, keep those leaders short and stout and hang on tight.
I will preface this bit by explaining that my own Spey fishing for trout here in Montana is focused on the early and late season, medium and large rivers, and streamer fishing primarily with sinking tips of reasonable length. As such, I am drawn to rods that are, on average, on the longer and heavier side of trout Spey line ratings. 2 and 3 wts I feel are better suited to lighter lines and teams of smaller soft hackles. Lengths at or exceeding 11’6” help with easy distance that comes in handy on big water. And rods that can throw 350-400 grain lines have what it takes to move heavy sink tips and bigger flies.
For an angler who wants only one trout Spey rod that can cover the most applications, I and the other Spey-nerds at Big Sky Anglers recommend a 4wt. The DNA 1164-4 is spot on and throws Skagit style heads in the 325 to 360 grain window with sink tips or sinking leaders in the 8-10ft range, while also allowing you to go with a floating Scandi-type head offering for soft hackle fishing should you chose to do so. The 4 weight covers bigger water well but also isn’t too much on smaller rivers. On the 1164-4 I like the Airflo Super-Dri Switch Streamer in 360 grains or Rio Skagit Max Short in 350 grains for streamer fishing, and Airflo Super Dri-Switch Float in 330 grains or the SA Spey Lite Integrated Scandi in 330 grains.
If you focus your Spey effort on the largest rivers and biggest trout in our area, jumping up to a longer 5wt trout Spey that can throw 390 or even 420 grain Skagit heads with larger streamers and sink tips in windy conditions is probably a good idea. The DNA 1195-4 is just that rod! I’ve really enjoyed fishing this rod with the Airflo Super-Dri Switch Streamer in 390 and 420 grains as well as the Rio Skagit Max Short in 375 and 400 grains. Sink tips and sinking leaders in the 10 to 12 foot range are no problem with this rod and these lines, and larger and heavier flies are far easier to turn over than they are with a 4 weight.
One of the great features of both of these rods is how light they feel in hand, and how quickly the recover from being loaded. That certainly makes for comfy casting, but it also really makes for very comfortable and efficient fly presentation as well, which I think is an often overlooked variable in Spey rod selection. Let me elaborate. One of the main differences between Spey fishing for trout and, say, steelhead, is that trout (especially browns) will often really key in on a presentation that has more action than just a standard down and across swing.
A rod that is lighter in hand and not noodly in its recovery allows you to use the rod to impart a lot of action on your fly during the swing without fatigue. During a swing, I might add some twitches our jerks by bouncing the rod tip a bit, or a more subtle action by pulling the rod back towards me in little bumps. With a weighted fly that adds a jigging action that can be the hot ticket on some days. In areas where the current doesn’t really allow for a clean and proper swing presentation, I might even bomb out a cast and jerk-strip retrieve it back to the rod tip. These presentations are just not as easy to achieve and the connection to the fly not as sensitive with tip heavy rods with slower, more noodly recovery.
Creeks. LOTIC 7105-3
Last but not least, gearing up for the creek, small streams or “cricks” in some parts of the state. You know what I’m talking about. Intimate waters that make you feel like a kid again every time you fish them. First thing’s first, in the spring, make sure you aren’t fishing a spawning tributary where the rainbows are doing their thing! With that said, I like a 5wt instead of a 4 or 3wt on the creeks here, especially in early summer because there are times where the wind is cranking, the flies are big (stoneflies and streamers come to mind), and the fish that show themselves can be disproportionately large for the size of the flow. The glass stick still keeps it flexible, easy to load at short range, and plenty fun with a good trout on the end.
For this rod, I like a front-loaded WF floating line for easy overhead, roll, and Spey casting in close confines, a basic tapered mono leader, and maybe some sort of sinking Poly or Versi leader in case of deeper water streamer needs. The Airflo Super-Dri Streamer Float 5wt does the trick if you expect to make super short casts. Switch to a less aggressive taper like the SA Mastery Trout WF5F or the RIO Gold WF5F if you plan to be working with a bit more line outside the rod tip.