You have decided during this most recent cold spell that fishing is pretty much over in the northern Rockies until, say, March or April. But that’s not true at all. There are plenty of winter opportunities sprinkled around the Rockies and I’ll share five of my favorites here, Montana’s Bighorn and Madison rivers, and Rock Creek. The other favorites are Idaho’s Big Lost and South Fork Boise rivers. Today, the temperature is in the thirties and I’m thinking I should be on the water. Can you hear me right now? Yes, that’s me saying, “Girls, hurry up and get your room cleaned up. I want to hit Rock Creek!” Hey, winter fishing isn’t always the hatch-matching magic of summer but it sure beats sitting at home and the waters aren’t anywhere close to being crowded. That’s a tradeoff I’ll take 90 percent of the time.
Madison River: You can fish from Ennis all the way to Hebgen Lake and have good chances at hooking some solid rainbows and browns. Classic winter patterns, such as the Flashback Pheasant Tail (no bead because there’s not need to feed the whitefish), egg imitations, and Prince Nymphs work well here. Little red and black midge imitations, including the Serendipity, are good choices, too. Look for trout in the 12 to 18-inch range and remember this—where you find one you’ll you’ll usually find more.
Bighorn River: A little more crowded than the Madison but not like it is during summer and fall. This river kicks out scads of browns and rainbows and they range between 12 and 20 inches on average. It’s a midge, scud and sowbug show here during winter. Just put in your time with those patterns and you’re sure to score. Bighorn Angler can set you up with all the right stuff and rent you a boat if you aren’t into wading. We used to fish this river in January, during the NFL playoffs, and we always had a blast. Five straight days on the ‘horn makes winter fly by. See you out there for sure.
Rock Creek: This is the winter escape for Missoulians when the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork are icy and rather mean. Rock Creek kicks out lots of browns to 15 inches or maybe a little more, and some nice cutthroats in the 13 to 16-inch range. When visiting Rock Creek you can expect to see some nice bighorn sheep and lots of deer. The river is highly manageable, even for inexperienced anglers, so it’s a good place to just go for a few hours. A warning however: I have driven the length of Rock Creek Road during winter, all 60 miles of it, and I’ve sworn to never do that again. The road can be a sheet of ice so my suggestion would be to concentrate on the lower 10 miles and call it good. Remember, if you catch any bull trout here you need to keep them in the water and let them go. Before hitting the creek stock up on Prince Nymphs, egg imitations, PTs and Serendipities. Copper Johns, too.
South Fork Boise: Great rainbow trout fishing here. And good size to boot. This is a tailwater so it fishes well right on through winter. Good midge hatches are the key here. Bring a variety of imitations in black, brown, and red. Fish them under an indicator and behind a size 18 PT. Bounce the bottom and hold on—these fish fight hard even during winter. Be prepared in case you see a blue winged olive hatch. Periodically these come off during winter. Size 16 and 18 P-Chute Adams’ get the job done here when fished off 5X or 6X tippet.
Big Lost River: The Sun Valley crowd loves this river for good reason—it flows through a Clint Eastwood western setting and boots out some nice rainbows. This is a also a tailwater so it flows mostly free of ice during winter although you want to pick your times to visit here as the Big Lost is a cold valley. Same bugs work here along with leeches and small Woolly Buggers. Part of the appeal of fishing here is bouncing around the town of Mackay. True western town with a few authentic bars and good local people.