Guide Report – Max Mattioli

The Following fishing report is from longtime Headhunters Guide Max Mattioli. It’s a rare occasion that one of our guides offers to “give it up” on the blog, and we appreciate such a detailed report from one of the rivers best guides. If you’ve been in the state for 14 days and would like to spend a day with Max or one of our other guides, the following sums up what you’ll likely experience on the Missouri River right now. Ask Bob Miller (above) showing off a beautiful Brown Trout he caught with Max recently.
Weekend Warrior Fishing Report, Monday May 11, 2020

Fishing is picking up. Low flows, rising water temps, mayflies, and an unprecedented lack of fishing pressure are the key drivers working in our favor this week. The biggest hindrance to consistent fishing lately has been the wind, coupled with some inclement weather.

If you are a fair-weather angler, be patient, fishing will be lights out in June. Wait for the PMD and caddis hatches to get going, and wait for extended period of warmth and high pressure for that classic summer dry fly experience. In May however, be ready to fish in some cooler, wetter weather.

Those drizzly, overcast days are the best baetis and March brown days, and you gotta go to know. These are also the best streamer days, and the best nymphing days, but you might have to swap out that sowbug rig for a shortleash (more on that in a minute).

Saturday I fished with a couple gals from Missoula, Tara and Holly. Had a blast and caught a lot of fish. The nymphing was surprisingly good for a sunny Saturday afternoon. Direct quote: “I’ve never caught this many fish on the Missouri.” There is no doubt that the fish are moving around, and eating more consistently than in the previous few weeks.

Sowbug is king

If you fish the Missouri a lot, you’re familiar with this being the case from mid-October through May. Soon the fish will start to pattern the afternoon baetis hatch, and you’ll find more success fishing pheasant tails after lunch, but for now the sowbug is king.

Favorite pattern: #14 tailwater sowbug. This was true on my very first professional guide day, March 10, 2015, and it’s still true today. I remember it like it was yesterday, and yet so much has changed since then, but some things don’t change. These Missouri fish know what a sowbug is, and prior to super consistent, daily insect hatches, it is no doubt the food source of choice.

Rig: 4-5 feet of straight 2X from bobber to split (B shot), 3X to a #14 tungsten sowbug, and 4X to the fan favorite #14 unweighted tailwater sowbug. This is a pretty standard rig for this time of year. You can substitute that small point fly for something larger, say a #10-12 worm or czech nymph, and lose the split shot, or fish two littles. I go back and forth on this often throughout the spring.

Your rig should depend on the water type you are targeting. If you are fishing inside-out (boat inside, closest to the bank, fishing out towards the middle of river), you will be looking for that first shelf or slot, and water depths between 3-6 feet. Where you see the water change color from yellow gravel to green. Look for water that is moving at a swift walking pace. The long rig with two littles works great for this situation. For shallower, quicker water, or for fishing towards the bank, I prefer to get rid of the split shot, and run four to five feet of 3X directly to my first fly. Without the split shot you’ll need to go a little heavier on that first bug, something dense in a size 10 or 12. Again, all of’ this is really dictated by the water you want to fish (speed and depth), and where the fish are in the column. If the fish are suspended in the column along the bank, or stacked up in the fast, middle-of-the-river riffles, you’re going to want to switch to a shortleash.

The shortleash

Lighter indicator, I prefer the Palsa pinch-ons, or smaller, lightweight bobber. 2-4 feet (depending) of 3X to your point fly, which is probably a large March brown pattern, and 4X to your dropper, which will be a baetis nymph or emerger. If fish are working in the seams, make a downstream reach cast and drift your flies directly to them. If you’re fishing shallow gravel, keep the boat back 30 feet and make the cast. Fish are spookier in shallow water. Soon this will be the rig of the day, particularly in the second half of the day. Can’t tell you how many May days I’ve started out with the sowbug rig and moved to the shortleash for the second half. And it can be some of the best nymphing of the year.

Hot Tip of the week

Build your own nymphing leaders from scratch. You’ll save a lot money and probably catch more fish. More importantly, you’ll learn a lot. Plus you won’t destroy your tapered dry fly leaders, meaning you’ll always have a fresh 9’4X when you need one!

I use 30 lb. butt section and attach my fluorocarbon tippet via a shocker knot. This is a very simple knot that combines an overhand and a seven-wrap clinch. I slide my bobber flush to that knot and it lives there. To get the leader to turn over well, you will have to experiment to find out how much butt section to use for different tippet lengths. Basically, shorter rigs need and want more butt section, longer rigs require shorter butt sections.

Fishing straight tippet instead of a tapered leader increases my sink rate, which means less weight and shorter total leader lengths (both good for casting), but more importantly gives me the presentation I am looking for.

The spawn is winding down
Since I mentioned shallow gravel I should touch on this. While the spawn is in fact winding down, which means more and more fish eating every single day, many are still on the spawning beds, or redds. It is up to the angler to avoid the redds. This means, don’t target spawners, and please don’t wade through redds to get to fish. Remember, these are wild fish afterall. We close small streams in Montana to protect wild, spawning fish. But we leave the rivers open to angling. Do your part and avoid the redds.

When I’m talking about fishing shallow riffles with the shortleash, I’m talking about covering water, and fishing buckets and shelves along the gravel. The intent here is important. There is a big difference in approach when you’re targeting feeding fish, and when you’re targeting spawners, and it’s noticeable.

March Browns and Baetis

If the flows and weather are conducive, this is some of the best dry fly fishing of the year. Folks who have fished the Mo these last two-three years have had some tough spring dry fly fishing due to inconsistent flows, water temps, and weather (which drive hatches and fish behavior). This month however, is shaping up to be a dandy. Perfect conditions, except for a little wind. Get out there, suffer a little bit in the rain and wind, and wait for your moments of glory. These are uneducated fish that haven’t yet learned the difference between a size 12 purple haze and a natural mayfly. You get what I’m saying.

Streamer fishing

My favorite time of year to streamer fish. Perfect streamer morning is overcast, low cloud ceiling, possibly raining, but warm. And no wind. These days are rare, but all of the most epic streamer days I’ve had on this river have the above in common. Later in the day, the bugs will hatch and the fish will be more keyed in on mayflies. Will some still chase? Absolutely. But the aforementioned purple haze or your favorite March brown might be a better option.

Take advantage of a rare opportunity
The weekends have been pretty busy with folks making the trip from all over the region. If you want to avoid the crowds, play hooky and fish during the middle of the week. Fewer boats on the water means more room to spread out and social distance i.e. have more good water to yourself. If you can only make it over on the weekend that’s fine too, just expect to see a lot more anglers.

Ran into my good friend Connor from Missoula Saturday at the boat ramp, he said things are fairly blown out there which prompted the day-trip. Caught up with him later at Izaak’s and he was curious to know how our day was. Sounds like they had a classic Missouri River day, hooking into and promptly getting schooled by several big fish, and landing a few more. Happens to the best of us, Connor.

Just think about how good it will be…

A couple months of reduced fishing pressure may have a profound effect on the fishing this year. Anglers this week are starting to reap the benefits. And it’s only going to get better.

Mattioli’s prediction: as long as the flows don’t spike the Mo will pop this week. Baetis, march browns, streamers, sowbugs, your choice. You heard it first here.

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  • Tom Dickson
    May 13, 2020 5:32 am

    Such wonderful advice. Thank you, Max–and HH for posting it–for sharing this hard-earned and invaluable insight into the technical challenges of nymphing the Missouri. Many ill-informed anglers disparage nymphing, but I consider it more challenging than dry fly fishing. With the dry, you can see the fish and don’t have to worry about the current other than on the surface. With the nymph, the fish are unseen and you have to manage not only the tricky surface current that manhandles your indicator but also the varied-speed currents below that are slowing down your point fly and dropper. The experts at HH could write a book on the art of tailwater nymphing–and perhaps should consider doing so some winter!

  • Ryan Helmer
    May 13, 2020 10:08 am

    Max is The Man! Absolutely fantastic guide! Thanks for the insight. It sure makes hard earned recreation time more enjoyable when you head to the water armed with expert knowledge. Now let’s see how I can screw it up from here…
    Thanks HH and Especially thank you Max for taking the time to share your craft.

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