Stillwater Anglers Stillwater River Fishing Report

Stillwater River Fishing Report 2019 Year in Review

Back in April, we wrote an article about our Yellowstone River fly fishing report, with an overview of last year’s report of how the river behaves throughout the years. Now that fishing season has officially started and is in full swing, we thought you local Montana anglers would want a Stillwater River Fishing Report to help you navigate your favorite river. 

The Stillwater River is smaller than the Yellowstone, only 70 miles long. It starts just south of the Beartooth Mountains, flows northeast between the Absaroka mountain range, and passes through Nye and Absarokee. Though called the Stillwater, it’s name is far from accurate, as most of the river has heavy rapids with occasional slow moving areas. However, there are plenty of amazing wading opportunities for those looking to catch some rainbow and brown trout. The experienced guides at Stillwater Anglers like to float the stretch of the Stillwater that meets the Yellowstone where you can find a variety of different fish species. 

Read on as we discuss the trends we noticed on the Stillwater River in 2019 and hopefully help you feel a little more prepared for this year’s season.

Things You Need To Know About Our Stillwater River Fishing Report

We’ve been trying to post weekly Stillwater River Fishing Reports, but we think having a history of river conditions can be helpful when preparing for a new fishing season. Here’s a summary of the river, month by month.

April 2019 Stillwater River Fishing Report

The beginning of April shows a spike in flows and off-color water in the lower river due to a rapid melt of low land snow, and spring fishing conditions are starting to round into shape. Conditions are running a little bit behind normal this spring due to the extended cold weather in March. The water temperature is still cold. Midges have been coming off occasionally, and BWOs should be starting to appear as well, particularly on the cloudy, overcast days when it’s not too windy. It’s still a tad cold for March Browns. The streamer bite has been pretty fair fishing the Grinch and olive or black buggers. Nymphing has also been good with rubber leg and stonefly patterns along with a beadhead trailer fly. For dry fly action, try a smaller size Purple Haze or Parachute Adams.

With rain, snow and temperature fluctuations in the second week of April, look for a bump in flows and some off-color water. If the lower river is a little off color, consider wade fishing the upper river or fish some of the tributaries. The water temperature is still cold, but as the day warms up and the sun gets on the water fishing should pick up. Look for midges to be coming off as well as BWOs. March Browns shouldn’t be too far off from coming off, so fishing basic mayfly nymphs like pheasant tails, hare’s ear, and copper johns is a good option. The streamer bite has been pretty fair fishing the Grinch or black buggers. If nymphing the off-color water, try black, brown and coffee colored rubber leg patterns like girdle bugs and Pat’s rubber legs, as well as similar colored stonefly patterns along with a beadhead trailer fly like a prince nymph, hare’s ear, batman or pheasant tail. A good old San Juan Worm is an option too. For dry fly action to rising fish, try a smaller size Purple Haze, Parachute Adams or a Griffith’s Gnat. A larger size Purple Haze or Parachute Adams with a Zebra Midge or pheasant tail on a short dropper is a good tactic too. Spawning rainbows are starting to make their way upriver.

The middle of April shows flows bumped up with the warmer weather and heavy localized rains, but should stabilize and regain clarity. The overcast and/or rainy days are perfect conditions for BWOs to come off by late morning. A few March Browns were showing up before last weekend’s rain. Look for them to appear in greater numbers. The number one dry fly pattern for the March Brown hatch is the Trina’s Carnage Drake March Brown in size 14. Nymphing is always a good bet with standard Stillwater beadhead mayfly nymph patterns like a hare’s ear, pheasant tail, or red copper john. In off color water, use a color contrast of darker color patterns like black buggers or the Grinch either dead drifted or stripped. It remains to be seen whether or not the major caddis hatch will occur before runoff commences to stay until May.

With cooler weather at the end of April, our Stillwater River Fishing Report shows that flows have dropped, stabilized and regained clarity. Water temperature has dropped as well, so there’s no hurry to get out on the water. A few March Browns were showing up before the cold snap, so look for them to appear in greater numbers as the water warms up again. A March Brown nymph dropped off of a Purple Haze or Parachute Adams will produce. The number one dry fly pattern for the March Brown hatch is the Trina’s Carnage Drake March Brown in size 14. Otherwise, nymphing is always a good bet with standard Stillwater beadhead mayfly nymph patterns like a hare’s ear, pheasant tail, or red copper john. A beadhead prince nymph is always a good choice too. For streamers, use darker color patterns like black buggers or the Grinch either dead drifted or stripped depending on the type of water being fished.

May 2019

In the early weeks of May we see that flows have dropped, stabilized and regained clarity and unless there are heavy rains, the river should stay in good shape for a little while. The overcast weather days are perfect conditions for BWOs to come off by late morning. Try a smaller size Purple Haze, Parachute Adams, BWO or Smoke Jumper pattern if fishing to rising fish. March Browns are coming off as well. Dry fly action is more active with cloud cover. If it’s bright and sunny, try fishing with a dropper nymph. A March Brown nymph dropped off of a Purple Haze or Parachute Adams will produce. Various baetis and caddis emergers trailed slightly below the surface should also take fish this time of year as well. The number one dry fly pattern for the March Brown hatch is the Trina’s Carnage Drake March Brown in size 14. While the water may be too cold to get the full-blown hatch going, there have been a few caddis appearing. Fish should be active on the caddis nymphs. This is likely the last window to fish the Stillwater before runoff sets in.

With warm temperatures towards the middle of May, flows have been on the climb. As often happens, caddis and rising/off color flows arrived at the same time. We’re at the point of the season where runoff is likely here to stay. If the lower river is off color, consider wade fishing the upper river above Absarokee which usually stays clear for longer. Also look to fish smaller tributaries. There has been some success on a size 14-16 green or olive pupa or emerger. March Browns have been coming off as well. Also if there’s no surface action, a smaller size golden stone nymph will work too. In off color water, try nymphing with black, brown and coffee colored rubber leg patterns like girdle bugs and Pat’s rubber legs, as well as similar colored stonefly patterns along with a beadhead trailer fly like a prince nymph, hare’s ear, batman or pheasant tail. As flows climb and clarity worsens, a san juan worm, rubber leg, or black bugger fished on the edge is a good tactic. For streamers in off color water, use a color contrast of darker color patterns like black buggers or the Grinch either dead drifted or stripped. At some point the river is likely to run too high and off color and will be best to just stay away from it in those conditions and look for smaller tributaries, tailwaters and lakes.

The end of the month showed heavy localized rains and warmer weather has bumped up the flows. The lower river will still likely be high and off color, but the upper river may clear enough later this week to fish, but it’s an iffy proposition. If so, nymphing is likely the best option, with black, brown and coffee colored rubber leg patterns like girdle bugs and Pat’s rubber legs, or a san juan worm as well as similar colored stonefly patterns along with a beadhead trailer fly like a prince nymph, hare’s ear, batman or pheasant tail. Fish the very edge seams. There is still a great deal of runoff ahead of us, and the river is likely to continue to fluctuate for a few more days in response to temperatures and rain events. Once we string together a few warmer days and nights in a row it will be runoff to stay. Look for smaller tributaries, tail waters and lakes to fish in the meantime.

June 2019

Our June Stillwater River Fishing Report proved to have warmer weather and rain events – which resulted in a significant increase in flows and lack of clarity. Runoff is here to stay and it’s likely to continue to climb with the warm weather this week. There’s a lot of snow melt to come out. If the upper river stays clear enough to fish, fish the very edge seams. Nymphing is likely the best option, with black, brown and coffee colored rubber leg patterns like girdle bugs and Pat’s rubber legs, or a san juan worm. Darker color streamer patterns like black buggers dead drifted are an option too. When it reaches a certain point, it’s best to just stay away from it and search out smaller tributaries, tail waters and lakes to fish.

Flows have been fluctuating in response to weather patterns towards the middle weeks of June. Flows shot up dramatically with warmer weather last week, but with cooler temperatures over the weekend, the river dropped back down. When the river is on the drop, the lower river is still considerably off color. Even though it can still be on the high side and swift, when dropping, the upper river has generally been clear enough to fish. Fish the very edge seams. Nymphing is likely the best option, with black, brown and coffee colored rubber leg patterns like girdle bugs and Pat’s rubber legs, or a san juan worm as well as similar colored stonefly patterns. In off color water, use a color contrast of darker color patterns like black buggers or the Grinch either dead drifted or stripped. It’s also time to start fishing big dry flies like a Chubby or PMX with a beadhead nymph dropper in the softer inside water. The river will likely continue to fluctuate in response to temperatures and rain events. Runoff is nowhere near over. Look for smaller tributaries, tail waters and lakes to fish in the meantime.

At the end of June, river flows dropped and cleared significantly with cooler weather and the river is clear and low enough to be both fishable and floatable. Nymphing has been the best option, with bead head patterns like a prince nymph, red copper john, Lil’ Spanker, hare’s ear, batman or pheasant tail. It’s time to start thinking about fishing big dry flies like a Chubby, PMX or Jack Cabe with a beadhead nymph dropper in the softer inside water. As the water warms up just a bit more, a larger size Purple Haze fished as tight to the bank as you can get it can produce some nice fish when floating. The river will likely continue to fluctuate in response to temperatures and rain events for a while yet.

July 2019

The Stillwater continued its late spring and early summer pattern of fluctuation in early July. Flows came up significantly the past weekend and were extremely swift, making for some challenging float fishing conditions. It should be stabilizing and start a downward tick. Nymphing a short leash set up on the edges has been the best option, with a darker body stonefly along with bead head patterns like a prince nymph, red copper john, Lil’ Spanker, hare’s ear, batman or pheasant tail. Streamer fishing has been fair. It’s been tough but fish are starting to look up at the big dry flies like a Chubby, PMX or Jack Cabe with a beadhead nymph dropper in the softer inside water. 

The early and middle weeks of July have more stable flows on the Stillwater. The lower river is still on the high side with some off color due to the rain. The upper river has been clear and dropping. Fish have started to hit the big dry flies like a Chubby, PMX, Jack Cabe or Stimulator with a beadhead nymph dropper in the softer inside water. Beadhead patterns like a prince nymph, red copper john, Lil’ Spanker, hare’s ear, batman or flashback pheasant tail have been good droppers nymphs. PMDs have started to show up by midafternoon and will hit a smaller size Purple Haze. Salmon flies were active on the upper river from Nye to Cliff Swallow over the Fourth of July weekend and a big foam Salmon Fly pattern fished to the banks was steadily producing. It’s hard to predict how long they’ll be coming off. Look for the fishing to really take off once flows get to 3000cfs or less.

Crazy weather and frequent heavy afternoon and evening thunderstorms have kept the lower river in a state of flux. The upper river has remained generally clear with dropping flows. Look for golden stones and PMDs to be coming off. The upper river continues to see a few salmon flies too. Dry fly fishing has picked up with stimulators, Jack Cabes, PMX and Chubbies getting the job done for surface action. A dropper nymph like a bead head flashback pheasant tail, hare’s ear, red copper john, prince nymph or batman have been taking fish. Straight nymphing of runs and inside corners with a big rubber leg pattern like a girdle bug, bitch creek or Pat’s Rubberleg is always a good option. For streamers never leave home without the Grinch in the box. Try the Electric Goldfish or a basic black wooly bugger too. As flows stabilize and the water temperature continues to warm just a little, fishing should take off.

Summer is finally here in the third and fourth weeks of July. Flows have dropped and cleared throughout the river. Dry fly fishing has been fairly consistent in the afternoons. Look for golden stones, caddis and PMDs to be coming off. Smaller trailer dry flies like a PMD, Caddis or purple are working well in the afternoon. Straight nymphing of runs and inside corners with a big rubber leg pattern like a girdle bug, bitch creek or Pat’s Rubberleg is always a good option. For streamers never leave home without the Grinch in the box. Try the Electric Goldfish or a basic black wooly bugger too.

August 2019

Our Stillwater River Fishing Report showed that early August flows have continued to drop and water temperatures warming. The upper river above Absarokee is bony and should only be tackled by experienced oarsmen. Fishing has been good in the mornings. Nymphing is a good way to go, or use a long dropper with a beadhead nymph like a pheasant tail, copper john batman, or prince nymph off of a searching dry fly pattern like a Jack Cabe, PMX, Stimulator, or Purple Haze. Typically by late morning, fish are looking to eat the small dry fly on top. Smaller dries like a PMD, Caddis or purple are working well in the afternoon. Again we recommend that streamer fishermen never leave home without the Grinch in the box. 

Flows have dropped on the upper river and are declining gradually on the lower river below the Rosebud confluence in the middle of August. The upper river above Absarokee is bony and should only be tackled by experienced oarsmen. Fishing has been good in the mornings. Nymphing is a good way to go, or use a long dropper with a beadhead nymph like a pheasant tail, copper john, batman, or prince nymph off of a searching dry fly pattern like a Jack Cabe, PMX, Stimulator, or Purple Haze. Typically by late morning, fish are looking to eat the small dry fly on top. Smaller dries like a PMD, Caddis or purple are working well in the afternoon. Look to fish smaller hopper patterns too like a Fat Frank, Yeti, or Yellowstoner in peach, pink, grape or olive body colors.

The river continues to fish well at the end of the month, with suitable flows for floating below the Rosebud confluence. The upper river above Absarokee is bony and will be a tough float and is recommended to be tackled only by experienced oarsmen. For the wade fisherman, head up above Absarokee where it’s much easier access. With cooler mornings, fishing usually picks up by mid to late morning and on into the afternoon. By late morning, fish are looking to eat the small dry fly on top. Smaller dries like a PMD, Caddis or purple are working well in the afternoon. 

September 2019 Stillwater River Fishing Report

Our last real fly fishing month of the season, our Stillwater River Fishing Report shows that the river continues to hold up. For floating, below the Rosebud confluence from Jeffrey’s on down is best. Flows are in the 500 cfs range but still doable. For the wade fisherman, the best bet is to head up above Absarokee where it’s much easier access. With cooler mornings, fishing usually picks up by mid to late morning and on into the afternoon. Nymphing is a good way to go early, or use a long dropper with a beadhead nymph like a pheasant tail, copper john, batman, or prince nymph off of a searching dry fly pattern like a Jack Cabe, PMX, Stimulator, or Purple Haze. By late morning, fish are looking to eat the small dry fly on top. Smaller dries like a PMD, Caddis or purple haze are working well in the afternoon. There are still hoppers out in the warmer afternoons. Look to fish smaller hopper patterns too like a Fat Frank, Yeti, or Yellowstoner or Schroeder’s in peach, pink, grape, tan or olive body colors. The cloudy, overcast and showery weather days are producing some nice BWO hatches. Use a smaller size Purple Haze or Parachute Adams for the early weeks of September.

The middle and end of the month, flows have continued to drop after spiking with the rain. Be prepared to drag your raft in spots. For the wade fisherman, the entire river is accessible, best bet is to head up above Absarokee where it’s much easier access. The lower river is comfortable to float. For the wade fisherman, the entire river is accessible, but still the best bet is to head up above Absarokee. The cooler, cloudy, wet weather in the forecast should make for some nice BWO hatches. Use a smaller size Purple Haze or Parachute Adams. It’s time to break out the streamer rod too. Basic streamer patterns like the Grinch, Sparkle Minnow, and Clousers can always trigger a reaction from a nice pre spawn Brown Trout.

Ready To Book Your Stillwater Fishing Trip?

At the end of the day, Montana’s unpredictable weather makes it impossible to know for sure what the river conditions on the Stillwater River will really look like. But we think that reviewing the data and reading our Stillwater River Fishing Report we have and constantly checking river and weather reports will help us have a better time when we decide to go out on the water. 

Review our 2020 River Reports for the Stillwater River, the Yellowstone, and the Boulder River, and feel free to call the Fly Shop with any questions. Owner Chris Fleck and all of Stillwater Angler’s licensed guides are constantly out on the water during this time of year and can keep you up to date on what’s happening, and what the fish are feeding on too!

Ready to book your trip to the Stillwater? We have full and half day guided trips available.

By Stillwater Anglers General Fly Fishing Articles