Fly Fishing the Overlooked Jefferson River
Southwest Montana has many famous fly fishing rivers. One river that gets overlooked and has been fishing better over the last several years is the Jefferson River. The famous headwaters of the Jefferson are the Ruby River, Beaverhead River and Big Hole River. After years of struggling with dewatering problems on the Jefferson, work has been done to improve this trout fishery.
Groups like The Jefferson River Water Council formed by Trout Unlimited, irrigators, business people and the fishing community have helped keep water in this great fishery. A drought management plan was put into place that includes voluntary reductions in water diversions on the Jefferson. The drought of 1988 had the Jefferson so dewatered that the river did not have any flow between pools on some sections of the river. Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks provided sport fishing closures when the Jefferson was reduced to certain low levels. These voluntary reductions (donations) which represent much money, have essentially kept the river from drying up since 1988. The irrigators are voluntarily retaining a base streamflow of 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) during the irrigation season. This drought management plan has improved the fishery so that even in low water years, the river will not be dewatered to lethal levels.
The fishing season on the Jefferson is short compared to other Southwest Montana blue ribbon trout fisheries like the Big Hole River, Beaverhead River or Madison River. Usually the Jefferson will have a short but excellent pre-runoff period of productive fishing. Mid April is when this fishery starts to shine. The best tactic during the spring is large streamers and some argue this is the only way to fly fish the Jefferson River. You will not find the abundant trout population in this river like you will in the Madison River or Big Hole River but there are some very large brown trout that lurk under banks and deadfall just waiting for a properly presented streamer.
Once runoff hits on the Jefferson in early May it usually takes awhile for this river to get into fishing shape again. On high water years like we have had the last three years, it is not until mid-July that the Jefferson starts to be productive. As the water starts to clear, the streamer bite is on! This is a great time to target the large browns on the Jefferson. You will also find Golden Stones and nocturnal stoneflies in July on the Jefferson. Rainbows are also willing to rise to your large foam attractor patterns in July.
Come August, the Jefferson is usually getting warm and low, but that doesn’t mean that the fishing drops off. Hoppers are the meal of choice in August and September on the Jefferson River, and there is a ton of grasshoppers lining the banks of the Jefferson during this time of the year. Unfortunately, during low water years, the river’s water temperatures can increase to a dangerous level for trout. To protect the health of the fishery we ask that anglers do not fish when the water temperatures get over 72 degrees. These unsafe river temperatures may occur in August or early September during low water years. Feel free to give the Sunrise Fly Shop a call 406-835-3474 or go to sunriseflyshop.com to get fishing reports on the Jefferson River.
Solitude and the chance of a trophy trout is a reason to fish the Jefferson River in the fall. In addition to great Blue Winged Olive hatches, Sunrise Fly Shop’s guides have also caught some of our largest browns on streamers during the autumn season. This is not a river that you can expect 50 fish average days like you can have on the Beaverhead River and Big Hole River fly fishing, but the Jefferson is a special place with very large fish and lets you appreciate yet another fishery in Southwest Montana.