Best Time of Day to Fish

What is the best time of day to fish? After fly fishing for more than four decades, I’m rather adamant about my answer. I’ll stand by it no matter what any other fly fisher says.

best time of day to fish

My answer is: it depends.

Yes, the best time of day to fly fish depends on time of year, weather, water conditions, and the unique characteristics of each local stream or river. The best way to determine the best time to fly fish a particular stream or river on this day under these conditions is to gather intel from a local fly shop or from some successful anglers.

Or, you can experiment yourself.

Early morning

For years I avoided the early morning.

I loved dry fly fishing so much that I preferred waiting until mid-day (see below). But a couple weeks ago, on a day when I was prepared to spend my early morning hours on the front porch of my cabin on Montana’s Boulder River, my son, Luke, reported that he was catching some nice rainbows on Caddis flies at about 7:30 a.m. — right about the time the sun peeked over the mountain to the east and flooded the river with light.

For nymphs and streamers, early morning typically works well all the time. This is a no-brainer on the Lower Madison River in Montana during the dog days of summer. By mid to late morning, the river temperature creeps into the high 60s, and fighting a fish under such conditions can be lethal (for the fish).

However, early morning also works well on cooler—or downright cold—days in the fall and spring. A couple falls ago, Dave (my podcast partner) and I started catching trout after trout on the Gardner River in the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park as soon as it was legal to begin fly fishing. (Hours are daily from sunrise to sunset.)

We were using nymphs. These trout were feisty, not sluggish, even at 7:30 a.m. The following spring, we tied into big rainbows on the Missouri River near Helena, Montana as soon as it was light enough to see and to sling and strip streamers.

Lesson: Get up early if you’re fishing with nymphs or streamers. But don’t take the early morning for granted when it comes to dry fly fishing. Check a fly fishing report for your river online. Or, better yet, visit the river in person to see if there are any early morning insect hatches.

Mid-day

The prime window for dry fly fishing is 10 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Or 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Or 11:00 to 1:00 p.m.

Or even 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

You get the idea. There is a prime window for dry fly hatches. The time will vary, though, from region to region — and even river to river.

For example, Tricos on the East Gallatin River north of Bozeman can start as early as 9:00 a.m. and finish by 11:00 a.m. But Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs) and Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) will wait to appear on the East Gallatin until about 11:00 a.m. regardless of the season. At least that was the case more than a decade ago.

Recently, a listener posted a comment about a fly shop near Big Sky, Montana, told him to focus on “bankers’ hours” — 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. — rather than early or late in the day. Yet a few more miles to the south, the best chance for summer anglers to catch trout on the Madison River just inside Yellowstone National Park is late in the evening when a final wave of Caddis flies show up.

I’ve typically had good success with nymphs or streamers during the middle of the day — particularly if nothing is happening on the surface. Yet, I’ve also had some summer days when the middle of the day is best spent taking a nap because that’s what the trout seem to be doing.

Lesson: Think mid-day, but find out from a fly shop or the local experts exactly when to expect a particular hatch to begin and end.

Late Afternoon and Early Evening

Fly fishers often speak glowingly about the “evening rise.”

I remember a terrific late afternoon and early evening on a little stream in the Black Hills of South Dakota many moons ago. The water seemed to boil as trout slurped insects off of the surface.

One of my best days on a little stream in the Wisconsin Driftless (near Timber Coulee) happened when the day was about done. A half hour before sunset, both Crane flies and Blue Winged Olives (BWOs) started emerging, and the trout did too.

Yet I’ve had mixed success during evenings on the same stretch of the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, Montana. Some evenings were gold; others were coal.

Lesson: Keep the evening rise in mind, but remember that it might be hit or miss. Again, you’ll need good intel — whether you get that from your own “trial and error” or pick it up at a fly shop.

After Dark

It is common knowledge that the best time to catch large browns is after dark. Stripping streamers or “mousing” (stripping a large mouse pattern on the surface) can lead to a violent-but-satisfying strike. I’ve even caught brown trout in the Colorado high country on a size #20 Parachute Adams when it was so dark I could not even see the fly’s white post. In northern Michigan, fly fishers float the Au Sauble River and catch some of their largest trout between 10:00 p.m. and midnight.

Lesson: If you really want to have some fun, plan an after-dark night of fly fishing. But make sure you know what you’re doing! Dangers seem to be magnified after dark.

So what is the best time of day to fly fish?

Well, it depends.

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3 thoughts on “Best Time of Day to Fish

  1. My fishing time is fairly limited so I generally go out in the early morning and usually have some success. Earlier this year, I was able fish my favorite spot at dusk. The water was very quiet until just 10 minutes before sundown. Suddenly, the pond came alive with bugs and fish. It was a truly amazing sight. I had to hike out while there was still some light to see (headlamp batteries died). I still remember looking back at the pond as I was leaving. Describing it as “boiling” is the perfect term.

    • I love this, Richard. What a great evening. Yes, it is a truly amazing sight when the water comes alive with fish sipping or attack bugs. I suppose it’s amazing any time, but there’s something even more special (at least to me) when it happens at dusk.

  2. I have to add to your comments.
    The best time of the day to fly fish is when you can get the time to fly fish!
    I stand by my comment and defy anyone to disagree.
    Those of us with a leisure time deficiency will stand by me shoulder to shoulder on this one.
    Love your stories. 🙂