A showdown for the ages.
There’s no wrong way to fish in Montana, but the debate between waders and floaters can get as hot as the lower Madison in August. Let’s settle this once and for all.
All it takes to wade-fish in warm weather is a rod and some board shorts. Scoop up a sixer of Bozone on the way out, and your day is planned. To float, one needs a boat, trailer, shuttle arrangements, and the invariable mountain of gear that makes float-fishing so enjoyable. Sometimes it’s nice to just grab the rod and go.
Although rowing requires skill, novice float-fishermen are routinely successful casting from a driftboat; that’s why guiding operations do so well around here. To wade-fish, however, you need to worry about your back-cast, getting a good drift, and reading the water, all while navigating a slippery river bottom on foot.
If your goal is to spend a whole day out on the river, you’ll probably catch more fish floating through ten miles of trout water than by trudging up and down a single stretch. But a secret honey-hole can provide an hour’s worth of tight lines for a pre- or post-work session. This one’s too close to call.
While wading, it’s not uncommon to hook yourself in the ear after slanting your back-cast to avoid an overhanging willow. You’ll often share the bank with rattlesnakes, bears, and moose, and a stumble in the wrong part of the river can result in full waders and a pretty dangerous situation. While floating, your biggest concern is heartburn from the bucket of fried chicken you ate for lunch.
It’s hard to beat the image of the silhouetted drift boat, floating silently down the Yellowstone as the sun catches the high peaks of the Absarokas and fly line uncurls above the head of a stoic angler. But the image of the same stoic angler, knee-deep in the Gallatin, framed by limestone cliffs, bringing a glistening rainbow to the net does just that.
Back in the day, an American muscle car pretty much guaranteed you a date. These days, on the rivers of southwest Montana, if you have a boat, you shouldn’t have a hard time filling up your calendar. Everyone loves a good float, especially one with cooler, picnic basket, and the soft sounds of nature on all sides.
Wade-fishing is inherently anti-social. While you might head to the river with a posse, once you get there you tend to spread out and stake your own claims. On a raft or driftboat, the name of the game is socializing. Beers, stogies, snacks, and everyone casting to a different piece of water… cheers.
If you’re floating, especially during the summer, bring brass knuckles or maybe a few throwing stars, as manners and etiquette go straight out the window when jockeying for position at the put-in—and a belly full of beer definitely adds to the potential fisticuffs at the takeout. Wade fishermen might begrudge you for getting to “their” spot first, but a short walk up or down the riverbank, and you’ll be alone again, and catching fish just the same.
Score: 4 to 3
It’s tough to proclaim a winner in a battle that shouldn’t have to be fought, but wading appears to have more going for it: it’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s rewarding. But then again, floating is fun, productive, and safe. Looks like the real winners are us, the anglers of southwest Montana.