Conquering Technical Backcountry Fly Fishing

By Zach Lazzari | Photo by Ryan McSparran

Backcountry trout are typically easy to catch on the fly; especially the over-eager cutthroat trout found in the South Fork of the Flathead drainage. That said, there are a few days every year where the fishing turns technical. You can almost get through an entire season with a handful of colorful foam hoppers. Keep an extra set of technical flies handy and you’ll be prepared when the fish become difficult.


Backcountry cutthroat trout have a short feeding season and they tend to attack anything that presents potential caloric value. Like any trout however, they will shift focus to a specific food source when it’s overly abundant. This level of tunnel vision is uncommon in the backcountry because the biomass in many rivers does not support large populations of specific insect groups. The conditions must be perfect to trigger a hatch large enough to drive that high level of focus and selectivity. In many cases, this means small midges or blue wing olives are abundant in foam covered eddies and the fish are eating those specific bugs in mass.

Recognizing Selective Feeding

Assessing the situation quickly will get you on track to have a great day. I believe in following your instincts and making the adjustment sooner than later. The first and most obvious signal is apparent when fish visibly ignore your fly. Many will even take a look before moving on to something else. Really focus on fish behaviour in eddies and areas where they tend to gather. When groups of trout are slowly sipping bugs and ignoring your foam dry, it’s time to get serious. 

Double Down

Luckily, adapting your game to selective feeding does not require anything major. You can even leave your foam dry fly tied to the leader. Simply add a second fly to solve the problem. Drop a zebra midge or pheasant tail off the bend or add a parachute Adams to the tandem rig. Those three flies are sufficient for nearly any selective feeding situation. An elk hair caddis is another good option for spruce moths. You will know if spruce moths are on the menu as they are very visible and fish will leap from the water to catch them mid-air.

At Lazy J Bar O Outfitters, we offer summer horseback adventures in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Anglers here can enjoy some of the best fishing in Montana with total solitude, for healthy westlope cutthroat and giant bull trout. For information, check out our Summer Pages. You can call us for details at 406-932-5687 or send us a message.