I’ve always had a bit of fascination with any living thing I encounter during my time afield. Growing up fishing and exploring around Yellowstone might do that to a person. Or maybe I just have an innate interest in other living creatures. In Yellowstone’s wilderness, fishing comes with the legitimate chance of encountering creatures as diverse as chipmunks, marmots, bison, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, elk, and pronghorn – just to name a few mammals. While not every angling setting offers up the chance of a grizzly encounter, every place I have fished does have its own unique ecosystem to enjoy. And in my experience, every fishing spot is also home to at least a few species of birds.
I have memories of birds while fishing going way back into my childhood, but thinking back on it now, there was a moment in my life where I recognized that I was truly fascinated with the feathered friends I encountered while angling. It was in May 2004 on the Rio Malleo in Argentina. Looking up from the river at a set of towering rock spires, I caught my first glimpse of an Andean condor riding the thermals. Even soaring hundreds of feet overhead I could see the telltale white collar, and I could tell that the thing was absolutely huge! It made me want to learn more about it. On that same trip I also saw my first crested caracara, chimango caracara, and an eagle even more robust than the golden eagles in Montana. All of these birds were similar to birds from back home, but not really. I was enthralled.
Fast forward a decade +/- and I found myself becoming more and more interested in the birds I was seeing during my time on the water. I was enjoying these unique creatures (the last living dinosaurs, in fact), and having fun learning more about them. Birding was enhancing my everyday routine as well as my angling adventures.
The legendary Bud Lilly often spoke of “The Total Experience”, when it came to finding joy through fishing. It’s not only catching fish that draws us to angling, it’s the love of the fish and the rivers. Enjoying our natural surroundings and unique geology, experiencing the local birds and wildlife, participating in unique cultures, and doing it all in chosen solitude or in the company of friends and loved ones, is what completes the angling experience and keeps our passion strong.
Birding has now become a favorite part of my own “Total Experience”. I’ve accumulated a small stack of bird books, and gotten pretty handy using the web to do more research. I’ve learned some of the key ways to identify similar species that I come across often, and even started to learn a few of the “songs” they sing.
What I’ve also found is that I now equate certain bird species with specific angling locations and situations, the same way I have done with insect hatches for many years. I’ll always equate streamer fishing in Argentina with those giant Andean condors soaring on the ever present Patagonia winds. Similarly, I equate winter fishing on my local home water, the Missouri River, with the flocks of bufflehead and common goldeneye that spend the chilly months diving for insects in the calm flats. I also think of the resident bald eagles that are always happy to make a meal of one of the aforementioned waterfowl.
When I’m fishing any one of the small brushy creeks around SW Montana in the late spring, I’m always entertained by the migratory songbirds that return each year to nest in the riparian areas and feast on emerging insects. Not even a bumbling angler stops them from singing. The holy grail of bird sightings in that time and place is a male western tanager in full breeding plumage. If you ever are lucky enough to see one, you’ll remember him for sure.
In the early summer on some of my favorite lakes, I enjoy seeing the blackbirds – both the red winged and, especially, the yellow headed varieties. Again, the males are the show stoppers, full of color set off by the contrast with their predominantly black bodies. They nest in the emergent wetland vegetation along the lake margins. What I really hope to see are small groups of yellow headed blackbirds patrolling the beaches right along the water’s edge. That almost surely means that the damsel nymphs are migrating ashore to hatch, and that I need to get my fly choice sorted and the line in the water.
A swooping frigate bird makes me think of baja, the dorado, tuna, or roosterfish that might be pushing the bait up the the surface, the salt air as the boat flies foward to investigate, and the margaritas we’ll have to celebrate another great day on the sea.
And, I’ll always equate an osprey nest on top of a telephone pole with a section of the Madison River where I spent so many summers camping and fishing with my family during my childhood. That bird always caught a few whitefish from the riffle behind camp while we were hoping for a trout to rise to our dry flies.
I could go on, the more I scour my memory banks, but I will end it here. Like the title said, fishing is, at least for me, for the birds as well as the fish. Thanks, as always, for reading. Your feedback is always enjoyable, and I hope that there are others out there who enjoy my words but remain unheard.
Take Care and Fish On,
As snow piles up here at Big Sky Anglers World Headquarters in West Yellowstone, MT (the Geographic Center of the Fly Fishing Universe) our sights are locked on to the 2018 fishing season. Guide Trip reservations are pouring in, and we’re busy planning fishing adventures throughout Yellowstone Country and beyond. We’ve fielded a lot of questions over the last few weeks about times to take a guide trip. So, we decided to share some of our recommendations for a few overlooked options.
#1 – Springtime (April – May)
When most anglers think of Springtime in the Rockies they conjure up images of our big, Western rivers running wild with brown water flooding the banks and stream-side vegetation. In much of the region, that’s an accurate description. But, on two of our favorite rivers, the Henry’s Fork and the Missouri you can find a much different experience in the early-season months of April and May. You see, both of these rivers are tail-waters with strategic dam releases, and are situated at relatively low elevations compared to other big rivers like the Madison or Yellowstone. Warm weather comes much earlier to places like Ashton, ID and Cascade, MT then it does to West Yellowstone. With warm temps comes the onslaught of Spring hatches like Mother’s Day Caddis, Baetis, and Stoneflies. While no river in our region is completely immune to Spring run-off, the Henry’s Fork and Missouri Rivers generally have sections that continue to fish well through the “mud-season” because of the clean releases coming from dams on both systems. April and May weather in the Rockies can range from 70 degrees and sunny to 30 degrees and snowing, and anglers need to be prepared for any combination of weather conditions. It’s always an adventure in the Spring as our best fishing occasionally occurs when the weather is at its worst! So, if you want to experience some of our area’s best fishing at an adventurous time of year when few other anglers are thinking about trout fishing out West, consider April and May on the Henry’s Fork and Missouri Rivers.
#2 – August
The “Dog Days of Summer” can be a bear on many fisheries. That hot August sun dries out the countryside, and heats up water temps. “Hoot Owl” closures (angling restrictions placed on bodies of water when water temps are too high and flows fall below critical levels) plague many Montana rivers like the Big Hole and Jefferson. This might be the time when many anglers would consider taking a break until the Fall, or dusting off the old golf clubs. But, in fact this is prime time for one of the angling world’s premiere destinations – Yellowstone’s Backcountry. The high alpine environment in YNP has a much different seasonal calendar than the surrounding region. Lush, green, hillsides covered in wild-flowers, and snow-capped peaks are common sight in Yellowstone’s high country well into August. Daytime temps are generally in the high 70’s to low 80’s and nighttime lows will routinely drop below freezing. This is the perfect recipe for cold, clean water. By August the backcountry has dried out, and most of the biting flies are done for the season making it the most comfortable time of year to hit the trail and explore some of the best kept secrets in our area. Our veteran guides have decades of experience wandering through the backcountry of Yellowstone in search of trout. They have more overlooked and under-fished spots in their quiver than you could fish in a lifetime. If the backcountry isn’t your thing or you’re looking for a little diversity, August is also the best time for Gulpers on Hebgen lake, and some of the most consistent dry fly fishing on the Railroad Ranch at the Henry’s Fork. Combining the backcountry of Yellowstone with some time on Hebgen, and a visit to the Ranch is a program that’s hard to beat any time of the season!
#3 – Anytime you can get here!
In this day and age, time is the one thing no one has enough of. Everyone struggles to maximize their time, especially when it comes to vacations. Visiting anglers are always in search of the “perfect time” to plan their fishing trip. The truth is, there is no perfect time. From our location in West Yellowstone (the Geographic Center of the Fly Fishing Universe) we are blessed with arguably the greatest diversity of fishing locations and authentic angling situations found anywhere. Now, Mother Nature is a fickle temptress, and often she reminds us that planning can be an exercise in futility. But, on most years with somewhat “normal” conditions we can find awesome fishing somewhere in our area every day of the season. If you have your heart set on experiencing a specific hatch on a specific fishery, say the Green Drakes on the Henry’s Fork, then, you better get here in mid-June. But, if you’re less focused, or just have an opening in your schedule, get here whenever you can! We’ll find you some awesome fishing!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! It is hard to believe we are nearing the end of 2017, and we couldn’t be more thankful. Last year at this same time we were close to signing the purchase papers for Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop. So many things have gone on in the last year it is hard to know where to begin. First we would like to sincerely thank everyone for helping make this first season a success. Without all of the support we wouldn’t be where we are today, so, thank you!
Our doors officially opened over Memorial Day weekend and we never looked back. The summer seemed to fly by even faster than usual. We had wonderful fishing in Idaho on the Henry’s Fork, on the Madison and Missouri Rivers in Montana, and throughout Yellowstone Park. Our guide and shop staff did an outstanding job in the shop and on the water. We want to thank all of them for all their hard work and awesome energy!
We celebrated our grand opening Grand Opening for a weekend at the end of June with two days of fun, giveaways, appearances by sales reps, and a party with awesome food from our friends at Beartooth BBQ. So many great folks came out to see the new shop, say hello, and wish us well. The outpouring of love and support we felt from not only the West Yellowstone community but also from so many longtime friends and clients of Big Sky Anglers, Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop, the West Yellowstone Fly Shop, and Jonathan Heames Fly Fishing was truly humbling and overwhelming. We can’t thank everyone enough.
Packed house at the Grand Opening at the end of the night.
Community. We couldn’t do it without your love and support.
We had so much fun at the Grand Opening, we decided to throw another party on that same weekend in 2018! So, please, come join us on Saturday, June 30th, 2018 for a shop party to celebrate the summertime, our friends, families, and the fishing life. It’ll be a great chance to meet and get to know BSA employees and guides, visit with reps from various companies who will be showing product and doing demos, get in on a bunch of sales and giveaways, and also enjoy some great food like last year.
2017 saw great flows on all our rivers here in greater Yellowstone country. The Salmonfly hatch on the upper Madison was one to remember; we fished the big bugs for three full weeks! Big flows on the upper Madison usually provide for a wonderful Salmonfly hatch. The Henry’s Fork had a solid emergence of mayflies throughout the entire season along with Golden Stoneflies that began on the lower river and continued to hatch in the Box later in the season. Those lucky enough to blind cast big dries in the Box should’ve bought a Lotto ticket! Joe came up with a couple of new fly patterns for both Green Drake duns and Grey Drake spinners that rose more than a few big fish. Expect to see those patterns in our bins next season. Yellowstone Park also fished well from open to close. Things kicked off with Millers caddis and PMDs on the Firehole, and the late season terrestrial fishing in the northeast corner seemed above average this year. Hebgen Lake had some wonderful mornings of dry fly angling and when the wind did not come up, those mornings turned into afternoons. The Fall Run of trout from Hebgen Lake brought in anglers from all over the world. It seems like we were catching more rainbows than browns, but by the end of the season the brown trout made their way into the river and some wonderful specimens were brought to hand.
These are just a handful of highlight images from our guided trips this summer. Love all the smiling faces! We think that we guided more kids this year than ever before. It’s such a positive sign for the future of flyfishing.
We are truly fortunate to have so much diverse water right here within an hour’s drive of West Yellowstone. One could spend a lifetime fishing here and never touch all the water, but you can surely try. For those of you wanting to venture out and fish other Montana waters, don’t forget that we have a handful of the best guides available on the Missouri River all season long. These guys are seasoned veterans who know the river in and out. The Missouri River is a fantastic destination filled with large trout, great scenery and good times.
In late September we hosted the first annual West Yellowstone Trout Spey Days both here at the shop and on the Madison River in Custer Gallatin National Forest. Kurt Kruger and the folks at Farbank (Sage, Rio, Redington) helped us get the event up and running this year, and our friend Simon Gawesworth headlined the event for us. Big thanks again to them for all the help! Over 50 people showed up for the on-water portion of the event. It was awesome to see so much excitement about Spey fishing for trout – a type of fishing that some of us here at the shop have been enjoying for over 15 seasons. We plan on growing the event next season and will likely hold it again around the 3rd weekend in September with the support of the National Forest, so please stay tuned for more on that.
At the end of October, after nearly ten years, the construction at Hebgen dam is complete. Going forward from here, the upper Madison will return to having clean and cold water throughout the summer once again. Water will be drawn from almost forty feet down and wearing waders in between the lakes during August will be the norm. Our guess is that the hatches will reset and come back quickly leading to more dry fly opportunities, something that the Madison has always been known for. During the construction period, the insect hatches changed rather significantly with the warmer water. While we still had decent dry fly fishing it was not as consistent as when most of us started fishing this river years ago. While it remains uncertain how quickly the hatches will adjust, Mother Nature will run its course and it always amazes us how quickly she takes control when allowed to do so.
Over the winter we will be working on various shop projects and traveling a bit. Jon, Joe, and Justin will all be in South America, Argentina and Chile during different periods, so keep an eye out for photos and stories from down south! Don’t forget, we’ve been hosting and guiding trips throughout South America for almost fifteen years. We’d love to help you plan your next fishing adventure!
The shop will be open year around so feel free to call or email as you plan your fishing trip or just want to talk fishing.
All the best!
Justin, Joe, Jonathan, and the Big Sky Anglers Crew
In the Fall of 2015, an opportunity arose and found Jon, Justin and myself (J3) contemplating the purchase of Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop. Truth be told, this scared the shit out of all three of us and I’d be lying if I said I never lost any sleep over this decision. Booze will help one manage crazy periods in life and as long as it doesn’t become a crutch and throw a wrench into the process, there’s nothing like bourbon to help solve a problem or two. Life was going to change as we knew it, that is of course if we pulled the trigger and made the jump to the Premiere League of the fly fishing world. Owning and operating a fly shop is something Jon and I never thought we’d venture into; we enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle of guiding year around with enough time off for hunting, fishing, traveling and family. Justin however, had been running his fly shop (West Yellowstone Fly Shop) here in town for about ten years; splitting his time between Argentina and West Yellowstone taking the girls along with him for the ride. Guides are notoriously independent folks who have a hard time committing to just about everything except the guide season and their precious time away from guiding. How are the three of us supposed to pull this off? While communication and accountability are the key points, we are not completely sure just yet what lies ahead. We’ve almost made it through our first season, are paying the bills and have come up for air. Think of it like a tarpon, when it comes up for a gulp and then gives the angler another run for their money. We are in planning mode for 2018 and beyond and this time of our lives is exciting to say the least.
We pulled the trigger and bought Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop, closing on the business November 30th, 2016. At some point over the Winter of 2015-16 we made the decision to change the name of the most iconic fly shop in the Rocky Mountain West. Mind you, this was no easy task and we’ve taken a fair amount of grief over it. The shop had gone through three different owners when we came along. Bud hadn’t owned the place since the mid 80’s, after buying it back from the two fishing guides he’d sold it to in 1982, then selling it to Jim and Ann Criner. Dick and Barb were next and along came J3 last fall. To us, this hadn’t been Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop since the day he sold the place and moved back to Three Forks. Bud was a legend and touched thousands of lives from the roughly 30 years he owned the place. Even after he sold his fly shop, Bud continued to educate anglers from all walks of life; he was a huge supporter of Veterans and teaching anglers was just one of his many passions. Conservation was a close second and he was known as a “Trout’s Best Friend” for good reason. The history surrounding Bud Lilly’s is storied to say the least. Most of the well known names in western fly fishing got their start while working for Bud Lilly on this very corner. We were fortunate to spend time with Bud last December at his place in Three Forks. Those four hours are something I’ll never forget, the same goes for Jon and Justin. Bud didn’t beat around the bush and asked us what the name of the shop would before anyone could get comfortable. He was sitting in a easy chair in the corner of the old hotel, donning sunglasses and long white goat tee when he asked the question, “so, what are you gonna run it as, what are you gonna call it?”. I stumbled on my words for a moment, uneasy with telling the man that we had a different name in mind, but quickly came to my senses and told Bud that we were changing the name to Big Sky Anglers. He sat there for a moment, rocking back and forth, then said “good, you call me with anything you need and I’ll do everything I can to help you boys out. The name of the game is relationships and if you build them, you will succeed.” He also mentioned that it was “about damn time my name came off the side of that building”. The name change always felt right with us, but having Bud’s blessing made it even better. Bud passed away on January 6, 2017. That morning, Bob Jacklin called me at the shop and gave me the sad news. Bud’s wife, Esther, had mentioned to Bob to make sure that he called the three of us regarding Bud’s passing. There I sat, in Bud’s old fly shop, chill after chill running down my spine as I thought about all the history between these walls; most of which I’m not even aware of. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but I do remember the phone ringing several times and I never once got up to answer it; lost in thoughts and not really wanting to discuss much with anyone. Later that day, Bob called and invited me down to his shop for tea. We discussed many things, but Bud’s life was the main topic. Bob told me story after story and I wished I could’ve recorded it all.
We’ve got plans to honor Bud here in the shop, while we aren’t exactly sure how, it will happen sooner than later. Mostly, we will honor him in the way we treat others; with respect, in hopes that we build a business similar to that of the late Bud Lilly.
Big Sky Anglers was created in the Fall of 2004 after I got my outfitter’s license in Helena. I had a name, but no logo or web site to market my new business. Kielly Yates, a long time friend and graphic designer, saw my passion for the business and made it his MO to help me out. The trout above is what he came up with, but originally, instead of the Sphinx Mountain inside the trout, he had the Teton Range. Look above at the photo and you’ll see Sphinx Mountain and the Helmet, the two most prominent peaks in the Madison Valley, inside the body of the trout along with the stars above the mountains. When Justin, Jonathan and myself became partners, Kielly made another change to the logo incorporating Orion’s Belt into the scenery(it’s in the tail). STARS ALL ALIGNING This constellation can be seen from both North and South America at the same time; down south, they call the Tres Marias. With all of us splitting time between these two continents and the fact that there’s three of us, Orion’s Belt was very fitting. Over the years, I’ve had folks get confused and ask me if the business is in Big Sky, Montana. The term Big Sky Country is a nick name given to Montana years ago and back in 2004 I thought it was fitting to name the business with this in mind. Whether you’re fishing in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South America or even the wide open salt flats, the sky always seems endless. Jon, Justin and myself have been guiding and fishing throughout the entire Western United States for over 25 years. We all have deep ties to the mountains, rivers, lakes throughout the world, but we call West Yellowstone home.
At some point here in the last week, Summer slipped away from us and Fall arrived in fashion with dumping snow, chilly wind, bugling elk and overcast blue-grey skies with quiet a bit of rain mixed in to boot. All of the rivers in YNP bumped up from the much needed moisture and then the clouds broke free revealing snow capped mountains. Not to worry, the sunshine didn’t last too long as more snow blanketed the Hebgen Basin and YNP; closing both Dunraven Pass and Craig Pass yesterday and last night. (Check with YNP online for up to date road closures.) A chilly wind is upon us today, so layer up and bring that thermos of coffee! The next couple of days will bring in more moisture but the weekend forecast might just bring back some sunshine and warmer temps.
This past week, Blue Winged Olives hatched in full force throughout the local watersheds on rivers like the Henry’s Fork, Firehole and Madison Rivers. If one was brave enough to make the jaunt to the NE Corner of YNP, he/she, would’ve been rewarded with Drake Mackerels drifting quietly down the Soda Butte and Lamar River. Anglers from all walks of life are descending on our local rivers to swing flies, Czech nymph the Madison and strip streamers; all in hopes of wrangling up a fish or three each day. By now, we have seen a fair push of fish up from Hebgen Lake and anglers are having some success. As with all fishing, some days are better than others and if you arrived as the rivers were on the rise, angling was a little tough. For those folks who made the trip to the Madison Valley, they were rewarded with solid hatches of BWOs and rising trout. The Henry’s Fork game is still going and our guides have been fishing from the Box Canyon all the way down to Ashton; finding plenty of rising fish on some days, ripping streamers on other days and nymphing em’ when appropriate. Stop by the shop for the most up to date fishing report, we are open from 7am until 830pm.
The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is one of the most diverse fisheries in the western US. With over 70 miles of fishable water, each section has such a unique character that it is like having eight rivers rolled into one. Water types on the Fork range from tailwater canyons to flat, technical spring creek water, with freestone canyons and low gradient riffle-run sections as a nice bonus. The Fork also has great diversity in elevation above sea level, with its headwaters at Henry’s Lake located 6472 feet, and the lower reaches of the river down around 5000 feet. In times of extreme weather here in the high country surrounding West Yellowstone (elevation 6666 ft), it is possible to head down to the lower elevation “banana belt” where you can find nicer weather and water conditions that make the fish and fly fisher both a bit happier. Nearly the entire river is sourced from natural groundwater springs, the largest of which forms the river’s headwaters and is aptly named Big Springs. Due to the strong influence of groundwater, the Fork experiences a very minimal runoff by local standards, and almost always has several fishable sections in the early season (April through the month of June).
All of us here at Big Sky Anglers are excited to have an outfitting license for the Henry’s Fork. We are now the only fly shop in West Yellowstone with this license, and we are among only eight outfitters total that are license holders for the river. Guiding on the Henry’s Fork allows us to treat our customers to great fishing opportunities at times when many other local waters are blown out, closed to fishing, still frozen or otherwise unfishable. And, all of this exists within a 35 minute to 1 hour drive from the shop here in West Yellowstone.
The lower elevation reaches of the Henry’s Fork in particular exhibit great diversity of geology, gradient, scenery, and fishing. Each section has its own unique character, ranging from sections with large average sizes of trout that offer chances at true bruisers on dry flies, to other sections that are home to larger populations of smaller fish that offer the an angler the chance to relax a bit, learn a lot, and bring a few fish to hand. The beauty of the Fork is that there is something for every angler regardless of skill levels. We feel that it has been a misconception for years that the Fork is an experts-only river, and while there are sections where even the most experienced can test their skills and wits, there are other areas where newer anglers can still have a good time.
Though it is legal to fish year round on many of the sections of the Henry’s Fork, the fishing really begins to shape up in April, with good baetis hatches and some March brown activity occurring in several sections. Stable water conditions, a rarity in the mountain west in April, make for reliable angling conditions, even if the weather is still a bit unpredictable. Nymph fishing usually dominates during April. While hatches can be prolific, they are typically short lived. There is also some good streamer fishing when water temps are warm enough.
The fishing during the beginning of May can be considered an extension of April conditions… until the salmonflies begin to hatch. This usually happens around the middle of the month. Because the Fork has numerous tributaries and springs that change water temperature between river sections, the big bugs begin hatching and reach their peak in each section at different times. Often the hatch will appear in a section upstream on the river and a few days later will begin to happen in a downstream stretch. Fishing with a guide who has been on the water every day affords visiting anglers a HUGE advantage for this very reason. While targeting the salmonflies can be a bit tricky because of unstable weather in May, there are typically 5-7 great dry fly days with salmonflies . And when the dry fly action isn’t perfect, the nymphing with big stonefly imitations can be outstanding.
Nymph fishing and dry/dropper fishing gets us through the end of May and into the beginning of June when the most exciting hatches of the year begin. Usually we start with golden stones, PMDs, and caddis, which overlap with small olive stones and yellow sallies. Next come the flavs and green drakes, followed by gray drakes, which create some of the most exceptional match-the-hatch dry fly fishing of the year. This is often a mix of blind fishing with dries while looking for targets. For the angler who prefers to target and cast to rising fish, the combination of a reliable spinner fall in the morning, blending into a PMD hatch in the afternoon, followed by a flav emergence in the early evening, this is absolute paradise. These hatches offer a real chance at some very large trout in some sections of the Henry’s Fork, and for those who are willing to trade quantity of smaller fish for overall size of fish taken using extrememly visual methods early June is tough to beat.
And remember, all of this happens before the Madison is even done clearing up from runoff for the year. Once the fishing begins to wane at the end of June on the lower Henry’s Fork due to rising water temps, the salmonflies will have just begun to establish themselves on Montana’s Madison and the upper Henry’s Fork gets into full swing with a repeat of many of the same hatches described above. We’ll be there and hope you’ll be there with us!
Jonathan Heames, Co- Owner and Head Guide
Big Sky Anglers Co-Owner and Senior Guide Jonathan Heames looks forward to early season on the Fork all winter long.