- Originator: Brian Chan
- Hook: TMC 2302 or equivalent, #10 – 16
- Thread: 8/0 Uni, dark brown
- Bead: White, sized to match hook
- Body: MFC Sexi Floss or Spirit River Flex-Floss, brown
- Rib: Uni Wire, small, red and silver
Brian Chan is a Canadian Stillwater angling expert and signature tier for Montana Fly Co. We’ve found his Chironomid Bomber patterns to be absolutely deadly on Hebgen both before and after the more glamorous hatches of Callibaetis, Tricos, and damselflies. These can be fished static, under a strike indicator, or slowly retrieved using a hand twist on a floating or intermediate tip line. You’d be amazed at how strong the takes are on a fly that is barely moving! Another great thing about this pattern is that, if you tie your own, you can easily experiment with other color combos.
It turns out that winter can get a little long here in West Yellowstone. That leaves plenty of time to look back on photos and bring back memories of the warmer days of the past summer, and to look ahead to the upcoming season.
I haven’t spent an extensive amount of time in Montana or fished every “Gotta fish” river, but the places that I have been in this naturally wild state have been a great introduction to what fly fishing this vast state has to offer. My first real introduction to fly fishing in Montana was in the summer of 2012, while working in the small town of Twin Bridges – the home of Winston Fly Rods. The main waters there include the Jefferson, Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers. Each of these waters has its own specific personality and time of excellence. Fast forward to 2017, and I found myself standing in a soon-to-open fly shop in West Yellowstone, Montana called Big Sky Anglers. My first day consisted of picking up and organizing wet flies (soaking wet flies, not flies intended to fish subsurface) off the basement floor because there was a leak in the foundation. Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “Great, what have I gotten myself into.”
Within two weeks I realized that I was working with some of the most respected, experienced, helpful, and genuine people in fly fishing, and everyone one of them was truly passionate about what they are doing here in West Yellowstone.
The owners and experienced crew at Big Sky Anglers introduced me to some of the local water, and also encouraged me to pull out a map, find a blue line or blob that looked interesting, and go exploring. Which brings me to talk the about fishing around here. Basically if you placed a drafter’s compass on a map centered in West Yellowstone and drew a circle with a radius of about 50 miles, you would be circling enough moving and still water to fish for rest of your life. Working for Big Sky Anglers and living in town for the 2017 season gave me the opportunity to merely scratch the surface of these special places.
I grew up bass fishing in Southern California. In that setting, I fell in love with that feeling of tranquility of being on a motionless, glassy piece of water. But my ignorance and lack of exposure never properly mixed the joy of a calm lake with fly fishing for trout. Last summer, fishing on Hebgen Lake changed all that.
There are many interesting fishing opportunities that present themselves throughout the season on Hebgen, but the Callibaetis hatches and spinner falls during mid-summer set things up for one of my favorite fishing games. It is truly exciting to witness big, healthy lake rainbows and browns choke down Callibaetis spinners like a hungry bear that just ended its hibernation.
Imagine sitting almost motionless on a glassy lake with beautiful tall pines kissing the water’s edge. There you sit, waiting for the signal. You look down into the air and on the water for any cues of life. Actually, you are looking for signs of the end of life, since we’re talking about mayfly spinners here, but that’s getting a bit picky. In time, you see a brilliantly speckled Callibaetis as the boat slowly drifts over the water. Then, more start to appear and you finally hear it – the gulping sound of a twenty inch rainbow trout arching its nose out of the water to inhale a Callibaetis spinner. It makes me smile just thinking about it. Mixing the emotions of hearing it with actually seeing it and it’s like tasting Nutella for the first time. You just can’t stop eating it.
The challenge of successfully gulper fishing adds another interesting element to the pursuit. You can’t be messy at this game, at all. Only bring your A-game and be prepared to mess up a few times along the way. This angling is best done with a partner, or better yet a seasoned guide. One angler positions the boat and spots for rising fish while communicating with the other angler who holds a rod at the ready while also looking for trout noses. As you scan the surface, you are mentally preparing to make deadly accurate cast of anywhere from fifteen feet, if you are lucky, to sixty feet or more. Easy right? Some days these fish have a more rhythmic feed style and other times they’re what I’d describe as being “all over the place”. Hebgen’s gulpers can change feeding directions on a dime and will make you waist a lot of casts. If you shout out enough clock positions to your partner and have your line untangled and organized before you make your cast, you can catch a couple of these fish. They jump, run and dart for cover like you want them to and are truly a gratifying fish.
I remember the first time I went out on Hebgen for gulpers with friend and Big Sky Anglers guide Donovan Best. My casting motions were too open which made the boat rock ever so slightly sending little waves out to the feeding fish. That slight and subtle error spooked several fish before I modified my casting stroke. Learning from my mistakes, and adjusting what I was doing resulted in a couple of fish that day, and the feeling of discovery was just fantastic!
I’m so excited for summer, gulpers, and the many other amazing fisheries around our area. I hope you get a chance to head out there yourself during the 2018 season. If you’ve never experienced stillwater fly fishing of this type, I encourage you to give it a try. Please pop by the shop, say hi, and introduce yourself. We’ll be sure to give you the details on this fun, local game we call gulper fishing. Until then have a great winter and remember, when you free the heel, you free the mind. 😉
It was 3 degrees and snowing here in Montana as I wrote this a couple weeks back. Skiing season. Maybe ice fishing season. But a few days before writing it was nearly 50 degrees, and now it seems like the first lower elevation melt is really on. A couple of my lake fishing buddies have already texted me, excited for the upcoming Stillwater fishing season. I’ll admit that I am a bit excited too. I wrapped up a few (dozen) flies for my lake boxes. And now, through writing this, I’ve organized my thoughts in anticipation of ice out, which is coming a bit later than normal this year.
Throughout the mountain west ice out is a much anticipated event for many stillwater anglers. For those who do not live in cold climates or have never visited a frozen lake, ice out is the short period of time on a lake where conditions change from the ice capped, frozen surface of winter to the open water of spring, summer, and fall. From the time that the ice begins to peel away from the shore, until two weeks or so after the lake becomes completely ice free, there is often a fantastic window of opportunity for anglers to get out on the lake shore, beat the cabin fever of late winter, and find some great fishing. Anglers who don’t have the luxury of owning a boat really enjoy the ice out fishing, because the fish tend to concentrate near shore. Even when things don’t completely work out when fishing ice out, it’s fun to get out of the house, see some country, and maybe connect with the first open water fish of the new year.
Why is Ice Out a “Thing”?
I believe that ice out is a “thing”, because of the trout’s desire to find ideal conditions when it comes to water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, and food or insect activity.
It’s well known that, when a lake is covered with ice and snow, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is not continuously replenished by the action of wind and waves. Lack of light under the ice also reduces aquatic plants ability to produce oxygen. By winter’s end, when the ice begins to recede from the lake’s margins, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water under the ice may be at it’s lowest point for the entire year. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the air and wind can hit the water again and reoxyegenate it.
Also, remember that water is less dense when it is frozen than it is when it is at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C). That’s why ice is on the top of the lake. It also means that the warmest portion of the water column is likely toward the bottom of the lake in winter. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the sun can hit the water and warm it up locally.
The unique physical and chemical properties of liquid and solid H20 make ice out a “thing”.
So, long story short, at ice out, the increased temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water at the lake’s edge stimulate the ecosystem, get some chironomids and perhaps other trout food sources active, and create conditions more favorable to the trout than anywhere else in the lake.
Once the ice fully dissipates, the effects of wind and sun warm the lake, and mixing or turnover evens out water conditions over a much larger portion of the lake, you will find that the ice out bite dies. The fish spread out throughout a much larger portion of the lake at that point, making them harder to find, especially if fishing from shore. When that happens, either find another lake that is starting to ice out, or fish the rivers for a while, until other factors on the lake begin concentrating the fish again into summer feeding areas.
Where are the good places to fish at ice out?
Well, IN THE WATER! It’s a bad joke, but if you are really on top of things, or maybe just a bit over zealous and out at the lake a bit too early in the year, look for any open water you can find. Remember , though, that open water doesn’t guarantee the presence of fish. Some areas of a lake are always better than others.
A couple of days too early, but we fished it!
Think back to why ice out is a “thing”. Water temperature is a hugely important factor. Warmer water is better at ice out. So, inlets and outlets that alter lake temps are a good thing to look for. Warmer water may be entering a lake and helping thaw the ice. Warmer lake water from down deep (remember water is most dense at about 39 degrees F or 4 degrees C) getting pulled up and out the outlet stream if there is one. Also, ice free shallows with dark bottoms that soak up the heat of the sun, or drop-offs adjacent to said shallows are great places to find warmer water. These same shallows, if the bottom is soft or muddy, will also be the place where the first chironomids of the year emerge.
Another good spot to look for fish are submerged points that funnel fish into and along travel lanes, creating concentrations of fish and increasing your own odds of intercepting one with your fly. It’s no secret that similar places are great Stillwater spots the rest of the year as well.
Gareth Jones’ quote “Stillwaters are NOT still” applies at ice out as well. When only the edges of the lake are ice free, there may be currents in the lake from inlet streams, springs, or other factors. If you have ever ice fished, and dropped a bit of bait down the hole with no weight, you may have noticed that it doesn’t always sink straight down. Even under the ice, the water can be moving. Just after complete ice out, winds begins to really have an effect on the movement of water, and warming of the water begins to slowly initiate the currents that will eventually turn the lake over. A buddy of mine down in California (who fishes the high Sierra lakes passionately) once mentioned to me that at ice out it seems like either one side of the lake or the other is good, but not often both. This is a clever observation that I’d not thought of, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the movement of water and its effect on temperature and dissolved oxygen.
In my experience there are also definite ice-out “hot spots” for fishing that must have some secret (to me) combination of several factors that draw fish back year after year. If you are at a lake at ice out for the first time, and the spots you tried at first aren’t producing, it pays to be mobile, walk, look, cast, and explore. If you find one of those zones where it all is happening, make a note!
What about Flies and Presentation?
On stillwaters, summer is all about the bugs – Callibaetis, damselflies, caddis, tricos, scuds, chironomids, and more. At ice out, though, the insect activity hasn’t really gotten rolling yet. With the exception of some early season chironomids hatching (which you should absolutely be prepared for), ice out fish seem to be very opportunistic, looking to put on some pounds, and are willing to at least consider eating more general and larger attractor patterns. Buggers, leeches, baitfish patterns, and some of the other gaudy attractor type stuff seems to work best for me and my fishing partners. Experiment with colors on your home waters for sure, but never fear starting with standby stillwater colors like black, olive, and brown. If you have your own favorites, by all means give them a shot, too. We’ve also had luck with bright colors or natural colored patterns with bright trigger points like hot beads.
Olive BH Woolly Bugger… never a bad decision.
In terms of presentation, it seems like slower is usually better in the cold water. When casting and retrieving your flies on floating or sinking lines as the ice recedes, try hitting the very edge of the ice shelf and let it sink down for a bit before starting any retrieve. Often the fish will come out from beneath the ice and eat it on the fall. If they don’t eat it, and it sinks to the depth you want to target, work a slower retrieve with emphasis on the pauses. Be ready for a grab especially during the pause.
If the ice is still very close to shore, it can be effective to cast parallel to the ice shelf, and retrieve your fly back along the edge of the ice, just like you might do on a weed edge in summer.
Once the ice is well off shore, or gone completely, cover water by fanning casts and moving your feet, and working around visible submerged structure like drop offs and boulders. It maybe goes without saying, but if you actually see fish, cast to them! If access conditions permit, this may be the time to launch your boat or float tube for the first time and really cover some water.
Another effective ice out presentation method uses a floating fly line and strike indicator system to suspend your flies and allow for an extra slow presentation. You can do this with the typical chironomids and also balanced style leech patterns. Remember, this isn’t just basic bobber fishing. Adding motion in subtle ways to your indicator presentations is often a key to success.
Now, for the catch. Even in cold water conditions where you’d expect trout to be lethargic and prefer a slow presentation, I have seen instances where the trout may follow, but will not commit to eating anything but a FAST moving fly. If you have fish following your fly right to the rod tip, but not eating, or if things seem totally dead, change things up and move your fly in a different way. Especially if you have seen fish cruising the area and they aren’t eating your offerings. Speed it up, shorten the pause, make longer pulls, or shorter pulls, and experiment until you get some feedback! When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing…
The rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.
We received the following press release from FWP and Northwest Energy this week, and though many of you would be interested. Looking forward to things getting back to the old version of normal on the Madi!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
NorthWestern Nearly Done With Hebgen Dam Project; Madison River Basin Water Conditions Hold Steady
Butte, Mont. – October 18, 2017 – September precipitation in the Madison River basin was 264 percent of the 30 -year average. This was a welcome change from July and August which were 44 percent and 63 percent of average, respectively.
As a result of the higher inflow, Hebgen Dam outflow and elevation are slightly higher than normal for this time of year. Currently, outflow is 960 cubic feet per second (cfs) and is expected to remain near this level through the end of the month. Hebgen elevation is 6532.35 feet, which is 2.52 feet below full pool. By month end, the lake is anticipated to draft to about 6532 feet.
The Climate Prediction Center’s forecast for the remainder of October indicates a higher probability for temperatures to be above normal and precipitation to be below normal.
Construction crews completed the installation of the new concrete lining in the Hebgen Dam outlet pipe by the end of September, significantly ahead of schedule. NorthWestern Energy was very happy with the quality of work on the concrete, and all test results show the work is in compliance with specifications.
The first week in October the crews ground and patched any surface irregularities, and installed and welded the steel transition section near the intake. During the second week of October the transition steel was grouted into place and work began on removing the materials in the tailrace used for access, as well as cleaning up the site and demobilizing. NorthWestern plans to transition flows from the spillway back to the intake in the coming weeks.
In 2009, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) required safety repairs to the Hebgen Dam intake, spillway and outlet pipeline to meet current dam-safety standards and reflect advances in earthquake seismology. The approximately $40 million project is expected to be mostly complete by the end of 2017, with some minor non-structural work to be done in 2018.
NorthWestern Energy will hold a celebration of the completion of the Hebgen Dam Rehabilitation Project from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2017, at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Ennis. Feel free to join us. Please RSVP to Kristen Dawes, Kristen.Dawes@northwestern.com, or by leaving a message at (406) 497-2456.
A while back I wrote a post about Callibaetis and Chironomids where the punch line was that my buddy and I wanted the fish to be eating Callibaetis but they were really on chironomids. Well that was then, and this is now…
Callibaetis and damselflies have been dominating the trout’s menu on my local stillwaters recently, so of course they are also the insects that my mind has been feasting on. In particular, the morning Callibaetis emergences have provided my friends and me with some really fun fishing opportunities. The great thing about being into a great hatch over the span of a couple of weeks is that you really get to dial things in and experiment with what works and what doesn’t work as well. So with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that I’ve been having as it refers to the nymphal stage of Callibaetis in particular.
It’s fairly easy to tell where the best Callibaetis action is going to happen on a lake. These insects LOVE the weedbeds. What’s really cool is that trout will often move into very shallow water to feed on the nymphs before the main hatch starts. But when they go shallow, those big trout get really spooky compared to when they are out on deeper weed flats or off the drop-offs. If you can find the travel lanes that fish use through the weedy halls of their world, you have probably hit the jackpot.
There are A LOT of commercially available Callibaetis nymph imitations out there. I’m not really interested in going into which specific ones to use here. What I can say is that there are a couple of important elements to fly selection that I have found to be rather important.
First, and most important, is size. Match the size of the most prevalent size of nymphs you can see in the water. That’s usually a 14 or 16 around here. Sometimes a 12 will do in the early season, but that may be because the fish aren’t quite as dialed in at that point, rather than because the bugs are actually bigger.
Second in my order of importance (and I think the most overlooked element) is fly profile. Mayflies in general and Callibaetis in particular are thin insects. In fact, there aren’t many fat insect in the water aside from maybe dragonfly nymphs and giant water beetles. So, those obese, poorly proportioned PT nymphs that you scored for $0.89 each in the sale bin of your local hardware store probably aren’t the best choice of patterns. Slim and sparse is what you need. In fact, some of the most effective Callibaetis nymph patterns that I’ve seen look not only anemic, but also downright absurd in their simplicity and material choice.
Third in my order of importance is color. The usual grayish-tan standard usually does just fine. On a couple of occasions, it seemed like color was more important than usual, so if you spend a bunch of time fishing or travelling to fish stillwaters that have Callibaetis hatches, you may want to carry other tones, including grayish-olive, brownish-tanish-gray, and rusty-tanish-grayish-olive. Got it?
This is a pretty big deal when fish are locked in on the Callibaetis nymphs. At least as important as fly size and profile. Maybe more important. Callibaetis nymphs are good swimmers, but they are also still tiny bugs, so that retrieve you use when fishing Clousers for striped bass needs to be left at the dock. It seems to me like they wiggle forward in short bursts that can be imitated by a series of 3-4 inch pulls, or some quick hand twists. But then, the nymphs almost always seem to stop for a bit to take a break before heading back on their way. So, a nice pause after a series of strips can be the ticket. I’ll do that most of the time, matching my flyline to the water depth – floating line and long leader in the super shallows, slow intermediate when I need a hair more depth. Fast intermediate lines seem too sinky for most of my work as I find myself hitting the weeds too soon on every cast. If you are finding fish down deeper than say 8-10 ft you may want one to cut down on your countdown time.
I’ve also heard that Callibaetis nymphs will swim up to the surface and back down to the weeds a few times before finally committing to hatching from the surface. So, a rising retrieve followed by a sink seems logical as well. I need to fool around with this more. Maybe an indicator and floating line or a short sink tip will do the trick.
Lastly, I’ve had a lot of fish eat a nymph suspended below a Callibaetis dry fly. Heave it and leave it. It works well.
Alright! I’ve got myself fired up to fish now. So, hopefully when you are reading this, I’ll be out on the lake. If you’ve got any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me at email@example.com
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – Like my last post, this one is running double duty both here and at Sexyloops.com
Flows and the damn Dam
River flows in the Madison Valley, from Hebgen Dam to Ennis lake, are sitting pretty good right now as we shift from summer to fall. At the Kirby Gage, she’s registering at 994 cfs. Over the past few weeks, the heat and high sun have been minimal and river temps are hanging in there on most days. However, there have been some super hot days once in while and the river temps can still hit the high 60’s and low 70’s. Once 68 degrees hits the river, you might as well reel up, sit back and take a boat ride. Recently, we have been experiencing some very cold over night air temperatures and several mornings here on Horse Butte the thermometer has read 28-30 degrees. That folks, has been the saving grace for the Madison River, well, that and decent flows from Hebgen. This past week, Hebgen Dam began to pull from roughly seventeen feet below the surface. This is NOT the point where we celebrate just yet. Apparently, this will only drop the river temp a couple degrees, but that’s better than top releases any day of the week. Sometime in November (cross your fingers), Hebgen will hopefully be completed and the river will pull from 37 feet below the surface. Right now, I am holding my breath and really won’t believe its fixed until it actually is. This project has stretched out for way too long and we are all completely over it.
Madison River Fishing Report 08.25.2015
Inconsistent…to say the least. Really though, I’ve had a bunch of great days on the Madison River this summer. However, if you are gonna roll the dice and fish the river only one day while you’re in the neighborhood, you had better be on the good side of the trout gods…..or be a little lucky. It also helps to bring your A-game and let the fish eat your fly. Your day could be a dink fest, but please remember to pay attention as there are some really nice fish eating the fly and just when you think it’s a dink and you don’t set the hook, you’re hating life and wondering out loud where that big brown trout came from. My only answer to that question is, “they live here too”. The nymphing crowd is pounding rocks and mid river runs with various flies like: shelia sculpin, trevor’s sculpin, rubber legs, zonkers, midge larva, $3 Dips, olive dips, crystal dips, shop vacs and the traditional no bead pheasant tail. The rest of us are fishing dry flies whenever possible with hoppers, ants, wulffs, beetles, trudes, small royal stimis and pretty much any reddish attractor pattern. I like fishing a single fly this time of the year as most of us, myself included, tend to get a better drift with just one fly on the end of the line. It’s late August and the trout are not dumb, so tighten up that skill set and pay attention.
Hebgen Lake Fishing Report
I will never claim to know everything about Hebgen Lake, it’s almost impossible. However, I’ve been playing around the lake this August and Hebgen has shown us some really good days with calibaetis spinners, duns and ants. Slow stripping mayfly nymphs is a great way to spend any early morning in an unnamed bay on the south shore of Hebgen Lake. I absolutely love watching the lake come alive from 8 am till noon. Some days, like today, there was glass all over the lake till almost 3pm, but making the fish eat was a little difficult. My best bug here lately has been a #14 Missing Link fished on 5X.
Writing and this blog
I would like to reach out and thank those folks who have asked me to keep writing and posting my random thoughts here on the site. Running the business…aka…. full time guiding/outfitting, tying flies for what may be your trip tomorrow, answering emails and phone calls along with mowing the yard and running the bird dog has gotten in the way of writing. Writing is hard, and while I don’t claim to be very good at it, writing is time consuming and after some 600 posts on the blog, I got tired. With any luck, I’ll continue to find some time as I really do enjoy writing, but sometime it’s just hard to find the energy. Thanks for reading! If you enjoy social media, please check us out on Instagram, that folks, is the easiest way to get your fix without sitting in the boat with us on a river here in the great state of Montana.