Phil Rowley is a well-known Canadian angler who has made a real name among the stillwater fly fishing community alongside his good buddy Brian Chan. His love of fly fishing has taken him across North America and beyond pursuing trout, Atlantic and Pacific salmon, char, pike, walleye and numerous other species on the fly. Phil is a super friendly guy who is always eager to share his knowledge and stories with a fellow angler. His unofficial motto is “Because you never stop learning!” which we totally dig here at Big Sky Anglers. Phil and Brian’s Stillwater Fly Fishing App has brought the old school fishing book format into the 21st century with a very fresh, visual, and constantly updating format that really matches well with the idea of fly fishing as a journey filled with exploration and learning.
We struck up a relationship with Phil during his most recent trip to Yellowstone Country and were super excited to find out that he makes semi-regular trips to our area to fish the local stillwaters. Phil is a signature tier for Montana Fly Company, and we’ve carried a few of his patterns in the shop since our doors opened. When we found out that he has some real first-hand experience fishing our area, we began comparing notes on effective patterns and presentations. It didn’t take long before we hatched an idea to share Phil’s Favorites for Yellowstone Country with our readers, and combine our own experiences with the patterns with Phil’s thoughts and suggestions on when, where, and how to use his flies in your own angling adventure.
If you are just getting started in stillwater fly fishing in our area, or are looking to take your fly selection to the next level, these patterns are a great way to do it. We stock all of these in our fly bins at the shop if you are looking to get a few, and we are also happy to help you get the materials and tips you might need if you are looking to tie your own.
Balanced Leech – Bruised, Black, and Claret
According to Phil, the balanced fly philosophy has had a huge impact on his fly tying in recent years. He is not alone. The concept, introduced originally by Jerry McBride of Washington State, is nothing short of a revolution, bringing the effectiveness of jigging and drop shot presentations used by conventional anglers to the fly fishing universe. These leeches are designed and weighted to suspend in a horizontal manner, imitating the swimming orientation of many stillwater food sources like leeches and baitfish. By Phil’s account, a balanced pattern will outperform a traditionally tied version by a wide margin when presented under an indicator.
Fishing Tips: When fishing any fly under an indicator, but especially a balanced leech, do not make the mistake of thinking that you are merely casting it out an waiting for a bite. Covering the water, moving, and incorporating retrieves that move the fly horizontally and vertically through the water are all parts of the indicator approach.
We find the balanced leech especially effective fished under an indicator in marginal or very cold water conditions in which the trout become less likely to chase a faster moving, retrieved offering. The approach lets you put the fly in the zone and keep it there while adding enticing action without rapid movements. On the river, most anglers will quickly shift from retrieved streamers or swung soft hackles to dead drift nymphing when the temps drop and fish get lethargic, but for some reason the adjustment is often considered “cheating” in the stillwater environment.
Balanced flies work well cast and retrieved, too. They jig, dip, and pitch when stripped, creating a different action than a standard tie.
BSA stocks the balanced leech in all of Phil’s Favorite colors, plus a few others that we’ve found to be equally deadly, like Olive/Burnt Orange, and Olive Pumpkin.
Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own Bruised Balance Leech or Olive Pumpkin Balanced Leech . If you just want to hear Phil say “Laser Level”, skip right to 6:45. 😊
According to Phil, the slim lines of the Pearly Damsel match those of the natural nymphs and when fish are in a selective state this pattern has worked for him consistently to coax a take or two. Based on our experience with this bug, Phil is likely downplaying the patterns effectiveness, as we’ve had days where “a take or two” happens every few casts!
Damsels are a critical food item on several area lakes, with July emergences on Henry’s Lake often being described in legendary terms. When the damsels are migrating, the biggest trout in the lake take notice and go on the feed. Damsels are also important food sources on Hebgen, and other weedy stillwaters like Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, MT.
Fishing Tips: Fish a damsel slowly, just above the weed tops, anytime during the early to mid-summer as an attractor, as the nymphs are always crawling about. The pattern really shines during emergences though, where casting and retrieving the fly on an intermediate or midge tip style line (depending on the feeding depth of the fish) is the presentation of choice. If you see numbers of damsel nymphs swimming near the surface, crawling up in your boat or float tube or on to shore, get ready! Try a series of short but quick pulls followed by a significant pause that imitates the natural movements of the damsel nymph, and don’t be surprised if most of the grabs come during the pause.
Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own to dial in your colors to perfectly match the damsels on your favorite stillwaters.
Chironomid fishing is nearly synonymous with Canadian stillwater angling, and black and red is Phil’s first choice in chironomids colors when he doesn’t have any inside information or when he starts out exploring a new stillwater. Often, the results don’t warrant a change from this color choice.
This color combo has always been a killer on Hebgen, and the Black Sally makes for a really nice alternative to a standard Ice Cream Cone style pupa that uses a white bead to suggest the gills, especially late in the season and in parts of the lake that see the most angling effort.
Fishing Tips: Phil says that maintaining presentation depth is key when fishing any chironomid pupa. The more emerging pupa there are the more focused trout become to a specific depth. It’s just an efficient way to feed. Suspending chironomid pupa under an indicator is a deadly way to suggest staging chironomid pupa. Plus, it’s just plain fun to watch the indicator disappear beneath the surface.
He recommends that you begin with your fly a foot off the bottom and work your way up from there in one foot increments until you find where they are feeding. In MT, where it is legal to fish two flies at once, we like staggering two chironomids by 18 to 24” on the leader, which can really shorten the time it takes to dial in the depth, or to pick up on changes in the depth at which the trout are feeding. The deeper the water, the greater the fly spacing can and should be. Phil suggest the following presentation – Keep an eye out for emerging adults and cast pupal shucks. Anchor amongst them if you can. After completing the cast allow sufficient time for the fly or flies to sink. Let the sit still for a while. If there are no takers begin a slow hand twist retrieve to cover water. Move the line slow enough so it creates no surface wake. Add the odd strip to attract fish to the fly. The strip rises the fly up and the pause lets the fly settle once again. Always watch the indicator right after the strip as this is when a take is most likely to occur.
This is not only a great imitation to fish during active chironomids emergences, but also a no brainer as a second fly/dropper fly to fish while exploring or prospecting during non-hatch times.
According to Phil, this is probably his favorite chironomid pupa pattern, and a pattern that he has popularized with the help of thousands of trout across the western US and Canada. The Chromie produces well when chironomid pupa are actively hatching, as the silver body does a great job suggesting the trapped gases the natural pupa use to aid their ascent and final transformation to winged adult.
Fishing Tips: Fish this pattern like the Black Sally or your other favorite chironomids imitations. The Chromie seems to be a real standout in Yellowstone Country when fishing in darker conditions, in deeper water, or in algae clouded or otherwise colored water. My personal experience is that the reflectivity can be a bit much in shallow water combined with calm water and bright sun, but I know others who swear by this pattern in nearly all conditions.
Clearwater Pupa – Black
According to Phil, this ultra-realistic chironomids pupa really shines in clear water conditions or when the trout are getting wary of seeing too many beadhead style patterns. This fly is super slim and translucent, but with just the right amount of flash. It also includes the wing pads which are not typically a part of simpler beadhead patterns.
Fishing Tips: Fish this pattern like the Black Sally or your other favorite chironomids imitations. It’s a great one to fish as part of a tandem rig with a weighted chironomid during a hatch. Around our area, the place I automatically think of when it comes to this pattern Wade Lake. The crystal clear water and pale mud shoals are a local proving ground for realistic stillwater insect imitations, and this one has passed the test.