As we approach the middle of July each year, I tend to feel a little bit of anxiety as I begin to consider the bewildering diversity of fishing opportunities that surround us here in West Yellowstone. As a guide, now is when I begin to have almost TOO MANY good options and the difficult thing can be to decide which one to take each day. As an angler, I begin to think of all the places that are still on my list after a lifetime of exploring Yellowstone country and I grapple with the reality that I might only have time enough to tick just one more off of what seems to be a growing, rather than shrinking list.
We at Big Sky Anglers choose to live here in West Yellowstone because of its incredible diversity of water types and virtually endless fishing options for anglers of all skill levels and interests. We not only live here because of the opportunities found to engage all anglers as customers but also because we, as anglers, remain engaged in angling pursuits here even after a lifetime of flyfishing in the area. Draw a simple 100 mile radius around West Yellowstone on any map and you will have encapsulated more squiggly blue lines and world class fisheries than can be found in a 100 mile radius just about anywhere else on the globe. This place both keeps us on our toes and inspires us. We love to share it with others and look forward to chances to introduce anglers to new experiences.
The middle of July represents to us the heart of our season. It is exactly in the middle of what we would call our prime time, which arguably ranges from the beginning of May through the beginning of October. Summertime dry fly fishing is in full effect, good hatches are occurring during the daylight hours and good evening fishing can be found with regular spinner falls and caddis emergences. At this point in the year, there is more quality fishable water around us than at any other time. Terrific fishing can be found on the Henry’s Fork and Henry’s Lake in Idaho, Montana’s Madison, Gallatin, Missouri, Yellowstone Rivers as well as many of the region’s stillwaters, of which Hebgen sits atop our list due both proximity to the shop and the angling diversity it offers. Yellowstone National Park, with the exception of the waters warmed by geyser influence like the Firehole and Madison, numerically dominates the area’s options and great trout fishing can be found in any quadrant. Many of the high country and back country streams are just now coming into shape for their short but productive time of year.
Perhaps foolishly, I have decided to attempt to summarize some of the option available to us during the Heart of our season.
Let’s start in Idaho. The Henry’s Fork is perhaps the single most diverse river in our lineup. It has everything from technical spring creek fishing on a large scale to wild and seldom traveled wilderness canyon sections that offer a high quality outdoor experience on just about any day of the summer. Though some of the fantastic fishing that we experience in June on the Fork has shut down due to high irrigation demand and high summer temperatures in the valley, the river fishes consistently well all the way to the town of Ashton. Just below the Island Park dam the remarkably consistent fishery of the Box Canyon is entering its prime season, which will extend through the middle of October. The Railroad Ranch has good hatches throughout the month of July before shifting into more sparse and technical August fishing with fewer bugs and terrestrials. Evening fishing is still high on the list of great ideas here at this time and will continue to be so until the end of the month or first weeks of August. The canyon country below the Ranch and the water just outside of the caldera remains highly oxygenated and offers consistent fishing almost every day for beginner and intermediate level anglers. Henry’s Lake begins to weed up and the hardware/trolling traffic begins to lighten up a bit, leaving most of the water to fly anglers. This will continue into August and the fly opportunities continue to increase from now through the middle of October. The Henry’s Fork provides on very large piece of a large puzzle of opportunity at this time of year.
In the portion of southwestern Montana that is immediately around West Yellowstone, the Madison River and Hebgen Lake dominate the list of options. The Madison is now at its most active time of year and this represents the heart of the dry fly season on one of our nation’s finest dry fly fisheries. Good hatches provide great action for anglers of all skill levels throughout July, and the classically wide-open landscape of this iconic Montana river lends itself to the production of a great many terrestrial insects during the month of August. Water temperatures stay consistently cool throughout the heat of summer here, especially now that the Hebgen dam has been repaired, and dry fly fishing remains an excellent option through the end of August. If the Madison is on your list of rivers to experience, these next two months are some of the best times to experience it. Hebgen Lake is a robust Stillwater fishery, perhaps best known in the flyfishing world for its incredible hatches of tricos and callibaetis, as well the large trout that gobble the spinners from the surface of the water in easy rhythm, those we refer to as “gulpers”. This is some of the most entertaining Stillwater fishing available to fly anglers, and it is located right in our backyard. If you are a repeat visitor to Yellowstone country with a fly rod in hand, experiencing “gulper” fishing is something that should most definitely be on your list. Hebgen also offers an incredible variety of subsurface fishing opportunities throughout the summer, similar to Henry’s Lake.
There are over 1,800 miles of squiggly blue lines in Yellowstone National Park and just over 220 lakes within its boundary. Virtually all of this water holds trout of some sort: Rainbows, Browns, Brooks, Lakers and Cutthroats, both Yellowstone and West Slope. There are also Grayling and Mountain Whitefish to be found. Outside of the waters that directly receive geyser effluent (the Firehole River, portions of the Gibbon, and the Madison), most of this water is in prime shape and is now ready to be explored. In the Northwest, the Gallatin and Gardner Rivers are in their prime and will remain so through the end of August. In the Southwest, the more remote river systems beckon the backountry angler with some fine fishing, hot spring soaking, and waterfall exploring opportunities. In the southeast, lies the headwaters of two of the United States’ great rivers, the Yellowstone and the Snake. Much of this water hasn’t been fishable until just now due to regulations and runoff conditions. The Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, as well as Slough and Soda Butte Creek in the northeast are now in shape and begin to draw anglers from around the globe. The open Serengeti-like terrain of this corner of the park provides not only exciting fishing but also some of Yellowstone National Park’s best wildlife watching. Now is the time to begin fishing in earnest the bulk of the water in the crown jewel of our National Park system.
Whether you are bound for Yellowstone country with plans to fish every day or have come to simply experience this part of the world and would like to fish for a day or two, the next two months offer some of the most consistent and diverse fishing to be found in this remarkable region surrounding West Yellowstone. We are truly and fortunately, located at the epicenter of trout fishing in the American West.
Simply put, it is one of the most iconic pieces of trout water on Earth. The very mention of the storied Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork conjures images of expansive flats with large rainbow trout sipping away on the surface. Anglers who frequent this water tend to abide by a largely unwritten code of conduct, and generally hunt those heads patiently, often waiting on the banks or walking and hunting until a rise is spotted. A careful and well thought out approach greatly increases the chances of success on this very technical piece of water. Tackle is well thought out as well, leaders are prepared with great care, and the most trusty of flies are often fastened to a well tended tippet while in wait. This process is part of the joy of fishing The Ranch, and gives the angler plenty of time to admire the day’s tackle selection from his or her quiver of available arms. Both failure and success here often result in a thoughtful recapture of the day’s activities and careful consideration to the why’s and how’s of the day’s events.
Though it is the trout that most immediately draw anglers to The Ranch, anglers quickly learn that by timing their efforts with certain hatches or even certain phases of hatches, they are able to increase their opportunities. These hatches become part of the focus of Ranch anglers and exist throughout the summer and fall, usually starting with a bang when the drakes and heavy pmd hatches pop. Next, Ranch insect activity eases into flavs, then to flying ants and other terrestrials, and finally to the mahogany duns and baetis of Autumn. Caddis are present throughout the summer in a variety of species. There are even micro-habitats scattered throughout the 7-mile-long reach that can present fantastic and fascinating hatch matching opportunities when other sections are blank.
Everyone seems to have their favorite times of year here, and as a guide on the Ranch, I have my favorite times to take anglers. As an angler myself, my favorite time to fish The Ranch is whenever I can go. The magic of this piece of water is never lost on me and I consider it a privilege to spend a morning, afternoon, evening, or if I’m lucky, a full day walking its banks in search of a target to try and wrangle. This is usually when I reach for that special rod I’ve been waiting to cast, the one I keep in my truck for just this moment. There are, however, other times that I reach for my highest performing rod and this is determined by what it is that I expect to see.
Rod selection is one of the first things I consider for a day on the Ranch. Fly fishing advertisements often favor a moderate or slow-action rod for this sort of fishing. A rod that exemplifies the feel of a smooth fly cast. Sometimes that is reflected in my selection as well. Other times, the elements/weather or the bugs that I expect to throw push me to select a faster action rod. For example, when fishing a spinner fall, when I know that the water will be littered will millions of spent mayflies, and trout will be eating only 1 out of any possible 50 drifting over them at any point in time, I reach for my SAGE X 590-4 rod. This trustworthy, high performance rod is capable of picking up long amounts of line, 40 plus feet, and makes it easy for me to convert a single back cast into a tight-looped forward cast that delivers the fly right back into the lane it came from. It is this efficiency of many drifts in the same feeding lane that brings success to the spinner-fishing angler. This is harder to accomplish using a softer action rod as the angler may have to make more strips of line in after each drift in order to execute a proper back cast, resulting in more false casts and ultimately into more shooting of line and less accuracy. In this game of inches, I favor the stiffer SAGE X, and I appreciate the bit of touch the rod has in the softer tip (compared to some of SAGE’s other models), which helps get the cast started in just the right way.
When fishing larger flies, either the drakes in the early summer or terrestrials in the heat of summer, I know that fewer presentations will be required as the natural competition on the water will be less than during a thick emergence or spinner fall. In these circumstances, I still favor a rod that I enjoy casting, but one with a softer action that places more emphasis on the pace of the casting stroke. This same softer touch is more efficient at feeding line, a technique that goes hand in hand with larger flies on The Ranch. The trout feeding on them are often moving targets in search of fewer but larger morsels. Less rhythmic feeding is characteristic of these situations, so between presentations I’ll often be bringing my flies to hand to wait for the targeted trout to show himself again before I re-cast. In these situations, I’ll reach for one of my classier rods – a rod that I appreciate for its performance as well as its artistry. My Burkheimer 590-4 Classic, for instance. Burkheimers not only are finished with an artists touch, they also are built with a sense of feel and smoothness not equaled in other rods out there. They are capable of throwing a tight loop on short casts and perform very well up to 60 feet or so. Though there are many that prefer a 4 weight for some of this fishing, I always prefer my 5 weight, for its versatility in windy conditions.
During terrestrial season, an angler is likely to encounter spinner falls in the morning, ants in the late morning, and maybe even sight fishing with nymphs, and targeting grasshopper-searching trout in the afternoon. Often, the Ranch has plenty of aquatic vegetation (which most of us unceremoniously refer to as weeds) at this time of year. In August, large weed banks reach the surface and isolate trout in little channels that funnel bugs and change the river’s currents. In the afternoon, weeds will often cut loose and begin to drift down the river. Having a rod that can maintain lots of pressure on a hooked fish without breaking a fine tippet is a must. A Winston Pure in a 5 weight, nine foot is a great tool for the job. I find that this rod excels at short range casting. Many times the answer to getting a drift in these variable weed bed currents is to sneak up close to your target and make shots from 30 feet or less. On windy afternoons, “Hoppertunities” arise and being able sling a large fly in the wind and stack out lots of slack into a long drift can make the difference between catching nothing or hooking the largest trout of your year. Again, the deep bend in Winston’s Pure lineup does this well, and allows me to put maximum pressure on the line while minimizing the chance of breaking a fine tippet on a large, angry rainbow trout.
If you and I were to discuss historical advancements in fly tackle over beers some evening in Last Chance, we could start with the transition from bamboo to fiberglass and on to graphite, or Red Ball Flyweight waders to Gore Tex. But I would argue that the greatest advancements in the last decade have been made in the area of fly lines. The new breed of fly lines by companies such as Scientific Anglers, RIO, Airflo, and Cortland are leagues ahead of where they were 10 years ago. New finishes allow for easy shooting and feeding slack, as they move through the guides with less friction. Complex tapers offer unprecedented control over energy transfer and leader turnover. Modern lines are stiffer in the bodies of the heads in a wider range of temperatures and can be more supple in the tips, which both helps with casting in the wind and getting drifts in swirling currents. They also have less stretch than older generation lines which increases contact with fish during the fight and for a quicker, more responsive hook set. For fishing on the Ranch, I prefer the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth in an MPX taper for my SAGE X and Burkheimer, and a Scientific Anglers Trout taper for the Winston Pure. The RIO Gold is a great all around line as well and I find it fishes well with all of the rods mentioned.
In this game of stealth, hatch matching, and drag free presentations, a long, fine leader is a must. Tippet you can believe in is critical as well. There is no sense taking all this time to find a target and plan your approach if your tippet is going to break when you finally do hook your Ranch fish. This is a trophy hunt, and every fish is special. You’ll come across anglers that swear by 15+ foot leaders in 6 or 7X, and that seems to work for them. Usually, however, I’ll select a Trouthunter 10’ 3X leader as a base and then modify it with fluorocarbon tippet in a length that favors accuracy versus overall length. I like the Trouthunter mono leaders because they have a longer butt section than most, designed to turn over long leaders in windy situations. I have yet to find a stronger tippet than the Trouthunter Fluorocarbon. It is impressive stuff and is often stronger than the steel of the hook the fly is tied on.
Construction of my own Ranch leader goes as follows: Starting with Trouthunter 10’ 3X leader, I cut about 15 inches off of the fly end. I then attach a 15 to 20 inch long section of 4X Trouthunter Fluorocarbon to the end of the tapered leader using a double surgeon’s knot. This knot is important when joining mono to flouro. Lastly, I add a 2 foot long section of 5X Trouthunter Flurocarbon tippet to the end of the 4X, using a blood knot. The result is a leader with a total length of about 12 feet. If I need to step down further, I might trim the 5X section a little shorter and add another 2 feet of 5.5X or 6X for an overall length of 13 to 14 feet, that is typically my maximum leader length. Having the 3X leader as my base also gives me the flexibility to trim back to a 4X tippet in a pinch and throw a bigger beetle or hopper at an opportunistic target along the way.
The final component of Ranch tackle is the one that makes the magic happen, and probably the one that receives the most attention – the flies. On this subject, I could probably write an entire book, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet here. One should always start by familiarizing themselves with the bugs they might expect to encounter during your visit. A quick stop or phone call into Big Sky Anglers will give you a heads up to what’s happening out there. Generally speaking, you’ll want to be prepared to match mayfly spinners in a variety of colors and sizes, and the Harrop Paraspinner is a good start. JoJo’s Green Drake, conceived by BSA’s own Joe Moore, is, without fail, the first pattern I put over a trout feeding on these chunky green sailboats. As a bonus, it’s design allows for significant on-stream modification (bring tiny scissors) to adjust the way the fly rides on the water, giving this pattern unprecedented value. Emerger patterns are a must for any of the mayfly hatches you might encounter. These can vary from hair wings like the Challenged Emerger PMD or CDC versions like the Last Chance Cripple PMD. Comparaduns and Sparkle Duns in the appropriate color and size for the hatch are solid choices as well. High-riding duns in thorax ties are great for mahoganies and PMDs. Low profile and spent versions of both olive and tan caddis occupy permanent spots in my Ranch box and can be effective throughout the year. Most Ranch anglers are also never without a few black ants, hoppers, and beetles, and definitely not without a Harrop’s CDC honey ant.
I will conclude with a bit of philosophy. Fly fishing is filled with opinion. It has been my intent in this post to illustrate what has worked for me over the years, and offer some insight to the inquiring angler. I hope this information helps the reader make a decision that leads them to success, whether it be on the Ranch or on another piece of water. One of the joys of fly fishing in general, and certainly for the Ranch angler in particular, is the process of thoughtfully considering the scenarios you might encounter, preparing a selection of flies and your leader for the day’s fishing, and selecting tackle from your quiver that represents what you wish to use. There is no right and wrong here, or it could be said that any choice is both right and wrong, as adapting to changing conditions is usually the name of the game. I hope that every fly angler that comes across this article gets a chance to stand ankle deep in this most special of places and has an opportunity to tango with one of its residents.
Stillwater fishing with flies is, in some ways, the final frontier of fly fishing to the United States angler. Our rivers get all the attention and most people’s romantic mental images of fly fishing are of standing waist-deep in a trout stream, making long casts to rising trout. As such, many of our rivers are well known. Lakes are something we have in great numbers here in the US, but they are regularly overlooked, and solitude isn’t so hard to come by. Though I am still primarily a river angler, I have become more of a lake fishermen over the last 15 years. I owe much of this to my experiences in Patagonia, where the incredibly dynamic and exciting angling situations in stillwaters are numerous, eye opening, and in many ways, transformative.
In my years of guiding trout fishermen on the waters of Patagonia, I have often heard from guests that they “aren’t really into lake fishing” when they arrive. Nine times out of ten, though, anglers who are open minded enough to give it a go with me are converted by the end of the week after a few of the incredible experiences that I’m about to describe. Many of them learn techniques and gain enough insight and confidence to take this new perspective home with them and apply these methods to their home area. Their list of home waters usually grows significantly once they add their local stillwaters to their circuit!
In the Austral trout fishing zones, the lakes play an important role in the watersheds. Many of the rivers that hold large fish do so because they are connected to lakes both upstream and downstream. This allows for full range of movement of large trout, so they can choose the optimum environment depending on the food source and time of year. It is only natural that one chases these trout into the stillwaters when the larger specimens have retreated into the lake habitats.
In the parts of Chile and Argentina where I have spent a bulk of my time, most of the lakes are crystal clear, and the fish highly predatory in nature. Sight fishing situations abound, often comparing to angling scenarios one finds in a saltwater flats environment while fishing for bones, permit, snook, or tarpon. These Patagonian trout cruise in search of dragonfly nymphs, scuds, midges, caddis and mayflies. They can be found assaulting dragonfly and damselfly adults, snatching them out of the air, at times coming 3-4 feet out of the water to do so. The first time you experience this, a memory will be etched on your mind that will last your lifetime. On a calm day, they can be found sipping mayfly spinners or flying ants from the surface. Generally, if you can spot them, and you can make a good cast, you can coerce them to take your fly. If you are a hesitant stillwater angler, these situations can easily make a quick convert out of you as they bridge the gap between the sporty scenario of throwing dry flies to rising fish in a stream and the far less visual yet still challenging scenario of probing the depths with sinking lines in the search of willing participants.
Blind fishing methods are highly productive as well, of course. Throwing streamers and leeches on sinking lines is generally effective, as is skating large dry flies on the surface with floating lines. On some lakes, the scud populations are so large that the bigger trout will filter feed through clouds of scattering freshwater shrimp. In these situations, a slow retrieve with a scud imitation on a floating line or under an indicator can produce tremendous results. This type of lake produces trout with a body mass that can be astonishing. Some of the lakes around Esquel and Rio Pico are good examples of this. Perhaps the most well known lake of this sort is Lago Strobel (aka Jurassic Lake) in the arid steppe country of southern Argentina.
As for gear requirements, Patagonia Lake fishing is generally not very technical, but every part of the kit needs to be able to handle big fish, and big wind. I use the same line that I use in the big rivers for streamers, much of the time and its versatility is outstanding for both kinds of fishing. Hands-down, my preferred line for Patagonia sink tips is the Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 25 Cold in 200 grain. The running line has zero memory and hardly ever tangles and the head is just long enough to carry a loop tight enough to fire into holes in the willows when river fishing. If things get a bit more complicated and we need to slow down our subsurface presentations, I’ll use a slow sinking line like the SA Sonar Stillwater Hover line, primarily with dragonfly and damselfly nymphs over shallow weed beds.
For rods, I always favor versatility, and a faster action rod is what I recommend for casting in the wind and covering water. I really like to use 6 weight, 9 foot rods for streamer and lake fishing down here. In recent seasons, my two favorites have been the SAGE X and Orvis H3F.
If you do decide to try your hand at the giants of Strobel, you will likely want to pack some more specific kit to account for the sheer power of the wind and the trout, and because the fishing is done from shore! Justin has found the following kits to be very handy over the last two years at Jurassic:
Sage X Switch Rod 7wt 11ft 4 pc with Rio Outbound Short 9wt floating and Type 3 shooting heads for overhead casting.
As for flies, standard lake food sources abound, and baitfish are often important to imitate. Many of the imitative as well as suggestive stillwater patterns and streamers that have become famous in the States and Canada are perfect. On many lakes, patterns with a hint of burn or bright orange are absolutely deadly. But regardless of pattern or color, one thing is absolutely critical – make sure flies are tied on stout hooks. When you travel so far and hook the fish you came all this way for, you want the best irons available to give yourself the best chance of being able to email your buddies a photo like this…
This selection was born on a rainy day in New Zealand when back-to-back cyclones over the north island kept us indoors for a day. Jonathan and Sean sat down and decided to put their minds to building the “NZ Essentials” box to properly equip the Kiwi-bound angler with what they’ll need to have a sporting chance on both the north and south islands. If you’re headed to New Zealand with this selection in hand, rest assured that you’ll arrive with a tidy selection of flies that are tried and true, tested over many years on wary kiwi trout. This comprehensive selection comes neatly organized in a waterproof box, especially with New Zealand angling in mind, to cover those deep wading situations, and the occasional rainy day.
The selection is composed of the following Dries:
Woomfah – Olive
Woomfah – Black
Five x Five
And the following Nymphs:
Flashback Pheasant Tail UV
Big T Caddis
Prince of UV
These flies are all tied to handle large trout, to last, and to be effective in NZ waters. All flies are tied on stout Tiemco hooks and are available in sizes that can be difficult to find in the US for the large kiwi mayfly imitations, up to size 10. They are tied in the right colors for these waters and have all been tested thoroughly for several years. Simply put, they work on kiwi trout. Most NZ guides we have fished with and come to know have a strong selection of Category 3 flies in their boxes. And, to be honest, this selection is a sneaky one to have in your pocket across the Rockies here in the US when looking for something a “little different” to show the fish.
The Dry Flies
In Big Sky Country, we have salmonflies. The glory hatch that produces days that anglers never forget. It is the hatch that everyone wants to experience at least once in their lives. In New Zealand, that hatch is the cicada hatch. The forests literally scream with the deafening buzz of cicadas in the heart of the summer, and the trout are on the lookout for these plump morsels that fall from the trees and grasses into the rivers. We have cicadas in the US, but not typically to the extent that they are found Down Under. Category 3’s Woomfah in black and olive is a must have for any visiting angler and makes an excellent cicada imitation, it’s easy to see, casts well, always lands upright, and the kiwi trout love to gobble it up.
Another common fly in kiwi country is the blowfly. This is a bug that’s unique to NZ and imitations are also hard to come by in the US. The blowfly looks like a large common housefly that has a striking iridescent blue body. This is another bug that is useful as a searching pattern when the trout aren’t looking for something so large as a cicada. A good blowfly imitation is a must when visiting NZ, and Category 3’s Blowfly is an exemplary one.
The Five x Five and the Moondance are two patterns that work well for both caddis and moths, both insects that are frequently found on New Zealand’s trout streams. The Tricky Situation is an excellent mayfly imitation tied in the parachute style with a dark body and a hook that won’t bend out on a large trout. This one belongs in any angler’s fly box.
In relatively low density bug situations both in NZ and the US, trout rely heavily on terrestrials, not the least of which are ants. The Trailer Trash is a great, low riding ant that uses a red abdomen to serve as a trigger. This is a great play for a selective trout that is holding under swirling foam lines and being fussy. It’s best to fish this behind a larger dry for visibility, as this fly sits flush in smooth currents and will often get pulled under, just like a natural ant, when drifted through swirling eddies.
Category 3 nymphs are all tied with tungsten beads, ensuring the quickest delivery to the right depth possible for the chosen pattern, whether fished with a dry as a dropper, in tandem with another nymph, or Jedi style, alone on a naked leader. Remember, nearly all the nymphing done in NZ is also sight fishing! The nymphs are tied on stout, curved shank hooks, the kind that simply do not bend out on heavy trout. These nymphs are tied with a chunky profile that makes large trout look at them, and are suggestive enough of New Zealand’s mayflies and Caddis flies to help convince hungry trout to move out of their way to eat them. Kiwi guides favor a dark bead over a shiny one in most cases, but I have yet to meet one that doesn’t have a place for a bit of bling from time to time. Cat 3’s nymph selection reflects this.
General mayfly profiles are covered with the Hoover, one of the most used nymphs in the lineup. The All Black, named for not only its dark profile but also the national Rugby team, is another solid mayfly choice. Also present in the mayfly selection are the Flashback Pheasant Tail UV for low light days and the Pole Position for days when the color red is a necessity to trigger strikes.
Caddis larvae are covered by the Cheeky Fella and the Big T Caddis with the best trigger colors covered. The Prince of UV covers the caddis pupa profile, and serves as a good fly with which to run long drifts with through those large pools with swirling currents, where perfect dead drift presentations are difficult to achieve.
Finally, no nymph selection would be complete without some stonefly nymphs present. The 101 is a slender-bodied imitation that is built to sink and move trout that might not move for something smaller. I have experienced on more than a few occasions going through the lineup to no avail on a trout that is sparsely feeding only to have him turn and swim 3 feet out of his way to chomp a presented 101. It is also a good fly to use when throwing a long drift into a highly likely spot when you can’t quite see your target but are almost certain a trout is holding in the lie. This is a fly you can believe in and occupies a permanent spot in this box. It is included in two sizes.
March 2019. I was fortunate to accompany a small group of anglers to the north island of New Zealand on an unforgettable journey of wilderness, trout, and great friends. What ensued was a trip that we will always remember and one that left us with the indellible desire to return. I recall the last time I was in New Zealand, on the South Island, which was my first time to the country, I experienced a strange anxiety days before my trip ended, as I was enjoying the fishing so much I just couldn’t bear the idea that there were only a few days left!
Our group had a week’s fishing out of Poronui Ranch, located in the Taupo region of the north island. Poronui is one of the longest-running fly fishing operations in the country and has a rich history of catering to the traveling angler. They were perfectly-suited for our group and extremely well run. The lodge began as a simple house that hosted anglers and has grown over the last 25 years to a much larger operation, still centered around fishing. Now, they also offer a good deal of non-fishing activities. On the day of our arrival, we enjoyed shooting some sporting clays and discussed an array of options for the rest of the week should the fishing for some reason turn foul. Among these options were organized wine tastings, manuka honey tastings, more sporting clays, or a drive out to hear the stags in rut in the evening. As it turns out, the fishing never faltered enough for us to even consider doing any of these things!
In Taupo, the word from the transfer driver was that it had been a hot summer and that fire danger was really high at the moment. This put the idea of small, low water and super spooky trout into my head right away. A lifetime of fishing makes one draw parallels automatically when certain pieces of the puzzle are identified, and I, without thinking, began to prepare myself for technically demanding fishing. In this case we were to be pleasantly surprised, the effect of a long and dry summer was different than I imagined.
The morning of day one found us standing on the back lawn of the Blake House, an exclusive property on the ranch perfect for our small group of close friends. We met our guides, veterans Dave Wood and Sean Andrews, who would fish with us for the week. We knew we would get along famously with these guys as soon as we met them – terrific people with great personalities! We were getting acquainted on the lawn as we heard the first helicopter approaching, much to our surprise, it landed right behind the house and the first anglers and their guide climbed aboard. Twenty minutes later the chopper returned for Sean, Lisa and I. A new experience for all of us, we were all feeling a mix of excitement and concern. About two minutes in, excitement squeezed all concern out and we were enjoying the ride of our lives, flying low over a very rugged landscape. This day’s fishing was selected as a warm up day, and we flew to a river with a good concentration of both rainbow and brown trout. It was a great day designed to shake the rust off of the anglers that hadn’t touched a rod for a while. Lisa and I did a mix of blind fishing and sight fishing, and caught fish with both methods. This was a fabulous day of trout fishing with us clamoring over boulders, walking up gravel bars, and stalking the edges of long, emerald colored pools. It’s hard to describe the sensation I felt as the helicopter landed on a tiny gravel bar in the middle of the river to whisk us out of there. We were back on the Blake House lawn less than twenty minutes later where we were greeted with cold beers and lots of smiles. A lifetime of backcountry wandering has built into me the mentality of “what’s been walked in must be walked out”. To poke along this wilderness river and be carried out so quickly and efficiently is truly a luxury and a treat. Back at the Blake House, we made a quick decision that we would be flying in as much as the weather would allow!
On the second day, we awoke to rain and planned on fishing right on the Poronui property. We decided to all fish together, taking turns and watching each other each time we had a fish spotted. This was a great day to introduce the concept of stalking trout and fishing this way. Most of our group had the idea before the trip, but it’s another thing to put it into practice. The weather threatened to get ugly all day long, but never really did, and we enjoyed a great day on the water, with several huge trout hooked and several more spooked. Lots of laughing and lots of fun! Although we didn’t see more than a dozen trout all day, everything we spotted was 5-8 lbs! I would gladly take that any day of my trout fishing life!
The following day, our guides showed us an incredible day on a small stream that flowed through a heavily vegetated canyon, which I’d describe as a temperate jungle river. I spent the day fishing with one of my all time favorite fishing buddies, one with whom I’ve shared some unforgettable experiences in both Yellowstone Country and internationally. She’s a good and instinctive angler. Lana and I waded up the stream and spent the entire day rotating shots at rainbows from 3 to 5 pounds. We found one in every other or every third pool. The river was only 20 to 30 feet across and the trout behaved as though they’d never seen a fly. We clambered up boulders, around small waterfalls, under fallen trees and over others. Days like this make for happy anglers, and we were grinning ear to ear for all of it. Every time we would finish a pool, a brief shot of sadness would arise in our minds, but a quick look upstream always revealed the next pool, and a childlike sensation of excitement made our imaginations beg to know what lay ahead. Rivers like this bring out a youthful exuberance for exploration that is difficult to tap in other experiences. Rivers like this make anglers fall in love with fishing again and again. It is on this river that we realized that this entire experience in New Zealand is truly “Disneyland for flyfishing adults”. At the end of this beat, we were greeted by a smaller helicopter, the 500, which the pilot skillfully put down on the inside of a river bend with the tail overhanging the water and the rotors only feet from the nearest tree. We climbed aboard and after 25 minutes of lifting on thermals and cruising over various river valleys, we once again landed at the Blake House, literally 30 feet from my bedroom. This heli fishing is the closest thing we have to teleportation in the angling world!
On day four, we flew out to a place the guys called “Mystery Creek”, named so because at one point the water gets so low there that it’s a mystery why there are any fish at all in there. Quite honestly, I felt mystified by the water, or lack thereof, and by the places that these giant kiwi trout would hold in. The absence of predators really makes them comfortable in unusual water by our Montana standards. On day four I fished with John, who is quite a good caster and angler. It was sure fun to spend the day with him and watch him make great shots at these fishy targets. The water was just small enough, with each pool separated from the next by a long shallow boulder field and a short, mid-depth run. I commented to our guide, Sean, that I assumed the trout would stay in their respective pools during the battles. He chuckled and replied…”not usually,” with a slanted smile. Not long after this exchange was spoken, John was into his first fish and the battle stayed in the long pool where the trout was hooked. A short while after, right before we thought we might have a moment to net him, the rainbow took a hard run towards the shallows at the bottom of the pool and soon enough John was running down the river bank trying to keep up with the speeding bullet at the end of his line that was headed for the next pool, some 100+ feet away. A great battle followed and we finally put the trout in the net. We were already cackling with laughter! The day continued like that with almost every trout taking us either up through the shallows at the head of the run into the pool ABOVE, or ripping us down into the pool below. We landed our share of large trout this day, with the biggest coming close to 25 inches. Just what these giant trout are doing in such small water is totally counter-intuitive for us, but man, is it fun! Again, the helicopter showed up and zipped us out of there so quickly. We had cold beverages in hand and beaming smiles on our faces less than 20 minutes later.
Day Five. Rangitikei River. We had thus far fished only on rivers I had never heard of and they were all incredible. Our guides, Dave and Sean, both had mentioned that this river was a must on the list, and it was the one on our itinerary that I HAD heard about. Many years ago, a good customer of mine who was a well-traveled NZ angler mentioned this one to me and said it was something I must see in my life. He was absolutely spot on. The Rangitikei is a larger river, about the size of the Gallatin in the canyon upstream of Big Sky. A good place to be able to make a 50 to60 foot cast. I had the pleasure of fishing that day with Lisa, who possesses the spirit of all great anglers: patient, calm, observant, and persistent. She had the least amount of experience with long casting scenarios but was up for the challenge. I truly appreciate someone who can step up to the plate with an 8 lb trout and deliver without a trace of nerves, regardless of the outcome. She’s a stone cold trout slayer. Lisa’s chances for the success came early in the day, with several enormous fish eating her offerings in the first two hours. Two hooked and two missed, the two hooked found a way to come unbuttoned. But that’s the way fishing is sometimes.. My shots on the Rangitikei were a combination of strange drifts and a bit of good fortune, and I got lucky with a few trout landed that I’ll never forget on dry flies and one on a dropper. Two of these took me into my backing twice, something no trout has accomplished with me for a few years. I am historically pretty stingy with the silk. I was repeatedly thankful for the strength of the Trouthunter 4X fluoro tippet attached to my leader, no question the strongest 4X out there. Our group landed two fish over 27 inches that day, and we all had shots at trout that were larger. I like to think that I have a river of dreams on every continent, and the Rangitikei is it for me on this. I will return!
Our sixth and final day on the North Island was another one I’ll never forget. Lana and I set out on this adventure together, and it started with a bang. Lana landed several great trout before we finished the first couple of hours. The battles were good and long enough to be filmed in four-part mini-series on my iPhone, complete with jumps and long runs up and down the banks. By noon, we were literally cackling with laughter when we hooked up and had to run these trout down to bring them to hand. They all took us for a hike and they all ate dry flies. These are the days you remember…so good that your greatest memories are the belly laughs and good times that you experienced, more so than any one particular fish! We fished a swift and shallow run above a raging rock garden and severe drop in the river. Every single fish we hooked in this area took us on a downstream run, forcing us to navigate a 70 foot section of river with large boulders at the top of a 4 foot vertical drop. An exhilarating angling experience that we repeated 6 times with 6 great results, laughing the whole way! Flyfishing is an incredibly satisfying way to plug into the natural world around you, and days like this remind you that it is really, really, really fun! Again, “Disneyland for flyfishing adults”.
I’ll admit it. I am an insatiable angler. Give me one great shot and I’ll crave another. Show me a good day and I’ll happily spend weeks trying to see what a great day is. I just can’t get enough. Guiding has helped me learn to relax a little and enjoy fishing through the experiences of others. I’ve gained a lot of insight and fishing wisdom by watching others do something their own way that I might do differently. It has helped me as a flyfishing father to more slowly and patiently introduce my children to the game which I enjoy so much. New Zealand is a wonderful place to experience this. It is a place where one can be part of the experience without being the one with rod in hand. It’s a cinematic experience out there: the walking and stalking, the spotting of a large trout finning in the prime lie of a pool. An angler selects a fly, moves into position, makes a long cast that must land properly, and then the fish spooks or the fish plays. Everyone gets to be part of the drama, the agony, and the elation. This kind of fishing is teamwork. I ended the week a satiated and content angler…with a very strong desire to return!
Fishing in New Zealand is an experience that I think most fly anglers that are sight-fishing enthusiasts should have on their bucket lists. The fishing we had is not as diverse as one might find in other venues, but it is extensive and, of its sort, it is simply the finest in the world. There are far fewer trout in most of these Kiwi rivers than what we’re accustomed to in the American West. While our rivers might have 3000+ trout per mile, these rivers might have 10. They are 10 enormous trout, but they must be hunted. There is no question that it is high stakes trout fishing, and it is the best of its class. Many describe these fisheries as “technical”, and I would say that they are, in a mechanical sense. To take the greatest advantage of these fisheries, an angler would do well to be proficient at 50 feet with a 5 weight rod equipped with floating line. I would also note that many of our shots on smaller waters were within 30 feet, and most anglers are not prepared to cast that SHORT of a distance with a 12-14 foot leader and do it accurately. These are the skills you should have to make the most of your New Zealand experience, and they are not at all unattainable. The “technical” here is not in an entomological sense like it might be on Idaho’s Henry’s Fork or some of Pennsylvania’s “technical” spring creeks. You don’t get to work these fish in New Zealand, you get to put one shot on them and hope you don’t spook them. When they spook here, they simply “shut off”. Time to move on.
The organization of the guides and anglers in New Zealand has always been a subject of interest to me. Due to the nature of this kind of fishing, the kiwi guides pay close attention to when the last angler walked any particular beat. They generally agree on a “rest and rotation” schedule that will rest waters anywhere from 4 days to THREE WEEKS between angler groups. This helps to allow for more relaxed fish and for them to be more eager to take a well-presented fly. It is an interesting way to manage fisheries and one that shows results in this environment.
All in all, our trip to New Zealand was about as perfect as you could imagine. The “Disneyland for flyfishing adults” aspect is too great to be ignored, and the warmth and hospitality of the kiwis is too welcoming to never experience again. Not everyone will be able to enjoy helicopter rides in and out of the fishing venues, but every angler can be treated to a special experience of hunting for trout in an amazing wilderness setting by walking a little slower and watching a little more closely. This angling rewards skills that are attainable by the motivated angler.