Fall in Yellowstone Country is like a heavyweight title fight between two legendary contenders, Summer and Winter. You never know how the fight will unfold, but you always know who will win. Some years it’s a long, punishing slugfest. On other years, it’s a quick KO. Either way, Winter always emerges victorious in the end.
This year the battle began with Winter taking a surprise cheap shot at Summer before they even bumped gloves at the center of the ring. A strong storm brought rain and snow to Yellowstone Country in the end of August, and the fight was on. September was a blow for blow bout between cold, wet storms and brilliant blue, sunny skies.
As we begin October, Winter has Summer up against the ropes, and looks to be dealing a round of punishing body blows. The upcoming forecast is showing a prolonged period of storms beginning this weekend and lasting through next week. High temps are predicted to be in the 30-40’s and lows are going to drop into the teens in West Yellowstone. Accumulating snow is also a possibility.
It’s been a spirited brawl so far this year. Will this be it for Summer? Is the fight over, or will Summer climb back into the ring like Jack Dempsey for another round? No one knows for sure.
What we can say for sure is that the upcoming forecast, inhospitable as it is, will produce some excellent fall fishing conditions. Fall fishing revolves around hatches of Baetis mayflies and streamer eating brown trout, both of which flourish during periods of scuzzy weather. This year’s heavyweight slugfest has developed into a scuzzfest, and you can’t ask for a better situation on area rivers like the Madison, Firehole, Henry’s Fork, and Missouri.
So, pack your puffy layers and Gore-Tex. Load your thermos and streamer box. Dig out your warmest socks and gloves. The next round of this year’s match is about to start. It’s sure to be a cold and wet one, but it might also be the most exciting round of the fight!
Read on to see our take on this week’s fishing, and check out the links below to stay current on area forecasts and flows. Stay tuned as we report each week on hatches, flows, weather, and more. For the most up to date info stop by the shop, give us a call, or drop us a line.
Yellowstone National Park
If the forecast holds true, this will be an ideal week to fish the Madison and Firehole rivers in YNP. Scuzzy weather conditions will have migratory fish on the move, and active for most of the day in the Madison. On the Firehole you can expect to see good hatches of Baetis mayflies, though emergence times may be delayed until later afternoon hours if the temps are as cold as predicted. So, don’t be afraid to spend more time on the Madison swinging those flies, and head up to the Firehole in the afternoon. Then, as the hatch wanes on the Firehole, make your way back to the Madison for an evening session before dark. Keep an eye out for late hatches of Baetis and the fly formerly known as Pseudocloeon on the Madison in the evenings as well. It’s not widespread, but during heavy emergences those big, migratory fish will rise in certain places on the Madison in the park and provide some of the most exciting dry fly fishing of the season.
Whether you are lucky enough to run into rising fish on the Madison in the park or up on the Firehole, remember these late season hatches are small (size 20-26), and these fish have been fished to for the entire season (some more than others). The dry fly game this time of year is as technical, and rewarding, as it gets. Long leaders, stealthy approaches, and perfect presentations are a must.
Scuzzy, october afternoons afford experienced anglers an excellent opportunity to test their dry fly skills in the walk-wade section of the Madison River below Earthquake Lake. Large browns and rainbows are in the sneakiest of spots at this time of year, oftentimes right along the bank, and they want nothing more than to eat a well-presented dry fly. The trick, of course, is presenting a size 22 dry fly without drag in these tight quarters. Long, fine tippets and precise casts that implement just the right amount of slack while positioning the line and leader in the perfect spot so as to avoid drag, are as crucial as they are challenging.
Cold, wet October conditions bring out impressive emergences of Baetis mayflies on the Madison. This is always an afternoon activity, and the colder the weather the later the hatch. In absence of a hatch, prospecting with a single, small Baetis imitation can produce a subtle rise from an impressive fish. Focus your efforts on the calm water and slicks in pockets near the bank. If you’re wading up to your knees, you have most likely spooked a good fish to get there.
October is also a perfect time to hone your Euro-nymphing skills on the walk-wade stretch of the Madison. Flows are low and clear, and those prized fish have seen every type of strike indicator known to man by this point in the season. If you are clumsily pounding a strike indicator into the calm, clear pockets of the Madison around $3 Bridge or Raynolds Pass right now, you might as well be using a Common Merganser duck as a bobber, because those trophy fish that you are after respond in the same way; they leave. When done well, presenting nymphs on a tight line allows for a stealthy presentation without the risk of lining fish or spooking them with the plop of an indicator. It’s also ultimately effective for detecting subtle strikes on small nymphs from wary fish.
In all of angling literature there may not be a more heralded river than the Henry’s Fork, and a more eloquent correspondent than Ernie Schwiebert. The following is an excerpt from Schweibert’s Nymphs Vol I depicting an October day on the Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork with another fine ambassador to the river, Rene Harrop.
“…Harrop and I walked downstream to the top of The Braids. Few fish were working yet, and we sat happily in the grass before wading across. There were whiteface cattle beyond the river, and the sun was still bright on the half-domed summit of Grand Teton. We were talking about explorer John Colter and what this country must have been like in 1807. As the light finally began to drop, Harrop stood up to observe the lines of drift under the opposite bank.
“They’re starting,”he said, his amazing eyesight scanning the distance.
He was right. Several good fish were working quietly in the shadow of the opposite bank. Harrop led the way, and we negotiated the river slowly, watching for bank-feeders as we crossed. The fish were on the hatching Pseudocloeon duns when we started casting, but soon switched to the tiny chartreuse-bodied spinners. I found the fish opposite me more receptive to floating nymph imitations dressed in the Harrop style, with fat balls of pale synthetic dubbing to suggest the unfurling wings, until the hatching subimagoes ebbed and they switched to spinners.
These pale green-bodied Pseudocloeon edmundsi (Heterocloeon anoka) flies had been hatching since early fall, sometimes mixed with Baetis parvus (Diphetor hageni) in the late afternoons. They were literally all over the current. We both took fish steadily that evening, and fish were still sipping spinners when I saw Harrop working slowly down stream. I was still playing a good fish when he finally arrived, careful to mute the pressure waves of his wading. He held back to avoid frightening the big fish until it finally surrendered to the net.
“Good fish,” he said. “We’d better start back.”
He led the way in the gathering darkness, expertly negotiating the diagonal passage between two brushy islands where the current had shaped a shallow crossing before it shelved off again into a deeply scoured hole. The river itself was shallow, with a pea-gravel bottom, and we quartered downstream toward the opposite bank to avoid fighting it’s flow. Grand Teton and it’s sisters still glowed in the distance. Big flocks of geese were passing in the darkness, barking and yelping as they circled overhead. We had nearly reached the opposite bank when hundreds and hundreds of geese began dropping in the darkness, Circling and settling all around us, and filling the night with their magic.
Schweibert penned this decades ago, and evenings like this are still commonplace today. The same bugs are still hatching, although we have renamed them, and you can find fish rising in many of the same spots. In addition to the Pseudos and Baetis that Schweibert describes you can expect to see Mahagony Duns, and the last of the Tricos in the coming week.
Schweibert’s account is a great description of fishing back in the “Good ol’ Days”. It’s also a perfect reminder that not much has really changed over the years in the Ranch, and these will be the “Good ol’ Days” for future generations. At a time when so many of our Western fisheries are at odds with development, and increased use. It’s significant to have a place like the Railroad Ranch stretch of the Henry’s Fork where time seems to stand still.